Culinary Craft of Sonoma Valley

The artful side of drinks and treats in this California paradise

By Carey Sweet

It’s a popular question from friends who visit me in Sonoma Valley: What’s the best pairing for two of their favorite luxuries—wine and chocolate? And I love answering, because it’s actually a challenge. Both products have tannins, I explain, which can result in unharmonious flavors when not expertly combined.

But here in Sonoma Valley, we’re a wonderland of beautiful food and drink, and home to many culinary experts who know exactly how to showcase the fine stuff. So at salons such as the family-owned specialty company Wine Country Chocolates, wine not only pairs with chocolate, but it goes into chocolate such as their Zinfandel-laced truffles, and into custom logo chocolate-Cabernet Sauvignon confections made for local wineries such as Ravenswood and Scharffenberger.

The two indulgences even come together as Wine Country Chocolates’ cute, three-inch-tall “wine bottles” molded of chocolate and wrapped in colorful foil.

You might say we’re a bit spoiled in Sonoma Valley, and you wouldn’t be wrong. Because besides wine and chocolate, we enjoy uncommon specialties in many inventive recipes, including microbrew beer, olive oil and vodka flavored with all kinds of interesting organic ingredients. After all, the area is famous for its farms, orchards, vineyards, creameries and, more recently, spirit ingredients, such as hops plus grapes used for vodka instead of wine.

Toast the sweet life

Wine Country Chocolates operates two chocolate shops/tasting rooms at Jack London Village and on the Sonoma Plaza, specializing in hand-rolled truffles infused with local Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, port or sparkling wine. You’ll find the delectable snacks at some area wineries, too, such as SIGH Champagne Bar in downtown Sonoma, where you can get bubbly or wine flights (or beer!) paired with champagne chocolate truffles.

Mother and daughter Betty and Caroline Kelly dreamed up this sweet spot in 1999, and have since become chocolate celebrities for their other handcrafted nibbles, too, such as cappuccino-tiramisu truffles, sour cherry-dark chocolate bark, caramel Rocky Road clusters scattered with marshmallow, and chocolate dipped figs. One of my favorite finds to give as gifts is the adorable, four-inch-tall grape clusters molded out of 61% cacao dark chocolate.

“…cappuccino-tiramisu truffles, sour cherry-dark chocolate bark, caramel Rocky Road clusters scattered with marshmallow, and chocolate dipped figs.”

I like watching the kitchen action through the picture window at the shop at Jack London Village, and love that tastings (and educations) at either location are complimentary. This is where I take visitors to learn about the difference between ganache and chocolate coating, plus how different cacao percentages so dramatically affect flavor. We compare 38% milk chocolate to 72% very dark chocolate, and often, my friends are surprised to find they prefer today’s more sophisticated dark and less sugary treats. Then, it’s on to the really good stuff. Truffles are made daily, and our server explains how the wines are reduced for thicker consistency and intense flavor concentration amid the fresh local cream and butter base.

The hardest part of our “lesson” always is choosing which to buy from the more than two dozen truffle recipes tempting with standouts such as rich Kahlua Irish Crème, or the whimsical Elvis of dark chocolate truffle infused with natural banana extract and crowned in creamy peanut butter.


This sud’s for you

Tucked in the town of Sonoma on the Boyes Hot Springs side, Sonoma Springs Brewing Company was founded in 2008 by Tim Goeppinger and Derek Brennan. Three years ago, the duo expanded, releasing the first of its retail bottles sold at local shops.

Still, it’s the taproom that holds my heart, for its combination of classic German beer hall and Wine Country charm. Done in brick and dark wood with a stylish curved stave bar, it’s a friendly, cozy place that welcomes my puppy, too, as I quaff a cold Waggin' the Dog West Coast style IPA. With 20-plus options on tap, this spot is a must as I show guests not only our area’s handcrafted California ales, but also barrel-aged brews and German style beers.

“…I go for lighter sensations such as the aptly named Women Are Smarter Saison / Farmhouse Ale imbued with notes of rose petal, star jasmine, hibiscus and cardamon.”

Every time I visit, I admire the variety, as my friends and I sip our way through flights, and compete to describe—or even pronounce—unique limited-edition recipes such as the HazyCaliFrajilisticHoppyaladocious. The fruity, New England-style IPA is cloudy, looking a bit like orange juice, and delivers a delicious punch of citrus, pine and the bitter finish that hopheads adore.

Personally, I go for lighter sensations such as the aptly named Women Are Smarter Saison/Farmhouse Ale imbued with notes of rose petal, star jasmine, hibiscus and cardamon. And yes, the brewery uses real rose water to achieve that floral aroma.


The press impresses

My guests are always fascinated to learn that America’s best olive oil often comes from Sonoma County, not just what’s been imported from Europe. In fact, the sprawling Olive Press in Sonoma Valley consistently takes home gold medals from the prestigious New York Olive Oil Competition each year, beating out more than 900 entries from 27 countries around the world.

As the very first olive mill in Sonoma, the now very popular destination came in 1995 from two local olive growers who, inspired by the mills of Italy and France, brought in Pieralisi processing equipment. Today, it produces housemade olive oil and products including olive oil marinated nuts. It also crushes olives for local wineries and estates, and olives from small, home growers. During fall harvest, it’s fascinating to watch the huge bins pour the glistening green and black fruit into crushers, which lead to spinning machines separating out the golden oil.

The Press is a locals’ favorite, too, for tasting and buying dozens of different oils infused with fresh flavors such as lemon, ruby red grapefruit or jalapeño, plus local herbs like sage, garlic or basil.

“…America’s best olive oil often comes from Sonoma County, not just what’s been imported from Europe.”

Vodka of the vine

I’d never really thought about vodka before moving to Sonoma County 15 years ago. Potatoes or grains, right? Yet the family-owned company Hanson of Sonoma Distillery has been crafting small batch vodka from certified organic grapes since 2012, and opened a new distillery in Carneros-Sonoma two years later. Each bottle is hand-stamped and signed (small batch, indeed!), and you can tour the distillery to see how the spirits are lovingly made.

I still remember the thrill of my first sip of the Original Organic vodka. The 80-proof delight is crisp, smooth and crystal clean, with such silkiness it’s easy to drink straight up. But the Hansons also infuse their vodka with organic ginger, mandarin, cucumber, boysenberry, espresso or habanero. Even more thrilling, I’ve decided.

I like spice, so the ginger appeals with its somewhat fiery pepper-lime kick, while the habanero intrigues with a bit of sweetness and lemongrass beneath the flames. My tasting host suggests ginger in a Sonoma Mule with ginger beer, and habanero in a Bloody Mary of fresh-squeezed tomato juice.

I encourage my guests to sample them all, and take home a bottle of each of the only-in-Sonoma products.

Discover more delectable tastes of Sonoma Valley.

Be sure to explore Sonoma Valley during January for a month of culinary activities along our 17 miles of wineries, farms and quaint villages. Visit Sonoma Valley Delicious for more information!