Driving into the heart of wine country in Northern California, our chauffeur has to point out where last year’s devastation ravaged the landscape of Sonoma County. At first glance, we only see lush green hillsides. Upon closer inspection from the passing vehicle, the brownish limbs of damaged evergreens indicate where flames once danced over the freeway in October 2017. Occasional construction sites and empty lots reveal the former site of gas stations, fast food joints, and hotels consumed by wildfires.
“After the recent rains, everything turned so green,” says the driver, Hugo, a resident of Santa Rosa (the largest city in Sonoma County). His neighborhood was almost entirely destroyed, and his home was among the few that survived. “It burned so fast that, as soon as the firefighters got there, everything was gone. The heat was so intense that it was melting aluminum from the wheels on cars.”
Luckily, “vineyards are a natural firebreak,” Hugo says. Hundreds of fires across Northern California destroyed some 8,900 buildings, causing upwards of $9.4 million in damage close to the time of harvest season. But most of Sonoma’s grapes had been picked by then. Although some late-harvest yields could carry a smoky flavor, we can only speculate (as that vintage had yet to begin pouring during our visit in May).
Wine production—the vineyards acting as a firebreak—didn’t merely slow the devastation; the industry and its associated tourism remain a critical part of the region’s economic recovery. As we drive deeper into the grape-producing hills of Sonoma County, evidence of the previous year’s inferno fades from view and memory. We are getting thirsty. Bring on the wine!
Our trip began with a direct flight from Omaha to San Francisco on the morning of Saturday, May 5. Joined by my family, wife Michele and 8-month-old Faye-Marie, it was our first foray into California’s wine country. Neither my wife nor I had much knowledge of fine wines (let alone Sonoma wines), but we eagerly welcomed the opportunity to drink, uh, I mean, “to learn.” Yes, this was an educational trip.
After some light weekend sightseeing in San Francisco—and gaining firsthand appreciation for the apocryphal Mark Twain quote “The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco”—Hugo’s sparkling Chevy Suburban from Pure Luxury Transportation arrived at our hotel.
We left the foggy city and drove north through the Golden Gate Bridge, stopped for selfies, and (after another hour or so) were transported to the laid-back hillsides of Sonoma County to find perfect weather. It was all blue skies and 78 degrees Fahrenheit. The day before in San Francisco was about 20 degrees cooler (a common temperature differential between the two Northern California locales).
We were, literally, traveling the Wine Road. The association of wineries and lodgings in northern Sonoma County, known as Wine Road, had invited us on the trip and arranged our travel itinerary and accommodations. Wine Road even took into account a schedule that accommodated all our interests and limitations (i.e., maximum wining/dining for us with minimal whining from the baby).
Omaha Magazine’s publisher and associate publisher traveled to Sonoma a month earlier for photos, but they encountered rainy weather that left the hillsides nice and green for our subsequent reporting trip. Our timing, a few weeks before the Memorial Day tourist rush, seemed ideal. June through October is widely noted to be the best time to visit Sonoma, but tourism is also more packed during those five months heading into the grape-harvest season.
Nine Sonoma wineries together established Wine Road in 1976. It now includes about 200 winery members (close to half of the vineyards in Sonoma) and roughly 50 associate lodging members. The Wine Road website describes its coalition as “a spirited constellation of nearly 200 wineries and 54 lodgings” that provides a resource to guide visitors and locals alike. Member vineyards range from modern and state-of-the-art to smaller boutique operations located throughout northern Sonoma’s Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River valleys.
Sonoma is home to roughly 425 vineyards in total, including farmers who simply grow grapes for sale to larger companies, along with members-only vineyards where it can take years of being waitlisted before a would-be customer could even purchase a bottle, and everything in between.
Day 1: Arrival in Sonoma County
The wine country of Sonoma also offers the delicious paradox of mountain town atmosphere, rural farming interspersed with high luxury, and close proximity to expansive ocean shorelines. Just to the east is the neighboring, landlocked wine region of Napa County. Sonoma’s wine-producing regions cover roughly 65,000 acres, which is 25,000 more than neighboring Napa.
