The Sweet Life
Wine Country’s Artisan Chocolate Makers
Some of us are lucky enough to have had our doctors “prescribe” a square of chocolate a day—good for the heart, they say—and some of us are just “chocoholics.”
I recall as a child “overhearing” that big screen icon Elizabeth Taylor had famously proclaimed that chocolate was better than S-E-X.
In fact, Taylor and Rock Hudson are credited with inventing the chocolate martini while filming the movie Giant.
According to legend, the movie stars used Hershey’s chocolate syrup in their cocktail.
Let’s just say that chocolate has come a long way since then. The evolution of chocolate making in America is richly displayed throughout Wine Country, and we are fortunate to have an abundance of talented producers dedicated to their craft—and our enjoyment—right in our backyard.
CHOCOLATE COW – SONOMA
Stephen Pond has been making melt-in-your-mouth fudge, chocolates and even sugar-free almond bark for about 25 years at the same location in Sonoma’s Mercado shopping strip.
Chocolate Cow offers something for everyone in its cow-themed shop: “Big kids” will swoon over Pond’s decidedly grown-up decadent handmade peanut butter cups, and little kids squeal over the colorful gelati, ice creams and Hawaiian shave ice.
COCOAPLANET – SONOMA
Anne McKibben, owner of CocoaPlanet, grew up in Paris, London and Tucson.
She came to develop her fabulous chocolate candies when her (now late) French mother developed diabetes. McKibben says she wanted to avoid fake sugars that often trigger a person’s craving for more sugar and found that the production system she devised and her resulting chocolates did not affect her mother’s glucose level.
McKibben tells of having to persuade her initial chocolate manufacturers in Los Angeles to take apart their machines so she could add her signature “pearls of flavor,” such as mandarin orange and espresso, to create the exact chocolate she wanted.
In McKibben’s own just opened state-of-the-art factory in Sonoma, she makes her chocolates on machines she designed and obtained patents on.
The factory’s tasting room is a beautiful space in which to view the process and enjoy CocoPlanet’s chocolates, as well as quiches, charcuterie, cheeses, salads, soups, sandwiches and the occasional cassoulet. The entire facility is gluten-free, says McKibben.
FARM CHOCOLATE – SEBASTOPOL
Farm Chocolate’s Patty Doyle says she started cooking at the age of 9. Her mother encouraged her culinary tendencies by giving her a cookbook for every birthday and holiday.
During a career that has ranged from private chef to Waldorf teacher, Doyle studied chocolate making in Germany and Austria, being inspired to create enticing bites that “appeal to all the senses.”
Doyle now crafts her rustic, hand-tempered and hand-dipped chocolates at her home in the “Republic of Sebastopol,” using non-GMO cacao beans sourced from Colombia and the Dominican Republic. She told me she plans to build a confectioner’s kitchen on the property, which might be needed sooner rather than later as her chocolates were recently named a Good Food Awards finalist.
Find Farm Chocolate’s chocolates in Dean & DeLuca, Healdsburg SHED, all Oliver’s Markets cheese departments, Cavallo Point, Madrona Manor, Acre Coffee Cafés and Marin French Cheese’s factory store. SHED also carries their chocolate-dipped pan forte.
VOLO CHOCOLATE – HEALDSBURG
Jeff and Susan Mall sold their popular Zin restaurant in Healdsburg a couple of years ago and headed (way) south to Rancho Pescadero near Todos Santos in Baja California, where they served as the coexecutive chefs for the resort known for its organic gardens and excellent food.
While there, CIA-Hyde Park graduate Jeff became fascinated with working with Mexican cacao beans and started experimenting with making chocolate, roasting the beans in the resort’s wood-burning oven before grinding them with unrefined sugar in a mélanger that uses real stones. In a nod to ancient recipes, the couple produced bars with flavorings like Mexican hot chocolate (almonds, cinnamon and chile) and cajeta (goat-milk caramel), in addition to high percentage dark chocolate bars.
The Malls returned home to Healdsburg this past August, and have decided to keep this good thing going, roasting cacao beans sourced from Mexico’s Chiapas and Oaxaca regions right here in Sonoma County.
Volo chocolate is on the dessert menu at Valette, the restaurant that took over the former Zin space, and you can look for these brand new chocolate bars to start popping up on specialty market shelves during the holidays.
WINE COUNTRY CHOCOLATES – GLEN ELLEN AND SONOMA
Driven by a desire to be self-employed, Betty Kelly and her husband, Des, bought an existing chocolate truffle business located in the East Bay, learned the trade from the previous owner, then moved the chocolate making equipment to Glen Ellen.
