Explore Graton: West county town offers rich history, tasty restaurants and wines

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Filled with history, old gardens and timeworn cottages, Graton is a Sonoma County gem.

The west county village draws visitors with its famed Green Valley wineries and nationally acclaimed restaurants, just steps from one another on the block-long main street.

Add to that a major art gallery, tasting rooms, a packed antiques shop, and a lineup of 19th-century false front architecture reminiscent of a Western movie set, and you’ve got a day-tripper’s destination.

Historic charm

A former Mexican land grant, and a lively farming town in the 1800s heyday of Gravenstein apple production, Graton retains its quiet country charm and old-fashioned traditions.

Seated at the top of the town, the Graton Community Club is the glue that holds together the community with a population of about 1,800, as it has since 1906. A former chicken hatchery, the building was hauled by horses in 1916 to its current location, where today it hosts tea and holiday parties, flower shows, weddings, town hall meetings, election debates and yoga and judo classes.

The biggest annual event in town — the Spring Flower Show — is held at the Club.

“We grow about 4,000 plants for the sale and display wonderful fresh flower arrangements,” said Charlene Stone, a longtime club volunteer. “It’s so popular. People come for homemade food, live music and seedlings and starters for their spring gardens.”

This year’s sale was held last week. The proceeds go to maintenance and restoration of the historic building, as well as scholarships for west county kids attending Santa Rosa Junior College.

The town’s other big event is the Graton Day Parade, a charming convoy of decorated convertibles and flatbed trucks, accompanied by a cacophony of musicians, that culminates in a street party, pet parade, games and a pie contest.

A daily parade, of sorts, can be found on the West County Regional Trail. A procession of walkers, bikers and runners ramble right into Graton on the former railroad line, which links Green Valley towns to Santa Rosa. Its paved footpath meanders alongside Atascadero Creek, farmlands and vineyards of the Green Valley of Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area.

Half a block off the main street, a brand-new public park and community gathering place opens June 2. Graton Green West will feature an amphitheater, benches created by local artisans, redwood trees and “Graton Critch,” a seasonal creek. Later in the year, the completed park will have picnic tables, a playground and sweeping lawns and gardens.

Art and antiques

With a gleaming swirl of silver hair, Mylette Welch holds forth at Graton Gallery on Graton Road, the main street, where she is a co-founder of an expansive showcase of paintings, sculptures, jewelry, pottery, art glass, textiles and woodcrafts created by more than 80 local artists. Since 2002, the gallery, open every day but Monday, also has presented frequent, elaborate juried art shows.

Redolent of the countryside way of life, Welch’s own paintings are flamboyant portrayals of stray dogs, old trucks, farmers markets and rickety barns. Other works found at the fine arts gallery include the bold abstracts of Susan Proehl and Rik Olson’s dramatic prints of Sonoma County scenes.

Next door, in a lofty 1906 Victorian storefront and side-door garden, Mr. Ryder & Company Antiques and Art sells vintage statuary and light fixtures, architectural artifacts, glassware, furnishings and more. The store is a collective of antiques and art dealers.

Nearby on Bowen Street, in a century-old, light-filled former fruit dryer, a dozen or so artists banded together three decades ago to establish Atelier One Graton. The artists’ workshop and studio complex is open by appointment. It also opens to the public annually on a September weekend when paintings, sculptures, textiles and myriad works fill the studios.

Gourmet Graton

Hungry people line the sidewalks on weekends, drawn to Graton eateries by reviews in Food & Wine, Wine Spectator and other local and national publications.

With an upscale vibe, Underwood Bar & Bistro draws a sophisticated crowd — and often Green Valley vintners, who show up for lunch and dinner and to enjoy fancy cocktails and a late-night weekend menu at the long bar and bocce out back. The surprise here is the list of fine German, French and Italian wines, beyond the expected legendary local pinots and chardonnays. Menu favorites include oysters on the half-shell, savory mussels, French onion soup, osso bucco, steak frites, duck confit and mac and cheese.

Under the same ownership, and a bright red awning, Willow Wood Market Cafe is a restaurant, soda fountain and general store that serves hearty, affordable comfort food three meals a day, inside and on the trellis-topped patio. Think massive lattes and eggs with polenta; chicken pot pie; meatloaf; fish tacos; and their signature “Hot Muffaletta” sandwich stuffed with charcuterie and cheeses.

Featuring a garden patio and colorful interior, Mexico Lindo next door has been satisfying visitors since 1996 with its homemade chiles rellenos, fajitas and a long south-of-the-border menu.

On the west end of town, it’s hard to miss “Captain CAB” and his pirate booty, who guards Purple Wine + Spirits, a circa-1947 apple processing plant turned wine warehouse. The Hallberg name on the building refers to John F. Hallberg, who built an empire after arriving from Sweden in 1886.

The Hallbergs planted 1,000 acres of apple orchards and built processing plants for sauce, juice and cider, mostly from Gravensteins. The vast majority of orchards are now vineyards, although the recent popularity of heritage apples and hard cider is reviving the interest of small farmers.

Green Valley wine tasting

Right on the main street, Paul Mathew Vineyards tasting room is famous for pinot noir, created by one of Green Valley’s most renowned winemakers, Mat Gustafson. This is a nice place to settle in on a window seat, sip a pinot and work on the ubiquitous jigsaw puzzles.

Hard to miss on the east end of town is Bowman Cellars’ shiny Airstream trailer that serves snacks to wine tasters as they relax in the gardens.

And near the corner of Graton Road and Highway 116, in a massive forest-green building that once served as a tractor supply store, Red Car Wine Company opens its retro-chic tasting room every day. It offers a sampling of its sustainably produced varietals grown in the foggy coastal Fort Ross-Seaview appellation. Its 2007 Heaven & Earth Pinot previously was named by Wine Spectator as one of the “best ever” California pinot noir wines.

Next door to Red Car is another deep-green building. There, Dutton Goldfield offers seated tastings and food pairings by appointment. Its “Beast and Pinot” features local charcuterie and cheese, while “Sushi and Whites” pairs wine with seafood, and “Picnic & Pinot” includes a picnic lunch on the patio. With a wine purchase, you also can bring your own picnic to enjoy under the umbrellas.

Beyond the village, Graton Road meanders west over rolling hills to Miramar Estate, owned by Miramar Torres, cookbook author and descendant of a Spanish wine dynasty. Just 10 miles from the Pacific Ocean, sunset on the patio here is the place to be, with a glass of Green Valley pinot in hand.

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