California is one ongoing “wine country” with dozens of appellations and massive regions home to hundreds of winemaking pioneers and varieties grown from south to north. Napa is the region that not only put California wine on the map but New World wine as a whole, ever since the game-changing Judgment of Paris 1976. With sprawling neighbor Sonoma County and the stunning Mendocino County just north of Napa and Sonoma Counties, it’s understandable that spirits and cocktails would always be in the shadow of Mother Wine in NorCal’s wine mecca.

But the region’s distilling pioneers have also led the way, especially Hubert Germain-Robin from Cognac, France, and Milorad (Miles) Karakasevic from the former Yugoslavia, who both launched distilleries/wineries in the early 1980s: Germain-Robin and Charbay respectively. Bringing their Old World distilling traditions in brandy (Cognac-style and fruit brandies) with them, they reveled in California’s bounty and the rich grapes and fruits they could work with outside of the more confined European rules of distillation. These Wine Country trailblazers (Hubert in Ukiah, Mendocino Co., Miles on Spring Mountain in Napa’s St. Helena) modeled what “craft” distilling was decades before it caught on nationally. In this issue, I interview Miles’ son, Marko, who has launched many beloved products and heads the distilling side of Charbay, now in Ukiah. The Karakasevic family still runs Charbay Winery and Distillery, while Germain-Robin is now owned by E. & J. Gallo, recently releasing their updated line of brandies.

Again, in a region where grapes and wine rule, craft distillers have proliferated in the past decade. Game changers include the mostly female distiller-led Spirit Works (spiritworksdistillery.com) in Sebastopol, which produces one of the best sloe gins in the world, gin, vodka and a range of whiskeys distilled from California-grown, organic grains. They were also named ADI’s 2020 Distillery of the Year.

Adam Spiegel has taken Sonoma Distilling Co. (sonomadistillingcompany.com) far in his expanded Rohnert Park distillery, producing a range of whiskeys with mostly California-grown grain. Husband-wife-run Griffo Distillery (griffodistillery.com) in Petaluma shines in gin and whiskey as well as coffee liqueur. With a lovely bar/distillery in downtown Petaluma, husband-wife-run Barber Lee Spirits (barberleespirits.com) also corners whiskey and excels in absinthe.

Hanson of Sonoma Distillery (hansonofsonoma.com) offers Girl and the Fig (a decades-old downtown Sonoma restaurant) boxed lunches and picnics in their garden by a pond as well as tastings in their Sausalito tasting room during the pandemic. Other distilleries in the region include Napa Valley Distillery (napadistillery.com) in Napa, Alley 6 Craft Distillery (alley6.com) and Young & Yonder (youngandyonder.com) in Healdsburg, Sonoma Brothers Distilling (sonomabrothersdistilling.com) in Windsor, Lightning Spirits (lightningspiritsco.com) in Petaluma, Rapscallion Spirits (rapscallionspirits.com) in Ukiah and Jaxon Keys Winery & Distillery (jaxonkeyswinery.com) in Hopland.

Our bar manager interview this issue is the dynamic foursome that runs Healdsburg’s Duke’s Spirited Cocktails and soon-to-open Burdock. They bring San Francisco/big city quality to a small town, not so easy to find across these three massive counties where cocktails have radically improved the last decade but often can still fall behind the average in the city. The mid-2000s ushered in Sonoma County cocktail pioneer, Scott Beattie, who first made his mark at the acclaimed restaurant Cyrus before going on to launch the bars at Goose and Gander and Spoonbar. He pioneered culinary cocktails, sourcing local ingredients and was dehydrating citrus and garnishes (much of it from his own backyard) long before that trended everywhere. He published his book, Artisanal Cocktails, back in 2008, paving the way for all of Wine Country and influencing many of SF’s best bartenders.

There are drinking options everywhere in a region born of drink, including top-notch wine bars like master sommelier-run Compline (complinewine.com) and hip CADET (cadetbeerandwinebar.com) in downtown Napa, both with bottle shops. Wine Country bars range from rooftop views and cocktails at Sky & Vine atop the Archer hotel in downtown Napa or balanced cocktails with top-notch food on the porch at Chris Cosentino’s Acacia House in the Las Alcobas hotel in Napa’s St. Helena (don’t miss their signature salty foam Margarita). There are quality cocktails at Perry Lang’s (perrylangs.com) retro-cool steakhouse in Yountville, carbonated and Japanese-influenced cocktails at Sebastopol’s Ramen Gaijin restaurant (ramengaijin.com) and basement and garden cocktails at St. Helena’s Goose & Gander (goosegander.com).

