This place must be hell for the lactose intolerant, I think, as I watch John Raymond tempting Chris, my Very Significant Other, with a piece of pecorino.
Raymond, who is dressed in a blindingly white chef's jacket, is a missionary of fermented dairy products, and his cheese shop stocks a full assortment of artisanal cheese. It's obvious he considers a visit to his shop an opportunity for browsers to binge.
Sometimes, even tasting isn't enough. While Chris chews on the pecorino, Raymond hands a German tourist an impressively long knife. "Everyone should know how to cut cheese," Raymond says, leading the man to a marble counter to confront a sweating hunk of Reggiano.
Raymond & Co. Cheesemongers is in Glen Ellen, a small town smack in the middle of Sonoma wine country. But Chris and I haven't driven here from San Francisco for the wine -- at least not exclusively. What we're on can be best described as an "It's Not Just About the Wine" wine country weekend.
Chris doesn't care enough about wine to devote an entire weekend to standing around a tasting room debating the advisability of malolactic fermentation. Although I can easily while away two days downing free wine, I'm willing to see whether the wine country can deliver a few sensory pleasures other than those found in a stemmed glass.
Glen Ellen (once the home of writers Jack London and M.F.K. Fisher) is just north of the city of Sonoma. Take your eyes off the road long enough to read the vintner's notes on a bottle of Viognier and you'll miss it. More funky than fashionable, Glen Ellen's main street (Arnold Drive) has wooden sidewalks, clapboard cottages and a saloon.
More important -- because when it's not just about the wine, it becomes way more about the accommodations -- Glen Ellen is home to the Gaige House, a luxury hotel with a Victorian facade and a Zen attitude.
From the street, the Gaige House could be any of a dozen wine-country bed and breakfasts. But behind its gingerbread exterior is a meditation retreat's worth of Japanese-style suites with black polished-concrete floors, shoji screens and floor-to-ceiling glass doors -- in case you feel the urge to wave to your roommate across the private tsubo garden (complete with gurgling stone fountain).
And just to keep it all from becoming too ascetic, there's a remote-controlled fireplace and a minibar filled with Dean & DeLuca delicacies and Snickers bars.
Then there's the tub -- hip high, big enough for two, and carved out of a huge piece of black granite. It shares the enormous bathroom with a side-by-side double shower.
"Apparently it's a Zen thing," Chris says, as he stands between the double sinks, "that no act of personal hygiene should be performed alone."
Back at Raymond & Co., John Raymond instructs the German tourist in the catechism of cutting cheese, a process that involves piercing the hulking wheel of Reggiano with a series of deep stabs, until a perfectly formed wedge separates itself like a calving glacier. Then he encourages us to indulge in some chèvre while he extols the virtues of aging and stretch marks, both of which are apparently more desirable on cheese than on people.
Raymond & Co. is just one of the creekside shops of Jack London Village, less than a mile from the Gaige House, and once we've ingested enough cheese to receive Raymond's blessing, we step down a couple of doors to Figone's Olive Oil Co.
Owner Frank Figone was one of the first to press and sell olive oil in California, and he's a big booster of local oil. Laid out on his shop's bar are bowls filled with greenish and gold-colored oil for sampling. The California Blend is buttery, like a heavily malolactic Chardonnay; the Tuscan Blend leaves a peppery burn at the back of our throats that makes us cough (a reaction caused by a natural anti-inflammatory that's found in good-quality olive oil).
After our tasting, Frank invites us into the back room to admire his shining frantoio (olive press), a stainless-steel device the size and shape of a small submarine. Here, he offers us straight shots of La Visione, an oil pressed from the tree that his great-grandfather brought from Italy in 1927. The oil is light and grassy.
Our palates nicely coated, we wander next door to Wine Country Chocolates.
"Would you like to taste some chocolate?" says the young woman behind the counter.
"Does anybody ever say 'no'?" Chris asks.