A Taste Of The Wine Country

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Even if you’re drawn to California’s Sonoma County for its great wine and the high-style cuisine that enhances it, you can’t help noticing that everywhere grapes and history blend to produce a stronger brew. Visit the small, family-run Martini & Prati, one of the oldest wineries in California, and you’ll find the pride of Sandi Martini, the young offshoot of four generations of vintners, and her palpable love of the 100-year-old operation lingering far longer than the glasses of “Vino Grigio,” Zinfandel, and Merlot available in their tasting room.

The space was once used as a barn, and a bunkhouse for workers during harvest time. After Martini’s great-great-grandfather, Rafael, left his storefront in San Francisco to come out to the Russian River Valley, a place that reminded him of his Tuscan homeland, he farmed artichokes and fruits and tended grapes. The Martinis and other Italian immigrant families forged a community there that persists to this day.

Sandi Martini Coero recalls a tradition started in the 1950s when her grandfather, Elmo, and his friends would gather at the end of a day to talk and uncork some red wine. This led to other locals appearing, jug in hand, to fill up on the house red. Five years ago, the younger Martinis revived the custom. “It’s become a regular stop on people’s weekly errands and is in the spirit of Grandpa entertaining his friends in the tasting room,” Sandy says. “We call it the Jug Club, and after twelve refills they get a free one. The Vina Rosa “is reasonable at $12, and it’s not ‘headache in a glass,’” she says, “but we don’t sell it outside the tasting room because it’s too difficult to ship.”

With such a strong sense of the past informing Martini & Prati, it’s not surprising to learn that its massive 11,000-gallon redwood tanks are nearly a hundred years old. “They will last forever,” says the woman tending the bar of the tasting room. “You won’t see them anywhere else. Everyone has gone stainless steel.” The faces of Elmo and Rafael beam from old photos printed on the labels of Martini & Prati’s Special Reserve. As Sandi tells visitors, “We think of ourselves as a living museum.”

The roads in this part of the county run past a landscape of farms and grazing cattle, with sudden shifts to shadowy ancient stands of redwoods and glimpses of shimmering loops of the river as it makes its slow way to the sea. In the Russian River Valley the grapes of Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Pinot Noir benefit from a “long hang time.” They ripen slowly on the vine, thanks to cool evenings, sandy soil, warm days, and a morning fog that keeps the sun from penetrating.

Korbel, the well-known maker of champagne, presides over a beautiful property on the Russian River. Like Martini & Prati, it is the product of immigrant dreams. In 1855 the three brothers Korbel had to flee their native Prague after the eldest, Francis, loudly advocated the overthrow of the Hapsburgs and was jailed. He managed to escape, and they all made their way to New York and then west to San Francisco, ending up in the redwood country, where they ran a sawmill. As the lumber industry declined in the early 1880s, the brothers began to plant, using methods of champagne cultivation they had learned in their homeland. Their business went on to flourish in the hands of their descendants, who managed to hold on during Prohibition, as did others in the area, by producing sacramental wines. In 1954 the Korbels sold the winery to Adolph Heck, whose family members still run it.

While wandering the landscaped grounds, you can see marks of a long tenancy, from the ivy-clad stone tower once used as a brandy still, and bearing signs of damage from the 1906 earthquake, to the shady hillside garden first planted in the 1880s. In it, 250 varieties of antique roses thrive, some of them well over 150 years old. The garden borders the Korbels’ white-frame summer house, perfectly maintained but last inhabited in 1939. In the wine cellar, tasting rooms, and history museum, the story is laid out through photos, memorabilia, and the mute evidence of the oldest casks still in use in the American wine business. There are nearly 60 of them, some dating back 110 years, and they are made of New Hampshire white oak, the same wood used to build the USS Constitution .

THERE ARE FEW PLACES MORE FREIGHTED WITH EARLY CALIFORNIA HISTORY THAN THE TOWN OF SONOMA.

Korbel calls itself the only American maker of champagne. During a tour, someone asked about the designation “sparkling wine,” commonly used for the American product. “We are under no legal, moral, or ethical obligation not to call it champagne,” the museum guide explained. “But when we trade in Europe it isn’t good business to make them angry, so we have a different label.” In Napa County, he added, where most of the parent companies are French or Spanish, they do name their product sparkling wine.

