Russian River to Sonoma

California sparkling wine grapes (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir) love cool climates which produce grapes with low sugars and high acids. The picturesque Russian River appellation runs from the ocean to Healdsburg in Sonoma--a beautiful drive along the river with fog shrouded hills and towering redwoods. We stopped for a hike at the Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve among the dappled light of the forest. The Parson Jones redwood is here--at 310 feet tall, the tallest redwood in the state.

Korbel has been making champagne in the French tradition for more than 120 years. We enjoyed a nice lunch al fresco, but didn't take the tour as we we anxious to check into Hotel Healdsburg, one of our favorite boutique hotels. A comfortable mod hotel with Tibetan carpets, dreamy beds and an elegant hot breakfast buffet, Hotel Healdsburg is classy and friendly. Charlie Palmer presides over their Dry Creek Kitchen restaurant, with fresh, local ingredients. We had the carmelized goat cheese salad, pan roasted bass and roasted pork tenderloin with our own bottle of 2005 Chalk Hill Cabernet Sauvignon--yum!

Another wonderful Healdsburg restaurant is Bistro Ralph, right on the town square. The local wine list is extensive and the menu upscale casual with items like lamb burgers and seared albacore with ponzu sauce. They serve lovely hot herbed rolls right out of the oven. Of course, famed Cyrus is in Healdsburg--chef Douglas Keane was voted Best Chef of 2006 by Food and Wine Magazine and the restaurant was given two stars by Michelin. Last year we had two drinks and a shared appetizer there and the tab was over $100--alas, we felt a dinner would be out of our price range.

There's no need to pay a lot of money for great food in our next stop: San Francisco, city of fabulous food! The Great Eastern Restaurant in Chinatown (649 Jackson Street) is one of our mainstays for dim sum. The place is always packed; try the steamed shrimp dumpling and stir fry greens.


If you're going to San Francisco...

Every year we drive up to the Napa/Sonoma area after Christmas to enjoy the quiet season. The gourmet food is still as delicious, the wine as interesting, but it's easier to get reservations without the crowds of tourists.

Here are the highlights of this year's visit:
If you are ever driving north on the 101 through the Paso Robles area, you must stop at McPhee's Grill in Templeton! It's the best restaurant in the Paso Robles appellation with reasonably priced California cuisine. We shared a glass of cava: the Segura Viudas Aria Brut with the gratis local olive plate. Then matched the roasted beet salad with blue cheese, oak grilled artichoke and a brioche pastry with spaghetti squash with the Urban Tempranillo (and Argentinina red from Mendoza) and Juan Gil Jumilla (100% Monastrell from 45 year old vines). Just the lunch for the drive up to Napa where we checked into the Napa Valley Lodge.

One doesn't read much about Zazu in downtown Napa which is fortunate for us. Because this little neighborhood find is always busy, but not so crowded that one can't get a table in 5-10 minutes. The two stories of Zuzu humm with happy diners enjoying tapas plates. I love this way of eating because one can sample so many plates without overeating. One of my favorites is the bacalao: salt cod drizzled with truffle oil.

After a nice buffet breakfast at the hotel, on to Bodega Bay, a tiny village perched on grassy hills above an unspoiled bay teeming with birds. We played 9 holes of golf with views of the ocean from each, and ate a lovely meal of Ceasar salad with fried oysters, cheddar grits and a pulled pork sandwich washed down with a glass of the Handley Brut Rose from Anderson Valley at Rocker Oysterfeller's down the road. Wander across the street to the little market to buy local artisan cheeses and wine. They carry all the "famous" ones like Humboldt Fog and Laura Chenel, but also smaller producers like Rouge et Noir and Harley. We stocked up and headed for the Sonoma Coast Villa & Spa. It was chilly and foggy out, so we stay in our comfortable room for dinner. What could be nicer than heated floors, local cheese, olives, fruit and a bottle of the World Class 2004 Summerwood Diosa by the fireplace? Well, maybe just as good was a soak in the big tub with bubble bath and the best sleep in months on fine linen.

more to later, please check back...