Kenwood California: A source of relaxation, fine wine and natural beauty

December 8, 2015

We arrived at the Mediterranean style inn and were immediately greeted with a smile and a glass of Prosecco (Italian origin). I knew this was the start of a charming mini vacation! Kenwood Inn and Spa is located in the heart of the wine country in Sonoma California. All appearances aside, we weren’t really in the Mediterranean, but the weather and the lush gardens, pools, and stunning courtyard along with the Italian architecture theme made it seem that way.

Sonoma County boasts of the first grapes planted in Northern California. The Peruvian cuttings were planted by a Russian sailor in 1817 at Fort Ross which is on the coast (about 50 miles to the west). The Fort served as trading post run by a Russian/American Company. Due to the Russian influence, the north part of the Sonoma County is known as the Russian River Valley.

After relaxing, we enjoyed dinner in the courtyard on this pleasant fall evening. 

I ordered and enjoyed the fresh grilled California White Sea Bass served with tasty olive puree and roasted tomatoes. What really set this off was the spicy hot coppa, a prefect mix of spice and pork which blended magnificently with the Sea Bass.

My wife ordered the Bistecca Di Manzo which is Prime Rib Eye with Nebbiolo Port Jus. Tender and juicy!! Oh, and the Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County paired very well.

Finally, the house-made coconut gelato was certainly a nice finish. We enjoyed chatting in the courtyard. There was a slight chill by 8:30 pm but the fireplace we were sitting next to took the edge off. Then, we took the stroll up to room to read and relax in the beautiful and comfortable setting.

The next day was going to be busy! The critical part was to carbo load and get some nutrition before our journey. To this end, we returned to the courtyard and started with fresh coffee and yogurt while we decided what to order. Easy choice was lox and bagels for me and eggs benedict for Elizabeth. My wife was especially impressed by the Prosecco Mimosas on the buffet.

Benziger Family Winery was first on our list and we started with the Pinot Experience Seated Tasting. The tasting was done in the historic ranch house (vintage 1868) and we enjoyed their medal winning Pinots. My favorite was the Signaterra Bella Luna Vineyard which was very smooth and rich. Elizabeth choose the De Coelo Quintus which has a richer structure with a very good balance. Pinots generally thrive on cool mornings, so the ridge 5 miles from the coast has the perfect growing conditions.

We learned that the pinot and some of their other grapes are grown under the “Certified Demeter Biodynamic.”  Simply put this is big commitment to “green farming” and is somewhat similar in theory to organic farming. No use of chemicals and the vineyard is an enclosed ecosystem. An example is using manure from cows on site for fertilizer and having lambs on the farm to control the lawn growth. Pests are controlled by insectaries where they produce the insects they need to take care of the insects they don’t. They also have extensive water conservation efforts which comes in handy with the current water shortage issues.

Because of these practices Benziger won the national “Growing Green Award for Water Stewardship” in part for recycling over 2 million gallons of water every year. They also won the First Annual California Green Medal Sustained Wine Growing.

We finished with more of the delicious and complex Pinots. We really wished that we could have stay longer but our next winemaker awaited. On our way out we passed the Jack London State Park with over 26 miles of hiking trails. Local son, Jack London accomplished much in his 40 years. He was the most popular writer of this time (early 1900’s) and was paid well for it. He was passionate about unionization, socialism, women’s’ suffrage, and the rights of workers. By 1905 he had moved from San Francisco to Glen Ellen in Sonoma County. Jack had a working farm with bulls, horses and pigs. At his Beauty Ranch he also grew wine grapes, of course.

So we continued on with a ten-minute drive north to Deerfield Ranch Winery. Wine making here had a modest beginning dating back to over 40 year ago. Robert Rex was a student at Berkley and his then girlfriend PJ was driving an Alfa Romero, which seemed to need a lot of TLC. In exchange for being her personal auto mechanic, PJ bought him a home wine making kit. Fast forward to today and Robert is a great winemaker teamed with his wife PJ as managing partner. PJ has a lot of fun recalling how an impulse gift has created such a successful life.

They have a collection of wines they call “@ wines” which are priced at a level aimed for the younger wine aficionados. I will say this older aficionado enjoyed the @Chardonnay with its light taste and also the @Merlot. However, my favorite was the @Cabernet Reserve, very nicely done with a full body taste.

The most interesting endeavor at Deerfield came at the request of PJ. Like many people she suffered from headaches after drinking red wine. She leaned on her husband, chemist, and winemaker to fix that. While sulfites are usually blamed for the red-wine headaches, they discovered that even more of an issue is the histamines which are produced from yeast.

Robert reduces both the sulfites and the histamines by triple hand sorting the grapes and keeping a very clean fermentation process while monitoring the yeast for stress (Robert says they assure “happy” yeast) resulting in low histamine levels in the finished wine. The result is a “clean” wine that can be enjoyed by many people who previously avoided the reds.

Our tasting experience took place in a long cave, built into the side of a hill and lined by many barrels of wine. There were numerous conversation nooks, where people relaxed and visited over a delightful glass of wine. Once outside we walked past two giraffes that were standing tall in the Kenwood Marsh. The giraffe sculptures draw notice to the last remains of a wetland ecosystem that once covered much of the county. The winery is working with the state and federal government to restore this wetland and bring back the endangered Kenwood Marsh Checkerbloom plant. Probably won’t attract any live giraffes, though.

