Francis Ford Coppola is a patient visionary. In youth he surmounted many obstacles to see projects like Godfather and Apocalypse Now into award winning, classic movies. In older age, transformed into a winemaker, he presided over a seemingly impossible resurrection of the historic Inglenook label. He also had a vision for a Disneyland style wine destination, children included. He gradually converted the former Chateau Souverain estate in Sonoma County, north of Healdsburg, into a flagship complex featuring a winery, tasting rooms, restaurants, a movie museum and a giant swimming pool with cabanas.
Fascinated by early American history, his latest long term project involves another resurrection, that of a lesser known label: Virginia Dare.
This was the first commercial U.S. winery, started in 1835. It had a long run that peaked in popularity in the 1940s and 50s with mostly sweet wines that would be snubbed by today’s drinkers. It then disappeared.
Coppola’s theatrical attempt at bringing wine and history together is a work in progress. It began in 2015 with the purchase of the former Geyser Peak property along Highway 101, not far from his flagship estate.He established a state of the art industrial wine making operation there, producing pure varietals under the Virginia Dare label, and blends under labels such as The White Doe, The Lost Colony and Two Arrowheads.
These labels all refer to the legend of a doomed British colony purported to have existed in North Carolina in the 1500s. Intimately tied to local Algonquin tribes, the complex story of Virginia Dare, a child of this colony, involves her being raised by Indians, converted to a white doe and dying accidentally by two arrows, one shot by a love-struck suitor.
The latest addition to the project is Werowocomoco, a restaurant serving Native American food named after the capital of a powerful federation of Algonquins under the legendary chief Powhatan. Coppola received permission to use this name from the current tribal council of the Pamunkey tribe in Virginia.
The restaurant attracted controversy before it even opened with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle assailing the misappropriation of Native American history for commercial purposes. The authenticity of the menu was also questioned. Coppola presented a lengthy defense to the paper on how he had gone about his task with utmost respect, detailed research and consultations with appropriate authorities.
Controversy aside, the restaurant is in business and I visited it with my wife. It is attached to the winery’s tasting room, its entrance immediately behind the bar. Unlike the spacious restaurant in Coppola’s flagship estate that features a patio overlooking vast vineyards, Werowocomoco is a simpler, more compact affair, but with a striking picture window on one side that exhibits a massive barrel room.
The food is ordered buffet style and, as might be expected, can be accompanied by any Virginia Dare wine. An open kitchen displays a wood burning fireplace on which bison ribs are barbecued. The menu prominently features fry bread, apparently a staple of Native American cooking, on which bison, chicken, beef or a vegetarian mix is presented as a taco with numerous optional toppings. Bison ribs, cedar plank salmon and venison chili can be had with sides of wild rice, corn on the cob and sweet potato fries, all prepared with attention to Native American traditions. The dessert list includes pinecone and pine ice cream.
Ground bison fry bread taco
My ground bison fry bread taco, with Calypso beans, añejo cheese, infused with “various native spices”, was delicious. My wife said the same about her shredded bison taco. The fry bread, crunchy in the corners, was not overly greasy as some can be, but light and tasty. We took home some venison chili and wild rice and they turned out to have unique flavors. Unfortunately, on the day of our visit they were out of the pine ice cream that had aroused our curiosity.
The prices were quite reasonable by Bay Area or Wine Country standards. All of the above plus a glass of Virginia Dare chardonnay for my wife and a Coke for me (I was the designated driver) cost about $35.
The tasting room seemed to have picked up its pace of visitors compared to other occasions when we visited it soon after its opening. At 3 p.m. on a Saturday, not exactly lunch or dinner time, the restaurant was reasonably busy, mostly by those who strolled in from the bar and sat down for a casual meal.
Native American cuisine is a rare niche in the rapidly expanding culinary repertoire. Werowocomoco may be the first such restaurant in the Bay Area.
Loretta Barrett Odon, a food historian and chef, and member of the Potawatomi Tribe, brushes aside the controversy surrounding Coppola’s new venture. Lamenting that countless American-Indian owned casinos do not serve native food, Odon says, “If Francis wants to help push Native American cuisine to the fore, I’m all for it.”
Those who know the wine trails in the vicinity of Healdsburg can attest to the rarity of good food amongst the wineries, except, of course, for Coppola’s flagship place, a giant complex. The addition of an interesting, unusual and affordable new restaurant in a compact winery should be welcome news for those exploring the Dry Creek and Alexander Valley appellations.