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Perchance to Dine in Wine Country
Published in the October 2002 issue of Alaska Airlines Magazine

THOUGH FOLKS here will try to tell you that fermented grapes are a food group, one cannot live on wine alone, even in California's Wine Country. And who would want to? Tucked between the vineyards of Napa and Sonoma are some of Northern California's most incredible eateries.

The region is happily tangled in a love triangle of food, wine and art. Copia, a new center in Napa dedicated to these American passions, explores their relationships through imaginative, interactive art exhibits, programs and gardens (entry $12.50). Stroll three acres of organic gardens and orchards, where herbs, fruits and flowers mimic the aromas of cabs and zins and 40 varieties of lavender test your sense of smell. Baby squash, sorrel and other garden treats often make their way into hearty dishes like roasted lamb tournedo ($27) at Julia's Kitchen. Copia's dining room is named for Ms. Child, the "patron saint of the pantry."

Wine Country cuisine is a marriage between the kitchen and the farm as much as the vineyard. No chef here worth his or her cutlery will accept anything less than fresh, local, organic ingredients in their kitchens, when possible. "The growing season here is long and bountiful. The seasons and the land very much drive what we [as chefs] create," says Therese Nugent, food writer and instructor at Ramekins Sonoma Valley Culinary School in Sonoma.

That's very much the philosophy at ZuZu, a bright newcomer to Old Town Napa. Traditional Spanish tapas take a cosmopolitan twist here, with such dishes as salpicon of baby octopus, Moroccan barbecued lamb chops and duck tamales, most for $6 and under. Don't miss the seared tuna with jicama, grapefruit, avocado and papaya, a delicate balance of flavors, colors and textures that reveals the culinary genius of chef Charles Weber. Faded colonial-tiled floors, Mexican rusted-tin ceilings and a recycled pine-wood bar lend a worldly, weathered look to this new hotspot. Dine in the upstairs loft for a view of the lazy Napa River.

Keep venturing north up Napa's Route 29 to the small historic town of St. Helena to discover Terra, where California meets Asia. Though hardly an unusual fusion of cuisines, the pairing makes even more sense when you learn about owners Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani, partners in business and love. Doumani grew up on her family's Napa vineyard, Stag's Leap; Sone was born into an 18th generation family of Japanese rice farmers. The two met while working at Wolfgang Puck's restaurant, Spago, opening up Terra in a century-old, stone-walled foundry in 1988.

Though Terra's atmosphere is sedate, you're in for a culinary adventure. Starters include neon magenta gazpacho made with heirloom tomatoes, beets, peekytoe crab and avocado mousse served in a martini glass ($11); entrees, red wine-braised veal cheeks ($24), grilled squab and spaghettini with tripe stew. You won't go thirsty here: Terra serves more than 200 wines from around the world. Sone's desserts, like the beurre noisette tart with local berries and lemon verbena ice cream, are so artfully presented even the sweetest of tooths will pause before devouring the composition.

Square Meals in Sonoma
Don't neglect Sonoma on your gastronomical tour; the parallel valley rivals Napa in cuisine as well as wine-making. An entire day could be spent exploring the historical sights, boutiques, bakeries, wineries and eateries around Sonoma's (the valley's unofficial capital) town square alone. California's bear flag was first raised in this eight-acre plaza, the largest in the state.

A must-eat on the square is the Girl and the Fig, which owner Sondra Bernstein calls "country food with a French passion." Entering the former Sonoma Hotel, you can swivel into a sage-green velvet booth under a fig-themed painting or sit on the outdoor patio beside a fountain.

A bold move in a land of Chardonnays, the restaurant only offers Rhone-style wines. Varietal flights served in prettily mismatched glasses are carefully paired to cheese plates ($12) featuring the best of both French imports and local artisan brands. If the thought of the Girl's heirloom radishes with anchovy butter and sea salt ($5) wrinkles your nose, you can always count on standbys like steak and frites ($20) here. Ask about the catch of the day: it often depends on what Bernstein's fishermen friends land in the morning.

Also on the Plaza, Cafe La Haye (subtitled A Place for Food & Art) is all about "simple cooking with complex flavors," according to co-owner Saul Gropman. The mostly organic restaurant belongs to the Chef's Collaborative, a national network of chefs committed to environmentally sustainable cuisine. Though Cafe La Haye is very tuned to the seasons (you won't see a tomato on the menu again until May), trademark dishes like the lavender-infused filet of beef ($22) stay on the menu year-round. La Haye's wine selection is as mom-and-pop as the cafe itself: 95% hail from small wineries without retail outlets. The minimalist decor (a stainless steel, eat-in counter overlooks the kitchen) draws your attention instead to the rotating exhibits of playful collages and other local art.

Further up the Sonoma valley, Healdsburg is home to another relaxed Spanish-style plaza, and equally incredible eats. A few blocks off Healdsburg's plaza, Tastings is among the many chef-owned "boutique" restaurants cropping up throughout Sonoma (fewer tables often meaning more intimate, informal service). The 32-seat restaurant's specialty is pairings. Sommelier Finn Finnegan carefully weds each dish to a glass, like Ricotta Gnocchi with an Umbrian Falesco Vitiano or grilled beef tenderloin with a South Australian Paringa Shiraz. Tastings also offers a five-course prix fixe meal ($44, $59 with wine pairings) that changes daily (or rather Friday through Monday, when the restaurant is open for lunch and dinner).

Look out for Tastings' wine maker dinners, where vintners join chef Derek McCarthy to co-create meals that celebrate the best fruits of the vine, land and sea. And whether it's tapas or top sirloin, that's what dining in Wine Country is all about: bringing together the finest, freshest ingredients and bringing out the best of their flavors.

PS -- No matter where you dine, no matter how much you eat, do make room for dessert. Wine has a secret mistress, and her name is chocolate.


Cafe La Haye
140 East Napa St., Sonoma; 707-935-5994;

500 First St., Napa; 800-51-COPIA (707-265-5700, Julia's Kitchen);

The Girl and the Fig
110 W. Spain St., Sonoma; 707-938-3634;

505 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg; 707-433-3936;

1345 Railroad Ave., St. Helena; 707-963-8931

829 Main St., Napa; 707-224-8555;

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