I love living in San Francisco because it is to my mind one of the most beautiful, interesting and fun cities in the world. But surely one of the things I love most about it is that you can easily and quickly get out of it, and be somewhere truly different, yet at least as wonderful. We go for weekenders at least once and sometimes several times a year up on the Sonoma Coast, a place about which I've previously gushed. But we can just as easily make a day trip of it.
This morning, for example, we went up to The Fremont Diner in Sonoma, about an hour north, to meet up with a couple friends for brunch. As soon as you cross the Golden Gate Bridge, the frenzy of city living peels away in layers behind you, and before long you're surrounded by rolling hills, and then fields of grapevines currently undergoing their autumnal turn of color. We sat at a picnic table outdoors, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather -- truly, our second Indian summer so far -- and ate our chicken fried steak and shrimp 'n grits as hens sauntered around us. An hour later, we're back home, like nothing ever happened.
We went up today, a Saturday, to accommodate our friends' schedule, but for us it's become the exception to the rule. Now that we're both independent, the very concept of "weekend" becomes meaningless. In fact, half the time we don't know what day it actually is. On the one hand, it's wonderful being liberated from the rigidity of a Monday-to-Friday work week. On the other, there's nothing, no cadence to prevent us from just working all the time, every day, without stopping to take a breath.
And so we make the occasional trip to the Wine Country, sometimes on a Monday, or perhaps on a Wednesday. Because we can. And because if we don't, our hard-fought independence will ironically enslave us into quotidien drudgery.
Just after Christmas, thanks to a windfall of Williams-Sonoma gift cards, we purchased a Soda Club Penguin Soda Maker. We really enjoy sparkling water, but more or less stopped buying it out of guilt for the amount of bottle waste involved. That, and our preferred brand is Gerolsteiner, out of Germany, and we just couldn't justify consuming such an absurd amount of food miles for something as pedestrian as water, when we live in a society where what comes out of the tap is more than adequate.
Now, with the Penguin, we have four one-liter carafes that we reuse to carbonate our Hetch Hetchy. The carafe goes into the device, the top is lowered, and you press down on a lever, which releases CO2 into the water. It makes a series of amusing sounds, starting with a gurgling that escalates to a high-pitched whine, and then a satisfying PFFFF as you release the pressure. And voilà, sparkling water.
Shortly after we became Penguin addicts, I jokingly mused that they should also make a device that turns water into wine. They could call it the JesusTM. After all, we face the same issues of bottle waste and food miles with wine (though we do drink a lot of locally-sourced wines), and there's not really an alternative.
Or is there?
I recently made the acquaintance of a certain Hardy Wallace. Anyone who dabbles in the intersection of social media and food/wine may find that name familiar. Last year, Murphy-Goode winery held a contest to hire a social media "lifestyle correspondent." Out of 10 finalists, Hardy, who writes the blog Dirty South Wine, was selected, this kicking off a six-month gig as blogger, vlogger and all-around evangelist for the brand. At the end of that six months, Hardy opted to take things a different direction.
Among the many people Hardy befriended in his tenure was Kevin Kelley of Lioco and his own label, Salinia. Kelley was in the throes of starting up a new wine product, called The Natural Process Alliance, a.k.a., The NPA. Hardy found something he could be passionate about.
The NPA's manifesto goes beyond the garden-variety green practices that --thankfully! -- are infiltrating the wine industry today. Sure, the grapes are organic at least in practice if not always certification, but that's just one piece of the puzzle. Kelley is taking winemaking back to its roots, if you'll pardon the expression.
On our way home from Sea Ranch on Sunday we stopped in for lunch at Eloise in Sebastopol. It's become our go-to spot when heading up to the coast, which we do with some frequency. This was perhaps our fourth or fifth visit in scarcely a year, our first being a celebratory dinner during an ersatz honeymoon last October.
Shuna turned us on to the place, and in the months since we'd come to be very fond of it. We loved the charming and aromatic garden, full of lavender and herbs, that flanked the front. We loved the homey simplicity of the interior, the way the light played off the walls and filled the airy space. The service always was casual but not too casual, friendly without being inappropriately chummy. And the food -- simple, well-prepared food -- was a refreshing tonic to high-concept wine country fare.
When we arrived this time, we had just come off two hours of winding Route 1 curves. I am not prone to motion sickness; the only time I have ever been afflicted was on a deep-sea fishing expedition on choppy waters for eight hours. Still, upon arriving I was feeling the kind of disorientation you do from a carnival ride or, say, a ritual hazing.
I was still shaking off the woozies when we were seated. We were six, at the tail end of the lunch service, and they seated us at the far end. As my senses came back to me, I became increasingly aware all was not right.
Saturday afternoon, our final day in Sea Ranch, we went strolling along the bluffs. The sun was sparkling on calm seas, the sun shone warmly upon us, and a brisk, cool breeze buffeted our backs. Jim broke out the stunt kite, which pulled with such force it made the tethers hum like guitar strings, and forced him to crouch down to lower his center of gravity lest he be thrown forward.
Down on the water, among the kelp tops, we noticed a red flag; moments after a man appeared in the rocks at the foot of the bluff, rising from the surf like Swamp Thing. Shortly thereafter, his friend came in with the red-flagged raft, containing two mesh bags full of abalone.
Our friend Joe is an ab diver. When we mention this to others, they remark how lucky we are to have a friend like that, but the reality is we've seen just one mollusk from him in the years we've known him. This is in part because abalones are pretty heavily overfished and the quotas are restrictive. But the real reason is that Joe is a master barterer, and abs make for good trade.
We've come to assume that all divers treasure their bounty so dearly, and small wonder. Ab diving is a dangerous business. Aside from having to immerse yourself in the shockingly cold waters of the Pacific, ab divers are allowed only to free-dive; no oxygen tanks are allowed. Abalone live in kelp forests and on the sea floor, so you have to have excellent breath control and dexterity underwater. Most alarmingly, humans in wet suits tend to resemble seals -- and you're in shark-infested waters.
As we came back up the trail, the first diver was there, parked in the cul-de-sac around the corner from the house. Three large abalone lay on their backs on the road beside his truck. We remarked that he seemed to have a good outing. "You like abalone?" he asked.
"Sure," we replied.
"You know what to do with them?"
"You bet." DPaul and I remember very well our friend Kathleen preparing a sizable ab of Joe's a number of years back.
"You want one?"
We hesitated. I replied, "Sure, how much?"
"Oh, no. You can have one. I get tons of these things." He went on to explain he was in a competition, and so after measuring the three abs, gave us the smallest one, which was still some eight inches in length and easily three pounds. We had ample wine, so we offered him a nice bottle of pinot noir in trade.
I'm on the road today, heading up to Sea Ranch to spend a long weekend with my husband, my mother and several friends to celebrate my birthday on Friday. Age is just a number, but this number will end with a 0, so I wanted to do something special to mark the occasion. I could think of nothing better than to go to one of my favorite places on earth and be surrounded by a collection of people I love and love being with. I am looking forward to a few days of lounging about by the fireplace, walking along the bluffs, perhaps seeing a whale or two, and just soaking in the cool, fresh sea air.