An Ode to Sonoma: Four Hamptons Locals Escape to California Wine County

Northern California has suffered a lot since the author visited last year. Read on to find out how you can help the region rebuild.

At exactly this time last year, four Hamptons locals boarded a plane to Sonoma for a long weekend of luxury after a long summer of work. Now, the very vines that we admired are smoldering, the buildings where we indulged are evacuated, at best. As of October 10, 115,000 acres had burned and 2000 structures destroyed, and the damage is still being assessed. 

Sonoma was reminiscent of the East End, with its hardworking locals and decadent lifestyles. Everywhere the eye fell, another arrangement of beauty. Instead of fine sandy beaches, hillsides quilted with vineyards. Meander through the memory of what it was, and what we hope it will be again very soon. For a list of ways to help Sonoma and Napa right now, check out this link.

Joe and Liza Tremblay know how to live, which you may have noticed if you’ve ever tasted their ice cream, which Liza makes by hand in her facility in Sag Harbor, just down the road from their Bay Burger restaurant, everybody’s go-to burger joint.

So when they invited us to come along with them on a grown-ups only getaway to Sonoma for food and wine and—did I say grown-ups only?—my husband and I couldn’t say no. The four of us have become deeply embedded in the year-round Hamptons community, from our work to our kids’ schools to the way we socialize.

Now was our chance to step away from the world that had become so familiar, to be the tourists that we so often served, and to get back in touch with a little thing that had become obscured in the age of diapers and tantrums: a little thing we like to call luxury.

Sonoma, California, here we come.

Now was our chance to step away from the world that had become so familiar, to be the tourists that we so often served.

Day One

By the time we finally got into our rental car and cruised over the Golden Gate Bridge, we were all getting close to the point of hangry. Luckily Liza had booked a reservation at Bravas Tapas in Healdsburg in advance, so when we arrived all we had to do was sort through the delicious mountain of tapas options and select a wine. At a Spanish restaurant in wine country, we were conflicted between the local and Spanish Albarino, so we ended up having both. That was sort of the theme of the weekend. Yes, and yes please.

Small plates were the way to go, and we sampled pan con tomate, croquets, sautéed mushrooms, fried chicken, kale salad, and patatas bravas.

When we arrived at the house in northern Sonoma County, we were greeted by Zen-like calm. Buddhas adorned the gravel entryway; curvy oaks lounged across the hillsides. Inside, everything was placed with delicate attention, from the Bali-sourced furniture to the Moroccan tagines and the Japanese rice cookers. This was the home of two Hamptons real estate professionals, Cee Scott Brown, a longtime broker, and John Bjornen, an interior designer with Bjornen Design. So from the perfect location, perched atop a hill overlooking a valley of vineyards, to the expertly arranged interior, this home was an oasis.

Our first winery, Medlock Ames, sits on 338 acres of oak groves, wildflowers, organic gardens, and organic vineyards.

Day Two

Joe made a leisurely Mexican breakfast the first morning, before we piled into the Lincoln and cruised down Route 101, clouds hanging low in the hillsides. Our first winery, Medlock Ames, sits on 338 acres of oak groves, wildflowers, organic gardens, and organic vineyards. There they grow Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Red Bordeaux blends. We walked through the tasting menu, of which four of the five wines received 90 or higher from Robert Parker’s The Wine Advocate. We played with terms like “earthy” and “blueberry”, but couldn’t help laughing when the Cabernet was described as having “a hint of S’mores”.

Equipped with the happy buzz of Medlock Ames’ best, we headed off to grab sandwiches at the charming Jimtown Store, and then to the mud baths. We happened to select the only four days of the year that it was guaranteed to rain in California, so we needed a plan that would take advantage of the place rain or shine.

Equipped with the happy buzz of Medlock Ames’ best, we headed off to grab sandwiches at the charming Jimtown Store.

“In our futile search for naturally occurring hot springs, we stumbled upon the Golden Haven Mud Baths. We had no idea what to expect,” said Liza.

But they sounded like pure decadence. Upon arrival, however, we were caught off guard, as the place resembled more of a cheap motel than a spa. We were separated into couples and instructed to remove all our clothes before being led, in robes, into a room that smelled a bit like a frog’s tank when it hasn’t been cleaned for a while. Two tubs filled with thick, oozing mud sat before us. Christian and I looked at each other and burst out laughing.

“You’ll get used to the smell,” said Hector, our faithful guide, and he left us alone.

We undressed and climbed into the tubs, and as I sank in to the hot, thick mud, I felt every muscle of my body sighing. It was a feeling of being completely held. Any muscle that had been holding on in a struggle to keep me upright and functioning was finally able to let go. I closed my eyes, and Hector applied a cooling peppermint mask to obscure the scent. Two days into our trip, and the last layer of resistance finally surrendered. I was free.

The treatment continued with a shower, then a soak in a mineral hot tub. Finally, Hector led us to a quiet room where he said our body temperature would be able to return to normal. He wrapped us up, like babies in swaddles, and left us in the silence.

By the time we were fully recovered from that experience, it was time to once again consume. We headed up a mountainside to Auberge du Soleil, deep in Napa County, where we watched the sunset over the hillsides and valleys, sipping cocktails and sharing a few delectable dishes from the Michelin star restaurant: a pizza with prosciutto and arugula, a homemade gamelli with pesto and corn, a shrimp and sesame salad and an order of fried calamari.

