"Terroir," a French word that struggles mightily to get off an American's teeth, is nonetheless constantly evoked by us when discussing food and wine. Foodies and connoisseurs use it when describing the unique properties of soil, sun, rain, fog, pest and favor that define a certain growing region. Terroir is, for example, an essential in divining vineyard appellations. It is systemic flavor, imbued from the ground up. Terroir, in short, is a sense of place that can be tasted, that can be experienced in a deeply human way. Playing with the idea, we've compiled some different takes on the meaning of "terroir" as it applies to the cities and towns of the North Bay. Compiled by Brett Ascarelli, Gretchen Giles, Daedalus Howell, Gabe Meline and Amanda Yskamp.
Sonoma County9 Ways of Looking at a Sea Gull (With apologies to Wallace Stevens)
Any town with four live music venues within the same small fist of a one-block area is a good town. And during this last lull before the looming big-box onslaught, Cotati still hosts the ghosts that made it good. They are spiced with patchouli and regrets, whiskey and heroin, pizza crusts and burrito seep, and the yeasty sour of damned old beer. Cotati is still one meal a day, eaten at 4pm. It's still eight students to a two-bedroom, mobile homes gauded up with redwood and the Thursday-night crush of girls at the Yacht Club, pink and fruity and clean. It's still Boggio's ugly buss. The dead may be ghosts, but in this town, they're not yet gone.--G.G.
Flinty mineral notes greet your palate, or is that the rock dust from the controversial gravel quarry down Highway 116? With another sip, the grit yields to something gamey, if not outright barnyard. Forestville may not be home to buffalos who roam, but you might just spot a llama, emu or zebra on the way there. The unapologetic grease of Carrs Drive-Inn burgers and sincerity of the down-home organic flavors of Food for Thought's food deliveries to people living with AIDS coexist surprisingly harmoniously with such thought-up foods as Mosaic's coffee-encrusted filet mignon topped with chocolate-Cabernet demi-glacé or Farmhouse Inn's Rabbit Rabbit Rabbit. If you can't swing a reservation at the latter, I know an actual farmhouse where you might get a taste of a wild boar shot locally and cut into steaks with a chainsaw. BYOB.--A.Y.
Not too long ago, when Gravenstein was God, an apple could be plucked from the branch by your garden-variety sinner. Today, most orchards have been replaced by vineyards, and you're lucky to catch the essence of apple lingering in the air of the old apple-drying plant (now a plastics factory), effervescent in a pint of Ace-in-the-Hole hard cider, or spiced and baked into one of Mom's scrumptious apple pies. Still, you'll find abundant fruit-forward flavor here of almost every other sort: the cranberry of a perfect cosmopolitan sipped as your bocce ball kisses a pallino at Underwood, slices of Bartlett pear sandwiched between ham and brie at sister restaurant Willow Wood across the way, a lime wedge shoved down the neck of a cold cerveza at Mexico Lindo, and along every bike trail, cow field and back bramble--blackberry, blackberry, blackberry.--A.Y.
Green, a mixture of yellow and blue. Green, which essayist Alexander Theroux describes as the intersection of life with death. Green, produced through the chemistry of chlorophyll, an urge to the light. Green, the fresh camouflage of a snake's summer skin. Green, like lime rind near the surface, like oxygenated spinach near the bottom. Green, a smell. Green, tracing a million tree spires against pure blue atmosphere. Green.--G.G.
This jammy hamlet was founded by "Dutch Bill" Howard, who wasn't Dutch and wasn't named Bill--or Howard, for that matter. Dane Chris Folkmann jumped ship and stole his way up here, a fugitive of the law, to be joined by others drawn by the light rails and tall trees. Long an outpost welcoming outlanders, Occidental preserves its flavor of sweet eccentricity. Its bouquet is distinguished by communes like Ocean Song and Star Mountain, conscientious land stewardship by the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, amateur wild mushroom foragers and bastions of both fine dining and unfancy eats with an array of different cuisines: Howard's wholesome offerings to rev an urban vegan girl's Harley; Bistro de Copain's Magret de Canard, a dish you wouldn't want to duck; Guinness ice cream from Pignoli's, a medley of Old Danny Boy and Sarah MacLachlan; devilishly good La Diabla from El Mariachi; and Italian food from Negri's and the Union Hotel so abbondante your Nona might get huffy.--A.Y.
