Discover the lush herbal landscape of California wine country.
The moist, feathery fog of early morning rolls from the Pacific shore north of San Francisco Bay into the hills of California wine country. When the fog lifts, the verdant beauty of this land becomes apparent—vast acres of grapevines promising future pleasures, grand spires of fir and redwood, round-topped maples, and herb gardens so fragrant and expansive they take your breath away.
“Touring and tasting” has been a popular activity for both Californians and visitors for decades. These days, the thousands of visitors who pass over the Golden Gate Bridge north into Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino Counties can enjoy not only sampling the fruits of the area’s more than 400 wineries, but also strolling through acres of ornamental and edible landscaping. More and more people are discovering the delightful affinity of herbs and wine for each other.
The temperate climate of the area is often compared to that of Provence and other regions around the Mediterranean, where so many familiar culinary herbs originated and which also has a rich history of wine making. Many plants—herbs, grapes, and olive trees in particular—thrive in both locales.
During the summer, temperatures in California wine country may reach 100°F, but vineyards on the western side of the mountain ranges that divide the area often have morning fog that helps moderate temperatures. Rainfall is rare from May through September, a condition that both grapes and Mediterranean herbs prefer. Winters are pleasant and quite mild; a few freezing nights are not uncommon, but fair days with temperatures as high as the 70s provide ideal weather for garden strolling. In the spring, frequent rain and fog provide optimal growing conditions for gardens and budding vines.
When Sandra MacIver, the founder and owner of the 215-acre Matanzas Creek Winery in Sonoma County, looked at the area roughly the size of a football field in front of her visitors’ center six years ago, she envisioned a picture painted in lavender. In June, that vision is now reality, a spectacular, swaying sea of purple reminiscent of the lavender fields of Provence.
If this fragrant swath of purple transports people to the fields of southern France, it’s appropriate: Sonoma County has been dubbed the sister region of Provence. The inspiration to plant lavender merely strengthened the connection. “I’m proud that Matanzas Creek, where lavender blooms side by side with the vines, is the site that illustrates the image of Provence most dramatically,” MacIver says.
Two cultivars of lavender, Lavandula intermedia ‘Provence’ and L. i. ‘Grosso’ are set on 11/2 acres of terraced beds. When they are in full bloom, the parking lot overflows, and the street in front of the winery is lined with cars. As many people come to see the lavender as the winery, MacIver says. It is a favorite destination of landscapers, garden clubs, and especially artists. On a sunny day, thirty to forty artists sketching the grounds is a common sight.
The first planting took place in 1991 with 4500 plants arranged in rows mimicking the rows of grapevines. In early to mid-June, workers harvest more than two million stems by hand, as is done on the Côte d’Azur. The lavender pays for its own upkeep and, in fact, has become a second crop for the winery. Matanzas uses the lavender in its own lavender products and at its culinary events, then sells the remainder wholesale in both fresh and dried form. MacIver’s fondness for lavender as a culinary herb has led to plans to publish a compilation of lavender recipes from chefs across America.
Matanzas Creek’s herbs are not restricted to lavender, however. The winery has another 21/2 acres of estate gardens landscaped with rosemary, thyme, and other herbs and flowers.
The first wineries in California wine country, some dating back to the late 1850s, often included large vegetable and herb gardens as well as dairies and livestock to feed the families who owned the land and the laborers who worked the vines. Today, some winery owners have set out to recapture a bit of that vintage atmosphere by restoring the original gardens and buildings.
When Jack and Jamie Davies purchased the 100-year-old Schramsberg estate in the Napa Valley in 1965, the 175-acre property was in poor condition. In the thirty years since then, they have not only produced a line of highly praised champagnes, but also restored the picturesque Victorian house with its wide verandah and brought the original gardens back to their former splendor.
Impressive gardens greet guests at the main gate, stretch along the mile-long entrance road, surround all the buildings, and culminate at a main garden adjacent to the visitor center and house. The garden tour leads through more than two acres dotted with bay laurel trees, thick rosemary hedges that perfume the air, beds of bright flowers, and hundred-year-old trees. The landscaping includes ground covers of thymes, groupings of lavenders, and various sages. Jamie Davies also keeps pots of mint, basil, parsley, tarragon, sorrel, borage, and other culinary herbs within easy reach of the kitchen.
The gardens are a link to the past, modeled as they are after the winery’s original gardens, but they have grown and changed over the past thirty years. For Jamie Davies, the challenge is to maintain a sense of balance and harmony between the garden beds and the plants that grow wild in the surrounding area.
The challenge is to maintain a sense of balance and harmony between the garden beds and the plants that grow wild in the surrounding area.
