The rolling hills of Domaine de La Riviere vineyard in the heart of the Russian River Valley in Sonoma County.
Earlier this summer, I enjoyed my first visit to California wine country since COVID with my colleagues and friends, Tracey Thomas, Owner|Publisher of VENU Magazine, where I am the Food Editor, and her husband Matt Sturtevant. It was wonderful to see old friends and to make many wonderful new acquaintances. As excited as we were to be in wine country, it was bittersweet. I couldn’t help but notice mile after mile of devastation from the wildfires that have ravaged both valleys and the adjacent mountainsides. There literally was not a person my friends and I met that wasn’t personally affected by the fires and their devastation. To experience firsthand the human side of the story, hardworking folks who had minutes to get out and lost everything was heart wrenching. Thousands of homes were destroyed and numerous wineries burned to the ground. The scars run deep, even on the sunniest and most beautiful of early summer days.
We began our adventures in Sonoma, starting in Healdsburg. Healdsburg is a storybook-town, New England meets California at the northern end of Sonoma County. It has an air of sophistication yet doesn’t lose the fact that it is a town whose main industries center around winemaking, which, as all the winemakers told us, is farming—growing and nurturing the grapes that will be crafted into the next great vintage. Napa and Sonoma welcome visitors from around the world to experience not only the wines, but the food—which reflects the local bounty. The area is fortunate to have given birth to and attracted some of America’s finest chefs, who proudly pay homage to this region.
In Healdsburg, we stayed with friends Marla and Geoff Bedrosian at their gorgeous 25-acre estate in the heart of Russian River Valley’s Middle Reach, where the grapes are grown that are crafted into Domaine de la Riviere wines. The Russian River Valley is a narrow stretch of land that along the Russian River’s banks, known for its mix of fog and sun, promoting a long, well balanced growing season and wines with rich, velvety fruit flavors. The Bedrosians fell in love with the area after many visits, and purchased their property in 2011. At first, the couple sold their grapes, but after a few years and extensive involvement nurturing the vines and an emotional interest in the resulting fruit, they began to create their own wines, employing the expertise of vineyard manager Matt Reilly and winemakers Kale Anderson and Erin Miller from Twomey Cellars. Their boutique wines include luscious Pinot Noir, supple Chardonnay, and summery Rosé. While the wines were phenomenal, it’s all about the people—being guests at our friends’ home, playing with their Labrador puppies Windsor “Winnie” (named after the nearby town) and Bear and sipping wines on the sun-drenched back terrace overlooking the shimmering pool, golden vineyards, and setting sun was magical!
We are fortunate to have made great friends over the years and travels to California and to food and wine events across the country. It definitely helps to know Shari Gherman, President and Co-Founder of The American Fine Wine Competition, of which we are a proud media partner. Shari introduced us to some amazing wineries—her wealth of knowledge, contacts, and suggestions helped put together an itinerary that harmoniously blended very special boutique producers with household names.
With Chef|Owner Dustin Valette at The Matheson
Smoked Salmon Pizza with Caviar and Creme Fraiche at Roof 106 at The Matheson in Healdsburg.
The Matheson, featuring two unique restaurant concepts and a wine wall all shining under one roof, is the most talked about restaurant opening in Sonoma this past year! Dustin has been recognized as one of VENÜ’s esteemed Fearless Chef’s and was featured in our Spring 2018 issue. I had the pleasure of meeting Chef|Owner Dustin Valette and dining at his first restaurant, nearby namesake Valette when I visited Sonoma in 2016, and knew that while he was already a celebrated chef with numerous awards and a hometown hero, he was destined for further greatness, which was evidenced by every facet of our experience at The Matheson. From the décor—how the century old building that housed his great grandfather’s bakery was transformed into the modern, comfortable multi-level restaurant while paying tribute to the building and the Valette family’s heritage and history in Sonoma County, to the legendary wine wall, featuring over 80 selections available by the ounce or glass—this is world class! Chef Matt Brimer’s menu is a modern ode to Healdsburg’s micro-seasonal ingredients, exploring the possibilities of a locally foraged fungi from a secret stand on the slopes of rolling forest, or the range of a Purple Heart tomato cultivated from a farm within walking distance to the restaurant, finding the limitlessness in the specific moment is a play of craft and passion. The menu is progressive American and hyper-local. Don’t miss Roof 106, the stylish rooftop bar and sophisticated al fresco seating area where guests indulge in handcrafted cocktails made with seasonal fruits, flowers, and herbs, pizza and small plates from the wood-fired oven in open-air seating amidst planters and fire-pits that reminded me of a hip restaurant in the Parioli neighborhood of Rome. Dustin has hit it out of the park!
