Access Trips CEO, Tamar Lowell has a rolodex loaded with the area’s most accomplished chefs, bio dynamic farmers, legendary winemakers as well as fascinating and knowledgeable historians. The local guides, artisanal cheesemakers and chocolatiers have held nothing back to arrange an epicurean experience you could never duplicate on your own. When you sign up with Access you get admission to all of the above as you learn, cook, taste and schmooze with Sonoma’s best of the best.
MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa
Our sample day started with an eye-opener when we met the congenial G.M. of MacArthur Place Hotel & Spa, Bill Blum for an entertaining tour of the property. This just-off-the-beaten-track luxury hotel, rated as one of the "World's Best" US hotels in Condé Nast Traveler's annual Reader's Choice Awards, became our home for the next five days. I can’t believe that I had never visited here before—a big mistake that was thankfully rectified. Originally a 19th century estate in the middle of a 300-acre vineyard and working ranch, MacArthur Place has been transformed into country-chic accommodations consisting of the historic main house and a handful of Victorian-style cottages. The property is surrounded by spectacular flower and herb gardens, original flagstone paths, abundant fruit trees, whimsical sculptures (including a life-size chess set and chair swings made from repurposed ski lifts) and original flagstone paths leading to an inviting outdoor swimming pool and hot tub.
Each of the 64 rooms and suites have their individual “sense of place,” featuring sumptuous feather beds, designer linens, a cozy fireplace, comfy seating areas and eclectic paintings by local artists. The space also includes a mini bar with refrigerator, premium coffee maker and a thoughtfully laid out bathroom with European walk-in showers along with a fabulous assortment of their special grape seed bath amenities.
Other niceties (all complimentary) include a healthy buffet breakfast at Saddles Steakhouse (located in the estate's atmospheric barn which is complete with cowboy boots, leather saddles and painted horses adorning the walls), a well-stocked library with a wide choice of DVD’s for cocooners, a nightly wine and cheese reception, fitness center with steam room, free Wi-Fi and parking. If you have any questions, the genuinely warm, well-trained staff jump to serve you. The woman at the front desk helped me avoid bridge traffic by suggesting I postpone my drive home a bit and instead take a scenic, hour-long trail walk, thoughtfully highlighting every turn on the map so I couldn’t get lost.
Note to self: Next time plan on spending some quality time at the tempting Garden Spa, which offers dozens of "Farm to Massage Table" facial and body treatments utilizing the inn’s homegrown flowers and herbs. One of their signature treatments, the Red Red Wine, includes 100 blissful minutes of the Red Wine Grapeseed Bath and Grapeseed Body Polish, topped off with the Grapeseed Essential Oil Massage.
Cooking with the All-Stars at Harvest Moon Café
But there’s no time for a massage now because we’re off to a private cooking class at the Harvest Moon Café, one of the hottest restaurants in town. There, co-owner Chef Jen Demerest and her trusty sous-chef, Shawn Henton patiently spent three hours sharing their culinary expertise. We learned some great tricks-of-the-trade, such as the fastest way to peel beets (roasting them in a little olive oil, because the skin will easily rub off with your fingers). Shawn also let us practice using a pasta maker, which I aced! The time flew, particularly after imbibing in a few glasses of wine, which they wisely waited to pour after we had put down our chopping knives.
Amazingly enough, our rather culinary-challenged group managed to produce a ridiculously good meal including a marinated beet salad with avocado relish, handmade ricotta ravioli (Shawn politely suggested that I might have added too much Parmesean cheese in my filling but I don’t think a girl can ever have too much Parm!) topped with a tangle of sautéed greens and an addictive nut pesto, followed by a Frangipane red wine poached pear tartlette for dessert.
Stuffed to the max, we were happy to work off some calories (at least one ravioli’s worth) on a cultural heritage tour led by a Sonoma historian and author, Arthur Dawson. When asked what Sonoma meant, he explained that there were several meanings but that in the native Wappo language, Sonoma means a “good place to live” and from all the smiling locals we encountered, I’d vote for that one. He shared the backstory on the Spanish mission (including the real scoop on the slave quarters) as well as some juicy gossip he learned about Sonoma’s founding families while documenting oral histories by the town elders.
Insider’s Tour of Stone Edge Farm
It’s a vicious circle but after our walk we were thirsty again and more than ready for our visit to the Shangri-la-like Stone Edge Farm, a private artisanal winery with organic vineyards, olive groves, and a holistic farm. The beautiful retreat is buzzing with honeybees, happy chickens and a one-acre heirloom veggie garden that supplies local restaurants. The striking landscape blends harmoniously with the dramatic tasting room (only open to their collectors) and other buildings including an observatory housing a 20-inch telescope.
The incredibly knowledgeable (and attractive) head gardener, Colby Eierman, walked us around the property, enthusiastically explaining the principles of sustainable farming and stopping to point out the baby asparagus stalks that were just poking out of the dirt (which would be delish simply roasted in a little of Stone Edge Farm's Manzanillo olive oil). A waft of chocolate filled the air as we headed to the garage-turned-kitchen, where we found the Culinary Director of Stone Edge Farm, Chef John McReynolds pulling out a sheet pan of chocolate cookies from the oven.“Have one while they’re hot,” he encouraged. We didn’t need a second invitation.
Previously the chef and co-founder of Sonoma’s acclaimed Café La Haye, McReynolds wears many toques here: chef, cooking instructor, winery docent, olive oil meister, garden forager and home canning specialist. He often partners up with Colby for an exclusive farm-to-table experience that includes a garden tour and a hands-on cooking class, which ends with lunch in the vineyard. We also got the scoop on his soon-to-be-released Stone Edge Farm cookbook, which features a chapter for each month of the year and includes gardening notes by Colby.
McReynold's farm-fresh appetizers were waiting for us in the classy, minimalist tasting room. The bites paired perfectly with a couple of their organic estate wines: the newly released 2008 Stone Edge Farm Cabernet Sauvignon, a complex pepper spice girl loaded with berry flavor, as well as the farm’s first release, the 2006 Stone Edge Farm Cabernet Sauvignon (only 200 cases produced), which is a lushly layered wine with big tannins which soften beautifully with age. Sadly, our wonderful day came to an end. “But it can’t be over yet.” I whimpered. “We didn’t have time to hike to the best vista point, or do the chocolate truffle tasting — not to mention the cheese tasting and taking a class with Cody and John. I wanted to meet the chef at Café La Haye and go to the farmer’s market, and…”
“Which is why we made it a relaxing five-day tour,” Tamar maturely responded. For the full itinerary visit the website.
Janice Nieder could be the love child of Indiana Jones and Julia Child. She was a specialty food consultant for 12 years in New York, with a client list that included Tavern on the Green, Dean & Deluca and Sign of the Dove. After being bitten by the travel bug, her culinary adventures took her to over 90 countries, where she shared a smoked monkey dinner with a generous Shuar Indian family dee...(Read More)