By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor
Walking, Driving, Eating, Drinking & Touring Through Sonoma
New York, NY -
"I love Napa; I used to work there. You can spend three days in Napa and a lifetime in Sonoma. Our goal is not only to get visitors to Sonoma County but also to get them into the vineyards. Our organization represents 1,800 wine grape growers in Sonoma County. We believe that when wine drinkers know how and where our grapes are grown, they will have a greater appreciation for Sonoma County."- Larry Levine, VP Communications, Sonoma County WineGrape Commission.
"Most people who come to wine country are limited to tasting rooms with wood-paneled bars and first-year staff. On a Sonoma Vineyard Walk we get into the vineyards with the people who grow the grapes and make the wine. These are, first and foremost, vacations. We stay in excellent hotels, walk through beautiful scenery, enjoy delicious meals and taste world-class wines."- Allan Wright, President Zephyr Wine Adventures.
The benefit in being a travel journalist, particularly someone that has a penchant and desire to cover whatever ties there are to wine on a particular journey, is that it is a specialty of sorts and one can do this without the necessity of anticipating membership in AA. Consequently, an invitation to spend three days with Zephyr Adventures on a shortened version of their customary five day trips was greeted with both pleasure and enthusiasm by yours truly. And, as an itinerary of sorts was in the works, I opted to spend a few days after this particular trip in the same area while renewing acquaintances and seeing what had changed since my last Sonoma visit three years ago.
Zephyr is a Montana based adventure travel operator that has offered active tours around the world since 1997. Their Wine Adventure series takes one through Tuscany and Umbria for the more athletic among you since it includes both hiking and biking; Can you do so without being a member of LA Fitness or Bally? Yes. On the other hand, their sojourns into Chile and Argentina have added horseback riding and river rafting although I have yet to uncover what wines will be discovered on any river. If you should be inclined towards the "great outdoors" a tour to Oregon you can partake of hiking, bicycling and canoeing. Nice, very nice and bring a camera that is "water protected." There is also a walk through the burgundy vineyards of South Africa and Spain. The folks at Zephyr believe that staying active while on vacation is healthier than most wine vacations where one is driven everywhere and the period of time spent at a particular vineyard is less than one might expect. Good sell but not sure I agree with that. Back to California, their regular Sonoma five-day tours include vineyard walks in five separate Sonoma appellations: Alexander Valley, Dry Creek, Russian River, Rockpile and Sonoma Valley. By doubling up the walk the group I was with was able to experience all these areas in three days. Depending upon how you feel, you can choose from a shorter, casual version of walking about, with stops, naturally, to imbibe a bit, or a more aggressive hike up and down hills.
By teaming up, the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission and Sonoma County Vintners Zephyr is able to get the participation of many vineyard owners and that is a huge plus for you,. While I was there, we walked and tasted wines at: Michel-Schlumberger Winery, Truett-Hurst Winery, Rockpile Vineyards, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Sausal Winery, Silver Oak Cellars, Rodney Strong Vineyards, Saralee's Vineyard and Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery. Principals and winemakers were present to conduct each walk and tasting. Believe it or not, we were still able to walk after all those tastings. Always plan to have lunch at the vineyards or wineries. I have found the experience, without fail, to be immensely gratifying. Dinner is up to you with a usual selection of local restaurants to suit anyone's taste buds and do call upon the local experts - in our case, it was Sonoma County Tourism, Sonoma County Winegrape Commission and Sonoma County vintners - to ask for recommendations.
I stayed at the Geyserville Inn while there but Zephyr splits the longer trip between that resort and The Flamingo Resort in Santa Rosa. In essence, both are very delightful. The cost of the longer, five day trip is $1,900 per person, with 3% of the proceeds benefiting the Sonoma Vineyard Workers Educational Program. All meals, except for one lunch, are included as well as lodging, local transportation, wine tastings and expert guides. We were fortunate to have both Allan Wright (the President of Zephyr) and Reno Walsh, his number one guide accompany us during our trip. Their 2008 trips are coming up shortly so check your calendar...August 24-28 and October 26-30.
Helpful facts - Sonoma County draws over seven million visitors a year and starts less than 30 miles north of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. With a population a bit under 500,000 the county is home to 13 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs or appellations). There are 350 wineries (250 open to the public) 1,800 grape growers and 64,000 acres of vines. To put it in perspective- one acre of grapes gives you 3,958 bottles of wine. There are 72 varieties of wine grapes grown with Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir leading the list. I have my favorite wineries but my suggestion is plan a four or five day trip and spend two days in the Geyserville area; two in Santa Rosa and one in Sonoma. Or, use Santa Rosa as your central base for the whole trip (The Hilton Sonoma County is the perfect place to stay). Start driving, walking, drinking and touring. Don't forget the designated driver!
Favorite Sonoma Restaurants-
Dry Creek Kitchen- Healdsburg- 650 wines
John Ash- Santa Rosa- 750 wines
Cyrus- Healdsburg- 900 wines
Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen- Healdsburg- 300 wines
Equus- Santa Rosa- 290 Sonoma wines
Santi- Geyserville- 300 wines
Mosaic- Forestville- 125 wines
Favorite Sonoma Towns & Places to visit-
From Sonoma and up Route 12 through Boyes Hot Springs and Glen Ellen. Walk the Square in Sonoma; look at the very old and large wooden casks at Sebastiani; Sonoma Mission Inn for a spa treatment; Jack London Village for olive oil and chocolate.
Santa Rosa- Largest city in Sonoma. Hilton Sonoma Wine County Hotel. Charles Schultz Museum & Ice Rink; Historic Railroad Square for dining and playing; Luther Burbank Home & Gardens.
Healdsburg- Walk the Square; take a cooking class at Relish Culinary School; visit Gallo Family tasting room.
Geyserville- The Pomo Indian's River Rock Casino
Petaluma- Village Premium Outlets
Freestone- Osmosis Spa- Cedar Enzyme Bath. Bohemian Highway, a 10 mile scenic drive
Jenner by the Sea- Russian River flows into the Pacific
Bodega Bay- The Tides Wharf & Restaurant
Sebastopol- Culinary Institute of Florence; Grapemasters
Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.