This is a red, oh yeah, a definite red. Big, bold, jammy--Parker would love this. Fruit forward, blackberry, raspberry, strawberry--is that boysenberry? I think it's boysenberry. I'm getting chocolate, leather, brick oven, cigar ash, apple wood, poultry leavings, pig slurry, asphalt, dope. Give it a swirl. Do you catch a jazz note, something jarring and soaring and odd? Me too. You think it's more umami than savory, more marinara than Alfredo? Geez, it's expensive. I didn't notice the bottle, a nice retro look, like something you'd see on a restaurant table in a movie. The price seems worth it, considering the older vintage, the layers of flavor--I'm getting the back of a toddler's neck, the sweet poison of house paint, the stiff tingle of new lingerie, the . . . You think it's Italian? But it doesn't have that chicken-blood quality of a good Italian, you know? This doesn't need food. It's a quaffer, a nice little quaffer. Geez, it's expensive. Let's have another.--G.G.
The minor end of a Whopper four days old, left to stiffen on the back seat of an SUV that still has 30 grand left in loan. Crumbled meat product from a Taco Bell taco tangled with strings of cheese product, spilled into the clumpy sand of a public playground. The roseate orange insult of pepperoni grease, pooled slickly next to bell pepper curdles in an abandoned Pizza Hut box. The mild chlorinated stench of 50 rolls of toilet paper liberated from bulk packaging, stacked.--G.G.
There's so much flavor in this town we named a restaurant named after it. Used to be Topaz, now it's just a spiraling kaleidoscope all over the city. Half-rinds of quickly shucked avocadoes, firm as rocks, piled up on the blackened curb of the drive-through, open 'til midnight. Sterilizing alcohol rubs from tattoo shops, vaporized smoke from head shops, toner smudged across jammed paper at copy shops, chain lube and axle grease from bike shops. Fresh hot dogs, crisp 20s and piping cups of wake-up intermingle with wet spray paint, festering algae and 40-ounce bottles emptied and then refilled with different liquids of the same yellow hue. A pile of fresh basil in a 19th-century greenhouse across the street from a pile of fish heads in a plastic bucket outside a strip mall. A blossoming median garden, thick with aromatic flowers, taking its last stifled breath while a CalTrans tractor slowly approaches, bringing the gloppy nausea of tar and asphalt. The murky lather of the barber shop where the preened-and-pomaded proprietor has stood outside on the sidewalk every day for the last 30 years, now taking his last few legal smoke breaks, thinking about closing up shop and selling to the wine bar that's been calling.--G.M.
An exhausted 50-year-old woman in shapeless hemp pants is pulled down the street by her grim-faced toddlers to the ice cream parlor, where, yes, they can each have a sundae, because it's easier after a day in session with clients. Just don't tell Ms. Luna tomorrow at school. Her partner follows behind, keeping an eye out for the ladies, his face youthful and unlined, his step free and loping, his hair touched by gray only at the temples, freshly brushed and flowing.--G.G.
Sonoma is a tale of two cities: The one you're in and the one to which you're trying to get invited. Though not terribly diverse or integrated, it is perhaps one of the few towns where a nouveau riche telecom refugee can discuss the corporate acquisition of local wineries with a recently transplanted Himalayan sherpa and everyone gets along. An area artist recently attributed this bonhomie to the fact that for many in the valley, "work" is merely a hobby, often spiced with piquant notes of altruism and served on a crostini of civic duty. It's also a great excuse to drink, hence the staggering number of fundraisers thrown by the karmic-minded, which dot the social calendar the way phylloxera plagues a viticulturalist's dreams. Despite this endless bacchanal, there is a surprising lack of gout. This is just as well, since it would interfere with one's early stroll home. Such constitutionals are highly recommended seeing as the town produces nearly as many DUIs as it does vino. Just don't pass out on the pÈtanque court, lest your nose be mistaken for a cochonnet and pelted with metal boules (though this can divert a hangover, it is considered rude to bloody the court, and you won't be asked back). --D.H.