Dry Creek Kitchen
Dry Creek Kitchen, by legendary Chef Charlie Palmer is set on Healdsburg’s historic tree lined Plaza, and mixes Chef Charlie Palmer’s vibrant American cooking and world class bottlings with the intimate charm of a small town and true wine country hospitality. Known for progressive American cooking rooted in Sonoma County, Palmer brings his signature style to ingredients grown and raised by farms up the road, and wines by vintners visited earlier in the day. Chef Palmer “was drawn to Healdsburg because of what grows here. Incredible produce, world-class wines, and a sense of community borne from what’s shared at the table.” The inviting dining room is punctuated by sculptural floral arrangements, floor-to-ceiling windows and oversized doors which open to a lovely patio, evoking wine country’s indoor-outdoor lifestyle. Palmer received critical acclaim for his signature Progressive American cooking, a style built on rambunctious flavors and unexpected combinations with a deep and lasting infusion of classical French technique. Born and raised in upstate New York and trained at the Culinary Institute of America, Palmer started his executive chef career at The River Café in Brooklyn. In 1988, Palmer made a landmark commitment to creating dishes featuring regional American ingredients at Aureole in Manhattan. Over the next 20 years, Palmer went on to open critically acclaimed restaurants across the country. Wyatt Keith worked at Palmer’s Harvest Table in St. Helena, and quickly climbed the ranks at Dry Creek Kitchen, becoming Executive Chef in 2021.
With Roger and Donna Beery at J. Cage tasting room in Windsor.
J. Cage Cellars
We began our first day of tasting in Windsor, and would spend the next several days enjoying the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys in northern Sonoma. J. Cage Cellars is a true family affair by Roger and Donna Beery, transplants from Austin, Texas. For the Beery’s, winemaking is their “second act,” Donna a “recovering CPA” and Roger involved in radio and a well-known wine blog. The couple started visiting Sonoma in the 1980’s, and 90’s and fell in love. We began our tasting, which was paired with locally made Bean to Bar Chocolate and breadsticks. Their passion for wine rubbed off on their kids—son Conch came on in 2015 as their winemaker, while the Beery’s began by consulting with Adam Lee of Siduri. 2022 marks their 14th vintage—like many, they became captivated by Sonoma and never left. We enjoyed Sauvignon Blanc, which mimicked a French Sancerre with grassy grapefruit, pineapple, and refreshing acidity without the tartness. The vineyard for this wine pre-dates prohibition. The Vandercamp Pinot Noir from 1,600’ elevation on Sonoma Mountain showcased juicy black fruit, rose petal, and forest floor on the palate—a Pinot lovers Pinot!
Ben Papapietro at Papapietro Perry
Papapietro Perry, in the heart of Dry Creek Valley was founded in 1998 by Ben and Yolanda Papapietro and Bruce and Renae Perry. Ben, whom we had the pleasure of joining for a tasting and charcuterie pairing is a warm, welcoming host, with a great personality! Like many successful ventures, Papapietro Perry Winery was hatched in a garage. A handful of friends in San Francisco committed to making their own Pinot Noir to drink, and to have a bunch of fun in the process. Fortunately for them, they had Ben Papapietro as their home winemaker, first as a hobby and an outlet to relieve stress. As word of mouth grew about the Papapietro Perry Wines, it became clear the next step was to fully embrace that this should be more than a hobby. Both Ben and Bruce took jobs at area wineries and learned all they could.
