Philly does Glen Ellen: A whirlwind night with Philly expats in the heart of Sonoma's wine country

Alex Pomerantz gives a tour of the Syrah and Pinot vines in Kivelstadt's Sonoma vineyard.

GLEN ELLEN, Calif. - You can't ride the R5 as far west as Sonoma. But you can definitely drink one there, as I learned at dinner one recent night in California when winemakers Kieran and Kristie Robinson pulled a bottle of Bennett Valley syrah from a box to show me it was named after their beloved SEPTA line.

The 2012 "R Five" syrah from Kieran Robinson Wines  is deep with notes of blackberry, bay, and a grind of Northern Rhône-style pepper. But it's also infused with a heady dose of Philly nostalgia. The Robinsons, you see, are as homesick for Southeastern Pennsylvania as one could possibly be in the food- and wine-loving paradise that is Sonoma County. They even make a fantastically effervescent and funky "pét-nat" syrah in honor of the Mummers called Sparkling Brigade. "We just drank one on Broad Street on New Year's Day," said Kristie, 36, a marketing pro and Malvern native who returns five times a year. 

They are hardly alone as former Philadelphians.  In fact, I ran across so many expats during one spontaneous evening in tiny Glen Ellen (pop. 786), I began to think of this wine-country hamlet in the shadow of Jack London's Beauty Ranch as the vineyard-fringed hub of Center City West. I'd initially come to the tasting room of Kivelstadt Cellars to visit with assistant winemaker Alex Pomerantz, 29, a scion of Philly's Muchnick clan. While sipping through the winery's lusty charbono, syrah, and bracing orange wine, we were joined at the counter by Kristie Robinson, who happens to anchor the West Coast branch of a Maryland marketing firm (A. Bright Idea) in the same building. She called winemaking husband Kieran to bring some vino, and we headed nearby to dinner at Fig Café and Winebar, which, coincidentally, is owned by Penn Valley native Sondra Bernstein. And then in walked Fig's new chef de cuisine, Matt Spector, the former chef-owner of Matyson on 19th Street.

"I'd have whipped you up a coconut-cream pie if I knew you were coming!" he said, referring to the extraordinary pie his pastry chef wife, Sonjia Spector, used to make at Matyson and at JoLe, the Calistoga restaurant they owned for eight years until selling it in early 2016.

Had Fig not been the choice, we surely would have ended up next door at Glen Ellen Star, where owner Ari Weiswasser - a Harriton High grad who got his head-chef debut at Pearl on Chestnut Street in 2008 - has become one of California's rising stars. "My sous-chef, Louis Abruzzese, actually grew up in Gladwyne!" 

Of course he did! We're in Glen Ellen, right? 

The draw west to  California's warmth and eternally in-season bounty is understandable for East Coasters weary of the chill - and especially for those with a passion for locally grown food and wine.

"It's a wonderful place for a chef to be," says Weiswasser, whose wife, Erin, is a daughter of the Benziger wine family. Weiswasser, 37, who worked at Le Bec-Fin and Striped Bass, as well as at the French Laundry and New York stars such as Daniel, Picholine, and Corton, opened Glen Ellen Star in 2012. The open kitchen focuses on wood-roasted Mediterranean flavors (whole lamb ragù with bagna cauda; whole fish with romesco) but draws on almost exclusively Sonoma ingredients. Much of it, he said, is grown in the restaurant's own garden. In 2015, he was voted California's best new chef in Food & Wine magazine's people's choice awards. "There's not a whole lot not to like out here."

That culinary bounty is what lured Bernstein two decades earlier.

"These people are so connected to their food and their landscape, and everything is so gorgeous, I knew that this was where I needed to be," says Bernstein, 56, an alum of Neil Stein's Fish Market and Marabella's who came for a vacation and decided to stay. This year, she celebrates the 20th anniversary of the girl & the fig, her hit restaurant in downtown Sonoma specializing in country French cuisine and Rhône-style wines that started in the Glen Ellen location that's now Fig Café. "I don't know how we [Philadelphians] all ended up here, and I don't think I'll ever go back. But when Kieran was working on a label that featured a Mummer -- that was so identifying. We talk about cheesesteaks and the Jersey Shore, the things that tie us together. No one else out here would understand what scrapple is."

The tendrils of Philly's small-town-like connectiveness inevitably wend their way across the generations. Pomerantz, who came to Sonoma in 2011 on a lark and camped in a tent in Muir Woods until he could land a job in the wine industry, would soon discover at a winery event that Bernstein and his mom, Hope Pomerantz (née Muchnick), shared mutual friends through summer camp. He now counts Bernstein's restaurants as among his best clients.

Spector, like Weiswasser, came west to be closer to in-laws and fell in love with California's natural resources. Plus, a license to serve beer and wine only cost the onetime BYOB pioneer $900. "A BYO? No such thing here." 

And yet, you can still hear the gruff Philly dialect ("a little attitude," he says) that shades his sentences. So it's no surprise that pictures of two bridges now hang in the dining room of his Santa Rosa home: the Golden Gate Bridge and the Ben Franklin Bridge. 

The pull home is more than symbolic, though, for the Robinsons. A return is part of the plan. The two have traveled and worked around the world since they met at Chaddsford Winery, where Downingtown-raised Kieran, 37, got his start after working at wineries in Upstate New York. They lived in the northern Rhône, where he worked for Pierre Gaillard and fell in love with the region's grapes. A Stateside return brought him to California's Cakebread, then Paul Hobbs, where he helped launch the Crossbarn winery. And then, finally, his own label in 2009, which in 2015 opened a tasting room in Healdsburg featuring some stellar Rhône-style syrahs and a lushly exotic viognier that are  available in Pennsylvania. They range from $24.99 for the R Five (PLCB code 73685) to $49.99 for the viognier (code 73684) and single vineyard syrah (code 31211) -- all well worth the price. 

But the Robinsons ultimately want to own their own vineyards, and with the price of good land being unaffordable in California, Kristie says, "we want to come home and make wine in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Sooner rather than later." 

That doesn't mean they'll be abandoning their California paradise anytime soon: "Our goal is to be bicoast winemakers," she says.

It'll be one heck of a commute. But at least they have a wine with the right name for that.