Varied soil types and mild temperatures help make Sonoma a winegrower’s paradise. The county may be best known for its pinot noir and zinfandels, but it also produces a host of other varietals: chardonnay, merlot, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, shiraz, and petite sirah. Each subregion of Sonoma is known for particular grapes, and the Russian River Valley is widely considered to produce some of the world’s best pinot noir—the preferred varietal of the Paul Giamatti’s character in the 2004 film Sideways by Omaha director Alexander Payne. (Although the film was not shot in Sonoma’s Russian River Valley, for the sake of the film’s protagonist, it probably should have been; the on-screen character’s obsession for pinot noir was associated with a spike in demand and price for pinot around the time of the film’s release.) The Russian River Valley is also notable for its chardonnay production.
Driving along River Road, we cross a bridge high over the Russian River. Happy kayakers float on the gentle river below (possibly with wine stashed in their vessels). Veering off the road, a steep driveway takes us up to our lodging nestled behind a wall of trees and dense foliage. We discover Sonoma Orchid Inn Bed and Breakfast—a cluster of cozy yellow cottages—to be a rustic, sun-soaked dream. Hummingbirds flit past multi-colored roses, and one of the property’s co-owners, Dana Murphy, welcomes us in the driveway.
Murphy offers a quick tour of the three-level main cottage. In addition to smaller standalone cottages outside, the main building features rooms for a range of price points. There is artwork and antique furniture throughout; a family-style dining room and living room on the main level with a library, fireplace, couches, floor-to-ceiling windows, and piano; and two kitchens, one for staff, one for guests.
The nearby Russian River is a short walk from the lodging along Odd Fellows Park Road. The river takes its name from Russian explorers who established forts and planted apples in the area at the dawn of the 19th century. Then came Spanish missionaries, who introduced grapes to the Russian River Valley for personal consumption (making it the oldest wine-producing region of California). Formal annexation of California by the U.S. came in 1848, followed by the gold rush, logging and destruction of expansive redwood forests, Prohibition (which put local viticulture on hold), the rise and fall of hop farming, and eventual removal of apple orchards in recent decades.
Sonoma’s history is fascinating, and the B&B site was originally the homestead of a prune/plumb/hops farmer who came out for the gold rush but missed the action. But I struggle to keep my focus from the mountain of chewy double-chocolate (gluten-free) cookies that Murphy—also the resident chef—had piled under a covered platter in the guest kitchen.
The refrigerator is stocked with favorite wines from Sonoma, of course. To my surprise, the fridge is also packed with an ample selection of local craft beer and hard cider. Before becoming synonymous with wine country, Sonoma was famous for its production of Gravenstein apples and the hops necessary for beer. The high value of grapes in recent decades prompted growers to cultivate grapevines in place of orchards and hop farms.
In recent years, however, the booming demand for craft beer and hard cider has led to resurgent use of these historic Sonoma agricultural products. Although the grapes remain more profitable per acre, the cyclical pattern of history in Sonoma agriculture feels poetic. But we are late for dinner (and I can only eat so many cookies before seeming like a rude guest).
Another driver picks us up, and we head into the quaint town of Guerneville. The small-town feel of the main drag belies the culinary delights waiting in the bars and restaurants. We stop at an uber-hip bistro, Boon Eat+Drink, to feast on roasted Brussels sprouts, a burger with truffle fries, and baked cod from a seasonally rotating menu (paired with Sonoma wine, of course, and a local Sonoma beer). Next door, we pop into the Guerneville Bank Club—a collective retail and art space in a restored historic bank—for a slice of spicy green chile apple pie with a scoop of lavender honeycomb ice cream.
There is still sunlight, so we head over to the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve for a walk. Giant redwoods tower overhead, and we meander through the trees on a flat trail with occasional interpretive signs that explain how the patch of old-growth forest narrowly escaped loggers’ axes. We take the “Discovery Loop” trail to pay respects to Colonel Armstrong (a redwood tree that is more than 1,400 years old) and Parson Jones (the forest’s tallest tree at 310 feet).
