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Winemaker Nico Cueva of cult winery Kosta Browne dishes on the lesser-known side of Sonoma.

If you see a bottle of Kosta Browne pinot noir on a restaurant’s wine list, you should probably order it—that may be the only way to get your hands on the coveted wine. The Sebastopol-based Kosta Browne doesn’t have a tasting room and only doles out its vintages to consumers via a yearly allotment (and there’s a year’s-long waiting list). In northern California, you might see this wine on a list at a neighborhood restaurant (I recently found a bottle at Maybeck’s, a delightfully unpretentious Italian restaurant in San Francisco); head east, and you may need to seek it out at pricier establishments, such as Eleven Madison Park and Per Se.

Behind the legendary, elusive wine, however, is winemaker Nico Cueva, a handsome, fun-loving guy who is anything but pretentious. At Kosta Browne’s 20th anniversary bash at its winery—located at The Barlow, an outdoor market—he was behind a massive bar pouring library vintages; he sported a Hawaiian shirt and a gigantic smile. With this kind of demeanor, it’s no wonder Cueva prefers the laid-back, unpolished nature of Sonoma’s “West County,” the towns and hamlets west of Highway 101, from Sebastopol north to Forestville.

So what makes the West County unique? “It’s a throwback to yesteryear,” Cueva says. “There are a lot of mom-and-pop businesses and people who are passionate about what they’re doing. One of the most amazing things is the proximity of where your food came from to your plate. Cheese, milk, meat, fish, vegetable, wine—it’s almost all from Sonoma County. The area feels provincial. I feel like I’m in France, sometimes.”

Here’s where you’ll find Cueva—and maybe a bottle of his coveted wine—in the West County.

1. Stark’s Steak & Seafood
Santa Rosa

“If you want one of the best steaks on the planet, you’re gonna get it from Mark and Terry at Stark’s. But they also do other things well. They have this crazy garlic bread soaked in butter that is absolutely mind-blowing and hedonistic—you can’t stop eating it. Stark’s is a restaurant we’ve been working with for a long time. In fact, that’s where we have the harvest party for our interns after we’ve been working our butts off and not sleeping for months. We’ll take a bunch of bottles into a back room and eat fantastic food.”

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2. Ramen Gaijin
Sebastopol

“I just ate lunch there today! I had an amazing donburi bowl. It’s not your average ramen-noodle place—it’s phenomenal. I know some people from Japan and they say this ramen is on par. They also have a killer bar. Scott Beattie is the bartender, and he just is brilliant with a cocktail. You could go there and have your mind blown by the cocktails, the food, an eclectic beer list, and the local wines.”

3. Pascaline
Sebastopol

“Pascaline, a bakery and caterer, is right on the border between Sebastopol and Forestville. It’s in a little old roadhouse. Diddier is the chef and he’s Burgundian—from Dijon, I believe. He does a lot of the food and wine pairings for dinners at our winery. When I’m traveling between the vineyards and the winery, I stop and get your typical baguette with cheese and ham sandwich—simple and delicious. They have a kouign amann that’s absolutely ridiculous, too.”

4. Underwood Bar & Bistro
Graton

“This is the local watering hole for every winemaker in the area. It’s an institution in the West County, as we call it. On Friday night, it’s like Cheers. You’ll love everybody there, it’s fun, the food is amazing, the wine is amazing. You can go outside and play bocce. Their drinks are top-notch and their food is top-notch. It’s quite a bit farther from the 101. Go there and get harissa fries and a pint of cold beer, and you’ll be a happy person.”

5. Casino Bar & Grill (no website)
Bodega

“Southwest of Graton—and just west of Bodega Bay—is the town of Bodega, where Alfred Hitchcock filmed The Birds. The only restaurant there is a place called Casino. It’s kind of a pop-up joint. It’s really cool and funky. You want authentic West Sonoma County? You go there. You never know what you’re going to get. This local amazing chef Mark Malicki runs it.  He could be doing something Vietnamese inspired, or sometimes he’ll make you feel like you’re in Basque country. But you’re not always gonna get Mark—there’s a rotating door of chefs.”

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6. River’s End

Jenner

“River’s End is located at the very spot where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. The restaurant is incredible. You can watch people surf the river mouth—many winemakers in West County also surf.  If there’s no surf, some of the other winemakers ride in on their motorcycles and grab a bite to eat fresh California fare. There’s no better place to watch a sunset.  There are cabins there as well. Crab season, usually from around November to June, is one of their big things.”

Great news: From now until December 30th, Hotel Healdsburg is partnering with Kosta Browne for their exclusive In Pursuit of Pinot experience, which will take guests on a trip to visit the closed-to-the-public Kosta Browne winery for a tour and reserve tasting, then back to the hotel’s Dry Creek Kitchen, a Charlie Palmer restaurant, for a menu prepared by executive chef Scott Romano and paired with Kosta Browne’s wines. The package starts at $1,149 and includes two nights at the hotel, breakfast, and valet parking. In my opinion, getting this rare access to Kosta Browne is worth every penny.

>>Next: How AFAR’s Editors Do Wine Country