California Dreamin': Why Sonoma is so much better than Napa

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Knockout organic food, the world's first sustainable wine region and old school Californian values, say hello to a corner of Sonoma that's flown under the radar for years. Georgina Wilson-Powell falls for this windy, warm corner of the west coast.

Georgina Wilson-Powell 31 October 2018

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“I could live here,” says Beth.

A long time Londoner and regular traveller it’s the first time I’ve ever heard her express an interest in living abroad. The sun is shining, the car windows are down, we’re winding through sea-wind tinged forests, alongside the shallow looking Russian River, between county towns in Sonoma, northern California.

“I could live here, I could live here, I could live here,” she sighs.  

It’s not hard to agree with her. Sonoma is the prettier, less pretentious sister of the Big Sur coastal scene (think Big Little Lies) but an edgier, more diverse sibling to the established Napa Valley. It’s love at first sight beautiful. We’re not in London any more, that’s for sure.

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Why you should choose Sonoma over Napa

Green hues stripe the hills and fields under an early summer sun. They’re backed by thick ancient forests and giant redwoods that make me feel like I’m a hobbit in Lord of The Rings.

It’s not just the sustainable vineyards laid out in the golden sunshine that has drawn us here, following the well trodden path of open minded travellers.

It’s not that almost everything is organic and eco-friendly as standard either. It’s the fact that underneath the surface, everyone is just so damn nice. And not LA, kissy kissy nice. Old school call a spade a spade and help out your competitors nice. Living in one of the world’s most organic regions must agree with people.

Having rocked up to Guernville (once called Stumptown after the 19th century lumber industry) after a long drive east to west across California, we’re instantly made to feel at home at Boon Hotel + Spa - a retro-boutique hotel where an honesty bar shack sits next to a hot tub, 1970s burnt orange sun loungers and a small amount of rooms that find shade between the redwoods (and yet still walking distance into town).

Eco-zen would sum it up, thanks to the most comfortable beds covered in organic linen this side of New York, record players in rooms and no children in sight.

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“It’s the fact that underneath the surface, everyone is just so damn nice. And not LA, kissy kissy nice”

Boon’s owner Crista Luedtke is a master (or mistress) of gentle empire building. Featured in a documentary, Empire on Main Street, she’s helped turn this once rundown county town into a hive of alternative, artisan living. 

You can eat farm to table incredible veg (at her neighbourhood restaurant also called Boon) and sip biodynamic wines produced by her friends a few miles away, before popping into an old fashioned dive bar next door to sink some craft beers and play pool - and not in an over contrived hipster ironic way.

Within 24 hours of being in Guernville, I’d made more new friends than I know in my local area of London, repeatedly bumping into the same faces on this revived main street. 

Within 48 hours we had a routine down - Blended Choice for a morning smoothie, Big Bottom Market for a locally roasted flat white (partly owned by Luedtke), el barrio for a seriously impressive tequila cocktail (also owned by Luedtke) and Seaside Metal for a spot at the minimalist bar for small plates of seafood that could rival some of San Francisco’s legendary spots.

By day three, we are planning how to sell up at home and open a posh glassware store, to service the growing number of Sonoma County wine producers. Sonoma County has staked its claim on the bio and sustainable wine scene - it’s gunning for the whole area to be certified sustainable by 2019.

There's wine but that's not all

Sonoma County is home to some legendary organic wines - it produces 6% of California’s vino. From Windgap wines to bio wine geeks’ woman of choice Jasmine Hirsch at Hirsch Vineyards, who make one of the best 100 wines in the world (according to Wine & Spirits Magazine). The mix of Pacific coastal hillsides, oak strewn fields and diverse microclimates, mean the county is home to 66 types of grape - some of the local Syrahs and Chardonnays have become cult buys.

If Guernville is well placed amongst wine producers, Sebastopol is a great alternative to Sonoma town or Healdsburg (which thanks to a serious list of A-listers investing in projects in the town has become wine tourist central). Sebastopol has a more working town vibe but make no mistake, it’s seriously impresses in the sustainable food and drink stakes.

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Left: Cocktails at el barrio. Right: Ceviche at Handline

‘Oh my god try this,’ Beth - my long suffering partner is mid-mouthful. 

Half a dozen delicately arranged grilled oysters smothered prettily with toppings including mole, garlic butter and toasted almonds sit on a metal tray that looks like its more often using for slinging greasy burgers in vinyl covered diners. Instead we’re in a beautiful, permaculture inspired garden, the sound of the main road dampened by clever installations at Handline.