In these brutal times of pandemic, we know a good majority of our beloved bars have had to close nationally and many won’t be able to reopen. We are hoping in such a rich region — one that thrives on tourism — all will survive, especially those crafting quality spirits and cocktails. In the spirit of hope, we tribute 10 Wine Country bar standouts. Along with all the local distillers, we pray all will survive as we push through pandemic. Please refer to individual websites for ways to support, whether via gift certificates, delivery/takeout, outdoor dining/drinks or GoFundMe pages.

Sonoma County

Duke’s Spirited Cocktails, Healdsburg

Run by Sonoma County bar greats Laura Sanfilippo, Tara Heffernon, Steven Maduro and Cappy Sorentino, Duke’s Spirited Cocktails is truly a top bar in all three counties (and thus our bar manager interview this issue). All four bartenders met and worked together at nearby Spoonbar, which was first put on the map by Scott Beattie when it opened. They went on to open Duke’s, which walks that fine line between laid-back yet celebratory; as welcoming to locals as visitors; with cocktails as crushable as they are artisanal. Surviving pandemic with canned cocktails, takeout and outdoor dining, their marriage of accessible yet interesting cocktails confirms their appeal to cocktail geeks and the layperson (case in point: Rangpur More mixes local Sipsong Gin, Rangpur lime shrub, pink peppercorn, saffron, lime, house tonic). We have no doubt their more upscale bar Burdock will be as special as Duke’s. drinkatdukes.com

Fern Bar, Sebastopol

Fern Bar may be the most beautiful bar in Sonoma County, so it’s a shame when outdoor is the only option given the bar’s airy, fern-heavy vibe. And yes, in tribute to the classic fern bars of the ’70s–’80s, they are peppered with Tiffany lamps, velvet antique couches and chairs. Being situated in Sebastopol’s hip The Barlow area, they have ample outdoor seating. Opened by the crew behind the town’s long-beloved Lowell’s and newer Handline restaurants, Fern Bar is heavy on gourmet comfort food (fried chicken), with half the menu vegetarian (mushroom-centric posole). House-made beer and spirit-free elixirs are on offer alongside small-production wines. Cocktails like Salt Point (brown butter-infused bourbon, hemp seed orgeat, CA Grand Poppy Amaro, Alley 6 Candy Cap bitters, acid-adjusted orange juice, salt) are both interesting and quaffable. fernbar.com

Barber Lee Spirits, Petaluma

Lorraine and Michael Barber launched their wines in 2007, then a wine tasting room, Barber Cellars (barbercellars.com), and in 2019, a distillery, Barber Lee Spirits, on the same block in downtown Petaluma. Their wines are organic and natural, while Michael’s Southern roots come through in his love of bourbon and rye, both done well here (although I’m particularly partial to their absinthe). Partnering with SF’s Aaron Lee in 2017, they opened their distillery in a lofty, historic 1910 warehouse. It houses a charming bar serving cocktails featuring their spirits and local bitters. Here’s to the bar reopening. In the meantime, you can order the spirits to sip neat and/or make cocktails with at home. barberleespirits.com

Mario & John’s, Petaluma

Mario & John’s has been the standout whiskey and spirits collection in the southern part of the county (up north in Healdsburg, Duke’s has a 500+ spirits collection). The chill bar has been going strong since 1946, while Nick Diego and Micah Porter took it over in 2013, radically stepping up the cocktails, beers-on-draft and spirits selection, with over 600 spirits, a good 400 of them whiskeys. During pandemic, they gave the bar a bit of a facelift and paid employees from March through July 1st when they finally had to lay everyone off and stay in “hibernation” mode, as it just didn’t make financial sense to even do to-go cocktails. The hope and goal is to reopen once bars and indoor dining establishments are allowed to do so. marioandjohns.com

Bird & the Bottle, Santa Rosa

Stark Restaurants is a venerable restaurant group across the county. But in Santa Rosa, the county’s biggest city, quality cocktails still are few except for hit-and-miss (yet artful) cocktails at Perch + Plow (perchandplow.com). Stark’s Bird and the Bottle is a casual tavern offering wood-fired and house-smoked foods, nailing seafood and barbecue dishes (don’t miss their pastrami tacos). Their cocktails are easy drinking, seemingly simple, but made with balance and care. With patio dining and takeout, they offer large format bottles to go, including cocktail favorites like What Pho? (a mix of Old Grand-Dad Bourbon and Rittenhouse Rye, lemon, house tamarind drinking vinegar) and ideal food pairings like B&B (gin, dry vermouth, dill drinking vinegar, lime, cucumber water). birdandthebottle.com

