How to Experience Sonoma like an Ultra-VIP
Four couples sped away en route to LAX and our final destination, a five-bedroom estate in Sonoma, California. For a group of parents with children under the age of reason, this weekend was going to be our great escape.
Our facilitator was Beautiful Places, a luxury-vacation outfit that rents out homes in some of the world’s most hallowed vineyard regions. BP is no glorified Craigslist: Its experts are more like private hoteliers, finding the properties (usually the owners’ second, third or fourth houses) and providing four-star concierge amenities. Those include private chefs and sommeliers who prepare meals and tastings on-site, as well as access to star winemakers. In essence, BP offers a customized oeno-experience that the average traveler would find impossible to arrange.
BP’s "places" come in all shapes, sizes and definitions of "beautiful." The Sullivan-Birney Ranch in Glen Ellen, where we stayed, is set on 25 acres with a vineyard in the front yard, a pool in the back and spectacular 360-degree views of the surrounding countryside. (During high season, which is June through October, it runs $1,800 a night.) The appeal of this house is definitely location, location, location—especially given the interior design. One of the downsides of renting is OPT: Other People’s Taste. Without going into detail, let’s just say we could have done without the plaster cupids and early-Etruscan theme.
Beautiful Places is not Relais & Châteaux. For hotel service, stay in a hotel; BP’s strength is its unparalleled network of connections. That’s how we found ourselves at our first stop in Sonoma, Chalk Hill Estate. Chalk Hill is a sprawling yet secluded 1,477-acre estate just outside Healdsburg, and while anyone with an appointment can visit its tasting room and sample its various bottlings, not just anyone can show up in its airy lodge for a multicourse lunch prepared by Chalk Hill’s chef, Didier Ageorges.
The crudités laid out for us—harvested from Chalk Hill’s organic, one-acre garden plot—made Dean & Deluca look like the corner deli: microgreens, chocolate mint, Asian pears, green garlic, all manner of apples, even almonds and walnuts alongside the fava beans, the last of which we peeled and sampled raw. Brad Agerter, the young farmer who oversees the garden, says he picks his fruit and vegetables when they’re smaller and more delicate than anything at a store, because they have more intense flavor—and also, he added, because Ageorges thinks they’re cuter.
As we gathered around the medieval-length table, I had a sudden attack of hostess anxiety. Seating plan? Our guests were all friends, but not friends who’d ever spent an entire weekend together. They included Bill, a TV editor/director, and H.J., a finance chick; Jane, a fashionista, and Craig, a movie agent whose sense of humor is as dry as the vodka martinis he usually prefers over wine; David, a TV producer/wine snob, and Andrea, a jewelry designer/supermom; our late arrivals, Ted and Amy, a couple of Internet success stories who’d driven up from Mill Valley; and my husband, Rick Marin, a journalist and screenwriter.
I improvised a quick solution guided by my belief that spouses should be separated, to encourage cross-marital pollination, and we sat down for lunch. The menu started with an amuse bouche straight from the garden—fava beans on a spoon, dressed in mint and olive oil. Soon after, the first glass of Chalk Hill wine was poured, a lightly citrusy 2004 North Slope Pinot Gris, which helped cool the heat of rock shrimp in a fiery Thai coconut broth. Then came the lush 2004 Estate Bottled Chardonnay and halibut with artichokes à la barigoule (a Provençal dish of artichokes braised in a white wine broth). But the highlight was the black cherry–rich 2002 Estate Bottled Merlot, paired with a sweet-and-sour braised and seared duck in a balsamic vinegar, pomegranate and port reduction.
Accompanying dessert—canelés, a classic Bordeaux sweet—was Ageorges himself, about the trimmest chef I’ve ever seen (he bicycles to work every day), who asked if we had any questions. An audience with the chef is when you need a ringer in the group, so you don’t just blubber, "Wow, that fish was really soft." Ours was Bill, a man so understated you’d have to trip over his West Wing Emmy before he’d tell you about it. "How’d you do the demi?" he asked, with a fantasy-camp grin he kept for the whole trip.
Of course, with Beautiful Places, you don’t necessarily have to go to the chef—the company is happy to bring the chef to you. Which is exactly what we arranged for the next day, when Julie Johnson, the owner of Tres Sabores winery and a great cook, came over to our house late in the afternoon to prepare a barbecue that would show off her latest wines and her special barbecue sauce.
Johnson arrived with her husband and fellow winemaker, Jon Engelskirger, and our entire group joined in on the prep work, helping to make appetizers that highlighted remarkable local produce: superfresh radishes, sugar snap peas and a dip made with feta cheese; rosemary-skewered shrimp; and bruschetta with Pacific cold-smoked salmon and crème fraîche. We set up the grill in the front "yard"—a clearing in the middle of the Sullivan-Birney vineyard. As she grilled pork, Johnson told us the story behind her fabled barbecue sauce.