In its tiny kitchen—visible from the chocolate tasting room, where you can sample and explore—Wine Country Chocolates specializes in handmade gourmet truffles usually made from a blend of Guittard and Scharffen Berger chocolates and filled with wine, honey, pumpkin or just about any mousse or ganache filling you can think of.
The shop’s special truffle boxes and chocolate-foil-wrapped mini wine bottles are in great demand during wedding season in Wine County. “We even made a three-tiered ‘wedding cake’ made entirely with chocolate truffles” Betty told me.
Betty and co-owner/daughter Caroline have also made room for Caroline’s boyfriend, Tyler Phillips, a former vineyardist whose passion is now making Shade Tree bean-to-bar chocolates, to share the facility.
ANETTE’S CHOCOLATES – NAPA
A downtown institution for nearly 20 years, Anette’s Chocolates was established by Anette Madsen and her brother, Brent. Growing up in Napa, the former teacher says she always wanted to have a coffee shop. When an old candy shop on First Street became available, the siblings jumped on it. Their first step was to commission a local artist to paint the old-fashioned murals that remain on the walls today. Next, Brent set about learning the chocolate trade.
Fast forward to today, and the brother-and-sister duo and their team, including their parents and children, produce an amazing array of chocolate truffles, syrups, sauces and a variety of brittles (which they sell to Williams-Sonoma). Many of these come in wine flavors, naturally.
They also make their own ice cream, using recipes they inherited from the owners of the candy shop.
And, yes, Anette got her coffee shop, too. Some locals come in just for their morning coffee and a pastry, enjoying the cozy atmosphere inside the shop, or the outdoor seating.
LA FORÊT – NAPA
While teaching English in France, La Forêt owner Wendy Sherwood says she became interested in good food, desserts and chocolate. “Well,” she thought, “I’m here. I might as well study at the Cordon Bleu.” She did just that, enrolling in an accelerated five-month program and doing her stage apprenticeship with the great chocolatier Patrick Roger, which “changed the course of my career. I picked up his passion, love, technical and artistic emphases.”
Six years ago she took over a former candy shop in Napa’s Brown’s Valley, remodeled and opened her tiny factory and “atelier,” as she calls it. Having worked as a pastry chef de partie at the French Laundry in Yountville, she was able to hit the ground running with great contacts.
Sherwood creates 10 special flavors every season, usually with a theme that might include smoked olive oil with Spanish paprika; candied Valencia orange peel sourced from her backyard tree cultivated with husband, Mark, who works at The Vineyardist winery; quince vinegar; and churro, or what she calls a “road trip” through favorite tastes of a region of the country.
La Forêt also crafts chocolate bars in flavors including Florentine Almond, Raspberry Truffle, 64% Valrhona Truffle, Salted Butter Caramel, Ginger and Cocoa Nib.
La Forêt’s offerings are sold mainly through “allocations,” or subscriptions, that clients sign up for in advance—or gift their fortunate friends. You may also visit their retail shop and open kitchen to see Sherwood in action.
WOODHOUSE CHOCOLATES – ST. HELENA
John and Tracy Wood Anderson say that their love affair with fine European-style chocolates began during a college semester they spent together in Europe, sparking a desire to learn the craft and bring it home to John’s native Napa Valley.
It wasn’t until after John’s family sold their S. Anderson winery in St. Helena, where both John and Tracy had returned to work in various capacities after their studies, however, that the two put their dream into action. The couple also credit the movie Chocolat, starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp, which premiered about the same time, with having “rekindled” their college dream.
Deciding to split the duties of their new venture, Tracy, who had attended the California Culinary Academy after college, embarked on a chocolate-making education throughout Europe and the Americas over the next two years and has served as Woodhouse’s lead chocolatier since the start. John also returned to school, earning his MBA. Today, the couple’s daughters, Christina and Caroline; Christina’s husband, Vince; and Tracy’s mother, Christine, also help run the business.
The couple opened their elegant European-style retail shop on St. Helena’s main drag a week before Easter in 2004, offering a few chocolate bunnies. The shop now sells at least 1,200 bunnies during the season, with prices ranging from $2 to $75.
Woodhouse uses Callebaut and Guittard chocolate to craft their beautiful chocolate creations, garnering rave reviews from locals and visitors to Wine Country alike. Woodhouse fulfills special orders from media maven Oprah Winfrey, as well as other celebrities.
These artisan chocolatiers and their world-class wares are putting Wine Country on the international map for more than just great wines.