DESPITE HER GLITTERY SNEAKERS, her granite-stern countenance and fixed gaze reveal a seriousness of intent. She is three—almost three-and-a-half, she'd tell you. Her foot twitches like a quarter horse at the gate, her elbows are cocked; in a flash she'll be amongst the vines. But before she bolts, my daughter looks back at me with an expression of unguarded delight. We had promised her an infinity of grapes, and here at last it was.
My wife and I didn't plan this trip around our little girl's fantasy of fruit. It's just that, well, we have fantasies of our own, and nothing can shut down the machinery of dreams like a disgruntled toddler.
We have arrived in the Alexander Valley of Sonoma County with a simple plan: to relax and enjoy the wine country with our two children—and in spite of our two children, the little one just nine months old at the time. Instead of glitzy Napa, we've arranged to stay in the bucolic 19th century home of pioneer winemakers Giuseppe and Pietro Simi, whose stone cellars in nearby Healdsburg are still used to barrel age Simi Winery's finest.
From a wraparound porch overlooking the vineyard, I watch her dash into the rows. The surrounding landscape is wild and calm. Gnarled old oak trees covered in lichen flank the vines, which droop beneath the weight of plump cabernet grapes just days away from harvest. The sun is bright; a hawk wheels in the sky above.
"THIS ISN'T NAPA." The smug tone of an Alexander Valley shopkeeper belies her sweetness.
I've arrived at her corner store just after sunset, hunting crucial provisions: bread and cheese, and more wine. "When the sun goes down," she continues. "I go home."
But she hasn't. Not yet. Instead, she walks me across the gravel parking lot and reopens her shop. With grandmotherly care, she removes a loaf of bread from a wicker basket. "Here, take this," she says, patting my hand. "It was made this morning; I wouldn't sell it tomorrow anyway."
I get the feeling that if you were to raise a pinky while drinking wine in the Alexander Valley you'd be struck by lightning. Here, it seems, quaint is key. Everything comes back to the land, as country idealists, winemakers, cheese makers, chefs, and farmers converge in a sort of epicurean bohemianism.
Sonoma is no secret. With premium winegrowing regions like Dry Creek Valley and Los Carneros joining Alexander Valley and ten other American Viticultural Areas, the county is one of California's largest producers of wine grapes. Still, this area has long been a low-key counterpoint to its lustrous neighbor Napa—a "four-letter word," jokes one restaurateur. To be sure, there is a concerted effort amongst residents to distinguish their Arcadian home as a sort of unpretentious anti-Napa.
"One of the things that makes Sonoma County so unique is that we can grow almost anything well," a local vintner tells me. She's referring to wine grapes but there's little ambiguity about where she's headed. "Napa is more cabernet-focused. The weather and soil are factors, but also I think some of it is the price of land. It's so expensive over there that they can't afford to do anything except what they can sell for a hundred dollars a bottle."
Ground zero for wine and food in the area is the charming hamlet of Healdsburg. Built around a central plaza, this is a place striving to retain its small-town character while catering to ever-increasing numbers of wine country tourists. There is, of course, no shortage of tasting rooms. And if you're looking for local, organic cheese made from the milk of goats raised exclusively on local, organic hay, you'll find that too.
Sonoma County's first tasting room—a 25,000-gallon Champagne barrel tipped on its side—was established by a woman in Healdsburg just one year after prohibition was repealed. Isabelle Simi took over her family's winery as a teenager, in 1904, and with uncommon gumption created a legacy of women and wine that continues today, more than a century on. When Isabelle retired in 1970, Mary Ann Graf, America's first woman winemaker, joined Simi. Nine years later, the prominent California winemaker Zelma Long led a major renovation of the winery's fermentation and barrel rooms.
"I really try to respect that heritage, to sort of tip my hat to history," says the current senior winemaker, Susan Lueker, a willowy blond from a farming family. "Sometimes when I don't know what to do, I think, "˜What would Isabelle or Zelma do?'"
Over wood-fired pizzas and a sampling of Simi wines, I ask Lueker about the parallels between farming and winemaking, trying to get a sense of Sonoma County's down-home character.
"One of the similarities is that there's a community spirit with both," she tells me. "If someone needs equipment, advice, or materials like yeast, filters, or corks, we are there for each other. We help our neighbors."
Acouple hours south of Healdsburg, we swing off Highway 1 and ease into the looping drive-way of the Ritz-Carlton, Half Moon Bay, coming to rest behind a gleaming Aston Martin. The valet eyes my truck: a Pollock-esque splatter of bird droppings topped with a surfboard; four little eyes peer at him from the back seat. "We can wash it if you like," he says. I shake my head no.
"Just hide it."
The age-old nightmare—suddenly finding yourself naked in public—ends there. Turns out we are not underdressed for the party. In fact, the hotel offers a full program of kid-friendly activities, and a mellow lack of pretention prevails over any luxury resort pomposity. It could be no other way here on this bully of a coast, a forbidding maelstrom of weather and waves that could humble Donald Trump.
"They really wanted to make the hotel destination-appropriate," Steven Holt, a Ritz-Carlton employee who commutes from San Francisco, tells me. The resort itself was designed as a sort of homage to the natural setting, he explains. "A lot of guests are weekenders from the Bay Area who come here specifically to get out of the city."
We're in the Conservatory Lounge, a relatively casual eatery with floor-to-ceiling windows looking onto the ocean. In the adjacent room, Ian Cauble, who in his early-thirties is already considered among the world's best sommeliers, presides over a top-shelf wine program at Navio, the property's fine dining restaurant. I point out an artistic black-and-white photo of wispy kelp blades underwater. A similar image hangs in our room. "I wasn't expecting such contemporary earthiness from a five-star hotel modeled after a Scottish castle," I tell him. He nods knowingly at me.
"The company is moving in a new direction. We want to provide the service culture Ritz-Carlton is known for, but without austerity."
Below us, on a sprawling lawn speckled with fire pits, well-heeled guests wrapped in cashmere sweaters and cozy blankets converge around the flames, marshmallows in hand. Fire is another prevalent theme here, Steven tells me. It's like summer camp—with Egyptian cotton and feather beds.
"Did you get your s'mores kit?" he asks.
ON OUR DAUGHTER'S SHORT LIST of worldly treasures, castles rate somewhere between grapes and the color purple. Which in no small measure helped us sell her on the idea of the Ritz-Carlton.
Of course we could have just bee-lined it between Ventura and Sonoma counties. The quickest route, though, is still seven-plus hours, a straight shot along the infernal I-5 with its cow factories and rest stops. Besides, I happen to like hotels.
So we opted for a circuitous route, traveling south via the coast—and the promise of a castle—and north out of Ventura on Highway 101, spending the first night at the Hyatt Regency San Francisco Airport. Hotels like this offer a host of package deals and site-specific conveniences. You may even find that a quick flight/rental car combo is your best option.
For us the hotel in Burlingame was an ideal launching point. Mid-morning, after the traffic crush, we breezed through the city and over the Golden Gate Bridge. By lunchtime we were hoisting wine glasses in the house where Isabelle Simi lived for more than 80 years.
Our daughter still raves about "the grapevine house." She still brings up "the castle by the sea," too, and wonders why the conventioneers (bankers) in the Grand Ballroom weren't appropriately attired—not a glass slipper or ballroom gown among them.
Her little brother, meanwhile, has developed an interest in hammers. Pounding metal objects with a hammer, I should say. And noise in general. Hammers and noise: that's his Cinderella. For our next family trip we're considering Pittsburgh.