Every year since Joe first saw the episode about Sonoma Barrel Tasting on the Travel Channel, he’s wanted to go to the festivities. But Barrel Tasting also coincides with the Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, where I am a committee volunteer.
This year I joined the International Wine Competition committee. There are so many of us on it, that one can actually schedule a trip to Wine Country and still get enough points to “make badge” as they say. (The badge gives you access to the rodeo on the days you’re not volunteering as well.) And given that it’s the Wine Committee, they cut you a little slack if you’re actually going to be gone learn more about wine.
Since Barrel Tasting happens to coincide with our anniversary, I asked my wine blogger friend Thea for recommendations for a special place to stay. One of the places she recommended was the Inn at Occidental.
Founded amidst the din of timber mills in 1876, this small, attractive and peaceful village evolved out of a colorful and restless past, full of conquest, conflict and reckless ingenuity, with more peculiar characters than the funny papers, and more conflagerations and natural disasters than even the naughtiest town deserves. – from An Historical and Anecdotal WALKING TOUR of the Small (but Fascinating) Village of OCCIDENTAL, CALIFORNIA by Amie Hill (11th Edition)
After a quick glance at the website, and noting that they had some “winter specials,” I e-mailed the Innkeepers to inquire about rates and availability. In addition to providing me information about staying at the Inn, Jerry & Tina Wolsborn, the Inn’s proprietors, sent a friend e-mail giving us information about Barrel Tasting and restaurants in the area. We learned they had also lived for a time in Houston, while working in the Hotel industry, prior to purchasing the Inn at Occidental.
A Little History of the Inn
The main house of the Inn began as a private residence. It was built sometime in 1876 by Meeker Brothers, as part of Melvin Cyrus “Boss” Meeker’s early town-building project. M.C. Meeker had anticipated the economic effect of the approaching North Pacific Coast Railroad, and created the town which he named “Occidental,” taking the name from the nearby Occidental District School. from WALKING TOUR
In addition to being used as a private residence from the early 1900s through 1979, the building was used as headquarters for a soda-bottling company (late 1800s to early 1900s) and for firefighting practice by the then fledgling Occidental Volunteer Fire Department (late 1940s). It was turned into a structure suitable for an inn in 1979, but the project failed for lack of money and the building sat vacant until 1988.
The brick heart-shape on the Inn’s chimney was created in 1980 by mason Bart Beck. In 1988 The inn building was purchased and remodeled and went through several name changes including the Heart’s Desire Inn, the Heart’s Desire Inn at Occidental and finally the Inn at Occidental.
In 1994 the inn was purchased by Jack Bullard who remodeled, added more rooms and an eight-room two story building behind the original eight-bedroom Inn structure, as well as an extended-stay guest house to the right of the Inn.
In 2003 Bullard retired and sold the Inn to Tina and Jerry Wolsborn, who had many years’ experience in the hospitality industry.
We didn’t know quite what to expect when we drove through the winding dark roads to the tiny town of Occidental. We had planned to arrive early, in the daylight, and spend Friday wandering around town. As they say, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
Misjudging the time it would take to get there had us driving through the town of Sonoma when we got a call from Kristin at the Inn checking to make sure we were still on our way. At that time it was still daylight — and I assumed we were close. We had leisurely driven from Murphys late in the afternoon through Napa. I hate driving curvy roads, especially in the dark, but in the dark we drove. When we finally arrived, hours after we’d planned, and poor Kristin had been waiting for us prior to leaving for the evening. My guess is that Jerry and Tina had long since gone to bed.
The house which forms the core of the present Inn at Occidental holds the distinction of being the oldest surviving residential structure in town. from WALKING TOUR, p. 23.
I had originally picked the Sugar Room, because it was just off the courtyard with a view through the French Doors. It was also one of the few rooms with handicap access, and Joe had approved of the decor. Neither of us need handicap access, but I liked the idea of being just off the courtyard with a view of the flowers and the sound of the fountain.
The Wine Room
We learned that we had been “upgraded” to the Wine Room, and were taken through the original house to the addition, up the stairs and to our lovely room. The Wine Room decor I knew was not going to be Joe’s “cup of tea” and he joked that it looked like my mother and her friend Debbie had decorated it, because it had a quilt on the wall, and a quilt on the bed. My mother loves quilts, and Debbie has her own handmade quilts hanging all over her house — some of them have even won awards and have been featured in quilt magazines. Joe is not as enamoured of quilts, but I thought the room was warm and cozy, and it was at least double the size of the original we had reserved. He teased me that they must have known I was from West Virginia, because there was what looked to be an homage to a still on a ledge along one wall.
With a living area two overstuffed chairs in front of a large fireplace, a fireplace, and a curio frame containing antique corkscrews, a large bathing area with both a jacuzzi tub and a shower, baskets and trivets on the walls and even a mama and two baby rubber ducks in the tub, attention to detail was obvious. And the best thing of all? No television. To me there is nothing less relaxing than listening to the rattle of some mindless chatter coming from the television, especially when I’m on vacation. In fact the 5 days Joe was in Toledo for Christmas with the children, and I stayed in Houston, I never once turned the television on.
A small table serves as one night stand, complete with a clock radio with CD player and ipod jack. On the hand-painted wood dresser was a tray with corkscrew and two wine glasses. We were so exhausted from driving all day, that we decided rather than venturing out for dinner, we would open a bottle of wine, some cheese and bread that we’d picked up at Lavender Ridge Tasting Room in Murphys.
After our light dinner, and the joy at being able to access the Internet after having been cut off from most of our technology for two days (Calaveras County is a little particular on which mobile phone service providers it likes — unfortunately, ours wasn’t one of them) we turned down the fireplace and settled into the wonderfully comfortable king-sized bed to recharge for Barrel Tasting in Russian River Valley the next day.
