California's Russian River Valley is Full of Family-owned Wineries, Restaurants, and Hotels — Here's How to Plan Your Trip
I had driven past Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary, in the tiny town of Freestone in California's Sonoma County, a dozen times before I ventured in to satisfy my curiosity about the sign out front. It read: CEDAR ENZYME BATH.
Most people I know go to spas for massages. I go for heat. I was all of two years old when my father began taking me to the steam baths in Minsk, our hometown in what was then the Soviet Union. His father had taken him to the same baths. The ritual became one of the few uncomplicated pleasures in my cultural inheritance, my troubles rolling off me along with the sweat. And then, in 2020, I lost even this when I moved from New York City, with its many Russian steam baths, to Montana. Now, suddenly, in a town of less than 100 in the redwoods of the Russian River Valley, I found it: the possibility of heat.
A cedar-enzyme "bath," I learned, involves submersion in a redwood tub filled with rice bran and warm cedar and fir shavings, a dry microbiome in which fermentation produces unique salutary benefits for metabolism, digestion, the cardiovascular system, and sleep. Michael Stusser, the proprietor, learned about the treatment in Japan, when too much sitting meditation left him with sciatica. A week of cedar-enzyme baths later, he was cured.
Hearing this, I got even more excited. Recently, I had been missing something else as well as heat: sleep, which I had lost between early parenthood, the pandemic, and adjusting to a new home and job. Take me to the enzymes, I said. Minutes later, I was steaming away in what felt like the embrace of a warm, furry, beneficent animal. I didn't have to wait for that evening to test Osmosis's claim; I dozed off right there and then.
Osmosis, which is the only spa in North America to offer the cedar-enzyme bath, wears its renown quietly. The sign out front is rustic — rather than made to look rustic — and the place feels like a very serene person's home (if that home also had gorgeous Japanese gardens) rather than a temple of "wellness." In this, it epitomizes its location, a place of throwback charm punctuated by the languid rhythm of the Russian River. It makes the airbrushed polish of Napa and eastern Sonoma feel like another country. "Once you cross a certain line going west," Stusser told me, "you're in the no-logo zone. You're off the corporate grid."
I encountered "West County," as locals refer to it, last March, when I signed up as an intermittent apprentice to Caleb Leisure, a winemaker in the town of Cloverdale. (I hadn't stepped into Osmosis all those other times because I was busy babying grapevines.) The pandemic inspired many to become bakers; I became obsessed with learning to make wine.
Sonoma and neighboring Napa constitute the most prominent landscape in American wine making, the hot days and cool nights being exactly what so many of the French varietals grown there need. I reached out to Leisure, whom I knew from graduate school, because I'd become interested in more delicate wines that hadn't been tuned up with chemicals, as so many in the region are.
Leisure makes "zero-zero" wines that forgo all chemical subtractions and additions, even the sulfites that many otherwise "natural" winemakers use to prevent spoiling. The result is ethereal, moderate-alcohol wine that tastes both elegant and revolutionary. For instance, his Viognier — a grape typically ripened to excess to bring out its heavy aroma, then brought into line through the chemical addition of tartaric acid—is honey-hued with a lush, tropical nose, but is bracing and herbaceous on the palate.
While I was working with him, Leisure put me up in a family cabin — without heat or Internet, and with two creeks to ford to reach the front door — in Cazadero. Few travelers make the turn to this no-stoplight hippie redwoods town near the coast; it's the sort of place where the general store posts offers to relocate honeybee swarms and the only dining establishment, Raymond's Bakery, is open one night a week.
The weeks rapidly took on a meditative rhythm: an early rise on a cold morning; the drive out to one of Leisure's vineyard parcels; a day of physical labor, usually outside, and the hunger that follows; silent evenings; repeat. Sometimes, heading back to the cabin, I stopped in the one-intersection hamlet of Monte Rio for a dip in the Russian River.
Monte Rio was my favorite place to swim because the public beach, in its diversity, always reminded me of the City Hall marriage bureau in New York. Sometimes, the spectacular custard ice cream at Scoop of Sonoma up the street from the beach was too enticing not to become dinner. Ironically, those experiences made me want to return as a visitor, so I could get to know the area without always having to rush off to prune vines or buy grape bins. And so I snuck in a visit in early August, shortly before I was due to return for harvest.
West County is not merely cabin country. On this visit, to balance all those mornings shivering in Cazadero, my first stop was the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville, between Highway 101 and the coast. Its room rates can extend into the four figures, but the Farmhouse, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, continues to inspire the sort of devotion guests usually reserve for their immediate family members. (If the pandemic has interfered with your travel abroad, book a night at this 25-room hotel, get in the pool, turn to face its rambling complex of rooms and cottages, inhale the subtle scent of roses and rosemary, and tell me you're not in Provence.)
