Glen Ellen, Calif.
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.
"No," she says. "Never."
She dips a (way too small) spoon into a jar of cappuccino and tiramisu-flavored ganache and gives it to us to try. Ganache is what's used for the delectably squishy center of a truffle, and tasting it on its own is like eating just the "kreme" part of a Krispy Kreme, only better. This is followed by another (too small) spoonful of Cabernet Sauvignon-infused ganache and a sampling of chocolate blends, from milk (38% cacao) to dark (82% cacao).
Having tasted our way through the three basic food groups, (cheese, chocolate and olive oil), we return to the Gaige House for the third (after food and shelter) in the hierarchy of weekend-away needs: massage. Like any good wine country hotel, the Gaige House offers the usual spa suspects: Swedish, shiatsu, hot rocks.
I, however, can't pass up something called Chocolate Rules! (exclamation point theirs). Chocolate Rules! involves a chocolate-scented body scrub, followed by a rubdown with a mint-and-chocolate whipped cream. It's a little like being massaged with a box of Thin Mints -- without the crumbs.
Because our It's Not Just About the Wine wine country weekend doesn't demand total abstinence, our first stop on Day 2 is Eric Ross Winery (across the street from the shops of Jack London Village). Eric Ross is what wineries were like before they went corporate and began selling more logo-bearing jerseys than Pinot Noir.
Started -- and still owned -- by two San Francisco newspaper photographers (Eric Luse and John Ross Storey), Eric Ross makes, among other varietals, an Old Vine Zinfandel that will keep you from ever lusting after young vines again.
In light of the impressively high alcohol content of the Old Vine Zin, food seems like a good idea. We follow the locals up Arnold Drive a few blocks to the Glen Ellen Village Market, where they dish out such things as smoked turkey with tapenade on focaccia, and sun-dried tomato and mozzarella panini topped with balsamic reduction.
Still, because this is democratic Glen Ellen, not everything on the menu is required to sound as if it came straight out of Alice Waters' kitchen. Chris' choice, for example, is called the Godfather, and it appears to contain every Italian cold cut ever invented.
We eat lunch at the creekside picnic area behind Jack London Village, then head back to the Gaige House to swim, soak in the hot tub, and lounge around the hotel's 3 acres of gardens.
After trying out a pair of Adirondack chairs and a love-seat-sized glider, we raid the Gaige's Sacred Cookie Jar for a handful of homemade Oreo-style cookies to munch on while swinging in the double hammock. (Apparently it's a Zen thing never to sit alone, either.) Still munching on a chocolate cookie, I conclude that there might be one or two wine country pleasures that have nothing to do with wine.
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