A cofounder of Frog’s Leap winery, Johnson started her Tres Sabores label a few years ago using Zinfandel grapes from her ranch. But just as she was starting out, the warehouse in which she stored her bottles burned to the ground. She lost everything: more than 2,000 cases of wine. The fire turned out to be arson—a man operating a wine-storage business out of the warehouse had been selling his clients’ property and pocketing the profits; he torched the warehouse to cover his tracks. After the fire, Johnson sat among her ruined bottles, crying as she drank. Then she had an idea: Recycle the superheated wine as barbecue sauce! She called her creation "¿Porque No?" We had it on our pork roast, with a peppery 2004 Tres Sabores Zinfandel, devouring both the zesty meat and calamitous tale with the Reader’s Digest ending.
The next day, BP arranged two private winery visits for us, one in the morning at Sonoma’s Hanzell Vineyards and the other in the afternoon with Merry Edwards—"the grande dame of California Pinot Noir," as we were told. Both were impressive experiences, but they paled next to that evening’s dinner.
Our guest of honor: Andy Erickson. At 40, Erickson is already a rock star around California wine country. He’s the winemaker for Screaming Eagle, the $500-a-bottle ultracult Cabernet with a waiting list to get on its waiting list. Erickson and his wife, Annie Favia-Erickson, a viticultural consultant, also recently started their own Favia label, which has already found its way onto exclusive wine lists on both coasts (Per Se in New York City, Napa Valley’s French Laundry) as well as, apparently, Middle Earth (the Hobbit Restaurant in Orange, California).
Saturday night, Andy and Annie came to the villa for drinks and dinner by the pool. They brought the wine. We did the food. Well, BP helped us hire someone to do the food: Jesse McQuarrie, the owner of Feast Catering. McQuarrie isn’t a famous chef, and his humility aptly contrasted with Andy’s top-of-his-game swagger.
The evening couldn’t have felt much more glamorous. Everyone dressed for the occasion and stood by the pool watching the sun dip behind valleys of oak, at eye level with circling hawks. We tipped flutes of sparkling Rosé de Saignée, a rosé Champagne from René Geoffroy. McQuarrie started us off with hors d’oeuvres of Dungeness crab–and–artichoke fritters with Newburg aioli.
Soon we sat down alfresco to a first course of poached corvina bass with sunchoke puree and fennel-olive confit, along with a white wine from Arietta, another property Andy makes wine for. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon called On the White Keys, it was luscious, with a citrusy edge—ideal with McQuarrie’s Mediterranean-inspired bass. The weekend’s cumulative effect had taken hold of us by now. We were buying into the Beautiful Places fantasy as if this were our house, with our grapes growing in the front yard. We nodded knowingly as Annie compared growing wine to raising children: "You try not to force or direct too much, but let the personality emerge."
The red wine came out with the grilled lamb noisettes with green garlic, fava beans and morel-mushroom risotto: the couple’s black cherry–inflected 2003 Favia Cerro Sur, a Cabernet Franc (with a dash of Cabernet Sauvignon) from Napa Valley. Bill said you could stand a fork up in it. The rest of us were now talking the talk, too—some got a "licorice edge," some picked up notes of raspberry, strawberry, herbs, tobacco. My husband, Rick, claimed to get a whiff of pencil shavings, but he has a deviated septum.
By the time we got to the rhubarb galette and a 2004 Hartwell Vineyards SweetHart Cabernet Sauvignon dessert wine, discussion was ranging from complaints that wine critics have too much power to a comment that the wine world’s point-rating system makes people try to create "the Pamela Anderson of wines."
After Andy and Annie left, Bill brought out Cuban cigars and we retired to the atrium to puff away. Craig, who only wanted to drink vodka a day ago, was walking around with a bottle of red in his hand, fantasizing about having a second home up here, which we’d then have to rent to people like us in order to afford it.
On Sunday morning we went off the menu—it can’t all be fava beans and Favia, after all—for a hike in the Jack London State Historic Park outside Glen Ellen. London, the author of White Fang and The Call of the Wild, was one of the first rich guys to start blowing his fortune on land up here. "I write a book for no other reason than to add three or four hundred acres to my magnificent estate," he said. London and his wife, Charmian, built the Wolf House, 15,000 square feet of maroon lava boulders and unpeeled redwood—the ultimate beautiful place. It had a dining room that could seat 50 people. Countless guest rooms. A big-game room, for men only. But the night before the Londons were to move in, the dream home burned to the ground. Rags in the fireplace combusted. London lost $80,000—in 1913 dollars. He was ruined. Three years later, he was dead—at 40, the same age as Andy Erickson.
We walked around the old foundation, marveling at the floor plans. Too bad Julie Johnson wasn’t around then, I thought. She could have told London to quit obsessing about the fire and start making barbecue sauce.
Ilene Rosenzweig lives in Los Angeles, where she writes romantic comedies with her husband, Rick Marin.