“The clouds parted and we had this sudden gorgeous view down into the valley,” said Liza.

“It was very different from the mud bath scene,” added Joe. “But they were two sides of the same coin.”

Joe and Liza Tremblay sample some California wine.

Day Three

We were going to have a party! We invited all our friends from the region to come hang out at “our place” atop the hill. So now I was going to get a little hint of how Liza Tremblay throws a party. When we went to Shed, which was described to us aptly as “Dean and Deluca on steroids”, Liza kicked in to party planning mode. I idly held the basket as she chatted with the cheesemonger about salumis and smoked trout and quince paste, and then, I got sidetracked by the cheese cave.

By the time I had returned, the basket was overflowing with all the ingredients for an outrageous spread. We ordered lattes and sat in the cool mist before heading over to Preston Winery, a biodynamic farm with a sweet woman at the bar, pouring tastings with a heavy hand.

Christina Zapel, who used to work at Wolffer Estate Vineyards in Sagaponack, had relocated to Sonoma and was working for a winery called Flowers Vineyards. She recommended Preston, and joined us for the tasting. Even though she said there was a general air of superiority among California wine growers as compared to the East Coast, she had conducted her own blind taste tests and still considered the Wolffer Rose “one to shoot for” in winemaking. But the reds of the West Coast tend to be more full bodied because of the warmer climate, which up their sugar content and bring in a commanding, bold flavor.

The third day began with a trip to Shed, described to us aptly as “Dean and Deluca on steroids”.

While the ingredients in wine are virtually the same worldwide and across the spectrum of grape varietals, the process can be quite different. With about 100 microclimates in Sonoma and Napa Valleys, that’s a major factor in what grapes to plant where, as well as when to harvest and how. For example, in the cooler areas, Pinots can really thrive. But Cabernets enjoy heat.

“We pick on the early side for our Pinots,” said Christina, “because we want high acids. But for a Cabernet, they pick later to get sweeter, more ripe fruit.”

Fire crackling in the living room, table filled with delectable treats, and wine already flowing, our guests rolled in for a cozy evening of lazy noshing and easy laughter. Humboldt Fog, aged cheddar, and gorgonzola dolce were laden on fresh pears and juicy figs. Almonds offered a palate cleanser between prosciutto and salumi and the house smoked trout. Liza cooked up a shrimp cassoulet and Joe broiled west coast oysters with compound butter, two warming dishes that grounded the otherwise nomadic meal. Late night, we retired to the deck and listened to a pack of coyotes howling at the full moon.

A day that can start in a pasture of goat dung and end at a high-end French restaurant is a good day.

Day Four

A day that can start in a pasture of goat dung and end at a high-end French restaurant is a good day. When we turned down the dirt driveway to get to Rancho Madrano for breakfast, we could have easily been deep in the heart of Mexico. And as the ladies behind the counter custom-made each corn tortilla and the Mexican-style Bloody Marys slowly drained down our throats, I nearly broke out in Spanish song.

It was the first time I ever ate goat, and I could hear the goats bleating over the din of Spanish conversation. It seemed like the right thing to do, somehow. If I was going to eat meat, I ought to really know what I was eating. Wrapped in a warm tortilla and tossed with fresh cilantro and onion, it was delicious.

From there we drove back south to Chappellet Winery, which was founded by Molly and Don Chappellet in 1967. Then, it was the 18th winery in Napa. Now there are over 500. Chappellet sits on Pritchard Hill, and it was the first in Napa to be built into the hillsides. While it’s more expensive and less productive to plant wine in the hillsides, it also makes for an excellent, varied winegrowing climate.

“You’ll get half as much fruit and they will be tiny berries,” explained Connor Swanson, our guide through the vineyard. “With less juice and more skin, the wines are more concentrated in structure.”

This makes them comparable to wines from the hills of Bordeaux, which were the inspiration from which Molly and Don originally drew. While it’s more difficult to grow these grapes, once they’re harvested and selected for uniformity, the winemaking requires little intervention.

“On the hillsides, winemakers work harder on the vineyard,” said Connor, “so they don’t have to work as hard in the winemaking process.”

“Wine is a pure reflection of where it grows,” said Connor.

We sampled their Signature Chenin Blanc, Molly Chappellet’s favorite white wine. The Signature Chardonnay, the Cab Franc, the Signature Cabernet (my personal favorite), and a big and bold 2008 Pritchard Hill Cabernet rounded out the tasting.

“Wine is a pure reflection of where it grows,” said Connor. “You’ll see differences in techniques, grapes grown, but our primary goal is to express the land.”

By the time we ambled up to our reservation at Bouchon, our cheeks were flushed pink and our spirits high. The brassy interior, high ceilings and splashes of red, called us to attention. We shared a fondue plate, our fresh bread swimming in a pot of creamy cheese. I rarely order chicken: after a lifetime of chicken dinners, it always seems boring. But this was exceptional: tender on the inside, crisped skin and rich juices. Christian savored his foie gras and escargot, each snail with its own pillowy top hat of filo dough. Liza’s tub of salmon rillettes and Joe’s endive Roquefort salad and duck confit all filled us to the point of no return, so even Liza couldn’t order her obligatory profiteroles.

The car ride home was dreamy. Christian had switched to espresso long before my wine clock had turned off, so I just stared out the window as another full moon rose over Napa Valley, as we made our way back for one last sleep on feathery pillows.