Grass seed, latex, sawdust. New carpet, plastic windows, fresh gravel. Oak leaves, crushed. A small dog's excrement carried in a knotted plastic bag.--G.G.
Steak and scotch; quinoa and kefir.--G.G.
Carlos Santana exits the Safeway on the back side of the Corte Madera Town Center. Clutching a plastic bag filled with his purchases, he waits to cross the parking lot. One vehicle stops. Carlos Santana faces the driver. Using both hands, he places his fingertips on his chest. The plastic bag bumps awkwardly against his hip. From my heart. He extends his hands toward the driver. To your heart. He bows slightly. Carlos Santana straightens, looks both ways and finishes crossing safely.--G.G.
Cigarette smoke: The Germans still smoke? Garlic: Just a quick sauté before bitter. Olive oil: Viscous and fresh. Coffee: Outside the Depot, outside the Dipsea. Fog: Damp bark and fungal fruiting.--G.G.
Maria! Rosita, have you seen Maria? I've got tennis at 10 and I'm seeing Jack for lunch and I can't reschedule because we've got to get this escrow closed and then there's my mani-pedi at two. And do not forget--we are having the Crums tonight. Ma-ree-ah! Where has that woman gone? OK, look at me Rosita, I need you to remember this: When you see Maria, you need to tell her that the caterers will be here at four and I need her to be ready to serve when the Crums come at seven and that she needs to use the Riedel, not the Baccarat; Julie broke one last time. Jane and Parker can have some of that sushi after you pick them up from camp and please remember to pack Parker's inhaler before you take him to lacrosse. Jane's riding instructor will be here at three and you need to tell her not to drink the Gerolsteiner; she can have all the Evian she can drown her fat little head in. Also, you need to swing by Woodlands and pick up the pigeons for the caterer. I promised them we'd provide those ourselves, plus Tom likes it when I economize. Oh, damn! It's 9:30. Maria! Well, I know you've got all this under control, Rosita. When you see Maria, you need to let her know that I'm very displeased and that we'll talk about this later. She better have had my car washed.--G.G.
The North Bay's melting pot and its most democratic of cities, San Rafael builds on the tongue. A full sip encompasses both the bland surely found in San Quentin's cafeteria to the south, building to the fiery tastes of the Canal just further north. In its middle, a veritable cacophony of cuisines--Puerto Rican, Cambodian, Persian, Vietnamese, French, Indian--spark a sweet piquant. Memory lingers, fading with the lengthening strawberry top-note of Lady Baltimore's once "famous" fruit-basket cake and the crunch of a Gold Nugget fry before rousing to finish with the satisfying bulk of one of Phyllis' burgers.--G.G.
Like Champagne, San Anselmo is made of more substantial stuff but serves up lightly. Like Champagne, San Anselmo promises fun and generally delivers it, without any nasty headache afterward. Like Champagne, San Anselmo is made of one thing and transformed to another, its bevy of hip consignment shops and antique stores a testament to renewable pleasures. Like Champagne, San Anselmo graces celebration, be it movie night in the park or the annual arts festival that floods the downtown (and indeed, better that flood than others experienced). Like Champagne, San Anselmo is best when it flows.--G.G.
Despite its attraction to tourists, Sausalito remains in our minds as a rough tumbler of red wine slammed down on a cafe table by a painter who works the shipyards to pay the rent and smokes reefer in jazz clubs on the weekends. This is our grandparent's Sausalito, the town that few wanted to live in during the 1940s when land was ridiculously cheap and the S.F. commute still seemed ridiculously long, even by ferry.--G.G.
Question: What's so damned sexy about (a) cattle, (b) farming, (c) bread and (d) cheese?
Answers: (a) Historic ranches named for single letters of the alphabet whose pastureland extend simply out to the sea. (b) Straight, loamy furrows of exotic lettuce in full flourish, not condominiums. (c) It's good bread; who needs more of an explanation? (d) See 'c.'--G.G.
