Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Best Sonoma County Restaurants - 2013/2014

The new Zagat Bay Area Restaurants 2014 and The Michelin Guide San Francisco, Bay Area, and Wine Country Restaurants 2014 were recently released. Here's an update on the critics' favorite restaurants in the Sonoma County.

No Sonoma County Restaurants received two or three stars from Michelin.  The Sonoma County recipients of one Michelin star are Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in Forestville, Madrona Manor in Healdsburg, and Terrapin Creek in Bodega Bay.

None of the 50 most popular Bay Area restaurants, according to Zagat, are in Sonoma County. Zagat's top rated restaurants for food in Sonoma County are Madrona Manor (Healdsburg), Cucina Paridiso (Petaluma), and Farmhouse Inn (Forestville) with 27 points.

"The San Francisco Chronicle's" top rating is four stars. No Sonoma County restaurant received 4 stars and only one received 3.5 stars: Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant (Forestville).  Fifteen restaurants are the recipients of three stars.

Lunchtime on my tours in Sonoma County usually finds my guests in either Healdsburg or the town of Sonoma. My favorite lunch spot in Healdsburg is Willi's Seafood, which features small plates of the freshest seafood. In Sonoma city, I recommend The Girl and the Fig for French influenced California food, El Dorado Kitchen for American cuisine, La Salette for Portuguese food, and Della Santina's for Italian food. If you would like to take a private tour in Sonoma County that includes a meal at one of these great restaurants, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or Rick@BlueHeronTours.com.

Best Napa Valley Restaurants - 2013/2014

The new Zagat Bay Area Restaurants 2014 and The Michelin Guide San Francisco, Bay Area, and Wine Country Restaurants 2014 were recently released. Here's an update on the critics' favorite restaurants in the Napa Valley.

The French Laundry in Yountville and The Restaurant at Meadowood near St. Helena remain Michelin's only three-star restaurants in the Bay Area. Twenty-nine restaurants received one star from Michelin. The Napa recipients are Bouchon in Yountville; La Toque in Napa city, Auberge du Soleil in Rutherford, Terra in St. Helena, and Solbar in the Solage resort in Calistoga.

Seven of the 50 most popular Bay Area restaurants, according to Zagat, are in the Napa Valley: The French Laundry (Yountville), Bottega (Yountville), Bouchon (Yountville), Hog Island Oyster Co. and Bar (Oxbow Market, Napa city), Auberge du Soleil (Rutherford), Ad Hoc (Yountville), Bistro Jeanty (Yountville), and Mustard's Grill (Yountville).

The top rated restaurants for food in the Napa Valley, according to Zagat, are The French Laundry (28 points) (Yountville) and Terra (St. Helena), Cole's Chop House (Napa city), The Restaurant at Meadowood (St. Helena), Auberge du Soleil (Rutherford), and Redd (Yountville) (all 27points) (Yountville).

"The San Francisco Chronicle's" top rating is four stars, which were awarded to two Napa Valley restaurants:  French Laundry (Yountville) and The Restaurant at Meadowood (near St. Helena). The following Napa Valley restaurants received 3.5 stars: Bar Terra (St. Helena), Bistro Don Giovanni (Napa city), Etoile (Yountville), Redd (Yountville), and Terra (St. Helena). Thirteen restaurants are the recipients of three stars.

My favorite lunch spot in the Napa Valley remains Auberge du Soleil. The combination of food, service, and view can't be beat. I've taken many happy guests to this restaurant. If you would like to take a private tour of the Napa Valley that includes a meal at one of these great restaurants, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or Rick@BlueHeronTours.com.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Changes in the Anderson Valley

After nearly a year and a half without visiting, we returned to the Anderson Valley this weekend and found many changes.  A few wineries were no more - Standish, Londer, and Jim Ball.  The owners of Claudia Springs have retired, and the tasting room will close by the end of the year.  Lula, Harmonique, and Phillips Hill have new tasting rooms. We found a number of new tasting rooms including Balo; Baxter; Signal Ridge, Knez, and Bink in The Madrones; and Edmeades/Champs de Reves from Jackson Family Wines.

