California Wine Country: Napa Valley, Sonoma Valley and more

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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.

Dozens of others are available for your choice, and everyone has his or her favorite.

The trip north from San Francisco (Marin county)

Marin claims only a single vineyard and several microbreweries, but the stunning beauty of the county's western coast will turn you heady with delight. While Sausalito and Tiburon to the east with their yacht basins (and tasting rooms) epitomize San Francisco bedroom communities, roughly three-quarters of west Marin is publicly owned.

Here is the stunning Point Reyes National Seashore with its legendary birdlife, its elk herds, its wilderness beaches. Here, too, is Tomales Bay, directly along the San Andreas Fault - that restless underside of the region's fabled beauty that ever threatens the ground under people's feet and the roofs over their heads.

The best place to see migrating gray whales between January and April is from the Point Reyes Lighthouse. A nearby overlook provides views of harbor seals and sea lions. Spring strews fields of wildflowers across wilderness trails.

Your lodgings (and meals) in Wine Country

Ironically, the closer to the coast, the more varied and affordable vacations become. Nothing, of course, is cheap. The vineyards, with their promise of bonanza profits, have sent inland real estate values skyward. Napa, because of its high cost of lodging, is better visited from a base in neighboring Sonoma, though even inland Sonoma rates have risen ten percent in the past year. Throughout the region, the best overnight buys include not just motels but places of distinct character. But be forewarned: between April and October, even midweek reservations are a must.

Marin hostels and hotels

Your best budget lodgings are in Sonoma and Mendocino counties (avoid Napa for overnight stays), but some will prefer to make their base closer to San Francisco. For the die-hards, and directly within the Point Reyes National Seashore (described above), is the Point Reyes Hostel (Hostelling International-Point Reyes National Seashore, Box 247, Point Reyes Station 94956, 415/663-8811), a well-run lodging with 44 beds, shared baths, and shared kitchen. Typical of most hostels, access is limited from late-afternoon check-in until after breakfast. There are separate dormitories for men and women. A family room is available as well. The rate is $14 to $16 a night.

Stinson Beach is also wildly popular year-round because it's only an hour drive from San Francisco. Affordable, and with great style, is Redwood Haus (1 Belvedere Ave. & Hwy. 1, Box 404, Stinson Beach 94970, 415/868-9828, stinson-beach.com), where rates are $100 a night midweek or weekend-but a two-night midweek stay can drop down to $75 nightly. Winter rates go as low as half-price. This includes full breakfast for two and the owners will also discount rooms for tradable stuff-artifacts with a Polynesian or ship theme, good shells, ivory, farming objects, anything of value that fits the eclectic style of this 1910 Norwegian ship captain's house. Once a casino, bordello, and smuggler's hangout, it's now a very hip four rooms and a cabin.

And finally, nearing southern Marin but still blessedly removed from the hubbub, is its antithesis in the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, the 15-acre Green Gulch Farm. Serenity envelops this Buddhist retreat center where vistas drop with striking beauty across organic gardens and a farm to the foot of Muir Beach. You do not have to be a Zen practitioner to stay here, though your spiritual side will surely feel engaged by its quiet dignity. Guest quarters are in the Lindisfarne House (Green Gulch Farm, 1601 Shoreline Highway, Sausalito 94965, 415/383-3134, ggfzc@earthlink.net, sfzc.org), with 12 rooms octagonally surrounding a 30-foot-high atrium built with traditional Japanese joinery. Rooms of white walls and pale and earth tones are without embellishment. A common area contains a wood-burning fireplace, oriental-style rugs, and simple and comfortable chairs and tables. Guests have use of a small kitchen with a fridge, two-burner stovetop, sink, toaster, coffee maker, and recycling bin. Bathrooms are shared between bedrooms, but there is only one shower in the entire house. Meals in the high-ceilinged dining hall are vegetarian and served buffet style. A small room midweek will run you $110, a large room $125; add $15 for weekend nights. Rates include all three meals daily.

Sonoma County and the wild Sonoma Coast

Sonoma spreads its affordable lodgings throughout the county. From anywhere inland, the vineyards and tasting rooms are minutes away. The hub of best buys lies in the Russian River Valley. (See the discussion below by Debra Klein).

Cloverdale to the north off Highway 101 offers the Abrams House Inn (314 N. Main St., Cloverdale 95425, 800/764-4466, 707/894-2412), a Queen Anne run by a friendly caterer who allows guests to bring food from outside to enjoy in her dining room. Rates for two with shared bath and full breakfast start at $60 midweek and $85 weekends.

