Japanese Ryokan in Northern California wine country

It isn’t what I expected to find in the midst of the Northern California vineyards.

But when I pulled off the road in Glen Ellen, a quaint village in Sonoma County’s Valley of the Moon, there it was, Gaige House + Ryokan, a tastefully- designed, 23-room Japanese bed-and- breakfast inn, hidden behind a profusion of small maples – all under the protective umbrella of a giant magnolia tree. As I look back on the experience, it was obviously well worth the decision to meander about an hour north of San Francisco to Glen Ellen.

This is where the celebrated author, Jack London, the author of The Valley of the Moon, built his ranch in the early part of the 20th century, and of course, Jack London State Historic Park is named in his honor.

An official Sonoma County historic landmark, Gaige House is a charming Victorian home on the edge of Calabazas Creek and an example of 19th-century Queen Anne architecture.

When I walked up to the front porch, I imagined that once inside, I would find a typical Victorian home. But what actually greeted me was a kind of Zen simplicity.

After completing check-in, I decided to look around, and the first thing I found was the club room with wine and sake on a small table. I walked around a bit more and saw the living room, which had several board games, including Go, a Chinese game which I understand is also very popular in Japan.

The room where a full buffet breakfast is served each morning looks out onto the Sun Deck with its fire pit lit in the morning.

Another fire pit, out near the Moon Deck, is located by the creek and outfitted with twinkling lanterns at night.

The inn has a total of 23 rooms, including nine Zen ryokans – four placed along a row of yellow-stalked bamboo trees in the garden area and another four closer to the creek. (The other rooms are in different places on the property).

The inn also offers massage options on the third-floor spa loft of the main house.

Our ryokan, whose simple wood exterior looked like something you might see in the Japanese countryside, came with classic Japanese yukata kimonos and geta and zori slippers.

Mixed with soothing, meditative music was the sound of rippling water from a fountain inside a small, glass-enclosed atrium.

In the large bathroom there was a huge, solid-granite soaking tub with traditional Japanese hinoki wood bathing accessories: mats, stools and ladles, and a small wooden pail to wash off before entering the tub.

THE BEDROOM featured a king bed, fireplace and comfortable seating.

On a small table sat a black metal teapot with matching cups. A private karesansui rock garden and outdoor patio with deck chairs faced the creek.

The inn had put out green tea and sake, and in the fridge was mochi ice cream. How nice!

On the nightstand I found a booklet about ryokans in Japan as well as another about shinrin yoku, which Micah James, the Gaige House manager, explained was a guided meditative walk in the forest.

“So really,” he told me, “you’re meditating and you’re ‘ingesting’ the forest into yourself and realizing the relationship that we have with nature. Again, a lot of it is disconnecting from our outside world… and getting into a moment of here and now, where you’re not focused on what email needs to go out next week.”

To which I must fervently say, “Amen!” Some of the meditation moments can also be experienced closer to the inn’s large swimming pool and Jacuzzi tub on the Meditation Deck facing Calabazas Creek.

Later in the afternoon, it was time for wine and cheese in the main house, which was also a good opportunity to mix with other guests. Cookies, made fresh every day, are served at around one in the afternoon.

Spending time in this part of Northern California can include wine tasting, of course, so it was off to VJB Cellars in nearby Kenwood, only about a seven-minute drive from Gaige House.

VJB specializes in Italian varietals, and the first hint of the winery is the beautiful Tuscan-style villa off Highway 12.

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Behind its limestone walls beckons the winery’s wonderful piazza with tables for lunch from VJB’s own deli, with perhaps a glass of Italian Montepulciano produced from VJB’s vines!

I stood next to these very vines myself outside the tasting room, and during my sampling of wines, I found the 2016 VJB Estate Montepulciano very flavorful and soft. Another pleasant wine was VJB’s 2018 Gabriella Ranch Chardonnay, which impressed me with delightfully crisp peach and tropical fruit flavors.

Everything at VJB is a testament to the Belmonte family, who came to the United States from Italy years ago.

Off to one side of the piazza, the Red Rooster Pizza Kitchen prepares Napolitano-style wood-fired pizza. At the other end, VJB’s La Cucina deli has many tasty options.

For lunch, we had the Caprese Panini made with house-made mozzarella, tomato and basil pesto, and the vegetarian panini, which came with artichoke hearts, eggplant, red peppers and olive oil.

“IN ITALY, where my parents are from,” says VJB Cellars owner Henry Belmonte, “you don’t have wine without food, and you don’t have food without wine.”

Belmonte’s mother, Maria, is in charge of La Cucina, which sells many items, including her homemade sauces and pestos, as well as pastas from the Kenwood Pasta Company.

Also on the piazza is a coffee and espresso bar run by Belmonte’s father, Vittorio; a chocolate and gelato shop; and a Tommy Bahama clothing boutique. VJB also owns Wellington Cellars in Glen Ellen, which specializes in French varietals.

Wellington’s 2015 Estate Zinfandel was named Sonoma Zinfandel Winery of the Year at the New York International Wine Competition. Another nice getaway while at Gaige House + Ryokan was a late Tuesday afternoon visit to the Sonoma town square, where hundreds of locals gathered to picnic, many enjoying a bottle of wine while listening to live music.

A snapshot of small-town America, the event also included food trucks, but if you preferred a sit-down restaurant, they were nearby, including The Girl & the Fig, Sondra Bernstein’s legendary eatery featuring rustic, Provencal-inspired cuisine in the historic Sonoma Hotel building.

Bernstein remembers an early 1980s visit to Israel and in particular its restaurants long before she opened her own eateries.

“The thing that I remember the most and that I loved the most,” she recalls, “was the places that we went to where they would roll out a little cart or they would bring a big tray to the table and then have all these little bowls. I think of it as mezze now. To me at that time those flavors were so exotic.”

A Philadelphia native, Bernstein first studied photography, but later moved into the food profession. She has since branched out with her own signature-house wines and a product line of fig foods, including jam, chutney, compote, vinegar, vinaigrette and herb blends sold nationwide.

She sums up her food approach as “beautiful, seasonal ingredients to create delicious meals and cocktails.”

One of her signature dishes, the Fig and Arugula Salad, is made with arugula, goat cheese, pancetta, pecans and grilled fresh figs in season.

Bernstein’s original restaurant was in Glen Ellen, and this intimate little place, called The Fig Café & Wine Bar, is still on Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen’s main street, serving delicious meals down the road from Gaige House + Ryokan. Back at the inn the next morning, the subject was food again, as a signature, full breakfast buffet was handsomely laid out: a savory vegetable quiche, banana pancakes, potatoes, fresh pastries, coffee and tea – all to get your day going once again at a charming inn evocative of Japan in the Sonoma countryside.

For more information: thegaigehouse. com, thegirlandthefig, thebitegoeson. com, vjbcellars and wellingtoncellars.

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