Monday, November 9, 2009

Unique Sonoma County - LCBV Favorites

Your host recently returned from a short day trip to our Sonoma neighbors to the North. It seems that when most people visit Sonoma County for fun, it's one of 3 places. Sonoma Valley (with Downtown Sonoma), Healdsburg/Dry Creek for wine tasting, and Russian River water activities. While these are all great destinations, there are several interesting spots that many people miss. Below are some favorites.

Downtown Petaluma:

Petaluma has one of the more attractive and historic commercial districts of any Bay Area City. Founded in 1858 along the Petaluma River, downtown Petaluma has more remaining commercial Victorian buildings than perhaps any other city around. It's notable for its row of cast iron fronted commercial buildings that survived both the 1906 Earthquake and the 20th century modernization projects that removed many older structures from other small cities. Visit the corner of Petaluma Blvd. and Western Avenue for the best collection of structures. A stroll down neighboring Water Street along an historic trestle gives a good view of what was once a bustling port. Across the river in the old Northwestern Pacific train depot is a helpful tourist office with guides and maps.

Beef Jerky:

The surrounding countryside is home to several old butcher shops offering some mighty fine American style beef jerky and other smoked meat products. One of which is Angelo's Meats out near the Petaluma Airport. The other is Bud's Custom Meats, a few miles to the North in Penngrove. While expensive, the jerky at Angelo's is moist and rich, and a far cry from most factory produced jerkies. If possible, ask if they have a fresh batch that has not yet gone into plastic. The teriyaki is a good flavor. In addition to Jerky, Angelo's offers house made sausages and other smoked steaks.

Bud's Custom Meats is known for their Bloody Mary beef jerky. It's essentially jerky that is cured in a tomato pepper sauce and is unique. It's slightly cheaper than Angelo's and a little harder to find. Both of these shops will custom smoke your own meat as well.

The enclave of Penngrove has a small, but charming downtown next to the railroad tracks. Before the construction of Hwy 101, Penngrove was on the main street connecting Petaluma with Cotati (Old Redwood Highway). There are several small restaurants and shops worth a visit. The downtown is located at the intersection of Main and Old Adobe Road.

Artisan Cheese:

Sonoma County is home to several well known cheese companies including Vella, Sonoma Jack, and Spring Hill Cheese. One cheese company, the Matos Cheese Company, is well off the beaten path between Cotati and Sebastopol and worth a visit. The company makes only one type of cheese, a white Portuguese cow's milk cheese called St. George from the on-site dairy's own cows. The cheese has a nutty flavor, and is great by itself or in dishes. It tastes sort of like a firmer Havarti. The company is owned by 5th generation cheese maker Jose Matos and his wife Mary, formerly from the Portuguese Azores Islands. The dairy has a small shop at the end of a dirt road. Behind the retail counter is the aging room filled with rounds of cheese. While the chase is available at several specialty retailers at a good markup, the cost is $7 per lb at the factory shop. You can buy the cheese by the pound.

Apples and Apple Cider:

The nearby town of Sebastopol is known for its Gravenstein Apples, a variety introduced by Russian traders in the 1800's at their outpost in Fort Ross. While apple farming has somewhat succumbed to urban sprawl and wine grapes, there are still a few farms that sell direct to the customer. One of which is Hales Apple Farm right on the main Hwy 116 north of downtown. The retail stand is in an old red barn. While Gravenstein apples ripen in late July through August, a number of hard to find late harvest varietals such as Arkansas Black are available through November. They also offer fresh pressed non-alcoholic cider. The farm stand is only open during harvest season.

A few miles north in the town of Graton is the California Cider Company, which manufactures the Ace Hard Cider line from fresh apple juice. They operate a great pub called Ace in the Hole, where you can sample their offerings including regular, pear "Perry", berry, honey, and the Joker. The Joker is a stronger European style cider with a champaign like quality. The food menu is reasonably priced.

In addition, down the street in Graton's quaint small downtown is the Willow Wood Market, a great spot for specialty sandwiches and regional cuisine.


Sonoma County is home to a number of breweries, including Russian River, Bear Republic, Lagunitas and Stumptown Brewing. Russian River Brewing, arguably one of the Bay Area's only world class craft breweries, pushes the limit in many of its beers. It's most known for its hoppy ales and Belgian inspired beers. You'd be hard pressed to find a better IPA than Pliny the Elder or Blind Pig. In addition, Vinnie Cilurzo, owner and head brewer, has been on the forefront of the American development of barrel aged sour beers. His sour blond Temptation Ale, aged in Chardonnay barrels, is a highlight, along with Consecration Ale, a dark ale aged in Cabernet barrels with currants.

The special sauce is the use of brettanomyces, a special yeast strain that gives the beers its unique sour character. Russian River operates a tap room and pizza parlor in downtown Santa Rosa, a perfect stop on the way back from the Healdsburg Area, especially during the 4 to 6:30 pm daily happy hour (or all day Sunday). For those not wanting to drive to Santa Rosa, various products are now bottled for local stores and many items are on tap at Toronado bar on Haight Street in San Francisco.

Bear Republic Brewing may be more well known to the casual beer drinker due to their Racer 5 IPA, on tap at many San Francisco bars. Bear Republic operates a restaurant and brewery a block off the main square in Healdsburg. If you like Racer 5, make sure to try Hop Rod Rye, a hoppy rye ale.

