It's a kind of a love story, really.
Erinn grew up in Glen Ellen, eldest daughter in a successful winery family. She loved the area, but longed for something more.
Ari was from the other side of the country, a suburb of Philadelphia so small it doesn't have its own post office. He made extra money in high school by working at a local Lebanese restaurant.
They met in the middle – at the University of Colorado in Boulder, in 1997, when they were both freshmen. But even though it wasn't until 10 years after they met that they were married, Erinn Benziger and Ari Weiswasser seemed made for each other.
Back in May, the couple opened Glen Ellen Star, a small wood oven restaurant on Arnold Drive at Warm Springs Road, where the Spanish restaurant Saffron stood for years. It's a prime location in the small community just west of Sonoma, the kind of place where everything is within walking distance, and the sidewalk ends at their place.
Glen Ellen Star also smells great, a sure indication of intrigue and quality in a restaurant. Though the local-to-table freshness of its vegetables and other menu items are partly to blame, it's surely that large wood oven in the kitchen that's due the main credit.
It's made of bricks and a marble slab, weighs almost two tons, and came in through the front window during the renovation.
"You should know when you design a restaurant that you're going to have a wood oven," Ari said.
I could see that. It's too much trouble to come in through the ceiling.
Built in Bellingham, Wash., the Wood Stone Bistro stone hearth oven has a marble fire deck that's gas-fire warmed to 600° F., plenty hot enough to ignite the oak firewood that goes in the low arc of its iron maw. From then on the slow-burning wood keeps the interior temperature hot enough to roast a pig, rack of lamb, chicken, striped bass, or pizza. That's pretty much anything on the "refined rustic" menu.
While wood oven cooking is the latest rage for Wine Country cuisine, Ari's not just a backyard barbecue chef. Cooking comes naturally to him, though it's hardly a family tradition.
"My mom had no idea how to cook when my parents were married," he told me. "So my dad asked her to take cooking lessons."
Consequently, Ari remembers the kitchen being the energy center of the house, attracting friends, neighbors and relatives. Ari himself took a job at a nearby Lebanese restaurant, where he stayed for the next four years through high school before heading to Boulder for college.
Despite meeting the girl who would eventually become the woman in his life at the university, Ari returned east and tried a bank internship, thinking a more normal career might be smart. But he rejected it: "I couldn't do the nine-to-five." So went to the CIA instead - the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park.
Meanwhile he and Erinn rediscovered each other in New York, in 2005: She was looking for a room to live in New York to oversee Benziger Winery's regional distribution, and he was looking for a flat-mate. After about six months, the future became inevitable.
For a couple years he cultivated his cooking career at prestigious New York houses like Restaurant Daniel and Paul Liebrandt’s Corton. But a young chef can only get so far in New York, especially one who is thinking about getting out of the ratatouille race and raising a family.
"I missed home," said Erinn. "It's not a real bad place to come back to."
Following the pull of family and opportunity, they returned to the Benziger family estate on London Hill Road, where they married in 2007.
Ari eventually became chef de partie at the French Laundry in Yountville, in charge of a section of the kitchen. Right around the same time that the couple’s dreams of a family restaurant began to take shape, so too did their family.
The opportunity to take over Saffron came in the same month that their daughter Noa was born, in April 2011: Saffron closed after a 10-year run, and though it needed "extensive remodeling," as Erinn politely called it, now they had motivation in the crib.
With help from Mary and Mike Benziger, Erinn's parents, they purchased the building and set about gutting it and rebuilding, with friendly local fare in mind. It opened in May of 2011, and almost from the outset it's been a busy place, with a line forming outside before the door opens at 5:30 p.m., nightly.
Erinn has worked up a geographically appropriate wine list, with a regional emphasis keeping to the farm-to-table ethic. Even many of the herbs and vegetables come from the Insectary at Benziger Winery - you can see it on the winery's excellent tour, probably the best in the county - and even the pears and other fruit may be from family trees.
The menu is seasonal, changing six or so times a year with the freshness and availability of ingredients, to say nothing of the season's traditions: expect salt-baked turkey to be a prominent element of the menu come November. On my visit, the wood oven vegetables emphasized whole roasted cauliflower, golden beets and brussel sprouts in a dangerously savory brown sugar and bacon marmalade, while tomatoes found their way into the roasted tomato soup and margherita wood-fired pizza.
Recently on the "Mornings in Sonoma" show, co-host Walley Breitman complained that many restaurants don't do justice to vegetables. The exception? "One restaurants that does a really good job with vegetables is that new one out in Glen Ellen. He really knows what he's doing - those padron peppers are out of this world."
Those padrons are blistered in the wood oven with shabazi spice - shabazi been just one aspect of the international influences that Ari Weiswasser has brought to the menu, from Argentine roasting to Middle Eastern and North African spices, even Spanish paella, an accidental holdover from the Saffron days. It fits in with one of Ari's stated goals, to make Star "a vegetable-driven restaurant."
Then there's the house-made ice creams that anchor the dessert menu, as if incentive to linger were necessary.
The Glen Ellen Star has reserved seating for up to 24 people, (707) 343-1384, at comfortable oak tables, with room for another 8 walk-ins at the counter. From the counter the view of the kitchen is intimate as a sushi bar, warmed by the radiant heat from the wood stove.
"One major advantage of an open kitchen and limited capacity is the ability to develop relationships with your guests immediately," said Ari.
There's also an outside patio with dining for 20 more beneath the redwoods canopy and summer stars, though putting a roof on it for winter is in preparation.
"I think we are rapidly building a regular clientele, because we know instantly if we are doing something right, or something wrong."
They must be doing something right. Because when you're doing what you love, this is what it looks like.