We then traveled across the street to our final wine tasting of the day, Kunde Family Winery. On this stunning fall day we were lucky enough to have signed up for the Mountain Top Tasting, a guided tour which started with a drive 1400 feet up to the mountain top. However, while waiting for the other participants to arrive, we started with some wine to set the mood. We first focused on the whites, a perfect pairing with the warm sunny day We enjoyed the light peach flavors of the Sauvignon Blanc. After that we had the Reserve Chardonnay, which spends about 10 months in French Oak and has just the right rich taste but is not at all overdone.

Once everyone arrived we were ready to head up the mountain. During the drive we learned of the rich history of the 1,850-acre estate. The vineyard was originally planted by a German Immigrant, John Drummond, with cuttings imported from Chateaux Margaux and Lafite Rothschild. Founder Louis Kunde purchased the vineyard in 1904. Over a hundred years later the 4th and 5th generation Kunde family still owns and operates the winery.

An interesting note from more recent vineyard history is that it is the location where some of the popular movie “Bottle Shock” was filmed. Set in the 1970’s, the focus of the movie (filmed in 2007-08) is the true story of the California upstart wine which ended up winning a blind taste competition in Paris. Some say that it changed the face of the wine business forever. And it is a very enjoyable movie!

At the top of the mountain we settled into the luxurious patio chairs set on a patio with a gorgeous view to enjoy some delicious red wine. My favorite of the reds was the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon which had a rich flowery nose and with some hints of spicy pepper.

After soaking up the views and some more of their fine read, we proceeded to the drive back down the mountain. We were then greeted by co-owner Jeff Kunde and his trusty dog Cooper. We were invited to hike the vineyard along with Cooper and some of his dog friends. Visitors often take this four-hour hike and then reward themselves with a country lunch, and of course, some wine. It was tempting but, my wife had a spa treatment scheduled – so you can imagine the struggle we had with making the choice. (not)

Back at Kenwood, Elizabeth prepared for a treat. Having narrowed the choice down from the multitude of facial, body, massage, and vinotherapy choices, she then had the tough job of deciding between the 6 different massage options available. She finally chose the Wine Country Massage – a nurturing and tension relieving Swedish technique. Can’t get much more relaxed than that.

My relaxation routine was to take the fifteen-minute drive to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. I also had some very hard decisions to be make since I had only two hours to do this. One option is to hike to the top of Bald Mountain (over 2,700 feet) that offers views of the Sierras to the east and San Francisco to the south and west.

Instead I did part of the Planet Walk. The trail represents scale representations of the distance of the sun relative to the other planets. On the trail you will see plaques and information on the closest planets first, Mercury and Venus. Of course if you hiked all the end of the trail at the end you would arrive at Pluto (of disputed planetary status). I made it as far as Neptune (less than two miles) and due to time constraints had to turn back. On the way back I enjoyed the oak trees and noticed The Robert Ferguson Observatory when I returned to my car.

After walking to the planets I had worked up an appetite for dinner so we went to the girl & the fig. This is about a fifteen drive from Kenwood to the town of Sonoma. How does one describe this unique restaurant that has mostly outdoor setting? Some call it quirky, I call it divine.

I have been waiting the entire summer for gazpacho soup and sure enough it was there and delicious and with just the right amount of spice. Definitely supports the divine moniker! I was tempted to order another bowl but after chatting with the server it was obvious that there were just too many other options. They suggested heirloom radishes - who would have ever thought this would be so supreme? Dipping each of the radish varietals into the anchovy butter and grey sea salt was a delightful treat. Each varietal (Cherry Belle, Watermelon, Sprinkler Tip and White Icicle) had a different taste, some sweet some peppery. I would have been totally satisfied with being vegan tonight as that soup and radishes were over the top, but I would have had to forego the anchovy sauce.

Finally came the main course, Day Boat Scallops in a very light sauce, carrot puree and small pieces of bacon lardons and garnished with frisee and shaved apple. My wife enjoyed the Pastis-Scented Steamed Mussels soaked in garlic, leeks, and herbs. The mussels were flown in from Prince Edward Island and were very tasty and fresh

We chatted with the manager, Georgio, and he filled us in on this charming restaurant. He insisted we make room for dessert, Profiteroles. Ice cream filled cream puffs, which my wife sort of shared with me.

The owner and brainchild ofthe girl and the fig is Sondra Bernstein who opened the original restaurant in 1997 in nearby Glen Ellen and then opened the current location in Sonoma in 2000. For May through October most of the dinning is outside as this is the dry season. How dry? Here are the average monthly rainfall totals: June = 0.20”, July = 0, August = 0.10, and September = 0.30 inches. For the wet season, November through April there is a big tent set up. And there is also inside seating available. This is a very popular and iconic restaurant. They often serve over 3,000 diners during a busy weekend. Sondra is teamed with John Toulze as managing partner and executive chief (with several awards) who has been here since the beginning.

It was time to return to what we called our villa, The Kenwood Inn and Spa. Friday was our last day and we were able to relax and sit on the patio and try to read but mostly enjoying the scenery Difficult to leave our three-day retreat and a return trip is certain. We will just need to figure out whether to retrace our steps or visit the other 397+ wineries. Maybe we need to schedule a few return trips!