Earthy, dry and clean, Napa Valley's northernmost town, Calistoga is casual and sleepy--so sleepy, in fact, that one of the redwood forests there has become petrified. Full of water features, the village was made for coming clean, with three ways to partake of its famed H20. But if it's wine rather than water that's on the agenda, the town has roughly 30 wineries, turning out cases of fresh vino that doesn't even taste a hint petrified. --B.A.
For as much cachet as the name Napa conjures, the real chic lies in the northern part of the county and the so-called Up Valley towns, rather than in the county seat itself. In the town of Napa, the gap between the tourist haves and the resident have-nots manifests as the clash between the perfectly pillowy foie gras at Julia's Kitchen and the perfectly picante carne enchilada tacos at the mobile Tacos Michoacan. But what ties the luxe and the trucks together are the woes of the flood plain. Last winter, a deluge assailed the entire valley. Although winemakers merely shrugged, trusting the multi-million-year-old soil to absorb the rains in stride, townspeople unburdened themselves at the local Starbucks. One young woman flipped through photos of the damage on her digital camera, and a downcast member of NV's kitchen staff wondered if he'd have a place to work that night. Until Napa can eliminate the dry taste of sandbags from its palate, this town, with its high restaurant and retail turnover, will be hard-pressed to rustle up the bustle of its Up Valley neighbors.--B.A.
Covering four square miles, the cork-sized city of St. Helena is studded with wine diamonds, boasting an assessed valuation of over a billion dollars. Crossing the threshold of Zinfandel Lane, the taste of freshly minted money flirts with the tongue, but of course it plays hard-to-get. A rash of yuppie boutiques line Main Street, and visitors can't seem to disgorge their change purses fast enough to pay for $13.99 rare ahi burgers at Taylor's Refresher. This is the home of Meadowood, where rooms start at $500 and where, earlier this year, George W. Bush played a couple rounds in between conferences. But the handmade, luxury truffles by Woodhouse Chocolates do not taste like this at all, just honest and a little salty--like the 40-year-old Napa Valley wine library that truly educates beyond the hype of tourism, and the tough cops who lie in wait for patrons spill into their cars after last call. Maybe there's a little tannic backbone to this town after all.--B.A.
As the nexus of fine dining in Napa Valley and possibly the country, the sign for food off Highway 29's exit for Yountville points the way to Domaine Chandon--not exactly your average roadside pit stop. Blame or thank celebrity chef Thomas Keller for the upgrade, his French Laundry having established Yountville as the summer getaway for modern-day Sun Kings. Being in Yountville is like standing on French soil, directly supplanted from the global cradle of terroir. Foodies and winos unite in this impeccably manicured town where even the Exxon sign is tasteful, and where it wouldn't surprise us if the underground gas-holding tanks were coopered from French oak. Keller also runs a cafe, Bouchon, where Laundry patrons go when they feel like slumming it instead with lobster, caviar and soupe ý l'oignon. While this kind of society mingles at the newly refurbished 1,200-seat Lincoln Theater, regal oldsters from the on-site Veteran's Home trickle in and out, volunteering for small duties. Dieu merci! At least some people in this town don't feel French.--B.A.
A fifth-generation Healdsburgian who lives in town and works in the tourist industry is a rarity. Many of the people I went to high school with skedaddled out of Sonoma County before their diplomas had arrived in the mail, and my co-workers at restaurants and wineries were mostly L.A. transplants with college degrees in "hospitality."
For a time, the Dry Creek Kitchen had a foie gras dish on the menu, seared duck liver served with port-poached local prunes. Here's a tidbit I served up along with the expensive plate: Before one particular farm had ripped out all of their prune trees to plant wine grapes, they'd sold their entire harvest to chef-owner Charlie Palmer. The prunes sat in the chef's attic until someone got an urge to cook with them, then--lo and behold!--they'd appear on the menu again, and I'd tell the story of how my grandmother had worked on that very farm when she attended Healdsburg High School.
When most of Healdsburg's fruit orchards were ripped out, grapes were planted and wine was made; that's common knowledge. I like the way Healdsburg is now--it's not every town with a population of 10,000 that sells Diesel jeans in chic boutiques on the plaza. But for those families that didn't plant grapes in the '70s when they should have, things like Diesel jeans and $12 cocktails are more of a novelty than a way of life. A few years ago, Grandma sold her grandma's farm and moved to Medford, Ore. Suddenly, I was the only one of my family left in town.
