The landscape along the Russian River Wine Road is as pretty and gentle as can be, and the folks who live and work here couldn't be nicer. But you sense a certain rough-and-ready cowboy sensibility here in northwest Sonoma Valley, where "farmers" work the land and agriculture is king. The locals like to think of their fertile little valley as the anti-Napa, with its "industrial wineries"--big, glitzy wine conglomerates with big (read: million-plus) bottle production.
Truth be told, Napa is far from a faceless industrial behemoth selling assembly-line wine, and Sonoma is no rinky-dink backwater. In spite of its rapid-fire growth and tourist gridlock, Napa is still heartbreakingly fetching and a wonderful respite from urban stress. And in Sonoma, we enjoyed some of most innovative meals we've ever tasted, for crying out loud, built around cutting-edge boutique produce grown right here in the valley. And even though Napa has four times the number of wineries that Sonoma has, the Russian River Wine Road, an association of wineries encompassing Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and the Russian River Valley, produces come of the California's most critically acclaimed wines.
Still, there are differences. Some people like to say that Sonoma is what Napa used to be, before family farms were subdivided or sold off to large corporate wineries. Sonoma's heritage as a cradle of sustainable agriculture still holds true. Visitors can experience it firsthand by following the Sonoma County Farm Trails, where you can buy fresh fruits and vegetables directly from farmers, commune with baby llamas and sheep, pick pumpkins in fall and berries in summer, or enjoy tastings of local cheeses, honey, beer, and wine. Go to www.farmtrails.org for more information and a map of the farm trails.
That same sort of independent spirit is also found in Russian River restaurants. Zin Restaurant & Wine Bar is one of a number of hot new culinary outposts that have sprung up around the region, where talented, innovative young chefs have married big-city ideas with country-comfort dishes and been warmly received in the process. With a smart menu that makes fine use of local foods and produce, and a top-notch wine list, Zin (that oh-so-California shorthand for zinfandel) is sure to enjoy a long run in downtown Healdsburg. Everybody loves the Mexican beer-battered green beans with mango salsa to start; you can't go wrong if you follow with the Coq au "Zin," chicken braised in red wine with applewood-smoked bacon, roasted mushrooms and pearl onions, served over celery-root mashed potatoes (344 Center St., Healdsburg, tel. 707-473-0946. Internet: www.zinrestaurant.com. Main courses: $12.95-$24.95. AE, DISC, MC, V. Open: Sun, Mon, Wed, Thurs 5-9 p.m.; Fri and Sat 5-10 p.m.; closed Tues.).
Set on an unpretentious block (to say the least) in a mini mall that is part of the renaissance of a once-derelict part of Santa Rosa, Syrah rises above its nondescript surrounds with a warmly lit interior of high beamed ceilings and exposed ductwork, an open view of the kitchen, and hanging copper pots--an odd mix of industrial chic and Alpine chalet that somehow gels. The seasonal menu works too: You'll eat very well here indeed, and you may even make your city-folk friends envious when you tell them about the fresh Maine crabcakes with a champagne-chive buerre-blanc sauce; the foie gras on toasted challah and caramelized rhubarb; the braised rabbit in a hunter sauce; or spring vegetable risotto with wild mushroom jus. The wine list won a well-deserved Wine Spectator Award of Excellence; order a glass of the eponymous wine and toast to the deservedly celebrated chef, Josh Silvers (205 Fifth St., in the City 205 Building, Santa Rosa, tel. 707-568-4002. www.syrahbistro.com. Main courses: $15-24; chef's tasting menu: $54. AE, DC, MC, V. Open: Tues-Sat 11:30 a.m.- 2:30 p.m. and 5:30 p.m. till 9:30 weeknights, 10:30 weekends).
