It's foodie heaven, with everything from great restaurants to sophisticated farmers' markets. And that's not to mention Sonoma County's knockout wine. Patsey Murphy reports from California
Napa Valley we know about, thanks to the likes of Robert Mondavi. The movie Sideways put Santa Barbara Valley - and Pinot Noir - squarely on the map. But Sonoma County? Wine buffs apart, it hardly comes tripping off the tongue. Despite winning more awards for its wines than any other county in California, it remains something of a secret. You're going where, friends asked. To Sonoma County, across the Golden Gate Bridge, about 80 miles due north of San Francisco. It takes no time at all to leave that very cool city behind to join the legions of farmers driving pick-up trucks on Route 101.
At first, the hillsides of Marin County pass you by, piled high with houses. Then the inevitable string of car dealerships, shopping malls, isolated office blocks and fast food joints.
Could be Blanchardstown, except that there is fennel growing on the roadside and the scent of eucalyptus in the air. By the time we get to Santa Rosa, however, we can see the Mayacamas Mountains and a landscape transformed by vineyards and the dusty hills unique to California. We check into the Hilton, where the different blocks are called Zinfandel and Chablis and Pinot Noir and Merlot. Really cheesy. Possibly Paris Hilton's idea.
This trip really started two years ago, when my daughter coaxed me to recuperate in Mendocino, to watch the sun rise over the redwoods (a reference to a favourite song by Kate McGarrigle - who's cheesy now?).
We stayed in a hotel with a hot tub on our terrace, it being California, and woke at dawn to watch the mist lurking over the Pacific. The local Irish shop was up for sale. Was I tempted? Not in the slightest. The place was crawling with ageing hippies, just like myself. Did I want to be counted among them? Certainly not. Ralph Nader voters, every last one of them. Off with their ponytails, we cried, and headed back south as fast we could to the Roederer estate, to see if their California fizz matched their French Champagne. Check.
Then on to the rather more rustic winery next door, Lost Canyon, where we tested the young winemakers' excellent Guwürtstraminer. Check. In no time we decided that Sonoma County was a splendid place to be.
And it was to get better. Our cousin Kate guided us to the buzzy and well-heeled town of Healdsburg, centred round a handsome town square with great shops, cafes and restaurants, and a fascinating farmers' market. We went to admire the much celebrated Hotel Healdsburg. Feather-filled beds so luxurious that they sell them to guests. Bathrooms that include 6ft soaking tubs and walk-in showers. Conference rooms with walls that glide open to hidden courtyards. Muted colours, very high ceilings, Tibetan rugs, a wine library for private suppers with 2,000 rare wines stored in the cupboards. There was only one thing for it: book a room. Check. And dinner in Charlie Palmer's restaurant. Double check. Stupendous.
SO WHEN we were invited by Gallo to visit this year's Sonoma Showcase, a food and wine fair celebrating the produce of the region, we said yes, please. Healdsburg will always beckon, and we're happy to exalt the more rustic charms of Sonoma County. The showcase - a massive food fair open to the public - highlighted the produce from regions within the county, such as the Russian River, Alexander and Dry Creek valleys.
It was a remarkable event, with flavours and combinations and fresh produce we haven't even begun to imagine at our own farmers' markets. Foie gras ravioli with truffle sage sauce. Lavender infused chocolate ganache on a chocolate bisquit garnished with chocolate paper. Watermelon gazpacho (yum). Sorbet infused with wine. Oysters, hot and cold. Angus beef roasted slowly, lightly smoked by bay leaves at the finish. Corn pudding. Quail wrapped in pancetta. Remarkable selections of chilli dishes. A hundred things with figs, including delicious fig vinegar.
The fresh produce is stunning: pink and blue potatoes, sorrel, all manner of cucumbers and squashes, both round and long. Heirloom tomatoes with names such as German stripes, Valencias, big rainbows, purple Cherokees and pineapples, which, of course, are yellow with pink stripes. You can order seeds for some of this exotica from Grandview Farms; visit them at www.tomatofest.com.
The Hog Island Oyster Company is located in the tiny town of Marshall in a marine sanctuary alongside the breathtakingly scenic Route 1. Like "lobster-in-the-rough" places in new England, here you can buy oysters and eat them outdoors at picnic tables - but you must bring your own crusty bread, lemons, chilled white wine and hot sauce. They'll teach you how to open the damn things without lacerating your fingers.
The Jimtown Store Cook Book, by Carrie Brown and John Werner and based on their much-loved place in Healdsburg, is a wonderful repository of local foods with recipes worth getting your hands on (see panel on right for just one of them)
We met Gina Gallo, the third generation of that family business which has been steadily adding premium and "ultra premium" wines to its portfolio and expanding all over the globe, with brands in Italy, France, Australia and new Zealand. Its guests included reps from Asia and India, where wine drinking is most decidedly on the rise, as well as the Caribbean and South America. These new markets - and different palates - will determine the kinds of wines developed in the next decade.
Even now, Chardonnay vines all over California are being dug up to be replaced by Zinfandel (itself dug up when Chardonnay came into vogue). Clearly, the influence of movies is enormous. "Ignore fashion at your peril," says Gallo, confirming that Merlot sales have indeed plummeted since Sideways. "Sushi is in, and healthy, Mediterranean-style food remains popular, so you produce the wines to match." It's not a static business. Here today, gone tomorrow.
A TASTE OF HEALDSBURG SUNSHINE: SAVOURY TOMATO MELON SALAD
The idea of melon in a savoury situation is not new. Think prosciutto-wrapped wedges of honeydew. Some eat cantaloupe with black pepper, others with salt. Another layer of kitchen alchemy is at work in this salad, however, with the addition of honey and lime. Best in August and September when both fruits are at their peaks.
SERVES SIX TO EIGHT
half a medium, green-fleshed melon, seeded, peeled and cut into half-inch chunks
half a medium orange-fleshed melon, seeded, peeled and cut into chunks
300g mixed red and yellow cherry tomatoes, stemmed and all but the smallest halved
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon light floral honey
half teaspoon salt
quarter teaspoon ground cayenne pepper
In a large bowl, gently toss together melon and cherry tomatoes. In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice and honey. Pour the lime dressing over the tomatoes and melon, and toss. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne and toss again.
Transfer the salad to a deep platter and serve. For a composed salad, layer slices of heirloom tomatoes with thin wedges of melon and drizzle the dressing over the fruits. Sprinkle with salt and cayenne.
Recipe courtesy of the Jimtown Store Cook Book by Carrie Brown and John Werner, published by HarperCollins, $32