By the 1990s, Bruce realized the wines he and Ben were making could compete with other premium California Pinot Noirs. Armed with his passion and the support of family and friends, Bruce located a winemaking facility in Sonoma County where he and Ben could start producing wine in commercial quantities. Papapietro Perry Winery was born. The approach to winemaking was and remains minimalist. The Papapietro Perry cellar is simply a more elaborate version of Ben’s garage where he started making such compelling wine more than 35 years ago. “Authentic, not pretentious,” says Ben. “Confident, but not too serious. “We make wine that we want to drink. We take our wines seriously but not ourselves.” Sadly, Bruce passed away earlier this year, but the proud legacy of Papapietro Perry continues in the wine, food, and hospitality, right down to being greeted by Nola, the Perry’s winery dog.
At Wilson Family
Wilson Family, also in Dry Creek, is distinguished not only by its outstanding wines, but also the twin pillars of family and tradition on which its reputation rests. The tradition pre-dates the winery’s founding in 1993 and is evident in the century-old tin barn that houses the Wilson’s facility. One of the oldest structures in Dry Creek Valley, the barn has been lovingly restored by Ken and Diane Wilson to provide a state-of-the-art venue for their award-winning winemaking. Diane Wilson started her winemaking career by winning Best of Class for her wine, unusual for someone without formal winemaking training. The instant success she experienced with her first vintage has continued for over twenty years, recently taking home dozens of medals for her wines at the Sonoma County Harvest Fair. Although she learned the basic elements of wine chemistry as a Biochemistry major in college, she says her degree isn’t what makes her a great winemaker. Instead, she credits her hands-on learning along with relying on her senses during the production process to know when it’s time to blend or bottle. The family planted their first vineyards high in the mountains of the northern part of Dry Creek, naming of their vineyards after their children. Today, some 22 years later, each of the children has a role in the business.
Ferrari-Carano Winery is one of Sonoma’s most recognized producers. Located in Dry Creek Valley and home to Ferrari-Carano’s Villa Fiore Wine Shop & Tasting Room, the Estate Winery was built in 1981 and focuses on producing Ferrari-Carano’s stellar white wines. At Ferrari-Carano, the grapes are harvested at night, when temperatures are the coolest, resulting in crisp and intense fruit flavors. From the moment the grapes enter the winery, the winemaker’s objective is to interpret the individual characteristics of each vineyard block, based on the growing techniques, soil, clonal differences and flavor. Ferrari-Carano has two acclaimed winemakers—Sarah Quider oversees whites: “As a winemaker, it’s my goal to make complex, intense, seamless and delicious wines that reflect the diversity of our vineyards and are balanced in richness and delicacy.”Rebecka Deike oversees reds: “I love the seasonal experiences and connection between seeing the vines develop in the vineyards, the grapes ripening and witnessing the transformation of grapes into wine.” I highly recommend enjoying “La Colazione Italiana” (Italian-style Sunday Wine Breakfast/Brunch)—sit outside on the lovely Sycamore Grove terraces overlooking gardens and beautiful estate and enjoy a flight of the reserve wines with a seasonal, Italian-inspired menu featuring dishes prepared with ingredients from the estate gardens.