The Madrones is a complex on the east side of Philo that houses four tasting rooms, a bed and breakfast, a nice garden/housewares store called Sun and Cricket, and a new restaurant - Stone and Embers.  We heard that Stone and Embers had good pizza and tried to lunch there; only to find it closed for a special event.  Signal Ridge is the newest tasting room in the Valley.  Currently they have rose and sparkling wine available for tasting but will release a Zinfandel and Pinot Noir in the spring. Bink has been in The Madrones for a while, but we missed it on our last visit.  The winery features Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Merlot, and Cabernet.  Staff at both Bink and Signal Hill were most welcoming.  We did not have enough sobriety left to visit Knez Winery and Drew Family Cellars but were told that both feature Pinot Noir.

Baxter has a small tasting room across from the grocery store in Philo.  Here we met Claire Baxter, one of the owners and wife of winemaker, Phillip Baxter.  Claire walked us through Baxter's single vineyard Pinot Noirs as well as its Syrah and Chardonnay,  Baxter gets its Pinot Noir grapes from a variety vineyards, which results in varying styles of Pinot, from very light to fairly full bodied.

We stopped in at the tasting room at Balo only to find the door open but no one present and a sign saying they had sold out of all of their wines but one.

The Valley is also seeing improvements in the dining scene.  Lauren's has been open for a while but was always closed when we tried to visit.  This time we found the restaurant open and enjoyed a couple of very good sandwiches that used many local ingredients.  Everything looked delicious, so we'll have to return.  We returned to the Boonville General Store, which continues to offer tasty lunches and breakfasts.  We heard good things about Aquarelle Cafe and Wine Bar in Boonville and Coq Au Vin, a very new French restaurant in Philo.  Both are only open for dinner.  Since we were staying on the coast, returning in the evening wasn't a convenient option.

If you are a Pinot Noir fan and want to taste some good wine in friendly tasting rooms, the Anderson Valley is just the place for you.  Combine your visit to wine country with a stay along the spectacular Mendocino coast for a great getaway.  If you would like to take a private tour of this area, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or Rick@BlueHeronTours.com.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Winetasting in Fair Play

Fair Play is one of California's lesser known wine regions.  We recently had a chance to visit this small region located in the Sierra Foothills of El Dorado County, The area has historically been known for producing Zinfandel (red, not pink).  Today, there is still plenty of Zin but wines from Italian,Rhone, and other varietals are also made.

Just over 20 wineries are located in Fair Play.  Most are small, family-owned affairs with the largest wineries producing around 15,000 cases per year.  The wine region is small; with the most distant wineries located just 20 minutes from each other.  Tastings were free at all of the wineries we visited.  Staff were universally friendly and eager to talk with us about their wines.

One of the newer wineries is Mastroserio Winery.  Ruggero, the welcoming owner and winemaker, walked us through a good selection of his wines.  His most unusual wine is a 2010 Fiano, an Italian varietal that is seldom grown in the United States.  It's possible that Ruggero is the only winemaker in this country that makes a Fiano.  Mastroserio also produces Sauvignon Blanc and an array of red wines.

Two of the older and bigger wineries in the region are Windwalker and Perry Creek.  Windwalker Vineyard and Winery produces a variety of white, red, and dessert wines.  We particularly enjoyed the reds we tasted.  Perry Creek Winery is best known for its Zin Man Zinfandel, which is distributed, but makes a few whites and a good number of reds.  Here too we liked most of the red wines we tasted.

Fair Play is about 2.5 hours east of San Francisco.  Lodging and dining options in Fair Play are limited.  Only about a half dozen bed and breakfasts and three restaurants are located in the region.  We stayed at Fitzpatrick Winery and Lodge, which I highly recommend.  The bed and breakfast, tasting room, and winery are located in a large log house.  Rooms are spacious and well appointed.  Five tasty options are offered for breakfast.

