Valley Bar + Bottle is one part retail bottle shop, one part Best New Bar in America, and one part restaurant, but it wasn’t always planned that way. It was opened last year in downtown Sonoma by four friends who previously worked together at nearby Scribe —two couples, actually, in Lauren Feldman and Tanner Walle, and Emma Lipp and Stephanie Reagor.
Originally, Valley was supposed to be a more casual all-day space, but then the pandemic hit, and that changed things. We talked with the team to learn more about their path to being one of the best new spots in Wine Country.
Resy: How did Valley originate? When were the seeds planted?
Lauren Feldman: Valley originated while experiencing vibrant dinners and late-night wine bar hangs in New York City and abroad, and then it came together more concretely over long meals together, mostly at our homes and El Molino Central.
Emma Lipp: We desired a community place to eat, drink and hang, so we finally decided to make one ourselves. The inspiration for the name was a drawing of that title by the Bay Area artist David Wilson. We liked that while it refers to this valley we live in, Sonoma, valleys are also places of human and agricultural flourishing the world over.
LF: Historically, valleys become cultural hubs and centers of civilization due to their fertility, beauty and abundance, and are quite often grape-growing areas.
You opened in the middle of the pandemic. What was the initial vision for Valley, and how did you have to change the concept to adapt?
EL: We initially imagined Valley being more of an all-day bar and cafe vibe. More snacks and light plates. COVID adjusted us to being a full service restaurant. You don’t make a reservation for snacks, you know?
LF: We always intended to sell wine retail, but we leaned on that exclusively at the beginning of COVID, doing “isolation deliveries” all over the Bay Area, which later morphed into our Bottle Club. Otherwise, we just kind of started slowly. We weren’t able to have people at the bar inside, so we brought the bar outside and have embraced the casual nature of bar culture, but with an open-air twist.
How would you describe the food you make and serve at Valley? What does California home cooking mean to you?
LF: Fresh and crave-able. Letting your body tell you what it wants and needs and just making that even more delicious.
EL: We are eaters and real food-lovers. We are inspired by everything and everyone and every culture’s cuisine. We try to let seasonal produce from our local farms and excellent ingredients ground us and then we shape the menu through a variety of personal lenses, trying to integrate the multitude of our interests and inspiration points in a way that feels cohesive at the table and from a consistent perspective. There are specific things that work at Valley due to our space, our staff and what most resonates with our guests. It’s not fussy or precious food, it’s not very “cheffy” or adorned. It is rustic, intended for satiation, pleasure, and shareability.
Valley is obviously such a family-run restaurant — with the two of you (Stephanie and Lauren) being partners at home and in the kitchen, as well as Lauren and Tanner also partners in Valley and in life. Does that make things easier? More difficult?
LF: You never really stop working. Loving our business and what we’re doing is a requirement of that working. Otherwise, it just wouldn’t, because it’s a part of every aspect of our lives in such an intense way. Keeping it enjoyable is of the utmost importance for that reason.
EL: Steph and I discovered we were meant to be partners in the kitchen a half beat before we realized we were meant to be partners in life. We work very, very well together and our professional relationship is at the core of our love — that said, our working relationship takes a backseat to the importance of protecting our personal life.
We have different culinary backgrounds and strengths, but very similar perspectives on food and dining and we sort of do the equivalent of finishing each other’s sentences in the kitchen. We push each other and support each other. We are constantly refining our communication, our methods of feedback and our stress management skills — how to fight better. If we didn’t work together, we would literally never see each other, so it’s lucky for us that we work together really well. Also, we probably would never have signed up for this alone — it is too much of a commitment. In terms of being a “family business,” that just feels second nature. We have another couple as employees and several parent-child relationships on the team. I have always thought that the division of “personal” and “professional” is mostly bull—- and a dated construct related to toxic behaviors and abuses of power in the workplace. Obviously there are contexts for certain kinds of discourse and conversation that should be left to one realm, and privacy in the workplace is of course every employee’s right. But I never want anyone on my team to have to hide themselves because they are at work or pretend other things aren’t going on in their lives. Be your whole human self throughout your whole human life, and try to bring your best to all spheres.
How would you describe your wine list?
LF: It’s broad in scope yet specific at the same time. The criteria for how we select wine — farming focus, organic or beyond, minimal intervention in the cellar, with a mix of newbies and classics — limits the pool a bit but, otherwise, everything is fair game. Our hope is that it is exciting, eclectic, and mouthwatering, working well with all the dishes on the menu.
What’re some producers you’re proud of showcasing? And which particular wines are interesting?
LF: Francois Chidaine, Slow Dance, Hope Well, Gail, Domaine des Ardoisiers, Ampeleia, Collecapretta, Ashanta, Killer Quail, Domaine Didon. We’re excited by people pushing regenerative farming locally, old school producers that have led that charge for a long time, and farmers that just kind of have their heads down, grow a bunch of other things and wine just happens to be a part of that holistic production. And, the thing that ties them all together — general deliciousness.
What’re your favorite things on the menu, the must-orders?
EL: It’s all delicious. Try new things. Always get the ceviche if we have it.
Now that we’re returning to some semblance of normalcy, what will that mean for Valley moving forward? What things are you looking forward to doing as we approach a post-pandemic world?
LF: Getting things set up in a way so we can start to travel again! Even a little bit. It was a bit of a blessing that we could just hunker down and do the restaurant exclusively without any FOMO for a full year.
EL: I hope just to continue having consistent business so we can build more stability into our program, our budget, our lives, and the lives of our employees. We have been in major survival mode, which has been completely exhausting. We want to be able to expand our hours and offerings, but staffing is still a big concern. I’m looking forward to our current staff taking on more responsibilities and training in new areas of our program — passing on the torch.