The family association is fitting, considering that two decades after siblings Catherine and Joe Bartolomei renovated an old inn, it's still a family enterprise without corporate parentage. This is uncommon at this level of luxury, but it's representative of the way West County continues to feel like a large village whose institutions are disproportionately owned by families whose roots there go back decades, if not centuries.
This extends to the kitchen at the Farmhouse's Michelin-starred restaurant. Steve Litke, the executive chef, who was nearing retirement when I visited, had been there since the hotel opened, a rarity in a world where chefs regularly decamp for new "concepts." As a somewhat restless person myself, I asked Litke what kept him excited in the Farmhouse kitchen. By way of an answer, he took me to the culinary gardens of Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens, the big wine company off the road back to the 101. There, a man named Tucker Taylor put a leaf in my hand, his very intense green eyes awaiting a verdict. It looked like spinach, but tasted like an oyster, like the trickery of molecular gastronomy without the gastronomy.
"People who can't eat shellfish, who don't know what an oyster tastes like — that oyster leaf completely transforms their dining experience," said Taylor, who supplies Litke's kitchen. We moved on to something called ice lettuce, which had tiny leaves that looked as if they were encrusted with diamonds. Biting down, my palate filled up with a tart, racy taste of the ocean. Everything Taylor put in my hand — sour gherkins, Malabar spinach — looked like it belonged in a fairy tale. During dinner at the Farmhouse, a single stalk of the ice lettuce was robust enough to withstand a blitz of passion-fruit aguachile in a hamachi crudo.
The next day, I was due at River's End Restaurant & Inn, at the opposite end of West County. I wanted to spend some time exploring the property before sitting down to dinner, as this collection of renovated 1920s cottages and modern lodgings overlooks an adjective-defying spot where the Russian River empties into the Pacific. But I have never been on time to anything in West County. Always, there is some unexpected reason to pull over — a path down to the river you hadn't noticed before, an impromptu concert in the Safeway parking lot in Guerneville.
On that night, I realized that I was finally near Cazadero on a Friday with no vineyard work to keep me away from Raymond's Bakery on the one night it was open. Perhaps there are greater pleasures in life than having finally made these two things align. But this is something I love about West County: it makes you grateful for less.
Raymond's is a roadhouse with barely a road. On an outdoor patio flanked by redwoods dating from the eighth century, a band of locals warbled through a Beatles set list while the teenage waitstaff wandered around trying to figure out which table had ordered which pizza. I stood to the side, a local cider in hand, watching people come into happy collision with neighbors they'd last seen the previous Friday. Maybe this was nothing more than the occasional charm of small-town life, surprising only to city slickers. But, even though I live in a small town in Montana, until that evening I had been unfamiliar with the pleasure of sitting quietly and osmosing the sights and sounds of a rural community reveling in the main social ritual of its week. (Michael Stusser hadn't told me why he had named his spa what he did, but an explanation now suggested itself.)
Before long, I was drawn into conversation with one table that became another conversation, and soon Mark Weiss, the owner, was telling me how much he was going to miss his kids now that the local school was returning to in-person teaching. I felt the ice in my city heart give way.
Strenuous leisure, it turns out, can have the same effect as a day in a vineyard. By the time I tucked in to a deconstructed vegetable napoleon and a king salmon from local waters in the River's End restaurant, I felt the grateful weariness of having arrived at a place that felt like a home. That was due in part to the welcome I'd received from Bert Rangel, who owns River's End with his wife, Stephanie Thatcher. With Rangel, who spends all day at the property, there's no false intimacy ("How are we enjoying our first bites?"), only intimacy. By the end of dinner, he had spoken to nearly every guest.
But the real litmus test is what a host is like behind closed doors. The following morning, I stumbled onto Rangel as he was making breakfast alongside his cooks. When the pandemic began, he built a small shrine to Our Lady of Guadalupe outside the windows of the kitchen's plating area. "The guys" — Latin Americans all — were worried about the pandemic," he said. "I wanted them to have comfort when they looked out the window."
I was up early because Thatcher had offered to take me paddleboarding to the mouth of the river. As we glided, harbor seals popped up above the waterline, and hundreds of pelicans took flight. I had been a little skeptical when Rangel had referred to himself as a "facilitator of joy," but that was what I was experiencing — a kid's joy at moving through a scene of impossible beauty.
The enchantments of West County make it easy to forget their fragility. Every time I visit, I stop in at one of Crista Luedtke's restaurants in Guerneville, a gay mecca and erstwhile "river rat" town that has, in part thanks to Luedtke, become an epicenter of fine dining. Her restaurants, including Boon Eat & Drink, which has a namesake hotel, serve refined but unpretentious food executed with precision and inspiration. (Among my favorites: duck breast with cherry-habanero compote and cod with herbed pistou and butter beans.)
