Tag Archives: Sonoma County

on the road: wine country gardens

Heading into Marin

The daylight was ending as we crossed the bridge into the wine country north of San Francisco.

Marin at dusk

Things were developing that gorgeous warm tint that you only see for a few minutes of the day. People had set aside the next day to visit some wineries, and this gorgeous evening was the best preparation you could ask for.

Tasting glass

We stopped at three wineries, and you pick up pretty quickly that the vineyards are interested in promoting a lifestyle as part of the process of sending you home with a few bottles of wine. To set the mood, each location we visited played its own riff on the basic formula that wineries follow: a tasting bar, personable servers, a gift shop, and–most interesting for me–some sort of garden setting around the facility.

Rodney Strong oak barrels

Rodney Strong stainless tanks

Stop #1 was the largest, most industrial place that we were to visit that day, Rodney Strong Vineyards. You could stroll around an elevated perch and take a look at the oak casks and the stainless tanks holding their next bottlings.

Rodney Strong planter boxes

Set in the middle of your basic picturesque Sonoma County vineyards, their take seemed to be fairly minimalist, that the grapes around the winery were garden enough. But they did have some attractive planter boxes lining the steps ascending to the tasting room.

Rodney Strong Calibrachoa and zinnias

Being high summer, their plantings featured brilliant zinnias, marigolds and calibrachoa in what I’d call a real-world planting, selections that anyone could find at their local garden center, nothing too fussy or scary or exotic.

The message they wanted to convey through their setting: We want to make your visit pleasurable, but we’re primarily about the wine. Our wines might be a better value because we don’t splurge on the unnecessary theatrics.

Across the parking lot was destination #2, J Vineyards. The approach to the front door passes casual-looking plantings of grasses, sedges and flax.

J vineyards stones and grass like plants

In Designing with Plants by Piet Oudolff and Noel Kingsbury, the authors caution against mixing plantings of different grasses. But here the technique of mixing different plants with strong linear forms succeeds beautifully. (Definitely a case in point that design guidelines are meant to be broken.)

J Vineyards seating over pond

To get in the tasting room you cross a little bridge over a pond teeming with water plants. The hardscape is cut through with strong linear elements, but the plants seem to defy the geometry, with clumps of one kind of plant cascading from one level to the next, not accentuating the structure like boxwoods planting along a driveway. Winetasting–with optional finger foods–can happen indoors, or on the patio overlooking the garden.

The message they wanted to convey through their setting: We’re not the least expensive winery out there, but what’s wrong with an occasional splurge every now and then?.

Potted plant in Healdsburg

Oversized pots with spiky plants were a common feature. This blue potted succulent was set next to a rough woven vine fence in downtown Healdsburg, where we stopped for lunch. I’m sure their gardener pruned the pointy lower leaves off the plant to avoid injury to the masses passing through, but I personally hate to see gorgeous symmetrical plants disfigured this way.

Mazzocco vineyard glazed pot

Our last winery stop, Mazzocco Vineyards, also featured a spiky plant–a flax–planted in a big pot–this one a model with beautifully dripping glaze.

Mazzocco Vineyard outdoor seating

Mazzocco patio

The smallest of the three stops that day, the winery featured low-growing drought-tolerant plants and some annuals set in a small theater set that evoked a casual resort set in the middle of oaked foothills. A berm along the adjacent roadway created a sense of shelter and avoided the road noises that would have spoiled the mood.

The setting was simple and casual, nothing so spectacular that you had to stop to look at it, but a pleasant place to relax and spend part of an afternoon.

The message they wanted to convey through their setting: We’re all about rustic elegance. Our wines are direct and connected to the land. (Their offerings happened to offer a large number of vineyard-designated bottlings of zinfandel, many with its own strong character.)

My favorites that day?
Wines: Mazzocco. (I didn’t sample at the first stop.)
Gardens: J.

But they’d all be worth a visit. (And my thanks to our designated driver that day!)

on the road: luther burbank’s farm

History is a fragile thing, something that I was reminded of on my recent visit to Sonoma County.

Burbank Shasta daisies

Pioneering plantsman Luther Burbank moved to this area in the mid-1880s, making his home in Santa Rosa, and establishing a plant breeding and trial location nearby on Gold Ridge, in present-day Sebastapol. Over his career, which included over 40 years of work at this location, he developed and introduced hundreds of varieties of food crops and ornamental plants–including the still-popular Shasta daisy, and was pretty much the Thomas Edison of the plant world.

You can visit his main residence in Santa Rosa, but it was the Gold Ridge Experiment Farm where the work of coming up with the new varieties took place. Our host in Sebastapol basically said that there wasn’t much to see of the farm anymore. But I was curious to stand in the middle of horticultural and agricultural history, so John and Jenny and I took a short trip to the site.

A small brown sign in downtown Sebastapol points to the farm, .7 miles away, and a second small brown sign down the road points left towards the location. The first thing that you see when you turn left, instead of some pastoral trial farm scene overflowing with historical flowers, is the bigger sign announcing the Burbank Heights & Orchards, an anonymous cluster of gray clapboard-sided apartment houses. A bit of trailblazing over the winding lane through the apartments eventually leads to a little yellow cottage in a clearing, along with a matching out-building and a greenhouse that must be as small as the bathrooms in the surrounding apartments.

Burbank barn and apartments

If it weren’t for the greenhouse it’d be hard to know that this was the destination. But this was it. What’s left of major botanical history. (You can see the apartments in the background.)

Burbank cottage

The cottage dates to 1906, when the San Francisco earthquake scrapped the original structure. There’s an adjacent little cottage garden, with some examples of Shasta daisies and other plants with ties to Burbank and this location.

Burbank nightshade

The hybrid penstemons here are modern varieties, but there’s an interesting unknown tall nightshade with purple flowers that was found growing on the site in 1980. Aside from the Shasta daisies, the plants of major historical interest here aren’t the horticultural pretties as much as the trees and shrubs nearby: Walnuts, berries, plums, cherries, hawthorns, roses, among many.

Some of the plants aren’t Burbank hybrids at all, but are stock that was used in his vegetable husbandry. Burbank’s work was all about improving on nature, not appreciating nature as it exists, so what nature you see in the form of the original species–including the Catalina Cherries native to California–were collected here for their potential value to what could be made with them.

In an article, “Luther Burbank : A Victim of Hero Worship,” Walter L. Howard writes that “[t]he science of breeding grew and advanced rapidly during the first two decades of the new century, and though it may not be generally recognized, the movement is traceable to Burbank as a potent activator. Professor H. J. Webber, a pioneer plant-breeder and geneticist and a contemporary of Burbank, has declared that through the influence of Burbank the science of plant breeding was advanced by at least twenty years and for this accomplishment alone, he deserved a sizable monument to his memory.” (Quoted at the Gold Ridge website.)

Today, Luther Burbank isn’t completely forgotten. There’s the little remaining farmstead, and the Burbank home in Santa Rosa. Burbank’s Shasta daisy is the official flower of Sebastapol. And there’s even a stretch of Highway 12 between Santa Rosa and Sebastapol that’s designated the Luther Burbank Memorial Highway. But Sonoma County, a region that’s living large as one of the hotspots of California wine country, seems a little distracted by other things than to pay large amounts of attention to a figure whose career saw the rise but not the fall of Prohibition in the United States.

So, should you plan a trip to God Ridge Experiment Farm? As a destination unto itself, probably not, unless you live nearby. But if you’re here for a visit to the Sonoma and Napa Valley wineries, sure, take the little side trip. It might be a little sad, but you’ll be glad you went.