February 8, 2021

Looking Back: Celebrating Twenty Years of Farmhouse

February 14, 2001, will mark our 20th anniversary since we bought Farmhouse Inn. While it may have been Valentine’s day, there was nothing romantic about that day—it was just the day that a very long and challenging escrow closed. Little did we know how serendipitous it was, as Farmhouse became known as such a romantic destination.

My brother Joe and I sat down to start writing our 20th anniversary blog posts. First, how in the world has it been 20 years? Secondly, we realized we have a million stories: funny, silly, astonishing, and sad ones, too. We decided it would be fun to talk about some of our favorite memories and adventures—there are many great stories and revisiting them will be the inspiration for all our blog posts this year.

Catherine Bartolomei,  The Marketing Maven

Joe and I were just kids in 2001 when we bought a super run-down B&B in the heart of the Russian River Valley; I was 33 and he was 28. When we decided that buying the B&B was an awesome idea, the property wasn’t even in what we now consider Wine Country. It was at the edge of Wine Country and most of the Russian River Valley was still apple orchards.

One of my earliest memories of Farmhouse involved one particularly memorable dinner. Before the escrow had even gone through, Joe and I were having dinner at Farmhouse with the artist Alice Thibeau—she created the mural that wraps around the dining room (and has been the source of endless conversation among guests and staff alike over many years). Back then our chef, Steve Litke, was cooking fabulous food that was being served by housekeepers at card tables in the restaurant.

At one point during dinner, I looked over to another table and saw our local restaurant critic, Jeff Cox, who was a very big deal in 2001. Well, I freaked out. The next day I called him and begged him not to print whatever he had written. I told him the staff, ambience, and everything but the food was about to change. Jeff said, “just wait, I think you’ll be happy.”

Well, he gave us four stars and a virtually perfect review; the food had bowled him over. Then in quick succession, San Francisco Magazine fell in love with us, then Gourmet MagazineSan Francisco Chronicle, and before we knew it, we had made San Francisco Chronicle’s Top 100.

The restaurant started selling out every night. We started seating 50, 60, 70 people a night into our little space. Chef Steve and our sous chef at the time, Joe Giunti, were stars…the whole team was. It became a family affair—our 87-year-old grandmother (born and raised on our family ranch just two miles down the road) and her sister-in-law sat at the back corner table of the restaurant every Wednesday and Saturday prepping for the kitchen, providing some much-need help.

Back then, Joe and I were in the restaurant every morning and night. We poured wine, bussed tables (badly, but happily), and even cooked breakfast. It was a crazy time, but we created so many fun memories.

When the Michelin Guide finally came to San Francisco in 2007, we got a Michelin Star (a dream come true) and we’ve been awarded a star every year since. According to the guide, one star means “a very good restaurant”, which is a perfect homage to our small country restaurant: excellent food in a beautiful setting.

From a press and marketing standpoint, the restaurant is what really launched us. We derived credibility from its tremendous success, while we madly worked to bring the rest of the property up to the same lofty standards.

Eventually we took our show on the road, pitching to the media to get Farmhouse some coverage. On our first trip to NYC, we were astonished by the doors that opened to this little brother/sister team with their tiny Sonoma gem. Travel + Leisure, Saveur, Elle, Gourmet, Departures… Deb Frank, the editor at Departures, didn’t crack a smile during the whole visit. We were so nervous! Then we found ourselves in her 2011 Black Book (a holy grail for luxury travel advisors and travelers) and the phone started ringing off the hook.

The accolades have been astounding, but the relationships we’ve built have been the true and unexpected gift through this whole adventure: editors, travel advisors, the best and most loyal staff in the world, and guests who make our jaw drop and come back to stay over and over. Early on, we knew we could make it pretty and we knew we had a story, but what we didn’t know was that Farmhouse had magic. And we are grateful, every day, to be a part of it.

