Sip, swirl, savour. Repeat. After eating our way through San Francisco, we tack on wine touring in Sonoma wine country.
About an hour north of San Franciso, the Sonoma wine-growing region is more laid-back and less visited than neighboring Napa (where you rub shoulders with up to 25 people at a time, compared to only six to ten visitors in Sonoma’s wine tasting rooms).
Still, Sonoma’s more than 400 wineries pack an intoxicating punch.
Bike and wine
Up first on our visit? A “Sip ‘N Cycle” tour with Getaway Adventures up the long finger of Sonoma’s bucolic Dry Creek Valley, where the sun-baked hills are reminiscent of Provence or Tuscany.
Do we prefer bike intensive or wine intensive? We opt for wine intensive.
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So on our ten-mile pedal on quiet country roads, we stop often.
In red-earth vineyards, our guide explains how the small bonsai-style tree vines, which produce the rich jammy Zinfandel wines for which Dry Creek is famous, are from 30 to 100 years old.
They’ll yield fewer grapes than young vines, but the wine will be finer and more focused.
We taste-test different Zinfadels and other varietals at several wineries this day and the next, cycling out on our own.
At Zichichi Family Winery, we love the mouthburst explosion of red currants and wild cherries of their Old Vine Zinfandel (from vines planted in the 1920s). Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves enchants us with its tasting room in a cool, candlelit, cave cellar.
Preston Vineyards has an organic farm and country store too. We sample sourdough bread (which the proprietor bakes fresh each morning in a wood-fired oven) while sipping their flagship Sauvignon Blanc in a farmhouse tasting room filled with antique farming implements.
A grape-based spa treatment?
After all that “hard” bicycling, a spa treatment is in order.
The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa boasts the grande dame of all Sonoma spas. Its swank 40,000 sq. ft. Willow Stream Spa has a set of cold and hot mineral pools for a bathing ritual that’s included with any treatment.
What to have? A lavender facial? Grapeseed body scrub? Chardonnay, olive oil and sugar polish?
Too many choices – we settle for a massage.
Exploring beyond Sonoma wine country
Another day, we explore by car. We cruise down into the lush Russian River Valley, where vineyard fields flourish below pine-covered hills.
At Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, we venture on a short hike through a magnificent forest of ancient coastal redwoods, the world’s tallest and oldest living things. Just imagine. The “Colonel Armstrong” tree – named after the early logger who recognized the value of these primordial trees and made it his personal mission to preserve them – is 1,400 years old.
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We continue to the Pacific coast. Here, the surf crashes over gigantic black boulders through thick fog, and gnarled wind-slanted trees grow at a 45 degree angle. A totally different, permanently misty world, and only 45 minutes from wine country!
Looping back, we hit Coleman Valley Road. Truly a road less traveled, it must be one of the world’s most beautiful drives.
While paved, its one lonely lane snakes past arbutus trees, shaggy cows and a magical palette of sunlight-diffused colors.
It connects with the Bohemian Wine Trail – 11 miles of asphalt meandering by the pastoral hamlets of Occidental and Monte Rio, with their organic markets, cheese boutiques and funky wine shops.
Just one more winery…
Of course, we have to finish off at one more winery.
This time, we hit Chateau St. Jean Winery near the town of Sonoma. Founded in 1973, the winery first caught the attention of wine buffs with its stellar Chardonnays. It has since expanded to add reds to its repertoire of pours. Now Chateau St. Jean is most famous for its Cinq Cépages Cabernet Sauvignon – a Bordeaux-inspired blend (luscious!) and the first Sonoma wine to be chosen by Wine Spectator as its “Wine of the Year.”
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The winery estate is also winning. The tasting room is in the restored “chateau,” built as a grand summer home in 1920 for an iron mining magnate.
Listed in the National Trust for Historic Preservation, it’s open to the public. And there are plenty of shaded spots to picnic on artisanal cheeses from the onsite deli (along with a glass of wine, of course) among the white roses and tightly-clipped hedges of the elegant chateau gardens.
Oh, the food!
And what about Sonoma’s restaurants? They rival those in San Fran. Lovely Healdsburg – awash in magnolia trees, high-end boutiques and art galleries – is particularly well-known for its top-notch eateries.
There’s Dry Creek Kitchen, one of celebrity chef/owner Charlie Palmer’s restaurants. Its curry-spiced, purple cauliflower soup poured over plump deep-fried shrimp rockets us into gastronomic heaven.
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Zin’s fried green tomato salad uses veggies pulled from its garden, and its hot peach-and-pear crisp gets rave reviews.
And now the new Chalkboard, which opened in May, 2013, tantalizes diners with a daily-changing menu of small plates like buttermilk-fried quail with parsnip puree and a radiatore pasta of lamb and brussel sprouts.
Our last night is saved for Sante, the Fairmont’s fine dining restaurant. Its wine list features over 600 different wines, but for a reasonable $25 corkage fee, you can tote in any of those interesting bottles you’ve bought from your wine tasting in the area. Sante has snagged both AAA Four Diamond Award and Michelin star honors. Devouring the OMG mac-and-cheese with succulent lobster and black truffles, we understand why.
Mixing up the tried-and-true with the unexpected is a genuine pleasure – just like our Sonoma wine country getaway…
Our magazine story on exploring Sonoma wine country
This post is an excerpt from our travel article on “A Taste of Northern California” (PDF), published in the Summer 2014 issue of Black Tie magazine.
Do you love wine? Have you visited Sonoma wine country or Napa?
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We’re Janice and George Mucalov, professional award-winning travel writers, sharing tales of luxury travel with a twist of adventure.