The perfect day trip to Yolo County’s sunflower paradise

It’s one of nature’s little-known cool facts that sunflowers, just like humans, have circadian clocks.

They start the morning facing east and swing west as they track the sun. In the evening, they swing back to prepare for the next sunrise. Even when moved indoors without natural light, they insanely swing back and forth for days following the beat of their internal drum, according to researchers at UC Davis.

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And around Davis every summer, the fields bloom with millions of these sunflowers, all turning their heads in unison like some great petaled army. Their numbers are matched by the throngs who flock to Yolo County to admire the flowers, which are largely grown for seed-oil production. And when sunflowers aren’t in bloom, there are still plenty of flowers — fragrant lavender in the summer and drifting almond blossoms in late winter.

If one were to take a day trip to Yolo for a flower experience to delight all the senses – including touch and taste – where might they begin?

The day might start with a visit to Park Winters, a historic bed and breakfast on a luxurious country estate near the town of Winters. The inn offers a variety of day activities, including cutting your own bouquets ($35) from a field of sunflowers, daisies and cardoons – not the goombah insult you’d imagine, but an artichoke cousin with troll doll-hair thistles.

On this particular June day, the flower field is buzzing with songbirds and honeybees and tourists dressed in sundresses, setting up tripods for the all-powerful ‘Gram. After you pick a bouquet you can visit the drying barn – an amazingly scented place with a ceiling of hanging flowers – and its tea cottage, built from doors and headboards and looking like something from Alice in Wonderland.

Given all this flower-picking is extremely energy-consuming, head next to the Flower Farm Pavilion, an open-air cafe with tasty bites such as a Capay Cubano ($24) with dill pickles, eggs Benedict ($24) with house-smoked salmon and farm eggs, and a champagne sorbet ($8) with K&J Orchards peaches.

Flowers hang from the ceiling of the drying barn at the Park Winters inn in Winters, Calif. The inn allows visitors to come and pick their own bouquets from a flower field. (John Metcalfe/Bay Area News Group) 

Then it might be time to visit the Séka Hills Olive Mill and Tasting Room for a free sampling of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and flower-scented honey. The drive passes through the scenic Capay Valley on the Almond Blossom Trail, and is dotted with charming towns, tractors chugging down main street, wine-tasting rooms, fruit stands and yes, fields of blossoms including a sunflower explosion happening right now just past Capay. (Note to visitors: Stay out of the fields, they’re private.)

Séka Hills sits on the land of the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation among thousands of acres of almond trees, sunflowers, lavender and a whole bunch of olive trees. When you visit, a guide places little cups of olive oil in front of you and instructs you to rub them between your hands, like an evil genius concocting plans, to warm the polyphenols – fragrant chemicals with antioxidant properties.

Olive oil from Séka Hills, which operates a tasting room in Brooks, Calif. (Courtesy of Séka Hills) 

The oils are fresh with a peppery kick at the back of your throat –  olive oil that sits in supermarkets loses this quality. The olive oils range from one that smells delicately like green tomatoes and is good for salads to another that’s more robust and better for cooking. The balsamics are made with local figs, elderberries and pomegranate, and the honey smells intensely of flowers, thanks to all the orange and lavender blossoms growing in the area. There’s even hand-scooped Arbequina olive-oil ice cream ($7) for dessert, served with a flaky olive-oil cookie.

The historic town of Winters is the main event for visitors, but if it happens to be a Friday or Saturday, a detour to Hooby’s Farm is an interesting way to slake one’s thirst. Known only to locals — and people who study Google Maps really hard — this extension of the local Hooby’s Brewing is on a working farm inhabited by chickens, sheep, goats and his majesty, Percy the Pig.

Look for the rusty tractor with a sign announcing “Beer,” then turn off into a grass parking lot where goats meet you with friendly “Mehhhs!” A path overshadowed by huge fig trees leads to a modest bar in a field, pouring perhaps half-a-dozen beers such as Apricot Sour and Water Tower Kolsch ($8). You can enjoy the suds at picnic tables by greenhouses and a cornhole court, watching small planes land at the Yolo County Airport across the way.