Vineyard gardens also can create a sensual atmosphere that welcomes visitors. Lou Preston, owner of the 120-acre Preston Vineyards in Sonoma County, had the idea of creating a Mediterranean experience for visitors when he purchased the property in 1973. He now has several gardens on the grounds where visitors can nibble on herbs, enjoy the view, picnic, and even play bowling games such as Italian boccie and French boules. Next to the wine-tasting room, raised beds burgeon with purple, sweet, and Thai basils, oregano, rosemary, tarragon, lavender, lemon and English thyme, Italian and curly parsley, cilantro, cardoon, hot peppers, at least five varieties of sage, and ten varieties of garlic.
The herbs also play an important role in a popular secondary business at the winery—bread making. Preston began serving bread to cleanse the palate of wine tasters and help visitors understand the concept of wine as a food rather than merely an alcoholic beverage. The breads have become such a hit that he can hardly keep up with demand. The peasant-style loaves, which are baked in outdoor adobe ovens, often include herbs and vegetables from the garden, walnuts harvested from trees on the property, and cured olives and oil from the olive trees on the hillside terraces. Among Preston’s favorites are a Kalamata olive bread with rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, and lavender, a rosemary bread, and a walnut bread with dried oregano.
Fetzer Vineyards’ five-acre Bonterra Garden at its fifty-acre Valley Oaks Ranch in Mendocino County showcases edible herbs, ornamental flowers, berries, vegetables, and fruit trees. The garden plays an important role in the operation of the vineyard, says garden supervisor Kate Frey.
Designer Michael Maltas strove to make the gardens an oasis for visitors. The herb garden’s formal crescent-shaped layout blends gracefully with the surrounding golden oak trees, hills of grapevines, and an impressive mountain. It contains rosemary, at least six varieties of thyme, lavender, numerous basils, fennel, oregano, lemon verbena, chives, scented geraniums, lamb’s-ears, and mint. With a tour guide or on their own, visitors are encouraged to stroll through the gardens, glass in hand, and sample herbs with the wine. Wine makers at Fetzer have found that certain herbs can both cleanse the palate between tastings and highlight the flavors of the wines, particularly whites. They suggest pairing anise hyssop, bronze fennel, chocolate and candy mints, and most basils with Chardonnays, for example.
Herbs and wine are two of California wine country’s premier offerings. A tour of the region demonstrates many ways in which they complement each other—their flavors, fragrances, place in the landscape, how deeply they satisfy us.
O, for a draught of vintage! that hath been Cool’d a long age in the deep-delved earth, Tasting of Flora and the country green. . . .”
—John Keats, “Ode to a Nightingale”
Audrey Scano, assistant editor of The Herb Companion and Herbs for Health magazines, is spending her winter planning her first herb garden at her home in Loveland, Colorado.
No matter what time of year you choose to visit, California wine country can saturate your senses. During the winter, the vines are cut back, but opportunities for visitors certainly are not. According to Lou Preston of Preston Vineyards, winter is a wonderful time to stroll through the still-lush gardens and hills and then return to the toasty, aromatic tasting rooms. He notes that when the weather is gray and foggy, a fine mist settles on the garden and makes the colors even more vibrant than usual.
Most vineyards remain open to visitors in the winter. Because they are not as busy as during the summer, you’ll have a chance to talk with gardeners and wine makers in a more relaxed setting. In late November and early December, Fetzer holds its annual holiday festival, transforming the visitor center into a winter playland with carriage rides and caroling, and for Valentine’s Day, there’s a red wine and chocolate festival.
Schramsberg Vineyards’ Jamie Davies finds the Napa Valley at its most colorful in spring, when the flower and herb gardens put forth a glorious abundance and mild temperatures tempt garden wanderers.
During the hot, dry summers, the gardens peak—and so do the crowds of visitors. At Matanzas Creek Winery, early summer is considered prime time for visitors. In June, the lavender fields explode into full bloom, and both the aroma and the sight are stunning.
In late summer and early fall, the vines are heavy with fruit, and the sweet smell of ripe grapes fills the air. As October comes to a close, the delicious aroma of fermentation beckons.
13601 Eastside Rd.
Hopland, CA 95449
Visitors’ hours: daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Matanzas Creek Winery
6097 Bennett Valley Rd.
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
Visitors’ hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.;
Sunday, noon to 4 p.m.
9282 W. Dry Creek Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448 (707) 433-3372
Visitors’ hours: daily, 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
1400 Schramsberg Rd.
CA 94515 (707) 942-4558
Visitors are welcome by appointment.