Channeling MFK Fisher, the remarkable sage of food writing and gastronomic pleasure, I took off for Glen Ellen in Sonoma County about 40 north of San Francisco, California, knowing the limitations of my adventure even before I started. First of all, Fisher died in 1992, and second of all, her cottage retreat, “Last House,” is now part of the Audubon Canyon Ranch’s 535-acre Bouverie Preserve and is not open to the public - yet. Recently, though, its restoration began and, after being captivated by Luke Barr’s Provence, 1970, the magical book about one of the lively foodie gatherings by his great-aunt MFK, Julia Child and James Beard among others, I decided to return to the “Valley of the Moon” for a preview. Before you start, take a look at this glimpse back into MFK's view of her surroundings by New York Times writer Michelle Green.
Glen Ellen and the Valley of the Moon collectively deliver a delightfully easy and quiet day off the beaten path in Sonoma’s Wine Country. The village of Glen Ellen reminds me of a Gold Rush town, not Wine Country, with a few remaining brick and frame buildings from the early 1900s and deeply shady streets, crisscrossed by creeks and simply ranch style homes or cottages. Ordinary people live and work around here – or they pretend to be ordinary - even though Glen Ellen is not far from the more pretentious proliferation of luxury that its Napa Valley neighbor has become. You occasionally come upon something quirky, even bohemian, a reminder that the area is also an intentional hideaway and that people still desire a smalltown existence.
What to do in Glen Ellen:
There's plenty of quality and character here, too: southern Sonoma’s wines are classy, its farm produce abundant, its countryside exquisite and its restaurants, both funky and upscale, award-winning.
Turn of the century (the 20th century, that is), Glen Ellen had five hotels and two train lines and 12 restuarants. There were thousands of tourists. The devastating 1906 earthquake that did huge damage to San Francisco leveled Santa Rosa up the road and drove tourists elsewhere. Much of the beautiful land lay fallow for 60 years until the wine business reinvigorated the region.
Fig Cafe and Wine Bar - Take Arnold Drive to this casual chic relaxed getaway, part of the family of one of my favorite restaurants a few miles away in downtown Sonoma (a few miles southeast), the Girl and the Fig Restaurant.
Glen Ellen Oyster Grill & Martini Bar is situated creekside for an assortment of tastings at the Glen Ellen Inn, which has "secret cottages" nestled on the property.
The other direction up the hill are woodlands, hiking and wine. Jack London State Park, which is celebrating the writer's centennial, delivers stunning hiking and adventures into diverse ecosystems across the 80-acre preserve that the novelist ("Call of the Wild") called Beauty Ranch. Jack and his wife Charmian entertained many guests in their home, London Cottage, between 1911 and 1916. The writer also had a dream for restoring the land and creating a sustainable farm. Docents can tell you more about their adventurous life and this historical site, where he died in 1916. (You can also take a self-guided audio tour.)
Benziger Family Winery: It was an excruciatingly hot day, but the trellises and ponds were soothing. The estate straddles an exquisite setting of rolling hills, tiered with vineyards, caves and lessons into biodynamic (eco-friendly) winemaking.