Musings on the beauty of the road trip; by plane, car, boat, bike, foot…

California Part I: Santa Rosa (Sonoma and Napa)

This summer’s road trip took us to California, specifically San Francisco, Wine country (Sonoma, Napa, Anderson Valleys) and Mendocino. So rather than one gigantic post, I thought this would best be done in three parts; here, my friends, is part one.

We landed in San Francisco and took the Bart into town in order to pick up our rental car. I mention this bland point because, once agin, we landed in a city smaller than my own which has an easy to use and extensive public transportation system; this always causes much envy. Dragging suitcases and carry-ons through a strange city, especially a very hilly one, is not fun, but renting a car in the city always guarantees a MUCH cheaper rate than picking up at the airport (half price actually). Truthfully, I will admit that the walk from the Bart station to the Hertz office left a bad taste in my mouth for a city we were soon to return to for five days. We walked through a “rougher” neighbourhood, and despite the fact that there were two of us, we were heckled and accosted (more on this later). Once we had the car, we made our way out of the city, but not before stoping for some much needed sustenance at Tacolicious, a popular (small chain) Mexican inspired restaurant.

Tacolicious in San Francisco

Tacolicious in San Francisco

San Francisco is cold. Some may call it mild, but having just arrived from a super hot and humid Toronto, the 17 degrees was shocking. I was glad to drive away to our first stop, Santa Rosa. Santa Rosa is a very small city in the Sonoma Valley; a less expensive option compared to the trendy Healdsburg, it would serve as the perfect home base for the activities of the next four days.

After this full day of flying and driving, our dinner at Willi’s Wine Bar was exactly the California welcome we needed. Super fresh and local food accompanied by an endless list of both local and world wines, almost all of which were available by the glass. Needless to say, we spent the evening eating a variety of small plates (oysters, in-house made charcuterie, etc.), and tasting some of the incredible wines the area had to offer.

Willi's Wine Bar

Willi’s Wine Bar

The next day was the start of three full days of wine tasting in the area. The options are overwhelming, and it pays to do a little research before you go; talk to people who have been, and get your hands on some of the great maps available at most hotels, restaurants and wineries. We had some starting points in mind thanks to fellow oenophiles and the other wineries we hit were a result of recommendations from the wineries we visited, sommeliers and winemakers we met; this led us to some of our favourite spots. Be prepared to pay for tastings, $6-$10 in Sonoma and Anderson Valley, and $25+ in Napa. The big difference we noticed about these regions was that in Sonoma & Anderson Valleys the wineries we visited waved the tasting fees with purchase (which was pretty much every time for us), but in Napa tastings fees are charged regardless of what and how much you buy. I think it’s more than fair to charge for tasting wine when no purchase is made, but when it is, I think it’s in bad taste to charge me an additional $25 for the four small drops of wine I tried (and in most cases, shared!).

The wine region of Sonoma county is stunning, and it is easy to be distracted by the beauty of the wineries; gorgeous vineyards lined with silvery green olive trees, and perfumed by the beautiful eucalyptus trees. We had an incredible first day and tasted some really great wine, but the favourite that day was definitely St. Francis (if you want a more detailed list of most of what we tasted on this vacation, you can click here: Wine Tasting in California 2013).

Planing the wine route.

Planing the wine route.

St. Francis Winery

St. Francis Winery

Sonoma Valley

Sonoma Valley

California Wineries

California Wineries

Our second dinner in Santa Rosa was at Jackson’s Bar and Oven, a last minute recommendation we received from some locals. The wood-oven pizza, oysters, dessert and the wine were fantastic; and it was great to be able to walk back to our hotel.

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Our second day of winery visits was done via road bikes. I can not talk or write enough about how biking on vacation is the BEST way to see and experience the place you’re visiting. We do this every time we vacation, and it’s always a highlight. The ride through the Sonoma Valley vineyards was definietly the BEST ride I’ve every done on vacation, not in terms of athletic performance, but in terms of the sheer beauty of the surroundings. The route we rode was almost absent of cars, which made the experience even more idealic. We rented road bikes from two spots: Echelon Cycle in Santa Rosa, and Wine Country Bikes in Healdsburg. We spent the day tasting and buying (conservatively) stopping also to enjoy lunch at the busy and delicious Dry Creek Store. The favourite here was the beautiful Bella Vineyards and WIne Caves; a stunning winery at the end of our bike route, which poured us some of my favourite wine.

Biking Sonoma Valley

Biking Sonoma Valley

Our third evening was a spontaneous decision made after talking to locals all day, the Santa Rosa Night Market; every Wednesday in the centre of town, hundreds of people gather to enjoy a delightful combination of local food, craft vendors, live music, children’s activities, a wine tasting garden, and some costumed characters (my favourites were the dancing ninjas). We weren’t sure sacrificing our hard-to-get reservations at a heralded foodie destination was the right thing to do, but it turned out to be perfect way to continue to experience many of the things this area has to offer.

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Our third day of wine tasting took us to the famous Napa valley. After three days of being in this area, we debated whether or not to visit this very touristy, and (in the opinion of locals) highly overrated wine region, but we felt that we should visit at least once, especially since we were so close. We drove through the, sometimes unbearable, traffic to hit up some spots recommended to us, most especially the bubbles. The favourite Napa spot was Pride Mountain Vineyards, who welcomed us despite their reservations required policy. The wine here was outstanding, and they were the only place we visited this day that waved the tasting fee with purchase.

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We hit up the usual suspects for bubbles, but had the best experience at Mumm Napa, not only because of the Fine Art Photography Gallery (permanet exhibit of Ansel Adams as well as a rotation exhibit), but because of an unexpected opportunity to taste their Pinot Noir (the only wine they make); this wine was INCREDIBLE, and one of the best Pinots we tasted. Proof that being friendly with strangers can yield unexpected pleasure.

Napa Valley

Napa Valley

Our final evening in Santa Rosa took us back to St. Francis Winery for the first night of their Outdoor Summer Film Festival; a screening of Dirty Dancing. For a wine-loving 80s’ girl, this was the best thing! We borrowed a blanket from our hotel and sat among the locals sipping wine and eating some great food truck eats. It was the perfect ending to our Sonoma stay.

St. Francis Outdoor Film Festival

St. Francis Outdoor Film Festival

Stay tuned for PART II: Mendocino and Anderson Valley

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