After sampling a few more wines at the bar, among them an unexpectedly good rosé of zinfandel, I ordered a plate of local California cheeses-one was from the Vella Cheese Company just down the street-and wandered outside. Ravenswood sits at the head of a small valley blanketed with vineyards. Out on the lawn, a few Adirondack chairs were set up for guests to enjoy the view. Just as I'd settled into one, a fellow visitor leaped out of the neighboring chair. Coiled directly below him was a baby rattlesnake. I'd seen a RATTLESNAKE AREA sign earlier and thought it was a joke. Apparently not.
If Ravenswood was an earthy American experience, my next destination, Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, was positively old-world. To reach it, I backtracked out of the valley, turned west on Brazil Street, and then south on 4th Street East, which led directly to the winery's well-kept grounds. Founded in 1904 by a Tuscan immigrant stonemason who'd quarried cobblestones for the streets of San Francisco in the nearby hills, Sebastiani is one of the oldest continually operated vineyards in the U.S.; it even chugged through Prohibition by making sacramental and medicinal wines.
Like Ravenswood, the winery has grown over the years from a local success into a huge international concern-but the grounds more nakedly reflect its progression, with a vast parking lot for tour buses. As I strolled into the tasting room, several visitors were lounging just outside in chairs around a fountain. I ordered a seven-wine tasting flight that epitomized Sebastiani today: well-made, mid-priced wines, ranging from $13 to $75, in all the marquee California varietals, like cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay.
In addition to its deep menu of polished wines, Sebastiani has another great virtue (for walkers, at least): It sits right on the Sonoma Bike Path, an old railroad easement that runs 1.5 car-free miles into town. Heading west on the path, I covered several blocks until I came upon a pretty little organic farm called the Patch. Just a few blocks from the town plaza, the five-and-a-half-acre plot has been continually cultivated since 1870. I took a seat on a shady bench alongside the path. Looking overhead, I saw tree limbs bristling with ripe, juicy Black Mission figs, and I pulled one down to eat. Walking, not driving, seemed to be working out pretty well.
By the time I reached the Sonoma Plaza, a grassy expanse in the center of town, that cheese plate from Ravenswood wasn't holding me anymore. Not a problem. For a city with only 10,000 permanent residents, Sonoma seems to have a disproportionate number of world-class restaurants-30 or so are listed within two blocks of the plaza-and I had my eye on one in particular, a bistro named The Girl & the Fig. I started with a scallop-and-black-radish terrine, moved on to mussels in Pernod broth, and finished with a chocolate sorbet. By the time dinner was done, I was ready for one more walk: the 15-minute stroll home.
Over the years, I've become friends with Jeff Bundschu, the president of the 152-year-old Gundlach Bundschu winery, which, like many of Sonoma's top vineyards, is still family-held. Jeff grew up just southeast of town, and no one is more familiar with both the area's wine and heritage, so I took his recommendation to begin my second day at Buena Vista Carneros Winery, the first winery built west of the Mississippi.
The morning was bluebird, and Old Winery Road northeast of the cottages was deserted; the mile-long road dead-ends at Buena Vista Carneros, so there was barely any traffic. Instead of keeping to the shoulder, I walked right in the middle of the road.
Although Buena Vista Carneros is renowned among wine lovers, the site itself is rather humble. The old stone buildings, many dating to 1862, are tucked among big trees at the base of a steep hill. I followed the signs into the tasting room, a cool, dark sanctuary with enormous timber beams. A worn wooden bar lines one wall, books on local history are propped up on display, and secluded back rooms lie in wait for private events. In the quiet of midday, I sipped a silky pinot noir and one of the best chardonnays I'd had the entire trip.
Before leaving that morning, Les Petites Maisons' Jenkins had tipped me off to a small footpath leading from Buena Vista Carneros to my next destination, a little-known but likable operation called Bartholomew Park Winery. A few hundred yards from the Buena Vista Carneros tasting room, back down Old Winery Road, I came across an open gate with a big sign announcing BARTHOLOMEW MEMORIAL PARK. Just beyond the gate, I entered a kind of hidden garden. The trail led for about a quarter of a mile through groomed lawns with picnic tables and on to the gleaming white mansion that now houses the winery. Run by Jeff Bundschu's father, James, Bartholomew Park is the smallest vineyard I visited, just 37 acres, but it had a perk: 400 acres of adjacent parkland cut with walking trails. As I settled into a few of the rich cabernet sauvignons Bartholomew is known for, the pourer filled me in on the trails. "There's a pond and a trail, fairly steep in sections-the whole thing, round trip, is about two and a half miles," he said.
Outside the tasting room, I went in search of Jenkins's final tip. She'd told me that there was an old railway easement that had never been developed just off 7th Street East. If I looked hard enough, I might find this forgotten off-road route and follow it right back to Les Petites Maisons.
Ten minutes later, I came across it: a little footpath framed by a blackberry bramble. At first, I thought I must be mistaken-and I didn't want to inadvertently end up in someone's backyard. But as I followed the path, it was clear that it was what I'd been looking for. For about a quarter of a mile, the trail weaved and bent beneath tall pine trees; then, true to Jenkins's description, it dropped me off at the door of my cottage. It was a perfect little secret. And much like walking through wine country, it had just been waiting to be found.
Here are some of our favorite such restaurants we’ve found while exploring small-town Italy over the years. They’re not fancy, not expensive, and they will offer some of the best meals you’ll have in Italy.