Glen Ellen, just north of Sonoma, resembles a tiny mountain village in which to hide, get lost, walk and hike, and create. It is all of that and a whole lot more, as both Jack London and M.F.K. Fisher discovered.
A must stop is the Jack London Bookstore, owned and operated since 1972 by Winnie Kingman, who still collects and preserves London’s words and works in this home of the Jack London Foundation. Winnie’s late husband, Russ Kingman, once represented Jack London Square in Oakland, became devoted to Jack London, and wrote several books about the author and his works. After the Kingmans opened the bookstore, they moved London’s daughter Becky to live behind the store in an apartment that now houses the Jack London Research Center. Here you can view every book written about Jack London and even purchase a few first editions and related books and artifacts.
Across Arnold Drive from the bookstore is Jack London Village, a romantic, rustic dark wood complex built partly by General Mariano Vallejo in 1840. The stone building was home to the Pagani family’s original Glen Ellen winery, which they abandoned in the 1950s. Local literary and ghost lore abound in the building. Do visit The Olive Press cooperative at the southern end of the building, where a person with one olive tree can bring their olives to be pressed into fabulous oil, and “community pressings” take place in November and December. The oils of local growers and pressers are available here, as are numerous olive-related ceramics, books, and art.
Art studios come and go and are worth exploring, along with the Cellar Cat Café, an interestingly funky tablecloth café with the best Caesar salads in Glen Ellen. Co-chefs Polly Evans-White and husband Greg Burtt cook in the center room, with peaceful outdoor seating overlooking the creek for lunch, dinner, and Sunday brunch with live jazz.
“Downtown” Glen Ellen is still its old self. Glen Ellen Village Market, the northern branch of the renowned Sonoma Market, is the only new building erected in years, and the best place to get honest sandwiches, salads, interesting takeout, soft drinks, wine, or beer for a picnic in the forest or at a local winery.
The rest of this half-block village has become a gourmet ghetto unto itself, but without the traffic and parking problems all too familiar to habitués of College or Shattuck avenues. Anyone in search of a potent, inexpensive martini might check out the Jack London Saloon, a spiffed up version of the original but still worth a visit for history and an earful of local gossip.
Culinary worthies include the Garden Court Café for true country fare from sumptuous salads, sandwiches, huge breakfasts and even chicken-fried steak; Saffron Restaurant for paella, goat cheese cannelloni, crab cakes, and Spanish and local wines; the revered Glen Ellen Inn for sensational so-called no-fat home cooking; Gaige House, one of the world’s great inns with its own in-house chef; and the new Sullivan-Birney winery tasting room.
Driving up London Ranch Road a mile or so toward Jack London State Park, stop at Benziger Family Winery for a delightful experience for the whole family, with its educational vineyard, Bruno’s Nymph Garden, tram rides, and excellent wines. The nine children of Bruno and Helen Benziger now run the whole operation, as well as their Imagery Estate Winery on Highway 12, also in Glen Ellen. Several years ago the Benzigers sold Glen Ellen Winery to Heublein, and retained the home and original winery, which they have now developed even more beautifully into Benziger Family Winery.
As you pass under the Benziger farewell sign reading “Thank You for Visiting our Ranch Home,” turn right and head up the hill to Jack London State Park ($5 per car admission, $4 seniors’ car). At the state park you visit London’s Beauty Ranch of oak, madrone, Douglas fir and redwoods with open land and streams, and take three different tours, ride horses, visit London’s Wolf House, his cottage, or visit the House of Happy Walls Museum.
House of Happy Walls was built by his second wife, Charmian, after London’s death, and offers today’s visitors a collection of London memorabilia, including the souvenirs Jack and Charmian gathered on their South Seas travels. A .6 mile walking trail leads from the house to the Londons’ grave site and the ruins of their dream estate, Wolf House, which burned the night before they were supposed to move in.
The quarter-mile Lake Trail follows the shore of the 5-acre lake London built to amuse guests, on up to the Mountain Trail and Upper Lake Trail, and includes some segments of moderately difficult walking. Between the trails and linking fire roads, the park offers visitors up to 10 miles of hiking possibilities, including a 1,700-foot climb for the heartier sort. Those needing assistance can ride the Wolf House Express, which runs for free from noon to 4:00 p.m. on weekends. The Cottage shows a French video biography of Jack London and a photo exhibit about the Londons. Dogs are welcome in the historic areas only, not on the trails. Bikes must keep to designated fire roads.
For a special treat, there’s horseback riding through Triple Creek Horse Outfit, created by Sonoma natives Erin and Dominic Bettinelli, who now offer riding, for all abilities and ages, at Napa’s Bothe-Napa Valley State Park, Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, and here at Jack London, beginning at $40 for one hour, by reservation only (707-933-1600).
Kathleen Hill writes a series of six Hill Guides to the West Coast with her husband Gerald Hill, including “Sonoma Valley—The Secret Wine Country,” from Globe-Pequot Press.