The southeastern part of Sonoma County is considered the birthplace of California winemaking, claiming the first vineyard north of San Francisco. In the 1820s, Franciscan friars grew and bottled wine here, although it was of a primitive quality. The industry’s acknowledged founder is Agoston Harazthy, a Hungarian immigrant who started the Buena Vista Winery in 1857. Its stone cellars, now a state historic landmark, are California’s oldest, but these days the operation takes place elsewhere.

There are few places richer in early California history than the town of Sonoma. Its centerpiece is an eight-acre plaza, the largest in California, laid out in the 1830s by the Mexican general Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. During the 25 years of Mexican rule (1821–46), the general, by all accounts a most agreeable man, was the leading landowner in the territory. He was briefly imprisoned in 1846, when John C. Frémont led a group of Americans in the Bear Flag Revolt, an unofficial attack on the Sonoma garrison; after a few weeks, the United States annexed California and Vallejo was freed. He went on to live in amiable coexistence with the new leaders, although under United States rule he was forced to sell off his vast holdings, piece by piece.

The heart of Vallejo’s domain was the 66,000-acre Rancho Petaluma. In 1880, after he traveled back there, he wrote to one of his sons: “I ordered a picture taken of what was my old house … and although almost in ruins, it nevertheless doesn’t fail to show what it was in those days … I compare that old relic with myself and the comparison is an exact one; ruins and dilapidation. What a difference between then and now. Then youth, strength and riches; now age, weakness and poverty.”

Recent years have been kind to his old ranch, now a state park that beautifully evokes the period of his and Mexico’s rule. And yet, I was told, without further explanation, that except for school parties, it is one of the least-visited parks in the California system.

Sonoma, where Vallejo built two homes, one of which survives, is pristine. Although his impressive plaza soon degenerated into a muddy eyesore where militia drilled and locals held coon fights, it was rescued and replanted around 1900 by members of the local Ladies’ Improvement Club. This period also saw the restoration of buildings important to early California history that surround the plaza, among them the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, the Sonoma Barracks, and the Toscano Hotel. Their present-day incarnations present a more immaculate sight than would have met Vallejo’s eye, but it’s also an undeniably appealing one. Nearby streets hold elegant homes, shops, and restaurants, some housed in rare old adobe buildings and the rest in a medley of nineteenth-century structures.

North of Sonoma lies Healdsburg, home to a smaller Spanish-style plaza. The town is named for Harmon Heald, who settled in the area in 1850, as did many others, after a failed attempt at gold mining. The era’s migrants stayed on to build riches in agriculture, cultivating prunes, hops, apples, and, of course, grapes. Located at the convergence of three wine-growing valleys—Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River—Healdsburg claims more than 60 wineries in its vicinity. In the town itself, several of them have set up attractive tasting rooms located within a block or so of one another. Here, you can put down a dollar or two to sample some of the best.

I confess I didn’t patronize any of them. I indulged instead in a pastry from the Downtown Bakery and ate it on a curbside bench facing the square while late-afternoon autumn light bathed the old brick buildings around me. By then I had gotten wined out. All those little sips were starting to blur in memory: I never could quite hone in on such subtleties as a wine’s “tobacco-leaf and saddle-leather notes.”

There are other diversions in Healdsburg, including its historical society, in the refurbished Carnegie Library, which holds the early settlers very close. A sugar jar by itself may mean little to the casual visitor, but that can change when you learn that the Burgett family carried it west with them in the 1850s, or that a delicate Chinese tea set of the 1700s was among the treasured possessions Jirah and Mary Cottle packed for their trip around the Horn in 1858.

The historical society sells a walking-tour pamphlet called “Historic Homes of Healdsburg,” and it goes far beyond the usual details of lintels and dormers to make a wonderfully gossipy companion. How else would you know that a modest dwelling on Mason Street was once the town’s best-known speakeasy and “a house of prostitution that drew customers from as far away as the Bay Area”? Or hear the poignant story of a house “built for a popular couple, both blind, who ran a thriving variety and candy store from 1874 to 1929”? The handsome Craftsman home at 730 Johnson Street belonged to Sheriff Sunny Jim Petray, “gunned down in December 1920, along with two San Francisco detectives, while tracking down the notorious Howard Street Gang.” In the grand residence on East Street lived Martin Scatena, who started out in San Francisco in 1870 as a vegetable peddler and later moved to Healdsburg to become a successful wine producer.

Scatena’s story reminded me of the Martini family, of their founder Rafael and Elmo and his brothers, and their own splendid adventure, played out in the wine country whose beauty matched that of the Tuscan hills.

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