Mendocino County

Fog Eater Cafe, Mendocino

Spectacularly stunning and varied as Mendocino County is, from its rocky, cliffy, redwood-strewn coast to meandering, winery-and-farm-rich Anderson Valley, it’s not the county to find solid cocktails but for rare exceptions like the Little River Inn. Thankfully, brightly colored, charming Fog Eater Cafe opened in 2018. Besides being one of the better food options in the Victorian village of Mendo proper (serving “California cuisine with a Southern twang,” and all vegetarian), it’s also the only place I’ve found vintage glassware and low-proof sherry and vermouth cocktails in the entire county. Their adorable garden is open for outdoor dining alongside takeout. Their cocktail menu is reduced to a couple drinks during pandemic, but you’ll still find thoughtful imbibements with a sense of place, like The Briney Glimmer: Douglas fir and cypress-infused manzanilla sherry, Lo-Fi dry vermouth and kombu (edible kelp) tincture.
fogeatercafe.com/drinks-menu

Napa County

The Charter Oak, St. Helena (Napa)

What was an interesting, creative cocktail menu for Napa Valley is now in abbreviated, straightforward bottled cocktail mode during pandemic (think bottled spritzes and mimosas). But being from the team behind Christopher Kostow’s three Michelin-starred The Restaurant at Meadowood, the Charter Oak’s elevated hearth-fired dishes are met with, yes, common cocktails but elevated. Case in point, the clarified margarita (in regular and spicy versions), mixing reposado tequila, Clement Creole Shrubb, lime and citrus sherbet with habañero tincture if you go spicy. We look forward to a full bar return, but this margarita and other bottled cocktails taste damn good in their gorgeous outdoor garden. thecharteroak.com

Miminashi, Napa

Downtown Napa’s modern Japanese izakaya offers takeout and outdoor dining serving chawanmushi, binchotan-grilled corn, Japanese-inspired small plates and noodle dishes, while also continuing their cocktails, sake and beers. Their cocktails veer toward classic with a twist or Asian influence. Think a Bee’s Knees variation (cleverly named Bees Sneeze) with white pepper, fennel pollen and yellow Chartreuse. Or the Stone Fizz with plum-infused vodka with peach and apricot cordial, lime, orange bitters and yuzu soda. miminashi.com

La Taberna, Napa

With limited outdoor dining and takeout in pandemic, La Taberna remains a treasure because it’s the rare Wine Country option for a proper Spanish pintxos (bites), bocadillos, tapas, as well as an authentic Spain-style watering hole with sherry, vermut (vermouth), port, Madeira, Spanish wines and sidra (cider). Run by Armando Ramirez and Mick Salyer, La Taberna was serving Porto Tonico (a.k.a. white port and tonics) since they opened in 2014, well before the refreshing Portuguese staple started trending nationally. They still offer their port and tonics alongside lovely, low-proof sherry and vermouth cocktails. latabernanapa.com

Solbar, Calistoga

SolBar, the restaurant inside the lux Solage Calistoga resort, is set amid the soothing nature of Napa Valley’s northern end. They always had patio, poolside dining, so that continues during the pandemic, serving gourmet, heartwarming food from chef Gustavo Rios, who sources ingredients from nearby farmers and ranchers. They also offer cocktails to-go and a thoughtful section of zero-proof “cocktails.” You’ll see local spirits and aperitivos highlighted in cocktails like Picon 1-2 Punch (local Jardesca Red Aperitiva, “Amer Solage” a house blend, cardamom and lemon) or Sex in the Valley (Charbay Green Tea Vodka, thyme, mint, cucumber, house lemonade). solage.aubergeresorts.com   



Previous articleTaking Sides
Next articleThe Sourcing Transition
Virginia Miller
Virginia Miller has been San Francisco editor for Zagat, VP of Content/National Editor at Table8, SF Guardian food/drink critic, Time Out and writes about spirits, cocktails and bars around the world at Liquor.com. Miller also freelances for Food Republic, Thrillist, Whisky Magazine UK, Paste Magazine, Where Magazine, London Times and Eater, to name a few. Virginia has judged countless food and cocktail competitions and on spirits panels. She shares her favorites in food and drink on her own site, The Perfect Spot.