Where the good times grow

Steve Hartridge visits Yolo County in northern California, an area rich in home-grown authentic experiences and country-style living

The purple fields provide an eye-catchingly colourful contrast to the green hues of the surrounding hills still dotted with the blackened remains of trees that perished in fires in summer 2020.

Two teenage workers are moving between rows of lavender, carefully pinching the buds and placing them in buckets. Behind me two copper stills, called ‘Ginger’ and ‘Fred’, are distilling the water-soluble parts of the plant to make hydrosols, or floral waters.

A workshop is turning this into a range of products and the gift shop is stocked with insect repellents, creams, lip balms, facial toners, shower sprays, cleaning solvents and even shining agents for cats and dogs.

I am at Capay Valley Lavender, an organic farm with five acres of lavender fields located in the heart of Yolo County, in northern California.

“I planted my first lavender field at age 64. At a time when many look forward to retirement, I took steps to follow my life-long dream of being a farmer even though I had not farming experience at all,” says owner and ex-banker, Sherri Wood, who describes herself as a ‘FarmHer’.
“We have a Mediterranean climate here and lavender grows well and uses very little water,” she explains, handing me a glass of lavender-infused lemonade.

I am to discover that Yolo, located a short distance west of the state capital Sacramento and an easy drive from San Francisco, is an area rich in people reconnecting with the land and its harvest.

The are wineries, craft breweries, honey producers, cherry tomato crops, olive oil estates, growers of walnuts and almonds, fields of herbs and flowers and even rice farms – and many welcome visitors.

yolo lavender
yolo valley

Family owned

Several of these enterprises are family-owned or, like Cape Valley Lavender, start-ups by entrepreneurs with a business idea who have chosen Yolo in search of a better balanced lifestyle and more qualitative family time.

On the outskirts of characterful Winters, for which the term “charming small town America” could have been invented, is Berryessa Gap Winery, one of 15 or so in the county.

Corinne Martinez, who in 2000 left beyond a corporate role at Microsoft to become owner/president of the family business, takes me on a driving tour of Yolo’s fertile agricultural lands.

We stop at farm stalls, wineries and well-stocked country-style delis selling olive oils, crackers, jams, cheeses and much more.

At Park Winters, a five-star B&B Inn, staff are covering tables with crisp white linen and placing hanging baskets of flowers for what they say is their 14th wedding in the past 15 days – and it is not difficult to see why couples choose to say ‘I do’ here.

The property is set among beautifully manicured grounds in the middle of farmland, with a flower garden and pool.

yolo bbq
yolo wine

That evening, back at Berryessa Gap Vineyards, a lively Sunday crowd is enjoying the estate’s wines, craft beers and live music. I chat to Corinne’s brother, Dan, co-owner and CFO, and learn how the business was started by their father Dan Martinez, Sr., a first generation farmer of Spanish immigrants who first planted apricots, almonds, prunes and walnuts.

The next morning I join a group of agri-students from Budapest, Hungary, who are in town to learn about the science behind grapevine rootstock. We tour the nursery as Dan explains how Berryessa provides rootstock (the part of the plant with a root system, to which a bud from another plant is grafted) for wineries in neighbouring Napa and Sonoma Valley.

Historic Winters

yolo food 1
yolo adventure 1

I meet more growers and producers during an evening hosted by the River Fox Train. I taste honey infused with pumpkin spice and habanero, spread on a bagel produced by local company Upper Crust Bakery, and sip mead, which is made by fermenting honey mixed with water and yeast.

Built in 1911, today the River Fox Train operates passenger excursions along a 10-mile stretch of track and options include beer and wine tasting trips.

‘Rail-bikes’ are also on offer and I enjoy a short ride on one of the pedal-powered two-seat vehicles, cruising on rail track through ivy-covered woodlands that offer occasional views of the Sacramento river.

My rail-bike co-peddler is Natalie Klempau, who I had chatted to a few days earlier at the Taber Ranch Vineyard and Event Centre. Located in the heart of the stunning Capay Valley, the ranch enjoys 360-degree views of fertile land, rolling hills and canyon land. Taber is another of Yolo County’s family-owned farms that offers weddings, with receptions held in a restored historic barn.

I also spend an afternoon with Lynda Hinds, co-owner of new start-up Yolo 363, whose curated tours of the area take in farms, tasting rooms, distilleries, gift shops and locally owned restaurants.

One of our stops is at Turkovitch Family vineyards. Like Berryessa Gap, Turkovitch also operate a tasting room in Winters.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Winters’ compact downtown blocks are full of quirky and one-off shops and restaurants. In the centre of town is the new Hotel Winters, with a Zenterra Spa, courtyard with a rooftop bar and Carboni’s Ristorante Bar & Marketplace.

One block from downtown is Abbey House Inn. Built in 1905 but freshly restored it features just four bedrooms, one with a loft that can be booked as an add on – perfect for friends of families.
This is a trip where the term ‘farm to fork’ has real meaning; where country-style eateries, ranches, wineries and working farms offer a taste of ‘authentic California’.

There’s no time for me to enjoy some of the other activities on offer in Yolo, such as white-water rafting, hiking or looking out for some of the 300 or so bird species that the area attracts – but that’s all the more reason to plan a return visit.