Hot Springs and high society mesh with chilled bubbly and even cooler surroundings in wine Mecca U.S.A.
By Ted McIntyre
The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa has been getting itself into a lot of hot water for some time now. And no, it has nothing to do with the healthy wine pours in the Lobby Bar or the complimentary daily tastings from local vineyards in the reception area from 4:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m.
No, with all due respect to this California region’s grape growing prowess, the true liquid gold in them thar hills is the underground hot mineral waters that have made this destination an irresistible lure since Dr. T.M. Leavenworth, an eccentric San Francisco physician, first commercially developed the hot springs in 1840. Although the Native Americans considered it a sacred healing ground, Captain H.E. Boyes, an enterprising young Englishman, acquired the property in 1895 and struck what was essentially bathwater at 70 feet while drilling a well. Within five years he had built the Boyes Hot Springs Hotel on the site of the current property. It wasn’t long afterward that well-heeled San Franciscans started arriving by boat and train to ‘take the waters.’
In 1923, a fire decimated the resort, but the current Inn rose from the ashes as an architecturally accurate replica of a California mission. Under its flag, the Fairmont has, in more recent times, taken the 13-acre property to a polished five-star rating, while expanding the Willow Stream spa to its present 40,000 square feet, which includes 36 treatment rooms and an impeccably manicured exterior. Its pools and Jacuzzis are fed by the underground mineral springs, the waters of which arrive at the surface at 130°F before being cooled and distributed. Knock on wood, but despite this being an earthquake-prone part of the word, those precious waters below have remained intact.
Regular sightings of couples in robes reflect the draw of the spa. My own experience supported Condé Nast Traveler’s 2013 accolade as a Top Spa Destination Worldwide. My massage therapist, Nicole, seemed positively emotionally invested as her hands flowed as if choreographed to music, as though she were nursing a loved one back to health.
For the viticulturally inclined, however, the allure is the geography of the place. The Fairmont sits 90 minutes north of the San Francisco International Airport, the journey of which takes you across the Golden Gate Bridge. That puts it square in the heart of North America’s wine Mecca. I mean, you can’t swing a dead cat around Sonoma Valley—and the Fairmont in particular—without hitting a sommelier. On the evening I arrived they were pouring Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs sparkling wine in the lobby, a $22-a-bottle gold medal winner at the recent San Francisco International Wine Competition. Dinner later that night at Deerfield Ranch Winery, seven miles north in Kenwood, also showcased an array of the region’s vintages, my favourite being the $85 2005 DRX Meritage, an exquisite, complex blend made from—as is Deerfield’s policy—bio-dynamically and organically grown grapes. Their “clean wines” are very low in histamines and sulfites, meaning they produce no headaches or allergic reactions. It augmented what was already shaping up to be an epicurean experience to remember, prepared, as it was, by Fairmont executive chef Bruno Tison and staged in a 23,000-square-foot wine cave blasted into a mountainside. We entered through two huge Redwood portal doors and strolled past hundreds of stacked wine barrels to the centre of the wine-glass-shaped cave and into the Grand Room.
The food was off the charts, from the artisan breads, sweet butters and endive salad through the main course of seared lamb with its fennel puree and black truffle ragout. But so was the service, right down to staff folding napkins of guests who had left for the restroom.
Back at the Fairmont, Tison and Chef de Cuisine Andrew Cain have teamed up to secure Santé, the resort’s signature dining room, with both a AAA Four Diamond Award and a rare Michelin star. Breakfast fans, though, must check out The Big 3, located on the property’s northern edge. The longest-running restaurant in Sonoma—its main edifice dating to 1928 when it was a general store, The Big 3 serves up a casual bistro atmosphere with some seriously hearty country breakfasts.
I would have been happy with room service! My 550-square-foot Signature Mission Inn Suite, one of 60 on the property, was furnished with an oversized Jacuzzi that separated a richly appointed bathroom from my four-poster canopy bed and adjacent fireplace. The tub faucets operated at tsunami speed, while a thousand tiny air holes provided an effective and aesthetically pleasing replacement for the traditional big hot tub jets. Beside the bed, French doors opened to a balcony that overlooked a garden path. Still, at $409-$899 a night (depending upon season and availability), it’s a little annoying that wireless internet is not included, unless you’re a member of the Fairmont President’s Club.
Another key draw of the resort is its affiliation with the private Sonoma Golf Club a five-minute drive away. A recent $15 million investment has helped restore the course to the 1928 vision of architect Sam Whiting, whose portfolio includes San Francisco’s Olympic Club.
“Everything breaks toward the water tower,” members explained, pointing to the Fairmont’s iconic landmark in the distance, which stands behind the resort’s main pool. And they sometimes break with enthusiasm, given that green speeds will often stimp around 11.5 in the spring and fall, but can be pushed to 14, as was sometimes the case when the PGA Champions Tour’s Charles Schwab Cup was played here from 2003 to 2009. But if your ball lies just off the green, your main concern is simply advancing it from the sticky rough, which clings to balls like an electromagnet to a tin can. How thick is it? My partner Rick found 10 Pro V1s barely off the fairway during our round.
Fluffy sand traps, which demand quite precise bunker execution, further guard the 7,100-yard layout, whose 7th and 18th holes have been included among the best 18 in California’s Bay Area. No. 7 was Sam Snead’s favourite, and I felt a similar respect for the par-3, which calls for pinpoint accuracy from the 220-yard tips to a green framed by a trio of bunkers and nestled to the left of a creek.
Golf and gastronomy behind us, the shuttle ride back to the airport was hypnotic, with the mid-August sun heating my face as I watched row upon row of grape vines drift by. The words of Deerfield co-owner Robert Rex came to mind as we approached the more dramatic terrain outside San Francisco: “The best grapes in the world grow in the most beautiful parts of the world.”
Amen, brother. I’ll drink to that.
Fairmont Mission Inn & Spa: www.fairmont.com/sonoma; (707) 938-9000
Visit Sonoma Wine Country: www.sonomacounty.com; (800) 576-6662
Sonoma Golf Club: www.sonomagolfclub.com; (707) 939-4100