California Wine Country Is Obsessed With Japan

Napa and Sonoma look across the Pacific to take hospitality to the next level.

California has long been home to the largest Japanese population outside of Japan. San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Jose are the only three U.S. cities with remaining Japantowns. Japanese culture can be found throughout the state, but you might not expect many Japanese ties in Northern California Wine Country. Granted, the Japanese population may not be high in Sonoma or Napa counties, but the Japanese influence is strong. Over the past couple of years, a number of restaurants and other businesses with Japanese connections have opened.  

SingleThread operates its own 5-acre farm employing sustainable Japanese techniques

SingleThread opened Sonoma County in 2016 as one of the most ambitious, forward-thinking collaborations between Japanese form and Sonoma function. This restaurant and inn sitting off of Healdsburg Plaza has a full-time forager, its own 5-acre farm and a rooftop garden. In keeping with the spirit of Japan’s historical ryokans, roadside inns housing a notable restaurant, dinner guests can reserve one of five soothing, luxurious hotel rooms. And in keeping with many of Kyoto’s famed modern ryokans, SingleThread offers Michelin starred (two as of 2018) fine dining.

Suite at Single Thread Inn by Healdsburg Plaza

Owners Kyle and Katina Connaughton came home to Sonoma County after years living in Japan, where Kyle cooked at Michel Bras’ Toya in Hokkaido, and Katina studied sustainable Japanese farming techniques. Kyle also ran the kitchen at Heston Blumenthal’s legendary Fat Duck outside of London, adding more experimental Michelin prowess to his resume.

Dishes from the early winter menu at SingleThread in Sonoma County

Japanese influence is everywhere at SingleThread, which grows different varieties of shiso (Japanese mint) and cooks with an impressive collection of donabe pots. In true Kyoto form, they serve kaiseki-style (seasonal) tasting menus, showing off the endless bounty of Northern California in the elegant dining room. From the moment you’re seated and presented with an array of amuse bouche bites dotted among plants and stones, it’s clear you’re in for an unforgettable meal.

Dining room at Kenzo

Over the mountains in Napa Valley, Kenzo Estate and restaurant has direct connections with Japan: Owner Kenzo Tsujimoto was the founder of the Japanese company Capcom in the 1980s, which developed classic games like “Street Fighter” and “Mega Man.” But as a gaming pioneer, Kenzo dreamed of opening a Napa winery after learning about the Judgement of Paris (a competition in which California wines bested France’s finest wines in a blind tasting) put Napa—and New World wines—on the map in 1976. After two decades of searching, in 1990 he bought a 4,000-acre wild property on Mt. George in Napa’s southeast corner. He then spent years studying the soils on his land and working with local vintners, including none other than Robert Mondavi, before planting his first vines in 1998.

Kenzo Estate in Napa

This methodical, longview approach to perfection is sheer Japanese tradition. Splitting time between his Napa estate and Japan, Kenzo brought on greats like viticulturist David Abreu and winemaker Heidi Barrett years before launching his first wines in 2008. In 2016, Kenzo and his wife Natsuko Tsujimoto went on to open Kenzo in downtown Napa, a pristine restaurant serving both Tokyo edomae sushi and traditional Kyoto kaiseki tasting menus.

Wine cave at Freeman Winery in Sebastopol, which makes sustainably farmed, cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay.

Over in Sebastopol, winemaker Akiko Freeman of Freeman Winery also links Japan and Wine Country. Since 2001, she and her husband, Ken Freeman, have pioneered sustainably farmed, cool-climate pinot noir and chardonnay vineyards. In keeping with their love of Burgundy wines, they embrace what the breezes of the nearby Pacific Ocean bring to their grapes grown in the Russian River Valley and on the Sonoma Coast. Akiko’s grandfather, a Tokyo native, imbued her with his love for wine, literature and art. She went on to get a masters degree in Italian Renaissance art history from Stanford and travel to some of the best wineries in the world. When she and her husband launched their own winery, she apprenticed herself to renowned winemaker Ed Kurtzman, studying every aspect of winemaking on the estate, from organic farming to blending, and mastering it all in the ensuing years.

Winemaker Akiko Freeman's grandfather, a Tokyo native, taught her to love wine.

A few notable modern Japanese restaurants also dot the region. Chefs Douglas Keane (of Healdsburg’s legendary, now-closed Cyrus) and Sang Yoon (of Father's Office and Lukshon in Los Angeles) teamed up to open Two Birds One Stone in 2016. This elevated yakitori restaurant offers unique collaboration wines from local winemakers that are produced just for the restaurant. They pair with gratifying modern izakaya fare that’s served in a striking, century-old Freemark Abbey Winery building in St. Helena.

Bowls of ramen in Sonoma at Ramen Gaigin

That same year, Napa chef Curtis di Fede of Oenotri debuted Miminashi, a hip izakaya with a dramatic wood ceiling and door. It serves yakitori, ramen, small plates and top-notch cocktails. Back in Sebastopol, Ramen Gaijin brought ramen, modern izakaya fare and highball cocktails to Sonoma’s west side in 2014. All three restaurants showcase Wine Country’s impeccable produce, seafood and meats, enhanced by Japanese design, flavors and excellence.

While Japan’s obsessive perfectionism, as-good-as-it-gets service and complex culture is impossible to fully capture outside of its own islands, Northern California’s Wine Country is a region with a special synergy with Japan. You’ll find a similar dedication to purity and exactness, and the resulting taste and quality might even lead to a transcendent experience.

The modern Ramen Gaijin in the Sonoma town of Sebastopol