South in Healdsburg, rooms at the Fairview Motel (74 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg 95448, 707/433-5548), including in-room coffee and continental breakfast, go for $66 weekdays, $99 weekends, ten percent AAA discount. Directly in the town of Sonoma, the El Pueblo Inn (896 W. Napa, Sonoma 95476, 707/996-3651) provides in-room coffee, and charges $80 weekdays, $95 weekends. Both motels have swimming pools and offer ten percent AAA discounts on weekdays.

Midweek, too, try for rooms at Westerbeke Ranch Conference Center (2300 Grove St., Sonoma 95476, 707/996-7546, ranch@wco.com; westranch.com). Westerbeke is a Mexican hacienda converted to an acclaimed meeting site with sublime gardens and vintage artifacts. Exquisitely hand-detailed redwood cottages are an outstanding buy for a single person, who pays only $50 per night; a splurge for a couple that pays $100. The pool is a crown jewel.

A smaller splurge - but a big bargain - gets you a spectacular setting at Timber Cove Inn (21780 N. Hwy. 1, Jenner 95450, 800/987-8319, 707/847-3231) on the wild Sonoma coast near Fort Ross. The stunning redwood lodge with its soaring fireplace stands among 26 acres at the ocean edge. Midweek, two pond-view rooms are $78 double (they go up to $110 on weekends). Less than half an hour south are state beaches, and near to the east, the affordable outdoor restaurants of the Russian River Valley.

Mendocino County

Suppressing the urge to splurge, you can do just as well in budget lodgings as you head north toward Mendocino.

Start with Salt Point Lodge, 17 miles north of Jenner (23255 N. Hwy. 1, Jenner 95450, 800/956-3437, 707/847-3234), which captures views of the sea from across the road. Of 16 modern rooms, all with baths, two small ones are $55 (no ocean view) and $60. Restaurant entrees start at $12.95, including salad or clam chowder and bread.

Just as delightful and one of the best buys on the coast is the Gualala [hwa-LA-la] Hotel (N. Hwy. 1, P.O. Box 675, Gualala 95445, 707/884-3441) in its namesake town in far south Mendocino County. The two-story, galleried hotel dates from 1903 and was a favorite of Jack London during timbering days. Rooms evoke a century-old style, with oak or white iron beds. You'll pay only $44 a night with a shared bath, $55 for an oceanview room with its own bath. There's a rustic bar, and soup or salad plus entree in the dining room averages $14. Beaches and paddling on the Gualala River are popular.

Otherwise, best buys along the coast are on either side of Mendocino rather than in that trendy town itself.

Only minutes south in Little River is Fools Rush Inn (7533 N. Hwy. 1, P.O. Box 387, Little River 95456, 707/937-5339), a collection of cottages, all different, mostly new or recently rebuilt, comfortable and roomy. All have kitchens and dining areas. You're within walking distance of the beach. Rates are $69 to $89 weekends or midweek, except for the rustic and not yet remodeled Farallon Cottage, which is a wonderful bargain because this too has kitchen and dining area. It's only $49 to $59.

Little River is only 20 miles from the tasting rooms of Anderson Valley vineyards and breweries in a bucolic district of sheep farms, apple orchards, and local crafts.

Minutes north of Mendocino in Caspar is the recently redone working-class Caspar Inn (P.O. Box 3, Caspar 95420, 707/964-5565). It's the site of a famous blues bar, so you don't want to plan early weekend nights. Rooms are $50, all on the second floor, with two baths down the hall. Three-course meals in the dining room won't top $15.

North a few minutes more is Fort Bragg, the bargain basement of the Mendocino coast. At first glance the town is gray, down on its luck. Yet it's an unpretentious art, performance, and shopping hub, a scene of redwood forest activism and terminal of the Skunk Train, which operates daylong tours on a historic 40-mile logging line through redwood forests (800/77-SKUNK; $27 adult, $14 children ages 3-17).

Choice among otherwise ordinary budget places to stay is Shoreline Cottages (18725 N. Hwy. 1, Fort Bragg 95437, 707/964-2977), where the office is an immense library and units start at $51, topping out at $66 any time of week, all with private baths and in-room coffee. A cottage with kitchen is only $5 more. The units are comfortably furnished with colorful wallpapers, curtains, and easy chairs.

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