Back at our lodging, our host explains that we made the right decision to skip Muir Woods National Monument on the way to Sonoma. Although Muir Woods is easily accessible north of San Francisco, the forest has become so crowded with tourists that reservations are needed to visit. We just showed up at Armstrong Redwoods, and we only encountered a few other couples and families hiking (there were no crowds and no reservations required).
Day 2: Adventure and Gluttony
Experiencing local wineries fills the remainder of our trip. We have multiple chauffeurs during our tour, and I ask each driver to suggest the perfect number of wineries to visit on a trip to Sonoma. The answer varies.
One middle-aged driver says that two or three at max is ideal per day. He sees too many visitors get sloshed early in the day and miss their dinner reservations to five-star restaurants. He’s been driving guests for many years, and his advice is solid. In contrast, another driver (in his 20s) insists that five wineries is the perfect number in a day. With youthful energy and/or high tolerance for alcohol, this could also work out well—so long as wine consumption is moderated at every stop, or there are no fancy dinner reservations in the evening that could be spoiled.
There are vessels for spitting out wine at every winery. And staffers always assure us that this is perfectly normal. But I find it difficult to not swallow/guzzle great wine, so a less-ambitious winery tour is better for my waste-not attitude. Then again, I also want to sample as much as I can. Luckily, we experience a bit of both scheduling philosophies on our trip.
We begin with a leisurely drinking day. But first, some adventure. My first full day in Sonoma begins at Sonoma Canopy Tours. Michele and the baby stay at the B&B as I head deep into the redwood forest.
To check in, I must step on a scale to make sure I’m not over 250 pounds. A nearby television screen displays footage of helmeted humans screaming through the treetops hundreds of feet above the earth. Minutes later, I’m geared up and flying between the redwoods. My group’s lead guide, Bryan Hart, is a true comedian. Every stop on a platform high in the trees is master’s course in tree-related puns, i.e., Q: Why is this tree so healthy? A: Because of the antibodies (he points to the ants all over the tree). Hart’s assistant can’t help but roll his eyes at the constant barrage of puns (that he has no doubt heard a million times) about pirates, animals, wine, and celebri-trees. But I love it.
Meanwhile, Michele is enjoying breakfast with travelers from as far away as Latvia and across the U.S. (including local Californians). Some are passing through on self-directed wine tours, others make the lodge a recurring destination for family trips. The co-owners, Murphy and Brian Siewert, are experts on Sonoma wineries, festivals, and activities. What’s more, they share their knowledge with a typical laid-back California fashion, absent of condescension (which we experienced all throughout Sonoma). They were helpful and informative without making us feel stupid about wine, which in all fairness, we were.
In an idyllic sun-soaked scene that could have been ripped from a Thomas Kinkade painting, I find Michele and the baby playing in the yard. Then we are off to our first winery, Korbel Champagne Cellars, which boasts of being the only producer of real champagne outside of France. Korbel’s operation in Sonoma was founded by three Czech brothers in 1882, a history that exempts it from a later international treaty that legally restricts use of the term “champagne” to sparkling wine produced in Champagne, France.
Korbel provided the champagne for Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration. Of course a Californian would use “California Champagne,” and he set a tradition that has continued with the drink of choice in all subsequent U.S. presidential inaugurations. President Barack Obama received angry feedback from French wine lobbyists for his serving Korbel to no avail. His inauguration organizers more or less told the lobbyists to “put a cork in it.”
We visit the cellars, learn the company history, witness the stages of production, and linger in the tasting room until we’ve tried every variety (including several limited editions). Buzzed and late, we stop in the cafe for some fancy sandwiches to eat in the car. Had we not spent so much time in the tasting room, we would have taken our sandwiches to Armstrong Redwoods for a picnic. Never mind. We are off to our next destination, Iron Horse Vineyards.
Iron Horse Vineyards’ tasting room consists of a cozy bar overlooking a sweeping vista of grapevines rolling downhill and out to the horizon. Iron Horse, like Korbel, was also a crucial drink for the Reagan administration. Iron Horse’s sparkling wine was served at his Perestroika meetings with the Soviet Union’s Mikhail Gorbachev that ended the Cold War. Although famous for its sparkling wine (and we sample the 2013 Russian Cuvee that commemorates the Reagan-Gorbachev meeting), the vineyard produces much more—including some delightful chardonnay and pinot noir.
