A luxury hideaway in wine country
There are good times to visit California's wine country, and then there are even better times.
Among the best times in Sonoma County is autumn, when the vineyards are awash with color, the crowds at the wineries and restaurants have thinned, the pace slows just a bit, and one of the loveliest inns in the valley is covered with flame-covered ivy.
Just south of the city of Kenwood in the Valley of the Moon, the Kenwood Inn and Spa feels much more like it's tucked away among the hill towns of Tuscany or Umbria. Designed to look from the road like a modest, ancient villa, it opens up to include several smaller buildings amid paths and pools in a park-like setting.
There are long colonnades and heavy curtains leading into private guest patios. Towering palms. A vine-covered mill house and water wheel. More fountains than a Roman neighborhood, and from the balconies and front windows, a view of scarlet vineyards blanketing the valley floor to the foothills of Sugarloaf Ridge.
"We're really about slowing people down," says Karl Bruno, the inn's general manager. "We're about getting people to forget about the rest of the world, to decompress and regenerate themselves. I can tell you that as general manager, I see people come through this door, stressed out, and the next day they're completely different people."
As a quiet place to hide out if you're in the Bay Area on business, or as a base for exploring Sonoma County, it's ideally located, and with a little imagination, you can easily put yourself in a Mediterranean frame of mind after a day here.
Hideaway in wine country
My wife and I had only one day, this time, to get away to the wine country. I had a conference in San Francisco and had to be back the next day at 6 p.m. for dinner in Chinatown with the boss.
My luggage was lost on the way out (by Delta, FYI), which cost more time that we didn't have. But even so, we wandered in the redwoods for a few hours, took a bottle of wine down to the blustery beach at Bodega Bay, and meandered through funky towns along California Highway 1 on our way back to the city.
Though it's only a few hours north of the Bay Area, Kenwood felt like a world removed.
Managed by Columbia Hospitality , which also has the Salish Inn and other well-known properties in the Seattle area, Kenwood has 29 rooms and suites, ranging from simply deluxe to incredibly deluxe.
Ours, a ground-floor room on the central court, necessarily fit the first category.
There was a private patio, open to the sky, just inside a heavy Renaissance-style curtain, where you could relax in privacy. Inside, the heavy door opened to a grand, high-ceilinged room with a fireplace, Mediterranean tile and antiqued wall finishings all around, a wealth of windows screened by trees, and an enormous bathroom area.
Especially at night when the rustic chandelier and period lamps are lit, along with a fire and maybe a candle or two, the rooms glow with romance. So does the inn, generally. It has as many stairways, niches, picturesque views and areas to roam as a Venetian palazzo, albeit with palm trees.
The vine-covered building you see from the road dates from 1992 and was a gift shop back then, Bruno says. The rest of the complex has grown up organically around it, much of it hidden from the highway.
At one end is a gravity pool, fed by a lion's head fountain and made private by a pocket-sized orchard nearby. The evening we were there, the pool was entirely ours — complete privacy.
At the other end of the property is a full-sized pool for more aggressive swimming; we spent less time there, but again, privacy is yours if you want it.
Throughout, wherever you wander on the grounds, you can hear the sound of splashing water. The pools are saline and heated, and there's a steam room and hot tub. It was mid-November when we visited, and though it was a mild evening, it was good to have the heat going.
We didn't make it as far as the spa the next day — neither did our wallet — but the inn offers "results-oriented products and vinotherapy treatments," which Bruno says are attractions for many guests. Vinotherapy involves extracts and wraps that are good for the skin as well as the soul.
"There's somewhat of an expectation that you're going to have vinotherapy" in wine-country spas, he says. "The curiosity about it seems to be never-ending."
For adults only
No need to be distracted by amenities, though — your guest room will be luxurious enough. On the ground level, the "Stanza nel giardano" rooms face the courtyard and measure about 450 square feet, while the largest suite, the Tuscany, is nearly twice that and faces both the courtyard and the Kunde vineyards across the road.
The attention to rich detail is apparent throughout, from the featherbed cover and European duvets to the Italian-made bed and bath linens. Little touches such as the chilled bottle of San Pellegrino and sweet biscotti make this much more than just an expensive hotel room.
For another $65 to $95, you can take advantage of the "bath butler service," an array of special wine country bath salts, lotions and accoutrements.
As you may have figured out, Kenwood is for adults only — no pets, no wireless, no TVs in the guest rooms. It's all about quiet, intimate times with your honey. Not the kind of place you'd want to take your kids and dog, anyway.