Then there are those indefinable places that truly express the quirky, happy flavor of the region. We bet you've never seen anything quite like the Jimtown Store except maybe in your dreams or some 1950s-style movie set. It oozes charm and country atmosphere, but it also delivers with tasty, sophisticated food and a fun, eclectic assortment of wares. This former gas station may appear self-consciously retro, but it's been dogged about pursuing its role as a real community stop and goodwill station for local folks to enjoy a cup of (very, very good) coffee and enjoy the (dreamy homemade) food and chew the fat. It's also been dogged about supporting local farmers and fresh-food purveyors, and Jimtown's seasonal menus reflect that influence. Drop in for a bowl of Basque ragout or corn chowder, pick up a boxed lunch, or take home one of the remarkable homemade condiments (spicy chipotle, Asian peanut, fig and olive). Or just sit on a bench outside and meditate on the glorious rows of vineyards that stretch to the horizon before you (6706 State Hwy. 128, Healdsburg, tel. 707-433-1212. www.jimtown.com. Box lunches: $10.95-$11.95. Hours vary; call ahead).
And then There's the Wine
But what draws most people to the Russian River Wine Road is the wine. Know that while the winemakers in Sonoma may appear laidback, irreverently frisky even, winemaking is a ferociously serious business in these parts--and considered an art by many. That's why you may want to start your winery tours at Armida. This small winery situated in a classic 1960s geodesic dome looks out over lovely rows of combed green hills. Inside, settled into his bed, is Wino, a 10-year-old bear of a dog, who, when he is not sleeping, is outdoors finding new ways to matt his profusive hair. Wino is the official mascot of the winery, whose vintners give off a slightly roguish, bemused air. It's a relaxing spot, but winemaking is taken very, very seriously here. Be sure to try one of the award-winning merlots (2201 Westside Rd., Healdsburg, CA 95448, tel. 707-433-2222, www.armida.com).
Laidback is not quite the word for that most Napa of Sonoma wineries, Ferrari-Carano. You'll think you've landed in Tuscany at this bewitching wine estate built by a second-generation Italian-American couple who found a piece of Dry Creek Valley real estate that matched their Tuscan fantasies. Yup, the elegant Renaissance-style Villa Fiore is a piece of work alright, and the landscaping is straight out of a Chianti countryside. But all would be moot if the wines weren't up to snuff. They are exceptional, in particular the fume blanc and chardonnay (Dry Creek Valley, Healdsburg, CA 95448, tel. 707-433-6700; www.ferrari-carano.com).
For a completely different experience, go to Alderbrook. This Dry Creek Valley vineyard is not at all pretty and has no hilltop villa lording over the land. But it has gone and stolen a hot young winemaking cowboy with ambitious designs to make really, really special wines--even the logo has been revamped. And if a recent barrel tasting of a maturing pinot noir is any indication, Alderbrook will be adding more medals to its already bulging coffer of more than 200 awards (2306 Magnolia Dr., Healdsburg, CA 95448; 800-405-5987 or 707-433-5987; www.alderbrook.com).
Where should you stay on the Russian River Wine Road? Of the cities in northwest Sonoma, Santa Rosa has become a sprawling San Francisco bedroom community. It's fine for dinner, but you'll want to stay someplace more, well, Wine Country charming. Healdsburg, a pretty little village with a town green surrounded by quaint shops, is a fine base and has a number of good options. The best is probably the Honor Mansion, particularly if you're a couple. Many people who stay at the Honor Mansion rarely leave their rooms--and really, why should they? Each individually decorated room has a fluffy featherbed, winter and summer bathrobes, luxe toiletries, and fresh flowers; many have gas-burning fireplaces, private porches, or clawfoot tubs; still others have both a fireplace and a private outdoor deck with a Jacuzzi. Even when chill wind and rain buffet the heavy green Jacuzzi cover, guests stay toasty in the steamy shelter of these big outdoor baths. If you do decide to come out of your room, you'll be glad, whether you're having cocktails in the parlor of this 1883 Italianate Victorian, or feasting on the three-course breakfasts. Owner Cathi Fowler wants to fatten you up for your forays into Wine Country, so if you prefer a light repast, let her know beforehand. Otherwise, prepare to tuck into such house specialties as cherry-orange scones, caramel-apple French toast, or Mexican crepes. AAA awarded this a four-diamond designation. Oh, and it's got a big lap pool and a koi pond swarming with well-fed fish (14891 Grove St., Healdsburg, CA 95448, tel. 800-554-4667 or 707-433-4277. Fax: 707-431-7173. Internet: www.honormansion.com. Rack rates: Nov 15-April 15 $170-$330; April 16-Nov 14 $180-$350. DISC, MC, V).