It’s pretty cool that a Canadian is running one of Sonoma’s top wineries. That’s because Elizabeth Grant-Douglas knows a thing or two about cool climate grape growing and how to coax pinot grapes along in the delicate balancing act between damp, cold nights and hot, dry days. The graduate of Brock University’s Cool Climate Oenology and Viticulture Institute (CCOVI), who grew up watching her dad make wine in the basement of their Niagara Falls home, is now a leading California winemaker producing top rated pinot noirs and chardonnay’s for La Crema in Windsor, Sonoma County. This summer she will proudly bring her wines back home for the Niagara International Cool Chardonnay Festival. Grant-Douglas and her husband went to Sonoma on a whim, for a weekend, as new graduates 12 years ago. They never left.
“I do feel somewhat spoiled getting to grow grapes in California,” she admits while showing some fellow Canucks her prize vines, just a few miles from her home. “It’s a great way to make a living and you get to live among some of the best grapes in the world.”
Grant-Douglas also loves that La Crema wines are now carried by the LCBO. She’s constantly pushing her marketing team to get more listed. The La Crema Sonoma Coast pinot noir takes “a lot of gentle handling and special tools,” she says. “It is a delicious addition to any cellar.”
La Crema was on our wine vacation bucket list, along with some other LCBO-listed California wineries including Francis Ford Coppola and Ravenswood. But as you take the winding roads of Sonoma, including the Russian River Valley, you are surrounded by offerings — each delicious and beautiful. Sip and spit is required on this road trip with bottles purchased for dinners within walking distance of hotels where “bring your own” is di rigour — as long as you pay the corkage fee. This is gladly done in order to enjoy a bottle of Kunde Red Dirt Red, a blissfully smooth red blend, which we did, paired with braised short ribs, later in San Francisco. The only downside to this trip is the lack of a truck to fill with wines to bring home! So consume merrily while there!
An ideal itinerary for the winecation is offered by Sono-ma County Tourism, which works very hard to compete with neighbour-ing Napa. Known for pinot, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, Sonoma is a great destination within a short two hour drive from San Francisco. Pick up a rental car at the airport, cross the Golden Gate bridge and enjoy the easy driving along Highway 101. Or venture onto the winding winery side roads through the towns of Sonoma, Glen Ellen, and Windsor, and up to Healdsburg (home of the La Crema tasting room — not at the vineyards) and Geyserville, where Francis Ford Coppola has set up a second winery complete with all his Hollywood memorabilia (including the desk Marlon Brando sat in as The Godfather, and all the Coppola family Oscars. The impressive winery has a full restaurant, Rustic, which offers an open kitchen and high ceiling with wooden beams, which overlooks the vines. Visitors can spend a day around the large swimming pool and rent a personal cabana to complete the California dream. Coppola has been known to hang out poolside and chat with guests while sipping his chards. Movie buffs will be enticed with the speciality bottling Apocalypse Now, which includes a hinged bottom on the bottle that holds a DVD of the film. For only $300.00, it can be yours!
With all this wining and dining, overnight stays are highly recommended, especially if you are able to get a room at the lovely Olea Hotel near the quaint village of Glen Ellen. This hillside retreat with only 10 rooms (2 more coming later in 2013) is named after the olive trees on the property. Guests can lounge on a well-appointed patio with a view of the Sonoma hills while sipping complimentary Kunde Sauvignon Blanc from Riedel stemware, and munching on olives. The breakfast is prepared by expert cooks who offer up warm olive oil rosemary muffins with house-made pear and cardamom jam as a first course, followed by poached egg on a warm buttermilk biscuit with Italian sausage ragout and roasted asparagus. Such is the start of another great day in Sonoma. You may want to pair that with a glass of brut from Buena Vista, California’s first winery and cellars, where you can take a historical tour by costumed guides. Or try the brut at Korbel in the Russian River Valley — equally dry and smooth.
Make sure you do not miss having a meal at the girl & the fig in the town of Sonoma, operated by the talented Sondra Bernstein and John Toulze, who expertly incorporate figs into their stellar cheese and house-cured meats plate, and into a cocktail (via fig liqueur). With a passion for French cuisine in a casual “country flair” Bernstein stubbornly offers only Rhone region varietals and does so brilliantly with her flights of Viognier which are served in antique shop stemware of varying heights. Do not miss the signature duck confit or local chicken thighs with ricotta dumplings. Really, do not miss a bite of anything including the pot au creme caramel. Then don’t eat for about 24 hours!
Taking a break from all the grapes is a good idea and the ideal outing is a walk in the ancient redwoods of Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville. An easy trail takes you past magnificent trees, more than a thousand years old, and is simply awe-inspiring.
Of course, San Francisco itself is not to be missed — even if only for a day or two as bookends to your wine country trip. From “grabbing a pole” on a cable car en route to Fisherman’s Wharf, to crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on a rental bike and then coasting downhill to lunch in Sausalito, to dining Italian-style in North Beach (try Trattoria Contadina), the city is a splendor for tourists of all ages — even those a bit hung over from all the wine!
JANE ANTONIAK is an eatdrink culinary travel writer and Manager, Communications & Media Relations at King’s University College, Western.
BRUCE FYFE is a regular photographer for eatdrink and a librarian at Weldon, Western University.