We ate at two of the three restaurants located in the Fair Play area.  The Pub at Fair Play serves typical bar food.  The Gold Vine Grill, in nearby Somerset, serves more refined fare in a casual atmosphere. We were also told that there is a good Chinese restaurant nearby but did not see it.  If you are visiting on a Friday or Saturday night during the summer or early fall, you may find wineries hosting special events that include dinners.

More lodging are restaurant options are available in Plymouth and Placerville, both about 30 minutes away.

Fair Play is a great weekend getaway for Bay Area residents and an easy day trip for those living in Sacramento.  If you are traveling from further away, there's much to do in the Sierra Foothills.  You might want to include a day or two in Fair Play as part of a longer Gold Country vacation.  If you would like to take a tour of Fair Play from San Francisco, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at Rick@BlueHeronTours.com or (415) 337-1874. 

Thursday, February 07, 2013

Favorite Healdsburg Lunch Spots

While I haven't eaten at every restaurant open for lunch in Healdsburg, I've dined at most of the restaurants near the town square.  Here are my favorites in alphabetical order.

Bistro Ralph -  One of the first good restaurants in Healdsburg.  Ralph's serves a variety of entrees.  Make sure you're hungry.  Brunch is served on Sundays.

Campo Fina - Terrific paninis, salads, and small plates.

Downtown Bakery and Creamery - This is the place for dessert.  Delicious pastries and ice cream.

Healdsburg Bar and Grill - Great burgers and fries with truffle oil.  Need I say more.  Enjoy your burger, sandwich, or salad on the patio on a nice summer day.

Mateo's Cocina Latina - For something different, try the tastes of the Yucatan Peninsula.

Willi's Seafood - My favorite seafood restaurant in the Bay Area.  I love Willi's small plates and oyster bar.  One of the best lobster rolls in the Bay Area.  Also pretty good crab cakes.

Zin Restaurant - The salads, sandwiches, and entrees are all good.  Too bad Zin is closed on weekends.

Healdsburg has a lunch spot for just about every taste.  If you would like to take a private tour of the Russian River, Dry Creek, and or Alexander Valley that includes a stop for lunch in Healdsburg, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 or Rick@BlueHeronTours.com.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

All Italian in Kenwood

Over the years, a few of my guests visited VJB Vineyards and Cellars in Kenwood (Sonoma Valley).  They always enjoyed the friendly staff and wines made from Italian varietals such as Sangiovese, Barbera, and Primitivo.  Last year, I learned that the tasting room had moved across the street and added an Italian deli.  As the northern end of Sonoma Valley has limited lunch options, especially during the week, I had to check out this new restaurant.

Last month, I finally got to visit VJB.  The wines were still good and the tasting room staff still friendly.  The big addition is La Cucina, the deli. On weekdays, the deli offers a variety of paninis, salads, cheeses, salumis, and antipasti.  On my recent visit, I enjoyed a tasty meatball panini while my friend had an antipasti plate.  You can enjoy your lunch with a glass of VJB wine outside at a table in the courtyard.  From Friday through Monday, the outdoor kitchen opens and you can lunch on pizza, ribs, drumsticks, and sausage and pulled pork paninis.  In the not too distant future, I hope to get back to VJB when the outdoor kitchen is open so I can taste more of their delicious food.

VJB's tasting room is located at 60 Shaw Avenue in the small Sonoma Valley town of Kenwood.  If you would like to take a private Sonoma Valley tour that includes a stop at VJB, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or Rick@BlueHeronTours.com

Thursday, January 31, 2013

A Faded Star Reborn

Early this month, I wrote about the Boisset family's efforts with Raymond Winery in the Napa Valley.  Tuesday I had the opportunity to see the results of their work since purchasing Sonoma's Buena Vista Winery in 2011.

Buena Vista Winery was founded in 1857 by Agoston Haraszthy, a native of Hungary, making it the oldest commercial winery in California.  In recent years, the winery went through a number of owners and its star faded.  The wines were good but not exceptional.  The old Champagne Cellars building closed due to damage sustained in the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake.

