When we decided to come back to California after nearly 20 years on the East Coast, my partner and I made a list of possible cities — based on things like walkability and access to art/music/books. Sebastopol was high on our list and we nearly moved there, but Davis won out. And we’ve never regretted the decision. But when we needed to get out of town recently, we thought we’d check to see how Sebastopol has fared without us.
I was especially interested in The Barlow, which Food and Wine Magazine recently recommended: “More than 30 local vendors, including nine wineries, operate out of this 13-acre complex in a former apple-packing plant.” Sounded wonderful. It incited, I admit, a bit of Sebastopol envy.
So off we went, via the long (two-hour), winding but lovely Lake Berryessa route. The Barlow may in five or so years be a splendid destination, but now only a natural foods market, a gallery, a couple of small shops, a very expensive restaurant and two winery tasting rooms have opened their doors.
The two tasting rooms are, though, excellent. We went first to Marimar Estate and tried all three of their pinot noirs. All were delicious, but my favorite was the 2010 La Masia from the Don Miguel vineyard in the Russian Valley. Along with recognizable cherry-raspberry pinot aroma and flavor, the wine had hints of spice and some notes of darker fruit. Smooth, balanced, elegant.
Marimar Torres of the Torres winemaking family in Spain came to live in California almost 40 years ago. After finding the land she wanted, she began planting in 1986 — 30 acres each chardonnay and pinot noir. She planted very densely, European-style, and yields are very low. In 2003, she decided to go organic and is now working on biodynamic certification. She uses only estate-grown grapes in her wine. Predictably, the bottle price is $44. It’s a splurge but a delicious one.
The other current Barlow winery is La Follette. La Follette, too, specializes in chardonnay and pinot noir. Unlike Marimar Torres, however, Greg La Follette makes use of others’ vineyards — carefully chosen, of course — in Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and he maintains long-term relationships with these vineyards. He believes that the key to good winemaking is “listening closely to what the vineyard wants to express and trusting that you can help to gently guide that process.” You won’t be surprised to find out that La Follette has a degree from UCD.
My favorite here — and possibly my all-around favorite of the wine I tasted on the trip — was the La Follette Sangiacomo Pinot Noir from a Sonoma coast family vineyard managed by Mike and Steve Sangiacomo. This wine has a lovely nose of savory herbs followed by the red cherry-red currant taste of a very pure pinot. Elegantly acidic and smoothly tannic, this wine would be a perfect pairing for a huge variety of food. At only 12.9 percent, it’s actually the lowest-alcohol California pinot I’ve tasted — and definitely one of the most delicious ($40).
I say “possibly” because I didn’t try any of these wines with food. But I can’t imagine that either of these stunning pinots wouldn’t greatly enhance almost any special meal.
In anticipation of my own Sebastopol meal, I came equipped with a short list of restaurants I’d read about online. And then I asked — in almost every attractive shop on Main Street and beyond — local folks for recommendations. The restaurant that generated the most enthusiasm wasn’t one on my list, but no matter. The locals convinced me. We headed to Peter Lowell’s.
A small and simple place, 10 minutes’ walk from the center of town, it has a simple menu with simple, straightforward food. Our fresh, local and delicious antipasto plate was worth the trip. We sat on the very pleasant patio in a treed alcove — the surroundings as unpretentious as the food. The wine list, too, was limited but carefully chosen and mostly local.
We ended up ordering a vermentino from Matthiasson Winery in Napa. The grapes, though, are from Yolo County — the Windmill Vineyard in the Dunnigan Hills AVA, to be exact. And there’s another unsurprising connection, too — Steve Matthiasson studied winemaking at UCD.
In January, the San Francisco Chronicle named Matthiasson “Winemaker of the Year” and called this vermentino “California’s answer to Grüner Veltliner, but better.” Last year the Tendu, as this wine is labeled, blended the vermentino with a couple other white Italian varietals, but the 2013 that we drank is 100 percent vermentino. It worked beautifully with our food and seemed the perfect wine to drink on a sunny patio. Lively citrus, herbs and pears dominate this light, refreshing, zingy wine that is, nonetheless, fairly intense.
We fully intended to finish the bottle, so we were careful to inquire about alcohol content — a reasonable 12.8 percent. What we didn’t know until the bottle arrived is that it’s an entire liter, so we left enough to offer (offer happily accepted) a glass to the two women at the next table. They liked it, too. Its other quirk is a crown cap like a bottle of beer. I’m guessing that Matthiesson figured very few drinkers would want to re-cork. Too easy to drink, too delicious.
This was one of the least expensive wines on the Peter Lowell’s list ($32), and it retails at $20. I haven’t seen it locally, but you can get it in the Bay Area (at K&L, for example, or San Francisco Wine Merchant). If you’d like to try one of the “winemaker of the year’s” masterpieces, John at Valley Wine Company has Matthiesson’s chardonnay, which he highly recommends, for $25.
After a cup of delicious oolong at Holy Cow Café (the source of one of our enthusiastic Peter Lowell recommendations — thanks, folks) we headed home, secure in the knowledge that Sebastopol has flourished without us, happy to have had such a relaxing getaway and equally happy that we live here in Davis.
This is a home where we could just walk over to the university the next day and see a free and terrific performance of “The Merchant of Venice,” only a few days after we’d seen there an excellent performance of “The Grapes of Wrath” and attended a superb (sorry about all my superlatives — but they were earned) symposium on the Steinbeck novel that inspired it. We made a good choice.
— Reach Susan Leonardi at email@example.com. Comment on this column at www.davisenterprise.com