Joe Bartolomei, The Builder

I can’t help but agree with Catherine, those early days were so much work and so much fun!  She’s also too kind: to describe Farmhouse Inn as “super-rundown” when we bought it is an understatement. What we bought was an absolute dump, but the location was good and the bones were amazing. Anchored by an 1873 farmhouse, the building was in pristine shape, albeit incredibly dated with interiors painted in every shade of pink known to man. The eight original cottages built in the early 1900s were adorable while the interiors were atrocious—but that was an easy fix. Best of all, the zoning was incredibly favorable for expansion and that is what hooked me in. I had no aspirations of being an innkeeper; I love architecture and I love to build. The idea of building a world-class boutique luxury resort, something that truly embodied the spirit of “Sonoma” and paid homage to our family legacy, was what interested me and what I’ve been working towards since day one.

We started with a big dream and a shoestring budget. Catherine and I invested hundreds of hours of elbow grease into peeling wallpaper, demolishing bathrooms—which included fiberglass avocado green and peacock blue hot tubs—painting (I think I’ve personally painted every room at least once on property, Cottage 8 I painted four times because Catherine could not get the exact right shade of blue).

What we couldn’t do ourselves, we hired local handyman and carpenters to help with. I had worked at an architectural firm all through college and we had a good friend from the firm who was an interior designer and let us use her access to wholesale pricing at the San Francisco Design Center. Those were fun days, exploring eight floors looking for the perfect pieces of furniture and knickknacks, some of which are still on property today. Our mom, an accomplished seamstress, sewed every drape, duvet cover, and pillow sham for us in beautiful jewel-toned shiny fabrics with tassels (it took a while to refine our aesthetic). My dad and I laid the brick pathway in front of the restaurant. When we finally reopened in August of 2001, the property looked magical. Our scraped-together investment of $100,000 and all our hard work had paid off. Farmhouse had become something incredibly special, the kind of place that made people feel good. We could see our vision finally coming to life.

Over the years Catherine and I have tackled many renovation projects. In 2006 we converted the upstairs innkeeper apartment into rooms one and two. These were the first rooms where we used wainscotting, the first time we experimented with a tone-on-tone color palette, and the beginning of the modern farmhouse look that envelops our property today. In 2009 we built the large barn in the back of the property. We knew that there was an original barn there because the foundation was still somewhat intact, but we had no idea what it looked like. We envisioned it to be something grand but also at home on our property, as if it had always stood there. In the Big Barn, we honed our style, perfected our color palette, and experimented with cutting edge ideas like interior barn doors, which didn’t exist 15 years ago. In fact, we have been credited with being some of the early trendsetters in the modern agrarian architectural movement.

When it came time to paint the exterior of that building, we struggled with what our color scheme should be. When we purchased Farmhouse, it was painted a sickening chiffon yellow, a color we could not wait to get rid of. After much deliberation, we looked to the history of the property, the Johnson family who built the house, and decided to honor their legacy of keeping the little farmhouse yellow, the color it has been since its construction in 1873. We found a better shade of yellow, rich and warm and a bit more modern, and that’s been our color ever since. Lots of people have asked me why we didn’t paint everything white, a look that’s very trendy for farmhouses. But our goal for Farmhouse always has been, and always will be, to be timeless.

With the success of the restaurant and hotel, in 2015 we were able to begin our largest and most ambitious expansion project: nine new barn luxury junior suites and a brand-new horse stable–inspired spa building, all built to look like original structures. We also were able to move parking out of the core of the property and develop beautiful garden spaces. This time, we brought in a lot of talent, working with some of the best architects, designers, contractors, and landscapers in the world of hospitality. I was in heaven! Catherine and I had spent so many years honing our aesthetic and our style and the team we brought in understood what we had done and improved upon it rather than change it in a way we could not have done on our own. It was an incredible journey, and the end result turned out amazing. Every single thing was done with intention and purpose, every decision was debated, we anticipated every experience a guest would have, and no stone was left unturned. On just the initial concept plan, we did no less than 20 different iterations before we got it right!

Farmhouse has always been an extension of me and Catherine. It’s a place where we want our guests to feel like family; like they’re staying in our homes, not a hotel. The distinctly Sonoma sense of place and authenticity is unmistakable. I don’t know what the next 20 years will hold for Farmhouse, although right now I’ve got about seven projects in my head I’m working on! But it will continue to be a journey, an evolution, rich with soul and something that will always be beloved by us and our guests.

Catherine and Joe Bartolomei

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