Williamson Wines in Healdsburg is known for their generous and full flavor due to the exceptional fruit grown in our twenty-plus vineyards located in specific sites across Napa and Sonoma. The winery and vineyards are sustainably managed to minimize chemical use so these natural wines are produced with minimal intervention retaining the integrity of flavor and sense of the place where they were grown. Bill and Dawn Williamson are 4th generation winemakers, whose family settled in Australia in 1788 and became farmers, establishing their own vineyards in 1919. In 1980, the couple came to California for a business trip, visited Sonoma, and decided to stay! Creating healthy wines from sustainably farmed vineyards without additives makes them natural. Ensuring they have low sulfites reduces the risk of histamine headaches. Not using any of the usual animal products qualifies them as vegan. Perhaps the most unique wine in the Williamson portfolio is the Sparkling Shiraz, with deep purple color, made in the traditional Méthode Champenoise, resulting in an elegant sparkling wine great for summer afternoons as well as Thanksgiving dinner! Join the Williamson’s for a delicious wine and food pairing in their downtown Healdsburg tasting room.
Moshin Vineyards, in the heart of the Russian River Valley is a story of unlikely beginnings, hard work, and a passion for winemaking. Founder Rick Moshin went from being a San Jose State University math instructor to a pioneer of Russian River winemaking. He literally built the brand from the ground up—keeping ownership solely within his family. To this day, you can still find Rick tending vineyards, tasting barrels in the cellar, conducting virtual wine events, building furniture for the tasting room, or making repairs. Since 1989, Rick has been producing natural terroir-driven, and delicious wines in the Russian River Valley. Rick focuses on sustainable vineyard practices followed by light-handed fermentation techniques—utilizing native yeasts, no additives, and the gentle movement of gravity for moving select Pinot Noir lots from tank to barrel to bottling line. The early 1990’s found Rick teaching mathematics at San Jose State University during the week and farming his 10-acre Pinot Noir vineyard on the weekends. During this time, he connected with local winemaking icons and grape growers such as Davis Bynum, Gary Farrell, and Joe Rochioli, gleaning knowledge, grape cuttings and even selling some of his own grapes to Davis Bynum for a Bynum-Moshin bottling. These deep roots have built a solid foundation upon which Moshin Vineyards has grown, culminating in 25 acres of Estate vineyards.
Next on our Sonoma itinerary was a visit to the town of Sonoma and the Carneros district, at the southern end of Sonoma County.
Santé at Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn
Santé at Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn is best described as “California fusion with a Sonoma passion,” which showcases enviable number of regional artisans and producers in this stunningly beautiful area. Executive Chef Jared Reeves oversees the kitchen and delivered a flawless experience. Chef Reeves brings “passion, creativity, and high energy to the kitchen. I’ve an eye for local and sustainable produce; I’m overwhelmed by all that Sonoma has to offer, from the fruits and vegetables at roadside stands or crab and salmon from the Pacific. Local cheese makers provide the perfect accompaniment to Sonoma’s greatest produce, its stunning wines. Sonoma is a chef’s dream locale, and I’m proud to call this area my home.”
We were fortunate to dine al fresco on a gorgeous evening, overlooking the Olympic sized pool, gardens, and historic water tower. Our sumptuous multi-course meal, paired with wine began with Tsar Nicolai Select Caviar and house made Potato Crisps, and Pacific Oysters. For the next course, we enjoyed Local Halibut Crudo with smoked trout roe and wasabi, salt roasted baby beets with macadamia tofu and sorrel, and BBQ Spiced Heirloom Carrots with “Ranch” and pickled mustard seeds. For Entrees, the Wagyu Chateaubriand was outstanding—cooked to perfection! The Squid Ink Linguine with mussels, shrimp, and sea urchin butter, and Seared Black Cod with green garbanzo, sprouted cauliflower, and mole beurre blanc were excellent as well. In addition to the wonderful cuisine, the hotel itself is one of the top resorts in Sonoma County, with a world class spa, situated on land Native Americans revered as a sacred healing ground. With beautifully landscaped grounds and majestic trees, this is truly an oasis!