We close out the bar in the late afternoon, and we head to Forestville (another of Sonoma’s quaint little towns) for dinner reservations at Backyard. Backyard is a farm-to-table restaurant. Chef and owner Daniel Kedan brings out a spectacular charcuterie board with ingredients sourced from his own garden along with local organic farms. Live music is playing, and we order several other dishes—pizza, pasta, and fried chicken—that are all wonderful.
Beware. Travelers in wine country must be careful of overeating as well as overdrinking. By the time we leave Backyard, I am so full that I have to walk up and down the little main street a few times before I can comfortably sit down in the vehicle.
Day 3: Novelty and Heavy Drinking
Our first full day was a crash course in sparkling wine. Our second full day will introduce the broader spectrum of Sonoma wines from chardonnay to pinot to zinfandel (and more). Wine tours, we are told, should start with lighter-bodied wines—sparkling or chardonnay—and move into the heavier-bodied wines. Pinot is a very light-bodied red wine. Cabernet sauvignon, on the other hand, is robust and dominates one’s palate).
After a family-style breakfast at the B&B, I take a lesson from the previous day and remind myself not to overdo it. Today is our big day of drinking with four vineyards and a brewery all on the itinerary. We start with a stop at Sonoma-Cutrer in the Russian River Valley.
While the baby is sleeping in the stroller under the shade of our table’s umbrella, we sample three refreshing chardonnays and a pinot while munching on a local cheese spread. Each chardonnay exhibits a different flavor characteristic: one is more fruit forward on the tongue, another carries stronger oaky hints from the barrel, and the third has a stronger mineral taste. The pinot, without any cross-reference, I’d simply describe as delightful (a descriptor that applies to each chardonnay, too).
Our table overlooks two croquet courts. Two elderly couples smack at balls on one court, and our server offers a quick tutorial. We play a few rounds as the baby sleeps nearby. Swinging the mallet between planted feet takes some getting used to, but it’s a fun way to putter around the grass while enjoying more wine.
Next, we swing over to Healdsburg for lunch at Bear Republic Brewing Co. We order a Big Bear Black Stout and the barrel-aged flight set. For Sonoma’s historical integrity, the hoppy flight would have been another good choice, but we are trying to pace ourselves. We order garlic fries and a beet salad. Then we’re off to Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in the Dry Creek Valley.
Ferrari-Carano’s palatial estate features sprawling gardens that are a tourist attraction independent of the winery, which employs a dozen or so full-time gardeners to care for flowers and hedgerows surrounding the mansion. There is even a special hotline (707-433-5349) for the public to inquire about the status of the tulips. The estate’s roughly 10,000 tulips and daffodils bloom in the spring. Owner Rhonda Carano designed all the gardens, and every year she chooses the colors of the tulips to surprise visitors. Roses are also found throughout the property (and in other Sonoma vineyards). Traditionally, roses served a purpose in vineyards by indicating to growers if pests were threatening the vines (the flowers were the first targets, though they now primarily serve an aesthetic role).
The vineyard has two tasting rooms: one on the main level, and one past the cellars downstairs. We start with tasting upstairs. Then, we head downstairs to experience a private sensory tasting where a sommelier has different canisters spread across a table in a dimly lit room. Each canister holds a different item: from fruits and herbs to spices and chocolate, paired with lighter wines first, followed by a succession of heavier-bodied wines. The exercise is meant to help strengthen one’s ability to articulate the sensory experience of the wine, as each person may experience a wine differently with different mental associations.
By this point in the day, I’m thankful we have a driver. Our next stop is Fritz Underground. Founder Arthur Fritz started building the facility in the heat of the 1970s’ energy crisis. The production facility, cellar, and tasting room were all buried into a hillside in the Dry Creek Valley. By the time construction had completed, the energy crisis was over; however, the vineyard continues to yield the benefit of low utility bills and is ready in the event that America again faces an energy shortage. Touring the vineyard feels like descending into a futuristic bomb shelter, but the top-level tasting room feels like sitting in a church with the serving sommelier as the high priest.
