SonomaWino: Ernie’s Tin Bar

Beer on a hot tin roof.To cleanse the palate between wines, tasting rooms often offer taste-bud-neutralizing wafers and tap water. Here’s a better idea: a cold one pulled at Ernie’s Tin Bar, the best kept secret in Sonoma County. Located in the no-man’s land where Lakeville Highway and Stage Gulch Road connect like a wishbone (linking Petaluma and Sonoma with a hairpin turn worthy of a rally race), the unassuming tavern’s credo is rather brusquely summed up by its signage: “Beer, Soda, Etc.”

Google offers only passing references to the bar in the form of a few concise approbations on homemade travel blogs. Finding no trace of “Ernie’s Tin Bar” in their databases, 411 operators will either connect seekers to Finbar Devine’s, a paint-by-numbers Irish pub in Petaluma, or the tony Tin Barn Vineyards over the hill in Sonoma.

The bar’s ability to remain outside the reach of modern information technologies should be studied by the CIA for purposes of counterintelligence. The joint is invisible. It might even turn into a pumpkin at midnight. The Tin Bar is like the Sasquatch of local bars: legendary but seldom seen except by true believers and the occasional passing wine writer and his editor. Open nonstop since 1923 (except for three days when its namesake passed away), the Tin Bar isn’t a roadside attraction in the conventional sense. It hasn’t fossilized into kitsch or been unduly fetishized by acolytes of, say, midcareer Tom Waits.

Which is to say that the bar isn’t sufficiently self-conscious or ironic for those inclined to artful slumming. The patrons are genuine salt-of-the-earth types (unlike fleur de sel ninnies like myself, who roll down Stage Gulch Road after a day in the tasting rooms and then get suddenly sentimental for the smell of cowshit). By contrast, Ernie’s Tin Bar is a drinking room, a ramshackle ode to corrugated tin and cheap beer, where one can crack complimentary peanuts and interject into any conversation so long as it’s not on a cell phone (at least two signs warn imbibers: “Use a cell phone, buy a round”). Some concessions have been made to the times. One will likely see more bicyclists than bikers at the pit stop, and the recent appearance of Eel River organic amber ale–a hoppy, caramel-hued concoction marketed as “good karma in a glass”–is likely a nod to changing tastes, though Budweiser (in both its original and “lite” varieties) remains ubiquitous.

To sop up the beer, organic or otherwise, microwavable grub of the frost-bitten, convenience-store ilk is available. The rubberized hamburgers and Hot Pockets may put the “ble” in edible, but as the bartender Chuck’s grandfather used to say, “It will make a turd.”

Go with Uncle Chuck’s homemade beef jerky instead. Try the homemade chutney provided by a customer. Dare you to spend $20 in an evening. And then go home and keep your trap shut.

Like Brigadoon, Ernie’s Tin Bar appears to those who believe, located in an auto-repair shop at the corner of Lakeville Highway (Highway 116) and Stage Gulch Road, south of Petaluma, on the way to Papa’s Taverna and Keller Estate Winery. Damned if we could find a phone number. Closes at 7pm–we know that for a terrible fact.

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