The Girl and The Fig
The Girl and The Fig has been a long-standing wine country favorite in the heart of downtown Sonoma since 1997! Chef|Owner Sandra Bernstein is legendary for her exceptional Provence-inspired seasonal farm-to-table cuisine. The restaurant was named for the fruit that embodies passion, the fig—representing Bernstein’s passion for local ingredients and French cuisine. The restaurant features a gorgeous antique bar, perfect for a aperitif. Enjoy dining at one of the outdoor tables, or inside, where walls are adorned with colorful art by local artist Julie Higgins. The wine list is Rhône-centric, featuring labels from France, as well as California, many of which are hard to find. We started with a beautiful charcuterie platter, followed by delicate West Coast Petrale Sole Meunier, Steak Tartare, Moules Frites, and Niçoise Salad. The Bucklin Old Hill Ranch Vineyards Otto’s Grenache (2020) from Sonoma was an excellent pairing!
Fulcrum, whose tasting room is in lovely downtown Sonoma began in 2006 as a hobby by David Rossi from New Jersey, who attended UC Davis to learn about winemaking. Fulcrum’s focus is on Pinot Noir, currently producing 2,000 cases, and sourcing grapes from all over California. We tried the 2020 Brut Rosé of Pinot Noir, which features melon, white pepper, and strawberries. Next was the Madman blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Chardonnay, featuring stone fruit, apple, pear, grapefruit, and apricot notes with a refined, floral nose. Our third wine was Chardonnay (Alexander Valley), which reminded us of rich European butter, due to barrel malolactic fermentation. The 2019 Pinot from Petaluma Gap, which is known for onshore wind which nails the vineyard, stressing skins, allowing grapes to thicken and have a longer hang time, more fruit, and darker, bolder fruit was light, and luscious. Pinot Noir is considered the toughest grape to grow, preferring short warm days and cool nights to ripen and preserve the fruit. Chill this one an hour and enjoy on a warm day!
Chef Kristine Schug
Schug Carneros Estate
Schug Carneros Estate began by Walter Schug in 1980 and spans 50 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. We enjoyed a tour and food pairing prepared by Chef Kristine Schug. Carneros is located just north of San Pablo Bay and is known for its breezes, the only AVA which spans both Sonoma and Napa Counties. The adjacent hillside site acts as a wind tunnel, which cools and stresses the grapes, resulting in thicker skins and more full-bodied wines. Walter Schug was the founding winemaker for Joseph Phelps before following his passion and starting his own winery. The family’s German heritage is evident throughout the winery, from hand carved barrels, to the Bavarian style architecture and design. Today, the family is in its third generation, with Walter’s son, Axel Schug as Managing Partner, his wife Kristine, a graduate of the CIA at Greystone preparing beautiful cuisine as a delightful way to explore and enjoy the family’s wines. Winemaker Johannes Scheid was raised on a small family winery in the Mosel Valley of Germany and studied Viticulture and Winemaking at Geisenheim University, Germany’s premier college for the wine industry, which was also Walter Schug’s alma mater. Johannes first met Walter after an annual presentation at Geisenheim, and was hired on the spot for a 2009 internship at Schug. While in Sonoma that fall, he met fellow Schug intern Jennifer, a California native who would become his future wife. In 2016 he became Schug’s Assistant Winemaker, returning to the winery where his California winemaking career began after garnering more experience in New Zealand and at Benziger. Today, as Winemaker, Johannes is dedicated to preserving the legacy of terroir-driven and European-style Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The 2021 White Pinot, Ricci Vineyard was one of the most unique wines we tried all week, where grape skins were briefly put in the barrels to add complexity, resulting in a bright, delicate wine with stone fruit flavors and honeysuckle nuances. The 2019 Heritage Chardonnay (limited to 150 cases) contains the best fruit from the estate, with some from Wildcat Mountain. The Heritage Reserve Pinot Noir had a rose and quince quality, and paired beautifully with Kristine’s charcuterie.
I am honored to recognize the restaurants we visited, The Matheson (and Roof 106) by Dustin Valette, Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, and Santé at The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn as Platinum Palate dining destinations by Fred Bollaci Enterprises!
Stay tuned for upcoming posts from our Napa Valley portion of the trip, showcasing more great wineries, restaurants, and an outstanding luxury resort!