But I visit her restaurants also as a small tribute to the resilience of proprietors like her, often invisible behind a traveler's cedar-enzyme baths and gooseberry panna cotta. In the past five years, Luedtke's establishments, like others here, have survived river flooding, the pandemic, wildfires, drought, steeply rising food costs, and extreme labor shortages. "What's next, locusts?" she said when I chatted with her after another splendid, soulful dinner at Boon.
And yet Luedtke keeps going. She opened Brot, a high-end place hiding out behind the "humbler fare" of her German forebears, in 2019, then refurbished a beloved local resort, the Highlands, in 2021. She can't imagine being elsewhere. "In Napa, the landscape is the same everywhere," she said. "Here, you've got this gorgeous European countryside, Bodega Bay is socked in with fog, it's sunny in Jenner, and it's that plus 20 degrees in Guerneville. You're part of something bigger here."
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Perhaps no industry is as vulnerable to climate change as wine, the mystique of which conceals that its production sometimes uses a lot of water and sheds a lot of chemicals. In hopes of glimpsing its future, I went to see Matthew Niess of North American Press. Niess is an apostate. His sin? To plant hybrids that combine the European varietals that dominate California wine with varietals native to North America. Many wine professionals dismiss hybrids, which they insist produce cloying wine, with a ferocity that sometimes feels like it borders on fear.
We met for a tasting in a grove of old-growth Gravenstein apple trees in a butterfly garden in the enchanting town of Sebastopol. Niess wanted to meet there because he co-ferments the Gravensteins with one of his hybrid varietals, but also because we were standing on endangered ground. Every year, the land around the gardens shrinks as Gravenstein orchards are converted into more lucrative vineyards.
Niess spent nine years at a prominent Sonoma winery, but increasingly came to feel that California wine often lacked a sense of place. "The thing about most California vineyards," he said, "is they're Europe 2.0. What does California really look like and taste like?" Niess believes that hybrids, which are more disease-resistant, may be the way of the future. "I haven't sprayed at all," he said. "If you're talking about sustainability — chemicals, man-hours, diesel in your tractor — hybrids are an answer."
There was nothing cloying about the bottles he opened for me. The Rebel, a red made from the Baco Noir hybrid grape, was like a Zinfandel without the lead feet, with notes of red currant and mint that cut through date and dark cherry. In 2019, Niess's North American Press produced a mere 56 cases of the Rebel, but they sold out quickly. After a year of aging, his 2020 was just coming online.
"I used to have a steady paycheck, a great team, making phenomenal wine," Niess said. "But I would've regretted never trying. I want to tell my children I had this dream. That's worth it to me even if this doesn't work out."
Perhaps because the Gravensteins tasted, to my nostalgia-prone palate, like the White Transparent apples of my Soviet childhood, Niess's words made me think of the great journey my parents made to find me a more promising future, and my own writer's struggles to reconcile stability with freedom. There's no easy answer to that question, but I liked being in a place where passionate and innovative people were asking it.
Get Swept Away by the Russian River
Where to Stay
Farmhouse Inn: A sophisticated hideaway in Forestville with 25 comfortable rooms and suites, a Michelin-starred restaurant, and a spa. Doubles from $735.
Mine & Farm Inn: An old Guerneville inn transformed into a gem of distinctive design. doubles from $215.
River's End Restaurant & Inn: Charming restored cottages and modern dwellings on a bluff overlooking the Pacific in Jenner. Doubles from $250.
Where to Eat
Bohemian Creamery: Cheesemaker Webster Marquez is updating this storied creamery to reflect the roots of the area. The on-site shop offers tastings and sells cheese by the pound.
Boon Eat & Drink: Whether you think of the fare as simple food done well or complex food done simply, Crista Luedtke's flagship is a knockout. Entrées $18–$28.
Brot: Luedtke's most recent opening in Guerneville reinvents the dishes of her German ancestors. entrées $18–$27.
Hazel: In Occidental, Jim and Michele Wimborough's restaurant is relaxed about atmosphere and very serious about good food. entrées $24–$36.
Raymond's Bakery: All of tiny Cazadero goes to Raymond's on Fridays for pizza night. You won't leave without having made friends.
What to Do
Caleb Leisure Wines: Exceptional "zero-zero" wines by a leading figure in the movement. Leisure's Cloverdale facility offers tastings by appointment.
Hallberg Butterfly Gardens: This Sebastopol wildlife sanctuary also includes an old-growth Gravenstein apple orchard.
Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens: Visit the gardens at this Fulton winery to get a peek at the otherworldly vegetables grown byTucker Taylor.
North American Press: For a vision of the future of wine in a time of climate change, book a tasting of one of Matthew Niess's bottlings, held at Santa Rosa's Inspiration Vineyards & Winery. Email email@example.com.
Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary: This Freestone retreat is the only place in North America that offers the sublime cedar-enzyme bath.
A version of this story first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline River of Dreams.