It’s Tuesday, and every Tuesday evening is the A Tavola dinner at Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville. We head over for the meal featuring actors serving dinner and drinks in a theatrical performance that comes directly to the table.
Driving into the grounds, we keep an eye out for the red Tesla that the famous director and vineyard owner supposedly drives. We don’t see it. So we proceed to walk through the lavish grounds, past the expansive swimming pool area, toward the restaurant.
Waiting for our dinner reservation, we have time to peruse an expansive collection of memorabilia in the two-level Movie Gallery museum. There’s Don Corleone’s desk from the Godfather movies and vampire garb from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, along with other unforgettable props from Coppola films. There’s even a short-story dispenser that prints out short stories in three lengths (with a button for estimated reading time of one, three, or five minutes) from Zoetrope: All-Story, Coppola’s magazine of short stories and art.
A very pregnant-looking hostess/actress takes us to our seat. There is a family patriarch in wife beater chastising waiters or running from his wife. Waiter-actors deliver multiple courses of pasta, pizza, and other Italian foods to our table (along with accompanying Coppola brand wines, of course). An accordion player sits at one end of the spacious room filled with tables of guests, and at different points of the evening, he is joined by other musicians.
At some point, the family patriarch chases another man around the room with a knife. They run around outdoors and around the building. Then the antics resume indoors. By this point, it’s getting late and the baby starts to cry. The patriarch comes over and, still remaining in character, apologetically asks if the knife chase was too much. Not at all. But it has been a long day. We finish our meal and depart for much-needed slumber.
Day 4: Bitten by the Wine Bug
Feeling quite accomplished to wake up without a hangover, we enjoy one last breakfast with our host B&B and head to the final winery of our trip—DeLoach Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. Acquired by the Boisset Family of vineyards in 2003, the 25-acre vineyard continues the original DeLoach philosophy of sustainable winemaking. It is one of several Boisset vineyards in France, California, Italy, and Canada
As we approach DeLoach, our driver explains that this road is home to many “old vine” grape-bearing vines (35 to 40 years old, or older), discernible by the vines’ gnarled appearance and absence of modern trellis technology. When we sit down at the vineyard’s outdoor patio area, we have the opportunity to enjoy a range of DeLoach wines that includes both new-growth and old-growth vines produced by the property (and supplemented by neighboring vineyards).
A staffer gives us a tour of the grounds, the “biodynamic” eco-friendly garden that is home to various flowers, vegetable gardens, and animals (Faye-Marie is especially impressed with the goats and chickens). We also explore owner Jean-Charles Boisset’s party room—a James Bond-themed bar area with costumes, wigs, and sensory emitters (like what we had at Ferrari-Carano, but in squeezable perfume sprayers) decorating the walls. Our guide explains that each Boisset vineyard has a special party room with a different theme.
Our time in Sonoma is drawing to a close. We down our last glasses of DeLoach’s delicious old-vine wine, bid farewell to Sonoma, and our driver takes us back to San Francisco for an afternoon flight. Time to return to reality.
The day after returning to Omaha, I can’t help but feel something is missing. I’m eating my lunch as I normally do, and it hits me: where’s my wine? Three and a half days of drinking some of the nation’s best wine can be habit-forming. And lunch is just not the same without it.
Later that night, after shutting down the office, I head to the Costco near Omaha Magazine’s suburban office to pick up some groceries—and to see if I can find any of the wines we had tasted on our vineyard tour. Happily, I find a Sonoma Coast Chardonnay from Sonoma-Cutrer.
The bottle is above the price point I would normally spend. But the purchase is worth it. After putting the baby to bed, we slice some cheese and uncork the bottle. Two glasses of the crisp and refreshing chardonnay later, we are transported back to the frivolous, sun-drenched morning of snacking and croquet while our baby sleeps peacefully.
Wine, it seems, truly has the power to teleport the sensory experiences of one memorable moment to the present. Would I like to travel back to Sonoma? Most definitely. Until the opportunity arises, the occasional Sonoma wine will do just fine.
Visit wineroad.com for more information.
This article was printed in the September/October 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.