As you probably gathered from your extensive internet stalking and avid research on my background (or maybe just the bio at the bottom of my posts), I’m not from around here.
Luckily, my husband is. I met him on vacation in San Francisco, and the first thing he did after meeting me (literally the very next day) was throw me on the back of his motorcycle, and take me straight to Napa. There he locked me in a 5 star hotel with a champagne drip until I promised to marry him. Well….maybe it wasn’t exactly like that. But that’s how I remember it.
Since then, I’ve learned a few things about this beautiful area I like to call home. In particular, of course, Marin. I know not to honk in traffic (it’s probably my child’s teacher or my yoga instructor.) I know that I always need to have a vegetarian option at all my dinner parties, made with organic local produce, of course. And I know not to plan anything important when Mercury is in retrograde. But the most important thing I’ve learned is just how amazing it is to live 20 minutes from the wine country.
Case in point – Saturday morning my husband’s parents surprise us with the amazing gift of taking our kids for the day to go play in the beautiful redwoods and creek beds that are Samuel P. Taylor Park. The first thing I’m preoccupied with are my neurotic fears about ticks and poison oak that I will have to deal with when they get home. Although, in all fairness, I also worry about aliens or zombies invading the earth and I am convinced I have brought home bedbugs every time I stay in a hotel. Just to put those fears in perspective, of course.
But the very next thing I think of is throwing on some sunscreen and summery outfits and heading north. Where you might ask? Wine country, of course. We only have to drive 20 minutes from our place, and there we are – rolling hills of….well dead grass right now….but situated at the top of the first rolling hill of the official front gate of the wine country is the newly renovated property, and borderline tragically chic, Ram’s Gate.
The first time we came here after the purchase and renovation of what was once the biggest lost opportunity in all of Sonoma, we were so blown away. It is, in my humble and also worthless opinion, at least in the top five, if not the number one spot of tasting rooms in both Napa and Sonoma. At the time we were just stopping in on our way to another destination in Yountville. We had the kids, and the staff was charming and inviting, encouraging our “non-member” party to sit in the plush lounge area. The kiddos were even able to get their fill of the virgin Chardonnay, aka grape juice. We bought some wine, and my husband and I decided to become members of the wine club there. We based our decision on two things: one, it was 20 minutes from our house and two they had a lovely Sauvignon Blanc. Recipe for success in my book.
After deciding to head north, but before our arrival, we grabbed a phone and called our precious Ram’s Gate. Since we hadn’t visited in a while, we wanted to know if there would be room for our last minute party of two. Luckily we erred on the side of overly cautious, otherwise the adorable girl that looked like Julianna Hough with stylishly fuchsia lipstick wouldn’t have been able to seat us. My first impression was that I was a bit turned off. The first time we arrived, and every time since, we were able to just cruise in. But, according to their website, this is a thing of the past.
Once seated inside, at our previously arranged table, I got it. This whole “make a reservation” thing was actually quite nice. Our view of the valley was amazing, and I wasn’t having to tap anyone on the shoulder to get their attention or a pour. We were seated at a table, and given the “Member’s Only Menu” which had a list of all the bottles they were currently pouring, but delectable food pairings. I mean real food pairings, for real foodies. And, I’m not just talking some things thrown together on a charcuterie board.
My first issue, however, was that it was summer, and the only whites they were pouring were Chardonnay. Not that their Chardonnay is/was bad. This is an issue for me personally, but for those of you who enjoy Chardonnay, it will be awesome. There were like 4. However, I was lucky enough to make it there the weekend they started selling (to members only) the 2013 Sauvignon Blanc. A little bit of coercion and a giant “phew” when they agreed to let us buy a bottle and drink it there.
We decided to, in addition to our light, dry and beautiful summer white, to order two glasses of their 2012 Carneros Pinot Noir. OK – now we were ready to order, from both sections of the menu.
The first thing that came out was what looked like giant hushpuppies. The Wagon Wheel Arancini was not, in fact, hushpuppies. But it is the closest thing I could visually relate it to. Once you cut into said hush puppies you would quickly realize that instead of something dry and crumbly you would find creamy risotto like deliciousness that tasted like mushrooms and hinted at black truffle oil.
We followed that up with the Veal Albondigas. If you’re like me and need to “dumb down” what an “Albondigas” is, they were these giant meatballs covered in a tangy tomatillo and cilantro goo that made them both savory and tingly. And, as it turns out, I’m a fan of both savory and tingly.
From there we moved on to the peaches and burrata. The Sonoma County Peaches managed to be both light and hearty with bright peachy flavors, that yes, cut the cheese nicely. (I think I spend too much time with my 7 year old.)
The Braised Rabbit and gnocchi we inhaled in a matter of minutes. I was utterly speechless.
We decided to order one last plate, and I’m glad we did. It turned out to be my favorite, and it was a little bit surprising. I’m from Texas, so meat and I go way back. But hanger steak is never one of my “go-tos.” The Hanger Steak (yes, that was the name of the item on the menu) was tender, flavor filled and served with a hearty risotto and oregano marinated feta. It was a total zinger and, paired with our choice of Pinot for the afternoon, was by far, the most enjoyable bite that we had.
After that, and since we still had a little sip of the Pinot Noir left, we ordered the Chocolate Budino to finish things off. It was the perfect blend of crunchy, chocolate and warm.
Over the course of the several hours we were there, visiting with the staff and other patrons, we really enjoyed what we saw. The view didn’t feel like we were just off the highway. We felt tucked. We didn’t feel rushed, likely thanks to the reservations set up. We were encouraged to take pictures. The Saturday afternoon vibe there was a beautiful mix of an exciting bustle and taking time to smell the bouquet. Literally.
While it would have been nice to be able to make the drive all the way into Napa, relax by the pool at one of the beautiful five star hotels and have a four course meal in Yountville, this was an incredibly wonderful runner up.
As they say, membership does indeed have its privileges.
Jacquelyn Warner is a Marin based photographer. She was born in LA, raised in Texas, and has been sipping, dipping, hiking, bbqing, shopping and drinking here in the Bay Area for the last 14 years. She remains constant in her endless search for the perfect spot for just about anything in Marin.