California Wine Country: Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley and more
A sensible approach to an awfully chic area, enjoying unpretentious lodgings and moderate meals
Is there a single American who isn't aware of Napa Valley? Or of Sonoma and Mendocino counties? Of the Brothers Gallo (Ernest and Julio) and Cabernet Sauvignon, the Marin peninsula and Robert Mondavi, of the short trip north from San Francisco to elegant restaurants and resorts serving sybarites in love with the grape? In this area whose liquid nectar is increasingly compared to the French, the amenities are mainly trendy and upscale but dotted as well with lower-priced oases of good taste and comfort. In this article, we'll be searching out those secret bargains of Sonoma, Napa, Marin, and Mendocino Counties; and in an accompanying article (see below) by our coauthor, Debra Klein, we'll be intensively reviewing a particular section of the wine country-Russian River Valley - where the wine-tasting and attractions are as good as any but in which budget-priced lodgings and restaurants are in especially large numbers and more easily found.
The region's basic appeal
Sunshine bathes the grapes and gilds the lifestyles of northern California's wine country. It's a sensory realm where vineyard rows pattern the valleys and hills in landscape art.
Its pleasures are gleefully detailed in elitist magazines like Gourmet. Yet the area has a strong conservation ethic and a back-to-the-farm movement. Those qualities define a realm of the mind, of advocacy and passion, as well as the senses. The mix makes the wine country an exhilarating place to sample, but sampling the wines is only a part of it.
What money can't buy Everything begins with the wonderful climate, notably along the coast, where summer air is crisp, bugs aren't pesty, and flower gardens seem to line every downtown street or country road.
Markets supply fresh fruits and locally produced cheese and sausage. Bakeries draw people in by the nose with their ambrosial focaccia and sourdough loaves, together with the wines and microbrewed beers, launching picnics in parks and beside rivers.
Privileged lifestyles notwithstanding, there is no privileged access to the region's natural wonders - to Point Reyes National Seashore or to drives in clouds along coastal Highway 1. Be assured that when you hike through Jack London State Historic Park or paddle the Russian River, no amount of money can improve the experience.
The vineyards most worth visiting In widely distributed maps and free brochures, and on signs everywhere, are invitations to visit the famous wineries with their free tastings of California vintages. Although the big names (Gallo and Mondavi among them) operate big visitor facilities, I prefer four smaller wineries that nevertheless go all-out to educate and entertain the many hundreds of thousands of yearly visitors to the area:
Sebastiani Winery 389 4th St. E., Sonoma 95476, 707/938-5532.
From 11 p.m. to 4 p.m. daily, every 30 minutes between Memorial Day and Labor Day (every hour the rest of the year), a free round-trip tram leaves from behind the Sonoma Cheese Factory on Sonoma Plaza and drives visitors the four blocks to the tasting rooms. Apart from the tasting, you can tour the old winery that dates from 1904 when the Sebastiani family arrived from Tuscany. Walls are 17 inches thick, of locally quarried stone with stained-glass windows and terra-cotta tile floors surrounding the wooden tasting bar, and the entire room is full of family pictures and handsome bird and duck carvings. You can stay as long as you want.
Benziger Family Winery 1883 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen 95442, 707/935-4046.
Tours here carry you through the vineyard on a free tractor-pulled tram while a guide explains the history of viniculture. Including tasting in the room that doubles as an art museum, count on an hour. At busy times of year, pack a food basket, show up and sign up for the hour you want to tour, then picnic on the redwood-shaded lawn. Daily except Saturday, 11:30, 12:30, 2:00 and 3:30; Saturday additionally, 1:30 and 3:00.
Kunde Estate Winery 10155 Sonoma Hwy., Kenwood 95452, 707/833-5501.
Enjoy a guide-led cave tour that can last from a quarter hour to twice that, depending on visitor interest. You'll descend several hundred feet underground, walking all the way to where the wines are stored in French oak barrels. Wine-tasting follows. Tours Friday through Sunday only, 10:30 to 4:30.
Fetzer Tasting Room and Visitor Center 13601 East Side Rd., Hopland 95449, 800/846-8637; 707/744-1250, fetzer.com.
The tastings are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. year-round, but the free garden tours are available May through September only, seven days a week. This tour is through Fetzer's exquisite bio-intensive organic Bonterra garden, alive with bees and insects, scents of herbs, and the entire range of gaudy California flowers. You can stroll the garden for as long as you want, entering and, if you want, reentering the tasting room. You can also sign up in advance for cooking classes in a lakeside pavilion (though there is a fee for this). Count on about an hour to tour the garden and taste the wines.