A path through the vineyards of Ravenswood Winery in Sonoma County
(Brown Cannon III)
Like a lot of folks, I think I know a thing or two about wine. I write about the subject regularly. I live a short drive from Napa and Sonoma counties. A few years ago, I even built my own cellar and stocked it with modestly priced bottles I picked out myself. But when it comes to actually visiting wine country, I'm stumped.
I've come to loathe all those hours in the car, pulling up to one ostentatious building after another, paying a big tasting fee, sipping seven different wines, and trying hard to care why one chardonnay went through malolactic fermentation and the other got aged in stainless steel. Then you just get back on the road and contemplate your headache en route to the next tasting room.
That's not me. That's not anyone I know, really. So this year I vowed to ditch all of the pomp, circumstance, and potential DUIs. Instead of driving from one isolated vineyard to the next, I set out to see wine country as few visitors ever do: by foot. For whatever reason, walking tours are much bigger in Europe than they are in America, but I've never understood why. There is no more meaningful way to connect with a place than by exploring it, literally, one step at a time. And that was precisely my goal.
It was just about noon when I arrived at Sonoma's Best, a picture-perfect country store a few blocks from the main plaza in the town of Sonoma. All wooden screen doors and rustic charm, the store is, as far as I could tell, the ideal place to assemble a gourmet picnic-from olive spreads to prosciutto to ciabatta rolls. It's also the business arm of a small rental cottages operation, Les Petites Maisons.
Over the past few weeks, I had zeroed in on Les Petites Maisons as the single-best base for my wine country tour. Initially, I had thought I'd walk Napa Valley, but while its wines were top-notch, its potential walking routes were not. There were too many cars and tour buses on too few roads to make for an appealing route. Then I started looking into Sonoma County, specifically its southeast corner. Instead of busy highways, the area just south and west of the Carneros Hills is a warren of quiet lanes, bike paths, footpaths, and railroad easements-perfect walking country. It's also home to California's oldest wineries. From Google Maps, I could see that the cottages of Les Petites Maisons sat at the center of it all, meaning I could set out each morning armed with nothing but a small day pack, a snack, and a rough idea of where I wanted to end up.
The co-owner of Sonoma's Best, Gayle Jenkins, greeted me at the cash register and led me out back. For whatever reason, I'd expected Les Petites Maisons to be some backwoods Paul Bunyan kind of affair. Instead, the four peak-roofed cottages were like perfectly apportioned little homes, each with a large deck, gas grill, and outdoor fireplace. Inside mine, a kitchenette sat next to a snug living room and a master bedroom that looked more Martha Stewart than Grizzly Adams, with soft light, landscape photos, and coffee-table books.
It was still relatively early, so after a bottle of lemonade from Sonoma's Best, I began to walk. There are no established winery-to-winery hiking routes in Sonoma, and that meant I'd had to come up with my own. In the previous days, I'd pored over street maps, topographic maps, and satellite images on Google, and I'd strung together two daylong walking tours, making sure to include stops at four of the most notable local wineries without ever having to hike more than 30 minutes between destinations. My first stop, about 1.2 miles up Gehricke Road from the cottages, would be Ravenswood Winery, founded in 1976 and famous for its big, hearty zinfandels.
Although Les Petites Maisons is technically in town, it took only a few minutes of walking for the houses and stores to give way to open country. I'd barely covered a mile before I found myself all alone. Under the shade of an oak tree, I stopped and looked over acres of grapevines. Where there were no vines, the native grass, dry from a long, hot summer, whispered like wheat in the wind.
By the time I spotted Ravenswood, about 20 minutes after heading out, I'd worked up a bit of a sweat and more than a little thirst. The tasting room was every bit as unpretentious as I'd hoped for the first stop on my tour. I don't know if it's because I looked overheated, but the guy behind the bar didn't offer me the expected zinfandel. Instead he poured me a sip of cold, early-harvest gewürztraminer that reminded me of a spring morning.
Sonoma wine country doesn't lend itself to easy definition, unlike Napa. The Napa Valley really is a valley, a north-south watershed; Napa also has only one economy, wine, with all its attendant tourism. Sonoma County, by contrast, sprawls over twice the area of Napa, with a major interstate highway and Bay Area suburbs dividing the fogbound coast and secluded Russian River valley from hotter inland regions. This diverse geographic range is reflected in Sonoma's wines. While the area is best known for some of the finest chardonnays and pinot noirs in the world, it also produces a dizzying array of other grapes, which means that nearly every winery has at least one or two surprises in store for visitors-gewürztraminers included.
What does it feel like to live in the Coolest Small Town in America? Ask the folks in Grand Marais, Minnesota, who earned the top spot in our 10th annual contest. Their town showed us the perfect blend of edgy, sweet, beautiful, and travel-worthy that adds up to “cool” in our book. Read on to stoke your wanderlust.