Donna Tokugawa spent 30 years as an executive in the Southern California financial industry, buying and selling banks. She needed something to keep her sane: "When you're playing with the big boys and you're the only girl around," she told me on an idyllic day in Healdsburg, California. For Tokugawa, that something was tea.
This blue-eyed blond married to Nez, a Japanese man, delved deeply into tea culture. "In Japan, tea is so much a part of their life," she said. She learned about flower arranging and the aesthetics of tea, then became enthralled by tea's wellness benefits. Her tea education journey led her to Legacy Health in Portland, where she studied horticultural therapy.
The Tokugawas started their tea business as importers and wholesalers. At the end of 2012, Starbuck's acquisition of Teavana inspired the Tokugawas to open a brick-and-mortar tea lounge to give customers a richer experience of tea culture. By then the family was living in Sonoma County. "If you're going to do something this eclectic and foodie-focused in Sonoma County, Healdsburg is the place to do it," Tokugawa told me. After a year-long buildout, Taste of Tea opened for business in 2015.
Taste of Tea is a multi-faceted business with a tea boutique, small ramen-focused restaurant, tea tasting and, most unusual, a spa with tea-based treatments. Tokugawa used her education in horticultural therapy to develop a relaxation menu using Japanese green tea as a foot soak, facial mask, hand and nail treatment and a warm herbal neck wrap. During my visit, I got to experience all these treatments except the one for hands and nails — being a dedicated journalist, I took notes while trying to see my notebook through my face mask.
The intimate spa area is furnished with red chairs, antique Asian furniture, and a video of fish swimming. The space accommodates up to six people and is popular for birthday and bridal parties, girlfriend getaways and mother/daughter outings. "Men enjoy it as well," Tokugawa said as I soaked my feet in a basin of warm green tea.
Tokugawa served on the board of the Green Spa Network, an organization that helps spas ditch carcinogenic ingredients that harm people and the environment. Green tea is a sort of miracle ingredient, she said. "Aestheticians use green tea masks on younger skin before extractions, and on older skin to moisturize." The stems of green tea contain L-theanine, an amino acid that promotes relaxation and improves memory. The spa uses specially made teabags for foot soaks, and high-quality, fresh tea for all its treatments.
Healdsburg, like the rest of Sonoma County, is best known for wines. "From our front door you can walk to 32 tasting rooms," Tokugawa said. But visitors who crave a non-alcoholic experience can belly up to the tea bar. Taste of Tea serves tea flights. Newbies learn the difference between oolong and puer, and more sophisticated tea drinkers can try unusual teas. The Tokugawas — Donna, husband Nez and daughter Tai — all use the job title "tea docent." I tried golden monkey, a Chinese tea that's pan-fried in a giant wok fuelled by fruit wood trees, primarily apricot and peach, which gives it fruity notes. It's called golden monkey because the leaf looks like a monkey's paw.
If you have a sweet tooth and enjoy a bar experience, the tea lounge offers a marteani menu. These combinations of tea, muddled ginger, mint or flowers, served in martini glasses with sugar rims. I tried the Tiger Eye, featuring Sonoma-made white ginger syrup and rose sugar produced by a Japanese farmer in San Diego who grows flowers and herbs for Taste of Tea.
A TV screen hangs above the bar, playing tea travel videos of the Tokugawas' trips to Japan, Taiwan, and China, the three countries from which they buy tea. They know all the tea farmers personally.
Taste of Tea is a relaxation destination. Tea lovers will need a few hours to enjoy a foot soak, browse the gorgeous teaware, have a marteani and talk tea with the tea docents.