In the holidays, you don’t have to be stuck in Napa traffic
Small towns around the Bay Area offer many attractions
It is tempting, when I don’t want to leave the Bay Area, to drive to Napa wine country. After all, the whole world goes there. As a local, however, I steer away from the traffic in Napa. Last month, I went to Petaluma, instead, and found it to be a delightful way to spend an afternoon.
Like I’ve written so many times in the past, what struck me more than the town or the setting and the wine were the characters themselves. Their drive to succeed, to be specific. They took opportunities wherever they arose and created them where there’d been none. It seems a distillation of the spirit of the American West.
600 acres of rustic beauty
After driving through gold-colored hills, we turned into Stubbs Vineyard. The first living beings we met were a herd of Ankole-Watusi, a modern American breed of cattle originally from Africa. They reminded me of the Longhorns from Texas, except for the angle of their horns. Impressive head gear!
Mary Stubbs arrived in her all-terrain-vehicle to meet us at the new tasting room, from where we caught spectacular views of the hills around us. And here’s the cool part: Mary took us in her ATV on a tour of her property. We saw llamas – introduced as guards to her flock of sheep — and emus and a giant sculpture of a raven. We stopped at a hut-sized Italian-Swiss-Colony wine barrel. Mary opened the doors for a peek inside. A skink darted across the floor. The interior was finished in wood; a little heater stood in the corner to stave off the cold that descends at sundown. In a dip in the land several yards away stood the vineyards, where red had crept into the leaves to mark the advent of fall.
A couple of decades ago, Mary and her husband, Tom, stayed in this wine barrel on weekends, when they were both working in San Francisco – she, a journalist and he, a commercial real estate agent. “It was a rustic way of life,” Mary said. We were both fairly broke, cobbling together what we could.”
After the Stubbs moved up permanently in the early 1990s, Mary decided she wanted to use the land for agriculture, in keeping with the mandate of the Marin Agricultural Land Trust. After having the soil tested, she planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The microclimate was perfect, with the fog ensuring six extra weeks of hang time for the grapes to ripen slowly. She sold fruit, until the draw of winemaking became too much to resist. Her first vintage was 2002. Now they make about 1,200 cases. Visits are by appointment only.
Lunch in Petaluma.
A straight road from Tom and Mary’s ranch took us to the mid-nineteenth century town of Petaluma. We had booked an appointment with Lorraine Barber of Barber Cellars but had to appease the growl in the stomach, which we did happily in the Barber tasting room. We savored local cheeses and devoured hot sandwiches on the menu with tasting portions of rosé of Sangiovese, as well as Pinot Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.
As we enjoyed our repast, people came in to enjoy an afternoon with friends over wine. The tasting room was opened in 2015 in the Hotel Petaluma, which had been in a state of disrepair. With new management eager to change it, Lorraine and her husband, Mike – a linguist and archaeologist — seized the opportunity to help upgrade the hotel. Lorraine, who comes from construction, used staves from wine barrels to weave the front of the bar.
After lunch, I met Lorraine at Barber Lee Spirits, two doors down from the tasting room. Barely a few months old, this distillery is where the Barbers express their love of Rye Whiskey. The seed to make whiskey was planted when Lorraine tasted San Francisco’s Old Potrero Rye Whiskey. Rye is harder to make than barley and corn because it is lower in starch and becomes like porridge, Lorraine explained. But she knew she wanted to do this, as well. When the previous owner of the space retired, the Barbers saw their chance.
The projects continue. As to what’s next? Their own crush co-op.
Port for dessert.
A short drive from downtown sits Sonoma Portworks, a delightful winery and tasting room for fortified wine. It was a fitting way to end the afternoon, although the long drive ahead restrained us from trying more than a sip of a couple of wines.
Caryn Reading and her husband Bill opened this tasting room in 2003. It had been a long journey of trial and error to get to this point.
Bill has worked in the wine industry all his life; Caryn, in educational software, until a couple of years ago when she devoted herself completely to the business. Over lunch about two-and-a- half decades ago, someone said he had been trying to make distilled spirit with chocolate, and was about to give up as it hadn’t worked out. Bill asked if he could take a shot at it. Together they worked, adding chocolate essences in all kinds of red wine. Nothing pleased their palate.
One day, another friend was enjoying port and wondered how that would taste with chocolate essence. The result was magic. He called Bill and a drink was born: the flagship Deco Port. A year later, he distilled sherry – pressed with white grapes — a companion beverage. “The bug just bit him,” said Caryn.
Bill wanted to change the traditional squat Port bottles with white labels for something more artistic. He chose tall and slender. For the label he tapped the late Gina Bostian, an artist and graphic designer. In the tasting room surrounded by these bottles with funky labels, you feel you’re in the presence of creativity.
In Portugal, home of the port, winemakers use the local Touriga Naçional and the Touriga Franca grapes for their signature drinks. I asked Caryn if those were their grapes of choice. Bill uses Petite Sirah and Petit Verdot that grow in the hotter areas of California, leaving the imprint of his state on his drinks. The sugar in the grapes is important and Bill tries to get the grapes to reach 28 brix at harvest, a high number not always reached. But the ports come out great, regardless.
So many years later, Bill and Caryn offer a range of fortified wines.
Featured Photo: Shutterstock; Deco: Sonoma Portworks; The Rest: Yours Truly