Once a locally famous Foster’s Freeze drive through, it’s been transformed into a paeon of casual dining and cool crisp wines. The dishes might seem down to earth but the provenance of the local ingredients is incredible, for example the rockfish ceviche comes loaded with tomato, red onion, jalapeno, cilantro grown by the owner’s family on their local organic farm. I follow it with beer-battered fish tacos and plenty of satisfied finger licking.

Bellies lined, we head for The Barlow. Following towns and cities across the world, this is a former warehouse district made good - but it’s focused heavily on breweries, distilleries and wine shops (no bad thing). Spiritworks Distillery makes a British inspired, white oak barrel aged sloe gin, vodka (made from organic local wheat) and whiskey with a grain to glass philosophy. 

Talking to British co-founder Timo Marshall, only fuels our California Dreaming relocation plan - he made the move with his family’s sloe gin recipe in his back pocket and turned it into one of California’s best craft distilleries. Spiritworks isn’t too serious either, you can also pop in to buy and drink their supply.

So there’s the friendliness, the sustainable booze, the restaurants that make organic, local, seasonal their triptych without pretense. 

But let's not skip over those redwoods - one of the maindraws for those not bothered by alcohol. 

Redwoods, rustic rooms and really wild coastlines

Armstrong Redwoods State National Reserve is a short bike ride (borrow an 80s style cruiser from Boon) from Guernville and yet millions of years apart. The trees we gaze up at in awe of started growing between the 12-16th centuries. I want to just sit and soak in their static wisdom, time seems to be have been left in the car park, and we’re both loathed to move on with our adventure from this incredible botanical bubble.

Despite being sold in our souls by the laid back rhythm of this pocket of California, Sonoma had one more trick up her sleeve. From Jenner on Highway 1 I guided the car around the hairpin bends of the windy Pacific coastline. Big Sur’s incredible, but the road from Sonoma Coast State Park to Salt Point State Park is all of that plus it’s empty - we were the only car for miles. I followed the fragmented edge of America up to Timber Cove Resort, dipping in and out of tiny national parks, their protected lands covered in hardy wildflowers and herbs.

Timber Cove Resort has a chequered history. Once a kind of bohemian love palace for well connected hippies and rock stars in the 60s and 70s, its Alpine lodge meets house party vibe saw it become a little seedy during the 80s and 90s. However, today it’s one of the jewels in the crowns of Sonoma. Out of a limb, on top of a cliff, on ancient Native American land, the restored wooden rooms can only ever be a subtle backdrop to the breathtaking ocean below. Gulls wheeled at the same height as our balcony, buffeted by the winds.

A place for lovers, dreamers and travellers, the large bar space seems more like a living room waiting for friends to drop by. The enormous fireplace - sadly unneccessary on our visit - would be the place for 1am cocktail-fuelled, tete a tetes with the best friend you met only hours ago.

It’s hard to turn our attention away from the friendly, seen-it-all bartender and towards the restaurant. But thank god we did. Coast Kitchen is all about modern organic dining, pretty on the plate but substantial enough that you’re not ordering room service a couple of hours later. Fish feature heavily but the Sonoma heavy biodynamic wine list is a knock-out. My advice? Tuck into it with a relish that only comes knowing there’s nowhere to go and there’s nothing to get up for.

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Maybe it’s the sea air, the lack of buildings or the cocooned vibe, but a sleep at Timber Cove is like a restorative massage. I woke in the morning ready for a hike with Unbeaten Path Tours at nearby Salt Point National Park before heading back to the urban sprawl of San Francisco.

Watching bulbous seal pups bask on rocks under the watchful eyes of their mothers, even relatively relaxed San Fran seems a epoch away from our hike with Margaret Lindgren. A Sonoma County stalwart she’s part of Searanch, a self-contained community that was established in the 60s to live lightly on the land.

She teaches us about the indigenous Californian people, the Pomos’ land management, the ebb and flow of time and tides along this stretch of coastline - this isn’t the golden sands and surf of southern California. This is a wild space, rewarding to those hardy enough to thrive - off-putting enough to those that only want convenience and creature comforts.

Whether it’s wine making, wellbeing workshops on cliff tops, empire building or encouraging tourism, everyone I met made their environment their concern and their passion permeated through. Sonoma is old school California where free living and loving come together with a respectful guardianship of the land, the land that allows for dream to flourish.

We could live here we could, we uttered like a mantra all the way home.

For more information on Sonoma County, head to Sonoma County Tourism www.sonomacounty.com.

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