Hooby’s Farm is an open-air beer garden on a working farm in Davis, Calif. (Courtesy of Hooby’s Brewing) 

Winters is a charming hamlet full of good restaurants, art galleries, classic cars and much-needed shade trees. On summer Fridays, you’ll find live music on Main Street, and on every second Saturday, there’s an art-and-wine stroll with paintings of wine-country wildlife.

At the local history museum, exhibits detail the exiled Japanese families of World War II, and the lost town of Monticello, destroyed for the dam that created Lake Berryessa. (It might be the only history museum with a bar and pool table in the back – but those are for locals only.) A plaque on a former hotel commemorates the Vacaville-Winters earthquakes of 1892, which collapsed buildings and killed a man, Jeff Darby, who was struck by falling bricks.

Take respite from the Yolo heat at L’Apero les Trois, a well-appointed tasting room with a grand piano mysteriously playing itself in the corner. (Must be the ghost of Jeff.) The lounge is devoted to farmhouse-style aperitifs, which co-founder Georgeanne Brennan learned to make while living in France. Brennan says these types of low-alcohol drinks – served chilled or mixed into cocktails – are becoming more popular in America.

“I think one reason is because they have a lower ABV than spirits,” she says, “but still have a complexity that gives you a sense of having something special.”

L’Apero les Trois is a tasting room that makes French farmhouse-style aperitifs in Winters, Calif. (Courtesy Molly DeCoudreaux) 

The aperitifs are made from Berryessa Gap Vineyards wine in which local fruits and botanicals are macerated – oranges, apricots, green walnuts, cherry leaves, rosemary and thyme blossoms. It’s all strained out and then topped off with a little brandy. A flight of six ($16) is a fun way to go if you want to do a blind “Top Chef” style taste-off to guess the various ingredients.

The snacks here are also delicious, thanks to Brennan, a James Beard award-winning food writer who designed the menu. There’s a Mediterranean sampler with black-olive tapenade and salamis ($15), a baguette with butter and anchovies ($12), baked Cowgirl Creamery Mt. Tam cheese ($14) and sometimes a smoky spread made from sun-dried tomatoes and sunflower seeds ($10).

Don’t eat too much, because Winters is full of quality dinner options. Buckhorn Steakhouse is your classic meat palace with happy hour on the patio, and Putah Creek Cafe is a family-run operation with specials like tri-tip fajitas and chicken pot pie. Something newish is the Back Alley, a bar extension of Preserve restaurant, where you can enjoy herb-infused cocktails in an enchanted garden decorated with funky art. Occasionally, there is live music and food popups (check, otherwise order Mexican fare through the window leading to Chuy’s Taqueria.

The Back Alley is the back bar of Preserve restaurant in Winters, Calif. It offers drinks, food popups and occasional live music. (Christian Duran) 

The main Preserve restaurant emits an impressive vibe even before you step in the door – it looks like the jungle took it over, it’s so draped with vines and flowers. Inside is a rustic wood and exposed-brick dining room with a horseshoe bar surrounding a glass-encased cooler, loaded with fresh mussels, cured meat and, yes, preserves, like vats of housemade pickles.

The vegetables are so fresh, you might as well be a cow munching them in the field. An appetizer of pea tendrils ($9) tastes of sweet spring, made rich with fried alliums and corned beef. The carbonara ($25) is lemony and lighter than most, with a shiny egg yolk to add richness. And the Public House Burger ($20) is extremely tasty, squished with roasted-onion aioli and gooey cheddar and spiked with those fresh pickles.

With grub like this, you might just find yourself swinging back this way – kind of like a sunflower.

Carbonara with house-cured meat, chives and an egg yolk at Preserve restaurant in Winters, Calif. (John Metcalfe/Bay Area News Group) 


Park Winters: The Flower Farm is open on weekend mornings through October by reservation. Make reservations, too, for the open-air Pavilion restaurant, which is open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends at 27850 County Road 26, Winters;

Séka Hills Olive Mill and Tasting Room: Open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Sunday at 19326 Road 78, Brooks;

Hooby’s Farm: Open from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday and noon to 8:30 p.m. Saturday (weather permitting) at 24830 County Road 95, Davis;

L’Apero les Trois: Open from 3 to 8 p.m. Thursday, noon to 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday and 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Sunday at 22 Main St., Winters;

Preserve: Open for lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday and brunch Sunday at 200 Railroad Ave., Winters;

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