When my grandmother was growing up in the 1940s and '50s, Healdsburg was a laid-back country town, such an agricultural area that schools delayed their opening to coincide with the end of harvest. The whole culture of picking prunes was "just wonderful," Grandma remembers. And while she aimed to pick 20 boxes a day (which were paid by the piece-price of anywhere from 25 cents to 75 cents, depending on the terrain), her grandmother picked 70 boxes a day, and they often worked together.
"We had those old-fashioned metal lunch pails, and you put a thermos full of coffee on top in the lid," Grandma says. "My mother always packed sandwiches like baloney, and fruit like an apple or an orange. But when my grandma packed lunch, you had cold chicken, cold biscuit and bacon sandwiches and cold squash. It was the best tasting food in the world."
Everything in that lunch was grown on our family's five acres on Eastside Road, a tiny farm that is now directly across the street from J Wine Company. Although most of the prune trees had died before Grandma sold the farm and moved to Oregon (their life span is only about 40 years), prune-plums are still some of my favorite fruit. Biting into the dusty lavender skin of a fresh prune to get at the sweet yellow juice inside brings a wash of nostalgia that means more to me than a pair of Diesel jeans or a Riedel wine glass.
I want to be happy. I want to be successful. I want something to fill the empty place inside me. I want to feel connected to the universe. I want to get over the issues that are holding me back. I want to realize my full potential. I want to love and be loved. If only I were rich. I want to be empowered. We all have unrealized desires, and those who don't probably won't read this. But you never know, I hear the Dalai Lama gets around.
I once worked for the Hoffman Process at White Sulphur Springs Resort and Spa. White Sulphur Springs, located in St. Helena, has a long history of being a healing destination point. The first bath house was erected there in 1848. In 1852, it was converted into a grand resort with hotel and lounges and restaurants and even a bowling alley. It changed hands and was eventually sold to the Sanatana Dharma Yoga Foundation in the '70s, which also used it as a retreat and healing center. My clever father figured out that the monks there were not allowed to speak after sunset. Our family would go there and get into the mineral pools at night and no one could tell us to leave. They would just glare at us. It was sold to the Foote Family in 1983 and then to the Hoffman Group in 2000.
The Hoffman Process is a personal development seminar. It was started by Bob Hoffman, who sought to liberate people from the patterns created in childhood. The Hoffman Process is a weeklong seminar in which the student is taken on a guided journey through who they are, what they want to become and what is holding them back. I think that the Hoffman Process really does help people, and those people are mostly financially well-off. I find this funny because poor people are the ones who need a life change more than anybody.
I worked for the Hoffman Process at White Sulphur Springs as the maintenance man. I got to see the inner workings. When I first started working there I was pretty gung-ho to take the Process, but as time went on, the spell that it had over me started to fade. I started to practice Buddhist work meditation. To be in the present moment as I fixed things. To try and stay with my breathing and with the moment as I cleaned the pool. Suddenly, a whole new world opened up to me, and it was like I was walking around all by myself practicing my meditation, while all these Hoffman people way over there doing who knows what.
I had always found it strange to be repairing a toilet or fixing a door and hear the steady beat of 40 people banging Wiffle bats against the ground. Or to change a light bulb while people were yelling horrible obscenities, releasing the issues they believed were holding them back. One day while out cleaning the pool early in the morning, I saw a lady crying. I went up to her and tried to console her. She calmed down and thanked me. Later that day, I was told by my boss not to talk to the students because I wasn't qualified.
Eventually, I left in spite of the big promotion they said they wanted to give me. But I knew I couldn't stay there, because I was never going to take the Hoffman Process, and it is an unsaid rule that only Hoffman works for Hoffman.
But sometimes when I am not expecting it, I hear this voice in my head, and it is saying I want to be happy. I want to be successful. I want something to fill the empty place inside me. I want to feel connected to the universe. I want to get over the issues that are holding me back. I want to realize my full potential. I want to love and be loved. If only I were rich. I want to be empowered.