Valentine’s Day 2021—the Farmhouse Inn’s 20th anniversary—found the Forestville boutique hotel long ranked among the best in the world. Its restaurant had maintained its Michelin star for 14 consecutive years, since first receiving it in 2007.
When siblings Catherine and Joe Bartolomei first came upon the 1873 vintage farmhouse and its early-20th-century adjoining cottages—then a B&B, it had seen better days. Located in “Apple Country,” where apple orchards far outnumbered vineyards, it seemed an unlikely place to open a luxury “Wine Country Hotel.” But Catherine and Joe, fifth-generation Sonomans, saw potential—and possibly the future. They bought the property and got to work.
“We’ve had the tremendous opportunity to take this little bed and breakfast to something that really has achieved international recognition,” said Catherine Bartolomei.
It has taken creativity, perseverance and more than a few coats of paint for the sister and brother entrepreneurs to get here.
“It was a lot of paint in those early days,” said Joe Bartolomei, who recalls painting every room on the property at least once. In support of his sister’s quest for just the right shade of blue for Cottage 8, he painted it four times.
As the years passed, the sister-and-brother team checked off their list of upgrades and to-dos, one by one. The avocado green and peacock blue bath tubs have been replaced with jetted tubs and steam showers. The original card tables are a thing of the past and family members no longer need to peel potatoes for the restaurant, but chef Steve Litke’s acclaimed “Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit” dish remains a popular menu item. In 2015, the inn added an onsite spa. A few years later, a fancy food truck — Farmstand — was installed, offering casual outdoor dining in the courtyard and by the pool.
Never content to rest on their laurels, the Bartolomeis have continued to raise the bar of the Farmhouse Inn experience. Guests can now reserve luxury cars for complimentary drives, book a Wine Country adventure with a driver, or splurge on a sommelier-led wine tour. This program picked up speed last year with the acquisition of three new Volvo XC90 SUVs equipped with T6 engines.
A changing landscape
Over the past two decades, the landscape surrounding Farmhouse Inn has continued to change. Some two dozen wineries now dot the countryside and the Russian River Valley attracts wine enthusiasts from around the world.
“The destination has grown up around us in a way that we didn’t really anticipate. We kind of hoped that would happen but we had no crystal ball,” said Joe Bartolomei. “I’d like to think that we had a part in that; that maybe we helped put this region on the map. But it wasn’t anything that we had planned for.”
Through the years, as Catherine and Joe Bartolomei have watched the area change and grow, they have adapted to changes—and to challenges.
In recent years, fire, flood and pandemic have presented the Farmhouse Inn and the Sonoma County tourism industry with a trifecta of unprecedented challenges. In February 2019, the Russian River overflowed its banks and brought its waters to the door of the Farmhouse Inn’s restaurant. Before the waters subsided, three guest cottages and two offices stood waist deep in water.
In 2020, the sister and brother entrepreneurs faced fire and pandemic. The Walbridge fire, the third major wildfire incident in Sonoma County in three years, burned across the hills north of Guerneville and westward toward Healdsburg in August. The Farmhouse Inn was included in the evacuation order. Fortunately, the flames did not cross the Russian River.
Visitors remained sparse for weeks after Farmhouse Inn weathered floods and fires. Then, as the pandemic began and stretched on, the inn was forced to furlough employees and close temporarily, in compliance with stay-at-home orders.
“The last few years have been really challenging,” said Joe Bartolomei. “In some ways it’s like, ‘Oh my god, how did we get to 20 years?’ In other ways, I feel like I can’t believe it’s only been 20 years.”
Despite the trials of the last few years, Catherine and Joe Bartolomei remain optimistic. Farmhouse Inn, like other Sonoma County hospitality businesses, has creatively adapted to meet the pandemic’s challenges.
“I think we’re better and stronger than we’ve ever been,” said Catherine Bartolomei. “Things are looking good. Things are looking up.”
The inn now serves Michelin-starred dining alfresco and also offers exclusive outdoor spa treatments. As activities have relocated to the outdoors, the Bartolomeis have found new innovative uses for the property’s beautiful grounds, including morning yoga sessions and evening wine tours hosted by the siblings’ favorite local wineries. Guests, excited to be out and about and eager to test out new experiences, seem happy to provide positive feedback to the inn’s staff.
Catherine and Joe continue to discover new ways to fine-tune guest offerings and evolve their business. New pool and patio furnishings are in the works, along with further enhanced in-room amenities. Next month, the property’s reimagined spa (with a new manager at the helm) will launch new programming, including a wellness-focused dining menu. Twenty years after opening, the Bartolomeis are hard at work innovating, creating and augmenting the Farmhouse Inn experience.
“We have so many ideas, so many things we want to do,” said Joe Bartolomei. “We’re still nowhere near completed with this thing.”