Lagunitas is the oldest active brewery in Sonoma County, and a reliable choice. Their IPA helped start the West Coast style. While tame in bitterness compared to some newer offerings (i.e. Racer 5 and Blind Pig), their IPA may be a better choice for someone less familiar with hops. For the real Hop Heads, they produce their Hop Stoopid beer, with over 100 IBU's. The company recently opened a tap room "Beer Sanctuary" at their brewery near Petaluma, where they have a number of offerings on tap and provide pub food and live music on many nights.

Fans of San Francisco's Zeitgeist should definitely check out Stumptown Brewing in Guerneville (Stumptown was Guerneville's original name due to the heavy logging.) It may look familiar since both venues have the same owners. Stumptown is the smallest brewery, and features a couple of house brewed beers along with other craft and macro offerings. The back deck overlooking the Russian River is one of the more attractive places to enjoy a brew.

Until recently, Stumptown was also unique since they were a partner to Fossil Brewing. Fossil Brewing is a new company dedicated to making beers from prehistoric yeast. Apparently, the microbiologist founders decided to brew beer with a strain they discovered and found it made wonderful esterly ales. Before going into production, they decided to tweak the recipe at a few breweries including Stumptown. The result is the XP pale ale, which could be described as a cross between a California Pale and a Belgian Blond. However, it seems that Fossil is now going to manufacture the beer itself, so the current batch on tap at Stumptown may be the last for a while.

Miscellaneous Sights:

If you have traveled all the way to Guerneville, there are a few other spots of note within a short drive that are worth a visit. One stop is the Korbel Champagne Cellars. Founded in the 1860's, Korbel is one of the oldest surviving producers of American Champagne. Their historic winery and gardens are arguably one of the more scenic spots in the area (their modern factory is located back in the canyon, away from the historic area). In addition, the vineyards in this area are a nice contrast to the surrounding Redwood trees.

They offer free tours and tastings most afternoons. The tours take you into the old cellars and discuss the process of making California Champagne. History buffs may enjoy the historic brandy tower and the original Northwestern Pacific train depot on sight, as well as stories about how redwood stumps on the property were blown up with dynamite while filming the Combat TV show. The tour ends with a complimentary tasting of 4 to 5 different products. If your familiarity with Korbel stops with their "Brut," this tour is a chance to try several other products including a nice dry red Champagne, and the Natural Style, which is served at the White House. For those who remain thirsty, step into the retail shop where you can taste an additional 4 or 5 at no cost. The retail shop has bottlings not available in stores, and the prices are refreshingly reasonable compared to surrounding wineries.

Nearby and North of the town of Guerneville is the Armstrong Redwoods State Nature Reserve. It's the only sizable grove of old growth Redwood in Sonoma County and has a few major trees including the Armstrong Tree and and Parson Jones Tree. The reserve is named after Colonel Armstrong, a lumberman who chose to preserve the park in the 1870's.

The park is also a perennial favorite of Arnold Schwarzenegger to include on the potential state park closure list. For now it's open and worth a visit. Park in the lot outside of the gate to avoid the $8 admission fee, until you wish to drive to the picnic area at the other end of the park. Most of the large trees are within 3/4 mile of the entrance parking lot.

Back along the river to the West is the small vacation hamlet of Monte Rio. Located here is the historic Highland Dell Lodge, built in 1906. It now operates as a Bed & Breakfast and German Restaurant. The back deck is an excellent place to enjoy a drink or lunch in the Summer months with views of the river and redwoods. In the winter, the restaurant is open for dinner and serves hearty German fair such as Sauerbraten and Schwabentopf.

One last place to reference is the town of Occidental. A former lumber town and narrow gauge railroad stop, it's notable for both its scenic redwood grove location, and for its famous Italian Restaurants: The Union Hotel and Negri's, the former being in business since 1925 in a building dating to 1879. Head South from Monte Rio and the Russian River and you will run right into downtown Occidental, which has has a number of remaining historic structures.

Happy travels.

Select Places Mentioned:

Contact each place for hours, as they may change.

Angelo's Meats

2700 Old Adobe Rd
Petaluma, CA 94952

(707) 763-9586

Bud's Custom Meats

7750 Petaluma Hill Rd
Penngrove, CA 94951

(707) 795-8402

Matos Cheese Company

3669 Llano Rd
Santa Rosa, CA 95407

(707) 823-4454

Hales Apple Farm
1526 Gravenstein Hwy North
Sebastopol, CA 95472


Ace in the Hole Pub
3100 Gravenstein Hwy N
Sebastopol, CA 95472
(707) 829-1223

Willow Wood Market
9020 Graton Rd
Graton, CA 95444
(707) 823-0233

Russian River Brewing
725 4th St

Santa Rosa, CA 95404

(707) 545-2337

Bear Republic Brewing
345 Healdsburg Ave
Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 433-2337

Lagunitas Brewing and Beer Sanctuary
1280 N McDowell Blvd
Petaluma, CA 94954
(707) 769-4495

Stumptown Brewing
15045 River Rd
Guerneville, CA 95446
(707) 869-0705

Korbel Champagne Cellars
13250 River Rd
Guerneville, CA 95446
(707) 824-7000

Armstrong Redwoods SNR
17000 Armstrong Woods Rd
Guerneville, CA 95446
(707) 869-2015

Highland Dell
21050 River Blvd
Monte Rio, CA 95462
(707) 865-2300

Union Hotel Pizza and Pasta Co.
3731 Main St
Occidental, CA 95465
(707) 874-3444

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