When we’re on vacation, the first thing Joe wants to do when he wakes up is eat a big breakfast. For him it’s easy — put on a hat, throw on some jeans and a t-shirt and venture out. For me it’s not so easy, because I rarely just venture out in a hat, no make-up and a t-shirt. This always leads to the ritual of Joe claiming he’s about to pass out from starvation, and my dawdling because I don’t believe him.
Lucky for us, the Inn at Occidental offers a fabulous gourmet breakfast every morning from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. I had spotted a sign when we’d arrived the night before that said breakfast was served downstairs from the reception area. And we could almost taste the applewood bacon as we walked through the second floor of the house and made our way down two flights of stairs to the dining area. French doors provide entry directly from the handicapped parking area, for those who aren’t able to navigate the stairs.
Waiting for us and the other guests was fresh fruit, homemade granola, fresh baked scones, juices and coffee. Jerry greeted us and asked if we’d like to enjoy the hot entree — waffles with blackberries and blackberry syrup and bacon. He didn’t have to ask twice. Each hot entree is prepared after the guests are seated downstairs to make sure it’s hot and fresh. The syrup was incredible. Not that sweet sugary sticky stuff you find at the grocery store or in some chain breakfast joints. It was more of a reduction, allowing the natural sugars in the fruit to provide just enough sweetness.
After he served us, Jerry asked us about our plans for the day. We told him that we were off to the Russian River Valley to meet some other wine bloggers for Barrel Tasting. I’d printed out some google maps with directions for the trip, but Jerry got a map, highlighted the route and gave us directions for the fastest easier way to get there.
After a day of Barrel Tasting, we again found ourselves driving on curvy roads in the dark (this time Joe was driving, since in the daylight I had seen just how curvy the roads were). We got back too late to enjoy the 5 p.m. hors d’oeuvres and wine reception that the Inn hosts every evening.
We decided to spend the next day in the town of Occidental, rather than chancing another dark drive back to the hotel from Healdsburg or Sonoma. It was rather cold and misty anyway — a perfect day for exploring. After fortifying ourselves with another fabulous breakfast, and exploring the courtyard and the inviting wrap-around porch of the Inn, we headed out to town.
Joe had read about the little book “An Historical and Anecdotal WALKING TOUR of the Small (but Fascinating) Village of OCCIDENTAL, CALIFORNIA, and we set out to find a copy of our own. Occidental has a number of local artists, so we wandered in and out of shops looking at pottery, wood carving, art glass, books and wall hangings.
We stopped in a little herb shop called Common Knowledge Herbs that sells all sorts of soaps, aromatherapy and holistic medicines, including a fabulous nasal spray of Yerba Manza, Aloe, Glycerine and Isotonic Saline. Our allergies were getting the best of us, so we decided to give it a try. Let me tell you it works better than any of the over-the-counter stuff you find at the grocery store.
We decided we were thirsty, but weren’t really in the mood for wine yet, so we crossed the street to check out Barley and Hops Tavern, for a beer and some cider. The food on the menu looked so good we wanted to order everything! But we weren’t really that hungry, and thought we might want to have dinner later.
We settled on some appetizers, one we knew especially would be popular among the twitter crowd — who are constantly tweeting about bacon. We noticed the menu listed “pop” under beverages rather than “soft drinks.” You don’t hear that much in Houston, and I hadn’t seen it on too many menus in California, so we asked the bartender about the menu. The bartender, owner Noad Bolmer told us he’d spent some time at law school in Ohio, and that’s where he’d picked up the Midwestern slang.
After a bit more shopping, Joe suggested we drive up the road to Freestone, to check out the Freestone Winery tasting room and a wonderful bakery we’d read about in one of the travel books. Just a few minutes from Occidental, Freestone is a little town at the bend in the road. As we rounded the corner we could smell the bread baking at Wild Flour Bread Bakery, but headed to the tasting room first, where we had some incredible Pinot Noir (and ended up joining the wine club). Of course we had to stop at the bakery on the way back, and pick up a couple loaves for later – to eat while we tried to pack all of gear we’d picked up in the past four days.
As usual, we’d purchased about 9 bottles of wine, and had another couple that our friend Lisa had given us to try. Panic set in, as I realized there was no way I was going to be able to pack all of that in two suitcases, given that airlines no longer allowed bottles of wine in carry on luggage. A quick call to the Front Desk, and Tina arranged for us to find a shipper on the way back to San Francisco. She gave us excellent directions, and called ahead so they would be expecting us. Joe hauled the bags down to the rental car, while I stopped by to say good-bye to Tina. I mentioned how peaceful it was without a television in the room, or anywhere that I could see. She laughed and said that she and Jerry debated about the telvisions in the room — he thought they should have them, and she preferred the rooms without. The compromise was that they have them available should a guest request one — but they didn’t have them already in the rooms.
I wish we had spent more time exploring the area closeby. In fact the Inn provides suggested long and short itineraries for doing just that. The next time we visit we plan to spend more time wandering around Occidental and Bodega Bay. The Inn at Occidental is a wonderful place to stay. Jerry and Tina are excellent hosts. It feels more like staying with friends rather than an impersonal chain hotel. If you would like to get away from it all, enjoy fabulous breakfasts and friendly hospitality among the California redwoods, get away to the Inn at Occidental — recognized as a top Sonoma Wine Country lodge in Treasures North of the Golden Gate. (Wine Spectator, November 2008.)
Amy Corron Power,
Here are some more photos we took while staying at the Inn at Occidental.