Life in California: Forestville and Sonoma County Barrel Weekend

Barrel room at Ridge Vineyards

I’ve been living in Sonoma County for 10 days now and it still feels surreal.

I reside in a furnished, basement apartment in Forestville, in the midst of the tallest redwood trees in North America and amongst the tree huggers. Aka the “granola” set. People bathe but they really don’t care what you think of their Birkenstocks with socks and grimy sweat pants. My landlord is a college professor down in San Fran (I was severely tsk’ed tsk’ed by someone last week when I called it “San Fran”… quite gauche apparently… it’s “San Francisco” or “The City” …whatever) and he only spends weekends in the redwoods. He pretty much leaves me alone to find my way. The kitchen in this groovily decorated, 300 square foot-ish pad leaves me longing for our fancy house in Tampa. My freshman year college dorm room was bigger. But when I visited “The Retreat” the first time, I romantically considered it cozy… homey…a forest getaway. Regression or nostalgia? Not sure yet. I cook one pot meals on either the 2-eye hotplate, in the large convection/toaster oven or in the crockpot. It’s weird cooking for only one person again… I hark back to my single days (which I don’t miss because who likes cooking for one?). I make too much food and will start taking it to the staff at Foppiano. Perhaps they’ll appreciate meatballs in mushroom sauce. Or pot roast made in the crockpot. With organic ingredients, of course. This is California, after all.

Pot plant outside a cafe in Forestville

The people are so friendly here, you’d swear Pleasantville exists. In Forestville, Santa Rosa, Windsor or Healdsburg, sitting down at a breakfast counter launches a new relationship and an exchange of business cards with people around you. Frankly, it’s mindblowing. Phil at the hardware store offered up his friendly services if I ever need him… I received advice on which machines to use at the laundry mat… Sarah at the café beckons goodbye and thanks from across the open kitchen. And everyone is super chill. Maybegrea I know why: I came out of a restaurant in “downtown” Forestville (that’s what they call eight business congregated onto one street) and spotted a potted little baby cannabis plant plopped right next to the door. Yes, pot… weed… ganja…all in the same, dude.

Perhaps that was the moment I realized I lived in California.

Or was it yesterday, during “Barrel Weekend” as I gazed out the window at Hanna Winery in Alexander Valley at the expansive green hills and seemingly limitless grapevines. It was blue-sky-sunny that day, but pretty much every other day, it rained. Good for grapes but annoying for humans. That’s pretty much how it goes in northern California during the cold season. I will most definitely miss the Florida winters but not the blistering heat and mind-numbing humidity for the other six months.

Barrel Weekend is every year around this time, coordinated by an organization called Wine Road. Hundreds of wineries participate by opening their often “by appointment only” doors and doling out samples of wines mellowing in barrel. Mostly reds but Foppiano presented a 2010 Chardonnay. But before you excitedly start planning a trip next year, I caution you against this over-crowded nightmare. Wine Roads sold 19,000 tickets to this year’s event which spanned the past two weekends. Sonoma County becomes fat with tourists all getting their serious drunk on. Embarrassingly so. Since I’d witnessed the scene in Russian River last weekend, I ventured out into the other Valleys for the second weekend. The weather felt like Eden… a little bit of a chill but beautiful sun beating down on my pasty white skin. I had the top down on Max the Mini. Basically fabulous weather. And it brought out the masses.

Busloads and stretch limos of mostly young people crawled around the Valleys like fleas on a mangy dog. And from what I witnessed, most congregate in Dry Creek where the wineries lie so close together to facilitate winery hopping (and avoid eager policemen looking to shoot drunken fish out of the barrel). Parking proved challenging, sometimes impossible and the lines for tastings mimicked some of the fundraisers I attended in Tampa over the years. Not pretty.

But the gnarly traffic was worth it when I made the pilgrimage to Ridge Vineyards… easily my wine Mecca. I still have memories of barrel tasting with Eric Baugher at their Santa Cruz winery back in 2003. The fresh, fruity yet ballsy Zinfandel fresh from the barrel was like drinking heaven. Yesterday was no exception, but add a single-varietal Carignan to the pearly gates. Simply gorgeous, in addition to their Lytton Zin.

And I think this was this moment I realized I lived in California: Only 20 short minutes away from Ridge. Now this is living.



  1. rishi ramkissoon

    Hmm you living in farm country now, hence the pleasantries. Rural Trinidad was just like that as i remember it (as was Montaione, Toscana=)

    Methinks a trip to your small town is in the works!

  2. I know this is a late post but I think it can be reolld over to 2012 and beyond. Calistoga holds their annual “Winter in the Wineries; a passport event whichtakes place December 2-February 3rd. You can enjoy tours, tastings and the chanceto meet winemakers at sixteen local wineries in Calistoga. The passport also entitlesyou to special offers at participating restaurants and lodgings. I believe the ticketsare $40 per person and can be purchased through the Calistoga Chamber of Commerce.


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