The Insider's Guide to Sonoma: Where the Pros Drink
Not to tasting rooms. Instead, they’re heading to spots that take advantage of what’s fresh and locally grown, where more often than not there are now a few local wines on tap, and plenty of bottles from distant lands to geek out on, too. Here’s where you're most likely to spot the people who make Sonoma’s wine world hum.
By Andrew Braithwaite
Scopa transforms well-known winemakers into industrious servers in the course of a night: Every Wednesday, a winemaker works a shift on the floor, a requirement of anyone wishing to place their wines on the restaurant’s list. “It’s a fun night, seeing your colleagues on the other side of the table, or meeting a winemaker you’ve been following but don’t know very well,” says Kevin Kelley of Salinia/NPA, who has put in his own time on the floor, as have Carroll Kemp of Red Car and Dan Fitzgerald of Brack Mountain.
109A Plaza St.; 707-433-5282, scopahealdsburg.com
Underwood Bar & Bistro, Graton
This bistro is stained-fingernail central during September and October, when legions of harvest interns converge to slug back tumblers of Scotch. But if the well-crafted cocktail list—and on Fridays and Saturdays, flatiron steak frites until 11 pm—keep Graton’s winemakers up late, there’s also a case to be made for the bistro’s relaxed daytime atmosphere. “If you need a midday pick-me-up Campari in West County, this is definitely the place,” says Geoff Kruth, wine director at the Farmhouse Inn and COO of the Guild of Sommeliers.
9113 Graton Rd.; 707-823-7023, underwoodgraton.com
Glen Ellen Star, Glen Ellen
Erinn Benziger-Weiswasser opened this 24-seat California-Mediterranean restaurant with her husband, chef Ari Weiswasser, in May of 2012. Weiswasser cut his teeth under chefs like Daniel Boulud and Thomas Keller. Here, working in an open kitchen that adds a note of theatricality to the narrow, boisterous room, the chef takes full advantage of his 600ºF wood-fired oven—turning out pizzas as well as vegetables like whole cauliflower and blistered shishito peppers. You'll find a few good Benziger bottles on the list (naturally) alongside a section called "interesting white wines" from Austria, South Africa and Spain.
13648 Arnold Dr.; 707-343-1384, glenellenstar.com
Diavola Pizzeria, Geyserville
This pizza joint at Geyserville's main junction is buzzy enough to attract distant pilgrims. They converge on what Napa-based Julia Weinberg of the Delectable wine app calls "a contender for best pizza in the Bay Area." Chef Dino Bugica also offers a solid selection of house-cured meats. The wine list, meanwhile, is split into four categories: reds and whites that are either local or Italian. Weinberg recommends "the margherita with arugula and a Valle d'Aoste petite rouge. Love."
21021 Geyserville Ave.; 707-814-0111, diavolapizzeria.com
Salinia/NPA, Santa Rosa
Kevin Kelley's tiny, unsigned base in an industrial park is a sort of anti-tasting-room. The winemaker and owner of the Salinia and Natural Process Alliance wineries, he's typically the person pouring the wine on Fridays and Saturdays, rather than a recently hired marketing aide. His penchant for things like skin-fermented whites and minimal-intervention cellar practices make him stand out from the crowd, as does NPA's curious delivery method: Kelley's "everyday" label is sold in refillable aluminum canteens, and winemakers drop by to top up from one of Kelley's three tap lines.
3350 Coffey Ln.; 707-527-7063, naturalprocessalliance.com
The Spinster Sisters, Santa Rosa
Open one year now, The Spinster Sisters anchors Santa Rosa's up-and-coming SofA (south of A Street) Arts District. "It's bringing some much-needed energy to this part of town,” says Alex Hill of Unti Vineyards. Grab a seat at the 100-year-old redwood bar, where eight tap lines feature producers like Tablas Creek, Wind Gap and Tangent, pouring at an attractive $18 for a half-liter Erlenmeyer laboratory flask. The kitchen's California-seasonal approach is lifted by intense international flavors: house-made kimchi and bacon deviled eggs pop alongside a glass of sparking Vouvray.
401 South A St.; 707-528-7100, thespinstersisters.com
Hana, Rohnert Park
You don't expect to find one of the Bay Area's best sushi restaurants sharing an office plaza with a state adoptions office, its back patio overlooking a golf course putting green. But Hana is the real deal. "I eat here at least once a week," says Pax Mahle, winemaker at Wind Gap, of Tokyo native Ken Tominaga’s place. A big selling point is the presence of Stuart Morris, one of a mere handful of Kikisake-shi (sake master sommeliers) in America. "Sit at the counter and order the omakase with Stu's sake pairings," advises Mahle.
101 Golf Course Dr.; 707-586-0270, hanajapanese.com
Bergamot Alley, Healdsburg
When Healdsburg's young trade punch out for the day, they head for this new bar by Kevin Wardell, formerly of A16 and flour+water in San Francisco—despite the fact that there's not a single Sonoma wine in the house. The playful streamers, wall graffiti and vinyl on the stereo are balanced by a sophisticated, Old World–only list of bottles and glasses. "It's where everybody I know goes for a drink, before or after dinner," says Duncan Arnot Meyers of Arnot-Roberts. The team from Ryme Cellars, as well as Scopa's wine czar Graham Anderson (who curates Bergamot's Greek wine list), are frequent contributors to the late-night ping-pong and disco ball scene.
328A Healdsburg Ave.; 707-433-8720, bergamotalley.com
Valley Wine Shack, Sonoma
While all these buzzed-about restaurants and bars bring much-needed energy to the valley, sometimes at the end of the wine workday you just want to curl up at home with a bottle of something…weird. This unassuming, white Mission-style house in downtown Sonoma is a destination for fans of far-flung wines. Windee Smith stocks such hard-to-find varietals as bovale from Sardinia, fumin from Valle d'Aosta and zierfandler from Austria-an array welcomed by area somms studying for their Court of Master Sommelier exams. Smith's bottle shop also doubles as a BYO restaurant of sorts: Open that zierfandler in the lounge upstairs (no corkage fee) and bring along your own bread and cheese from Sonoma Market, located just up the street.
535 W. Napa St.; 707-938-7218, valleywineshack.com
Peter Lowell’s, Sebastopol
Though proprietor Lowell Peter Sheldon doesn’t have a formal BYOB program, it's not unusual to walk into this bright organic café and see some North Coast pinot superstar like Ted Lemon of Littorai holding court at the central blonde-wood table, cracking bottles with a couple of wine writers. The official list of local and Old World wines—including two on tap, always from Sebastopol producers—trends toward the organic and biodynamic. The food—from the steaming macrobiotic bowls of brown rice, beans and seasonal greens to the heaping plates of salad and crisp pizzas—is sourced as locally as the wine on tap: Much of the produce comes from Sheldon's own Two Belly Acres farm.
7385 Healdsburg Ave.; 707-829-1077, peterlowells.com