Sonoma is often lumped together with Napa as shorthand for Californian wine country, but there is an entirely different pace of life to the place. Where Napa feels like the luxury face of corporate American winemaking, Sonoma County, 112km to the northwest, has the air of somewhere altogether more small-scale and boutique. Think less Silicon Valley tech-bro, more downshifting San Francisco hipster.
Boutique is very much the vibe at the Farmhouse Inn. The property forms a rustic-chic collection of pale-yellow buildings just off the road that meanders alongside the Russian River on its route to the Pacific Ocean. The hotel’s clapboard structures look more like something from New England than Northern California. Its vernacular charm reflects the fact that owners Joe and Catherine Bartolomei have deep roots in the local terroir. Not only has their family farmed the surrounding land for five generations but the siblings make their own wine at their nearby vineyard.
You’ll be handed a glass of their Lost & Found Pinot Noir when you check in. Head to your room through paths bordered by edible and ornamental plants. You might come across a chicken coop, a fragrant racoon or the hotel’s cat. There’s also an outdoor pool, hot tub and fire pits for toasting gooey s’mores sandwiched with Valrhona dark chocolate.
There are 25 guest rooms scattered throughout the 2.4ha property. These range from the original 1870s farmhouse to the newer, more spacious king-sized rooms bordering the surrounding woodland. All rooms are furnished with easy-on-the-eye neutrals and with gas fires for the cool-climate Californian nights. Milk and freshly baked cookies are left bedside as part of the turn-down service while rooms come equipped with eight-bottle wine fridges.
Tours and tastings
Wine, of course, is a big part of the experience here. Hour-long tastings from local producers are held every afternoon. The hotel’s sommeliers can also drive guests on bespoke vineyard tours in the surrounding Russian River Valley and also Sonoma Coast and the Alexander Valley.
It’s far more fun, however, to explore the local wine country yourself. A short Uber trip will drop you off in foodie Healdsburg, 17km away. Just down from the vibrant Plaza, which has the feel of a tree-shaded American college campus, Spoke Folk Cyclery offers bike hire along with a map of the West Dry Creek Road wineries. The circular route is so easy to navigate, however, that you can put the map away once you’ve made the right-turn out of town.
Several of the wineries have picnic spots with views over the gently rolling Dry Creek Valley, which glows in the sun like the embodiment of California’s nickname of the Golden State. Ask the Farmhouse to put together a hamper of local Dungeness crab sandwiches, or head back into Healdsburg for a late lunch. Barndiva, a few doors up from Spoke Folk, is the farm-to-table hero in town, but if it’s full, try Campo Fina for wood-fired pizza. Back at the Farmhouse, soothe sore legs (or heads) with a massage or facial in the new spa, the Wellness Barn.
Farm to table
The Farmhouse Inn’s evening-only restaurant is a destination in its own right and has held a Michelin star since 2007. Be sure to reserve a table at the same time you book your stay, and note that it doesn’t open on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Many of the hyper-local ingredients that make it onto the plate are grown in the Farmhouse’s garden or on the Bartolomei farm. These include apples from the orchards and honey from the hives. The signature dish of ‘rabbit rabbit rabbit’ – bunny served three ways as applewood smoked bacon-wrapped loin, roasted rack, and confit leg with fingerling potato and wholegrain mustard cream sauce – is typical of an approach that doesn’t let refinement get in the way of flavour-led, produce-focused enjoyment.
The wine list, meanwhile, demonstrates the depth of Californian viticulture by offering local equivalents of all the major Old World regions. For example, a Rochioli Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc instead of a Loire white. But it’s with the Californian Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that the selection really shines.
Breakfast in the dining room is no less of an event. It features a two-course menu of superfood-boosted pancakes, avocado toast and five-grain porridge as well as pastries, fresh juices and organic teas. Wine tasting is, after all, hungry as well as thirsty work…
Rates start at $735 per night without breakfast. For more information and availability visit farmhouseinn.com