For those who must bring a laptop, there's wireless in the courtyard. The morning we were there, a middle-aged couple was in the courtyard, wearing their white bathrobes and working on laptops as they ate. They looked OK with it, but that's not why we were there.
Bruno says his typical guests are "well-traveled, well-heeled, educated … they know what service is about. They have very high expectations. They're experienced travelers and they know resorts."
There are a dozen or more nationally known restaurants within a half-hour's drive, but the inn has a commitment to pushing its "culinary program," as Bruno describes it, to the top of the Sonoma list.
"This year we hired an amazing talent for executive chef, Steven Snook, who spent a decade with (celebrity chef) Gordon Ramsey, and he's about to light the Sonoma culinary world on fire," Bruno says.
You can have dinner in the courtyard or the grotto-like restaurant and wine bar. The complimentary breakfast served in the morning includes a wide array of fresh-squeezed juices, house-made pastries and granola, and cooked-to-order "trio plate" specials.
Our "trio" included Belgian waffles, Yukon Gold potato pancakes and smoked salmon with dill, and a four-cheese frittata. That sounds like a lot, but it didn't stay on the plate long.
You can also take breakfast back to your private courtyard, or save yourself the trip and choose room service, available 24 hours a day.
The restaurant is for guests only, and if the inn is less than full, I can imagine it being a drowsy place to dine. But again, you're unlikely to stay there for dinner; it's a convenience if you do, though.
The wine bar is the kind of room you'll want to settle into for more than a glass, and the list was honored by Wine Spectator magazine in 2009 for featuring hard-to-find area wines.
Time for a wine tour
There's wine everywhere around you in Sonoma County, of course, and among the many wineries to try and test is one owned by the Kenwood firm, in the Russian River valley to the north. The Hop Kiln Winery in Healdsburg is a historic property with wonderful park-like grounds to explore; the winery also has a tasting room in the city of Glen Ellen, between Kenwood and Sonoma, where a light menu is served.
Among other wineries, I'll mention just two that we visited. One is literally the first you hit as you turn north on Highway 121 into the valley.
The Viansa Winery and Marketplace is what you imagine when you think of wine country — achingly beautiful Tuscan-style buildings amid Italian cypresses and stone pines, atop a hill covered with vineyards.
It's popular for weddings and easy to see why. They produce tiny quantities of good wines, including many with less-common heritage grapes — one of my favorites was the 2006 Farnet Primitivo, with primitivo grapes.
And just up the road is the Jacuzzi Family Vineyards. Yes, the makers of the famous whirlpools also have some family history with wine, and the estate is almost as lovely as the Viansa, with a cozier, more intimate tasting room and exceedingly friendly staff to help you understand what you're drinking.
A favorite here: the almost chocolatey Nero D'Avola, with hints of raspberry and black pepper.
Jacuzzi also presses and bottles olive oil, which is another sampling room not to miss.
Closer to Kenwood, the premiere wineries include St. Francis and Chateau St. Jean; at the latter, you can book a tour that includes a workshop where you blend your own cabernet sauvignon.
And restaurants? We asked around and were told by locals of a few places close by, including Cafe Citti, an inexpensive, informal and hugely popular trattoria — I had the tenderest osso buco and cheap local wine, and we sat under the stars on the patio.
Also recommended for authentic Italian was Mamma Tanino's and Della Santina's, down the valley in Sonoma, which is also home to an adventurous, eccentric brasserie that gets national press, The Girl + the Fig.
But don't invest too much time (or money) in the food and wine, and don't get hung up on missed opportunities. Just explore, take a left turn where you should take a right, let the car lead you off into the hills and you might run into a place I'll never forget: Ernie's Tin Bar, on eucalyptus-lined Lakeville Highway somewhere between Schellville in the Sonoma valley and Petaluma.
Ernie's is in the middle of nowhere, though on a two-lane road that's definitely headed somewhere.
The ramshackle, corrugated steel building appears to have been there forever, attached to a garage where some auto repair work may or may not get done. The beer is eclectic, West Coast and cold.
The building is mostly open to the elements, there's a TV playing Fox News, wobbly fans and fly strips dangle from the ceiling, and a sign on the wall says, "Use a cellphone, buy a round."
The people on both sides of the bar are characters, and they chat you up like you just joined them on a desert island. There are animal heads on the wall, an antique cash register and a rattlesnake tail collection.
Most bizarre of all, it closes at 7 p.m.
I didn't imagine we'd spend time at a place like Ernie's when we went to Sonoma, but this is exactly why you travel, and why you don't make too many plans when you go.