In 2011, Boisset Family Wines, one of Burgundy's largest wine producers, purchased Buena Vista.  Led by Jean-Charles Boisset, the company began a major renovation of the property.  Last year, the Champagne Cellar reopened after undergoing an extensive seismic retrofit estimated to have cost over $7 million.  Also, for the first time in many years, wine was made onsite at Buena Vista.  More work remains, but today the old winery shines again.

Buena Vista offers a variety of tasting options. You can drop in to do a stand-up tasting of a variety of whites and reds.  By prior appointment, daily barrel tastings are offered in the Champagne Cellars at 11:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m.  On Saturdays at 10:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m., "Count Haraszthy" will take you on a tour of the property and tell you about its rich history.  You'll need a reservation to join the Count on his walk.

Buena Vista Winery is a short drive from Sonoma Plaza at 18000 Old Winery Road.  The tasting room is open daily, excluding major holidays, from 10:00 a.m. until 5:00 p.m.  If you would like to take a private tour of Sonoma Valley that includes a stop at Buena Vista, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or Rick@BlueHeronTours.com.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Tasty Paninis in Healdsburg

Scopa is a well-reviewed Italian restaurant in the charming town of Healdsburg in Northern Sonoma County.  As it is open only for dinner and I am seldom in Healdsburg in the evening, I have yet to sample chef/owner Ari Rosen's cooking.  Last year, Ari opened a more casual restaurant, Campo Fina, which serves both lunch and dinner.

Earlier this week, I had a chance to lunch at Campo Fina.  Now I want to go back to taste Ari's dinners at both Campo Fina and Scopa.  The lunch menu consists of a variety of hot and cold paninis, small plates for sharing, salads, and a special from Grandma's House.  We were a group of seven and enjoyed everything.  We shared honey-glazed carrots, hard boiled eggs with salsa verde and pickled celery, pickled vegetables, and ciabatta with extra virgin olive oil.  Four of us had paninis, two had the special from Grandma's House, and one enjoyed a salad.  Everyone raved about his/her meal.

Campo Fina is open daily from 10:30 a.m. until 11:00 p.m.  If you would like to make this your lunch spot on a tour of Northern Sonoma County wine country, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at (866) 326-4237 (toll free) or Rick@BlueHeronTours.com.

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Unique Napa Tasting Experiences

A few years ago Raymond Vineyards was purchased by the Boisset family, one of the largest wine producers in France.  Jean Charles Boisset took charge of the winery and created some of the most whimsical tasting experiences in the Napa Valley.

Upon arrival at the winery, you'll see signs pointing you to the Theater of Nature.  Here you'll walk through gardens to learn about Raymond's devotion to Biodynamic farming.  You'll see a variety of vegetables and animals that contribute to producing high quality grapes.  If you have young children with you, they will especially enjoy seeing the white peacocks, chickens, goats, and sheep.  Also outside is Frenchy's Winery, where your dog can enjoy a respite while you are tasting inside.

When you first walk into the tasting room, it looks like a fairly ordinary Napa tasting room, but you'll need to dig deeper.  You can walk down the Corridor of Senses to see if your sense of smell can pick up the many aromas found in wines.  Instead of tasting out front, walk back into the Crystal Cellar where you will learn about the art of decanting and see more Baccarat crystal than you've probably ever seen before.

If you plan ahead, more tasting experiences await you.  By prior appointment, you can take a blending seminar and make your own wine.  You'll get to take your wine home with you and Raymond will save your blending notes for future reference should you want more of your special cuvee. 

The Gold Room enables you to taste JCB Wines in opulent surroundings.  Your group can have a sit-down tasting surrounded by more gold (color, not metal) than you've ever seen in one room.

Finally, if you are a big fan of Raymond's wines, you can become a member of The Red Room.  For a $500 annual fee, you can make use of a room lined with red velvet that has a feel of old-time men's club, complete with a pool table.  The Red Room has its special red blend, which can only be tasted here.

There are other tasting options at Raymond, so visit the website and see what suits you.  If you'd like to take a private Napa tour that includes a visit to Raymond Vineyards, contact Blue Heron Custom Tours and Travel at rick@blueherontours.com or (866) 326-4237 (toll free).