California’s New Wine Trail

No cars, no traffic, no decisions—other than what you want in your glass. Daniel Duane forges the first-ever wine-country walking route in Sonoma County, one mellow step at a time.

By Daniel Duane, Monday, Jan 31, 2011, 11:00 PM

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.

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.

SONOMA STEP-BY-STEP

Les Petites Maisons
1190 E. Napa St., lespetitesmaisons.com, cottages from $150

Ravenswood Winery
18701 Gehricke Rd., ravenswoodwinery.com, tastings from $10, cheese plate $15

Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery
389 4th St. E., sebastiani.com, tastings from $10

The Girl & the Fig
110 W. Spain St., thegirlandthefig.com, entrées from $14

Buena Vista Carneros Winery
18000 Old Winery Rd., buenavistacarneros.com, tasting $10

Bartholomew Park Winery
1000 Vineyard Ln., bartpark.com, tasting $10