At one time, Route 99 was California’s most important north-south highway. In John Steinbeck’s classic novel, The Grapes of Wrath, a fictional family of Okies, the Joads, took the thoroughfare to head north from Bakersfield toward Sacramento. Route 99 crosses some of the richest, most productive farmland in America, an expanse of orchards, vineyards and fields. Today, the fastest and most-traveled route between San Francisco and Los Angeles is Interstate 5. A section of that is known as “The Grapevine,” because of the wild grapes that grow nearby as well as the road’s twisting path through the mountains.
Some farms along the way tell the region’s story and sell its bounty. The shop at Beekman & Beekman in Hughson offers tastings of locally produced honey “as subtle and reflective of its place as wine,” says Matt Beekman, one of many family members who works here. A wall mural illustrates the rigors of beekeeping.
In Le Grand, Buchanan Hollow Nut Co. sells the organic pistachios grown there. Enjoy a quick lesson on the farm’s history from proprietor Sharleen Robson, and take a stroll through the orchards, where you might encounter its resident barn owl.
Raisins are the reason to stop near Kingsburg at the Sun-Maid Market, an outlet for the giant cooperative. In addition to raisins, you can buy the telltale red bonnet worn by the maid on the brand’s iconic packaging. The store also exhibits artifacts that illustrate the industry’s growth. Settled by Swedes, the stores in Kingsburg have faux half-timbered frontages and hang blue-and-gold flags.
“The Swedes weren’t just in Kingsburg—they were in Turlock, too. But then we Okies came and infiltrated,” says Brett Tate, owner of Dust Bowl Brewing Co. His grandfather, a farm worker, drove here from Oklahoma in a Ford Model A and is the inspiration for the craft brewery’s name. Dust Bowl’s taproom (reservations recommended) offers 18 of its beers, including its first, a Hops of Wrath IPA. Succumb to a local guilty pleasure here: squeakers, cheese chunks dipped in beer batter and deep-fried.
Cheese also plays a central part in touristy Traver. Bravo Farms has built a kid-friendly, Old West-themed complex around its cheese factory outlet. Attractions include a kids’ shooting gallery (take out the heckling fox), a four-story tree house and petting zoo. For adults, tastings pair the house versions of Manchego, Gouda and Cheddar with California wines.
Notes From the Underground
On the outskirts of Fresno, Forestiere Underground Gardens, was the unlikely dream of a Sicilian immigrant who came to America in 1901. Inspired by an early job where he dug subway tunnels in Boston, Baldassare Forestiere created this 10-acre collection of rooms, courtyards and passageways over the course of 40 years, all without mechanized tools. Spindly citrus trees strain toward skylights they’ll never reach.
Another subterranean attraction is the Sacramento History Museum, which offers tours of the old city’s underground. During the Gold Rush era, the city’s founders chose a site at the confluence of the Sacramento and American rivers. After repeated floods, early businesses used hand cranks to raise their buildings, which left the evocative remains of the boomtown’s early years below.
In Bakersfield, the Padre Hotel, built in 1928, was on a long downward slide when hotelier Brett Miller bought it and poured $15 million into renovations. Its décor puts a 21st-century spin on the gritty city’s mainstays—agriculture and oil—with swank suites named The Farmer’s Daughter and Oil Baron. Local musicians often play at the patio bar, which builds upon the Bakersfield sound pioneered by Buck Owens and Merle Haggard in the 1950s and ’60s.
Constructed in the 1920s to house an insurance company, Sacramento’s Citizen Hotel has also undergone a deft renovation. Located blocks from the State Capitol, it incorporates political accents into its design. There are historic photos of past protests in the halls, law reports that line the lobby and political cartoons in the small, well-appointed rooms.
Where to Eat
Noriega’s began to feed Bakersfield’s Basque immigrants, mainly shepherds, in 1893, and the Elizalde family has run it since 1931. On long, shared tables, this James Beard Foundation-recognized classic serves specialties like pickled lamb tongue (above) and oxtail soup with rustic house wines. A bar bestseller: Picon Punch, the so-called Basque martini.
In 2001, Tom and Karyn Gallo found an Art Deco-era bank branch to house their long-imagined restaurant. Michael Goularte, the executive chef at Galletto Ristorante, grew up in nearby Gustine and trained under esteemed New York City culinary impresario Daniel Boulud. Goularte serves up fresh takes on Italian classics as well as some Gallo family favorites. The short wine list goes long on California selections.
Fresh dishes, from pork osso buco to day-boat scallops and Cara Cara oranges, are featured on Oliver Ridgeway’s menu at Grange Restaurant & Bar, but the English ex-pat offers his own twists. Antique-style bulbs cast an attractive glow on the eatery’s anyway-beautiful crowd, while denim-shirted waiters suggest wine pairings off a medium-length list.—Alec Scott
Tips from Local Experts
Beth Liston, Winemaker, Dark Horse
As winemaker for Gallo’s fast-growing Dark Horse label, Beth Liston faces lots of pressure at work. But she’s discovered great ways to enjoy the seasons in all-American Modesto, practically a Gallo company town. She recommends Thursday night summer concerts in Graceada Park, the hyperlocal farmer’s market on 16th Street (Thursdays and Saturdays from April through mid-November) plus a handmade goods market called the Mod Shop that’s held over Thanksgiving weekend. “Spring and fall are pretty amazing in the Central Valley,” she says.
A favorite restaurant is Commonwealth. “A super-casual gastropub with great food and rotating beer selections,” says Liston. Fresh Mexican food is easy to find, and she loves the Tacos Vallarta truck that parks near the Gallo winery. El Jardín, 10 miles away in Turlock, satisfies her craving for classic mole sauce. Liston’s voice also picks up when she describes the rums and gins at craft distillery Do Good in Modesto and the beers at Dust Bowl Brewing in Turlock.
Nancy Vajretti, Founder/head chef, Love & Garlic
A walking culinary database, Nancy Vajretti runs this leading catering company in Fresno. She recommends area wineries like Toca Madera (Madera) for Spanish varietal wines, ApCal (Madera) to taste 25 local brands and Engelmann Cellars (Fresno) for concerts. Among her restaurant picks in Fresno are Elbow Room Bar & Grill and Lime Lite Restaurant & Lounge. Other Fresno finds: Parma Ristorante for housemade pasta, Yosemite Ranch for steaks and Pismo’s Coastal Grill for seafood.
Chris Macias, Food and Wine Writer ,The Sacramento Bee
Going to or from Lake Tahoe on Highway 50, Chris Macias says not to miss Corti Brothers, the wine and specialty food store in Sacramento. “The shelves are stocked with wines and amazing ingredients you wouldn’t find at a normal grocer.” And you’ll likely meet owner Darrel Corti, a legend among California wine merchants. —Jim Gordon