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A Northern California Wine Bootcamp Adventure: From Boonville to Sebastopol

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A variety of single vineyard Littorai wines (Trevor Felch/KQED)

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After virtuous granola bowls and many glasses of outstanding Philo Apple Farm apple juice that make up the serve-yourself breakfast at the Boonville Hotel, it was time for the long trek to Sebastopol’s sprawling Barlow food & drink complex.

First, though, we stopped in Healdsburg en route for Flying Goat coffee and then Meg joined us at one of the country’s definitive cult following wineries.

  1. Kosta Browne Winery
  2. Lunch: The Farmer’s Wife
  3. Littorai Wines
  4. Freeman Vineyard & Winery
  5. Dinner: Ramen Gaijin

Kosta Browne Winery

220 Morris St.
Sebastopol, CA 95472

Tasting time at Kosta Browne Winery in Sebastopol
Tasting time at Kosta Browne Winery in Sebastopol (Trevor Felch/KQED)

This was my second visit to Kosta Browne’s contemporary, sleek, sort of secretive Barlow home after meeting Hospitality Manager Damon Wong at a San Francisco event a few years ago. Wong is a fountain of knowledge about everything food and wine related, and he makes you want to have this wine. And you do indeed want this wine that started so humbly as a hobby project in 1997 by two Santa Rosa waiters, Dan Kosta and Michael Browne.


Kosta Browne wines’ forte is in the start-to-finish polish of these Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs. In addition to two winery visits, I have now tasted the wines at two exceptional pairing dinners, one at Petit Crenn and one at the winery with chef Mike Lofaro of HumuHumu restaurant in Maui.

With food or without, the wines show strength, spectacular fruit notes across the board, and a definitive layered texture. Of course, it remains to be seen if the recent purchase of the winery by the more corporate Duckhorn company will make substantial changes. Getting the wines is financially daunting and the waitlist to be a member is long, so most of us won’t know anyway. However, John and I acknowledged later that there might be an unending hype for Kosta Browne, but these are indeed some of the more spectacular, textbook perfect wines we may ever get to try.

3 wines to try: 2016 El Diablo Chardonnay, 2016 Mt. Carmel Pinot Noir, 2016 Free James Pinot Noir

Also consider: Merry Edwards, Hanzell, Ceritas

Lunch: The Farmer’s Wife

6760 McKinley St Unit 120, Sebastopol

Former San Francisco Chronicle writer Sarah Fritsche once declared the grilled cheese by this previously only pop-ups and farmer’s market’s vendor as one of the Bay Area’s premier sandwiches. She’s right. Lunch at its newly opened Barlow kiosk proved that the grilled cheese and all the sandwiches offered really are destination-worthy. The exceptional cookies were equally as notable.

Note: The Farmer's Wife closed for several months after this visit because of damage sustained from major flooding. Fortunately, it has reopened.

Also consider: Handline, Fork Roadhouse, K&L Bistro; don’t forget ice cream at Screamin’ Mimi’s

Littorai Wines

788 Gold Ridge Rd.
Sebastopol, CA 95472

The organic estate vineyards at Littorai Wines in Sebastopol
The organic estate vineyards at Littorai Wines in Sebastopol (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Winemaker/owner Ted Lemon is a California wine icon partly because his Littorai wines are downright delicious and partly because he is a pioneer in tying together biodynamic farming, biodiversity, and high-level winemaking. We’re not calling him the Alice Waters of California Wine because that’s cliché, but he’s had a similar impact in a similar way in really advocating the biodiversity niche of this agricultural product.

Alexander Valley Wineries

Visiting Lemon’s Sebastopol estate is as much a winery visit as it is a farm visit and guests are always astonished at how Lemon was a Brown University graduate who worked at four Burgundy houses by the age of 24. We had the chance to try a fantastic Littorai Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, but this winery is all about exploring distinct coastal vineyard Pinot Noirs that all have excellent brightness and acidity — never too fruity or chewy; excellent balance.

You taste the land and the cleanliness of the grapes and barrels in each expression, never with the funk like in the wines of Lemon’s followers who have turned biodynamic/natural wine so trendy and controversial. It’s wine made naturally...not natural wine.

3 wines to try: 2014 One Acre Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, 2014 Theriot Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, 2009 May’s Canyon Guerneville Pinot Noir

Also consider: Horse & Plow, Benziger, Quivira

Freeman Vineyard & Winery

1300 Montgomery Rd.
Sebastopol, CA 95472

Freeman Winery’s winemaker Akiko Freeman at the winery’s cave in Sebastopol
Freeman Winery’s winemaker Akiko Freeman at the winery’s cave in Sebastopol (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Before even trying Freeman’s excellent Pinot Noir from the winery’s two “estates,” we were fascinated by two things: the spectacular cave dug into a Sebastopol hill on the Freeman’s home “Gloria Estate” and the story of how husband-and-wife owners Akiko and Ken Freeman met at a keg party as college students in New York (when she was an exchange student from Japan) during Hurricane Gloria, hence the home estate’s namesake. Akiko thought that this keg party was like any ol’ party, so she dressed up to the nines for it…and was quite surprised with what she found at this “party.”

Well, Ken wooed her despite the bad beer in the kegs and her feeling a bit overdressed for the occasion, and all turned out swell as Akiko later followed him to San Francisco, where she decided to study Italian Renaissance history at Stanford for graduate school.

A copy of the entertainment program and menu from the 2015 White House dinner hosted by President Obama for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, where Freeman Winery’s Ryo-fu Chardonnay was served
A copy of the entertainment program and menu from the 2015 White House dinner hosted by President Obama for Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, where Freeman Winery’s Ryo-fu Chardonnay was served (Trevor Felch/KQED)

Sure, all of those paintings might have been fun to read about, but she radically shifted gears to now be a self-taught winemaker whose 2013 Ryo-fu Chardonnay was served at a President Obama state dinner for Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, paired with vegetable consommé en croûte with “shikai maki” sushi. For good measure, the Jersey Boys cast sang at the same event. With that music and Freeman wine, oh, what a night that must have been. For the three of us, it was hard to beat the Pinot Noir lineup at Freeman, just like at the other two Sebastopol stops of Day 4.

3 wines to try: 2016 Gloria Estate Pinot Noir, 2016 Yu-Ki Estate Pinot Noir, 2015 Akiko’s Cuvée Pinot Noir

Also consider: Kistler, Emeritus, Balletto

Dinner: Ramen Gaijin; Anthill Farms 2016 Sonoma Coast Syrah

6948 Sebastopol Ave., Sebastopol

The ramen is excellent at this always popular and très hip spot right by the Barlow, but Ramen Gaijin is really about a stellar blend of classic Japanese izakaya dishes and other downright creative offerings. Don’t miss the cocktails, gyoza or black sesame ice cream with miso caramel.

Wine-wise, Anthill Farms is a trio of young, extremely talented winemakers with other industry day jobs who source fruit from Sonoma and Mendocino Counties, and they make fantastic single-vineyard Pinot Noirs, along with a little Syrah and Chardonnay.

Also consider: Gravenstein Grill, Lowell’s, Fern Bar


Head back to Wine Bootcamp Central for the full guide of wineries and eateries we visited.

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