Sonoma County: Robust, With Rich Cultural Undertones

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California's wine country is linked in the mind's eye with timelessness: verdant vineyards stretching to the horizon, grapes ripening under the warming sun, forever.

But in fact, the wine country is always changing.

Sonoma Valley -- an hour north of San Francisco -- is fairly bursting with new wineries, restaurants with new chefs and new menus, hotel makeovers and expanded spas.

The Jacuzzi family, of whirlpool bath fame, has opened Jacuzzi Family Vineyards (866-522-8693) across highway 121 from its sister winery Cline Cellars.

Built in classic Italian style, the winery has been open only since July, but it has the look of a place that's been there for decades. Maybe it's the mature fig and olive trees brought from the family's ancestral home in Italy that give it such a rooted quality.

After tasting Jacuzzi's wines, it will be hard to associate the name with hot water again. Jacuzzi's 2006 Giuseppina Chardonnay is buttery and smooth. Its 2004 Valeriano blend of red varietals is big, but rounded and nicely structured. Jacuzzi specializes in Italian red varietals from the Carneros appellation at the southern end of the Sonoma Valley, where the new winery is located.

Jacuzzi shares its Carneros site with the Olive Press, recently relocated from Jack London Village, a funky wooden jumble of shops and restaurants outside the hamlet of Glen Ellen to the north.

The Olive Press makes golden extra-virgin olive oil on-site, sells books about olive trees, olive oil and, of course, olives, and sets out as many as eight olive oils for daily free tastings -- ranging from the delicate and grassy to the robust and peppery. You pour a small amount into a paper cup and dip bread in it; or you can sniff the bouquet and roll the oil on the tongue as you would with wine.

Slender 500-milligram bottles of fine oil retail for $25. Parties of 10 or more can book a guided tour of the Olive Press' immaculate, modern olive oil production plant by calling ahead (800-965-4839).

Half a mile north of Jacuzzi and the Olive Press on Highway 121 is Cornerstone Place (707-933-3010). This imaginative collection of shops, art galleries and wine-tasting rooms is graced with mature olive trees, but the metallic, hip-industrial style of the buildings gives it a just-finished, almost raw look.

Several shops, such as Asian-themed Opia, specialize in sculptures and planters for home gardens. Also at Cornerstone Place are more than 20 garden "rooms'' set off by hedges and fences. Each is designed by a landscape architect, and each is distinctive.

Blue Tree 2, by Montreal's Claude Cormier, wraps a weathered tree in eye-pleasing, sky-blue plastic balls. The Serenity Garden, by Osaka's Yoji Sasaki, has finely raked sand and a view to the ridgeline beyond. Cafe Blue Tree makes flavorful, healthful soups, salads and sandwiches (lunch for two with bottled water: $16).

In hotel news, MacArthur Place, located four blocks south of the Spanish-built plaza in the town of Sonoma, has just finished converting two spacious guest rooms into "garden spa suites.'' The 62-room hotel has long had a professional spa for massages, facials, aromatherapy and the like, but in the new garden spa suites, you do it yourself (800-722-1866).

The suites come with a hydrotherapy tub, while outside in the private garden, a deep teak tub for two is nestled inside a wooden roofed hut; the hut is open on one side. A waterfall and outdoor shower give the suites a Hawaiian feel. In contrast to the sleek garden spa suites are snug, country-style rooms in the 1850s manor house -- legacy of a long-gone pioneer ranch.

Not new, but worth a visit, are MacArthur Place's seven-acre grounds, with their whimsical, oversized sculptures, boxwood maze and flowering plants.

The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, the valley's best-known hotel, has been a wine-country institution since the Roaring '20s. It, too, has updated offerings (707-938-9000).

Chief among the updates is the revamped and expanded spa. It is one of California's best hotel spas, with a lovely waiting area and dramatic staircase, well-appointed treatment rooms and soothing ambience. Spa treatments range from a 100-minute Swedish massage ($295) to a personal, 50-minute nutritional counseling session ($135).

The hotel also boasts the superb restaurant Sante, which features fresh, local produce, artisan cheeses and fresh fish, some caught off Sonoma's Pacific coastline. Sante does fish and meats expertly and has one of the valley's best restaurant wine lists. (Dinner for two with wine: $150). Like most Sonoma restaurants, it showcases Sonoma and Napa vintages -- 500 in all.

El Dorado Kitchen is another destination restaurant, run by chef Ryan Fancher, who formerly cooked at Thomas Keller's French Laundry.

Three years after remodeling and moving into a space in the El Dorado Hotel once occupied by a chain restaurant, EDK lures a prosperous clientele of wine country deal-makers. The contemporary, French-influenced restaurant has a cool cocktail lounge adjoining the dining room; both are typically packed, even on Mondays (when most Sonoma eateries close).

Dinner for two -- grilled, sweet-fleshed sea bass with a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc from Carneros -- goes for $130. Last June, EDK opened Kitchenette, an adjoining bakery, cafe and take-out place. It competes with Sonoma favorite the Basque Café, which in addition to just-baked bread and pastry, sells full bottles of wine -- as does Kitchenette.

Hey, it's wine country.

Just south of the plaza, Deuce (707-933-3823) has installed executive chef Jameson Miller, who whips up American comfort foods such as fried chicken and pot roast, a contrast from the cutting-edge fare available up the road.

The down-home menu is out of sync with Deuce's stylish, curvy Art Nouveau interior, but its California vintages, cheery staff and casual tone (ribeye steak and prawn hot-pot dinner for two with a Sonoma Pinot Noir: $110) make Deuce a local haunt.

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