For better or worse, we arrived in California at the same time as El Niño. Our plan included a 4-hour flight followed by a relaxing lunch in a nice restaurant and a 1 1/2 hour drive to the northern California wine country. But it was one of those travel days where nothing went as planned. Our cab was late. Then we sat on the tarmac for 3 hours before the plane took off. We arrived in San Francisco late and deliriously hungry, and perhaps because of that we went to National’s Emerald Aisle, picked out a rental car, loaded up our luggage and took off, only to find that our reservation was with Enterprise. We had to return the car, unload our luggage, go back upstairs and start all over with Enterprise. This is the point where we started to lose our good-naturedness and ability to go with the flow. We desperately needed food. We drove around a strange neighborhood near the airport in a torrential downpour, and ended up at an iHop. Now Jorge and I are pretty picky eaters. We like healthy food, and you’ve never seen two people stare at a menu for so long trying to figure out what to order. I settled on eggs and potatoes, and Jorge caused a lot of trouble by asking for a burger with a side of broccoli, which apparently has never been done in the history of iHop.
Finally, with our blood sugar normalized, we set off toward our hotel in Santa Rosa. By 4:00 traffic was already hideous, and our GPS told us that our 1 1/2 drive would now be 3 hours. Some roads were closed because of flooding, so we inched along, and I mean inched. I decided that traffic in the San Francisco area was worse than Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., combined. But it was really pretty and green and hilly. It reminded us of Costa Rica and also of Galicia in Spain, so we actually didn’t mind the traffic and took the opportunity to soak up all that lush scenery.
Needing a bathroom break, we stopped at Taste of Rome in Sausalito. You have to pay a quarter to use the bathroom—there’s actually a contraption on the door handle that takes quarters—but we ordered a latte, and the friendly guy at the counter gave us the quarters. The latte was great, there was an interesting crowd in the restaurant, and the menu looked really good. Sausalito is a really pretty area, and I vowed to return when we had more time.
We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge in the pouring rain and visibility wasn’t so good, but still it was pretty cool. The scenery got better and better as we entered wine country. Finally we arrived at our hotel: Vintners Inn. (See my review of Vintners Inn here.) After all the delays we experienced, I thought I’d cry on the spot if anything went wrong with our hotel reservation, but check-in was a breeze, and we liked our room a lot. We had just enough time to change before our dinner reservation at John Ash & Co., (see my review here), which was just a short walk from our room. We enjoyed a lovely dinner with a fantastic Roth pinot noir, and went back to our cozy room for one of the best hotel sleeps I’ve had. In the morning, we had a delicious breakfast in the hotel and then set off for a day of wine tasting in the Russian River Valley.
Russian River Valley
When researching our wine-country trip, we chose to spend most of our time in the Russian River Valley because I love pinot noir, and some of the best pinots in the world are grown here. This portion of Sonoma County has a cooler climate that produces wonderful pinot, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, and several other varietals. Additionally, this area has a reputation of being more laid back and less commercial than Napa, and while still pricey, it won’t set you back quite as much. We found friendly people and good service everywhere we went.
We were already smitten with a pinot from Russian Hill Estate Winery that we had at a wine bar in Spring, Texas, and decided to make that our first visit. Russian Hill started in 1997 and focuses on pinot noir and syrah. Of all the tasting rooms we visited, this had the most beautiful view, as it was surrounded by lush vineyards. The tasting cost $10 per person, and one of the tasting fees was waived when we purchased a bottle. I have to mention that this winery gave us the smallest tastes of all the wineries we visited. I believe we tasted five wines, and two really stood out for us as our favorites. We spent a little more time soaking up the view and left with a bottle of Tara Vineyard Pinot.
Our next stop was recommended by Brandon, a sommelier at John Ash & Co. He told us that we would love Merry Edwards Winery, and he was right. First, Merry Edwards is a real person and one of California’s first female winemakers. We got a in-depth presentation here, which we greatly appreciated, as we are very interested in the whole process. We tasted five wines, and there was no charge, but I’m not sure if that’s always the case or if it was because we came with a card from Brandon.
Our first taste was chardonnay, which I generally do not like. I planned to politely taste and dump the rest when no one was looking, but much to my surprise I loved, loved, loved this Merry Edwards chardonnay—and yes, I could taste a bit of oak, but it was pleasant and nothing like the usual chardonnays that I don’t like. This wine had many complex flavors that created an ever-changing party in my mouth. I tasted lavender, apricot, vanilla, and more. It was lush and full and absolutely delicious! Apparently, I prefer grapes that are grown in the cooler Russian River Valley, as opposed to Napa’s chardonnays, which are grown in a much hotter climate. Next we tasted three pinots, all good. Jorge liked the boldest, and I preferred the light and medium. We finished with a sauvignon blanc that was super soft and smooth and delicious. We loved everything, and wanted to order a ton of it, but as the wine ranged from $45 – $68 per bottle, we decided to have 6 bottles shipped. I have a feeling we’ll be ordering from them again, and I highly recommend stopping here for a tasting.
Note: Our wine tasting was the second week of March, which is low season in wine country. It’s fantastic if you want to avoid lines and crowds. We were sometimes the only ones at our tastings and we enjoyed the extra attention and ability to learn a lot. The downside is that some of the wineries were sulfuring the barrels at this time and were closed, but there’s still plenty of choices. If there’s a particular winery you want to visit at this time, it’s wise to call ahead to make sure they are open.
Our wine expert at Merry Edwards recommended that we visit Paul Mathew Vineyards in nearby Graton, which turned out to be another great choice. The tasting room was located on a cute street with other shops and restaurants. There are no vineyards to be seen from here, but the wines are good and the pours were generous. The tasting fee is $10 per person, which is waived if you buy a bottle. We tasted six wines, including another great chardonnay, a very different Bohemian pinot with lots of strawberry flavor, and a Ruxton pinot with dark fruit tastes. We had a surprising cab/franc with no tannins, as it was aged in steel. The woman pouring was very friendly and we had a lot of fun here. She even let us re-taste our favorites, which worked in her favor, as we ended up purchasing five bottles. This kind woman even volunteered to put our bottle of Russian Hill in the shipping box for no extra charge, since it holds six bottles, and sure enough, it was delivered safe and sound.
Note: When you have wines shipped to your home, or if you bring them on a long flight or car ride, you need to let the wines rest on their sides for a good while before drinking. The wine gets disturbed in transit and will not taste as good if you open it right away. Different wineries have suggested different resting times, and I’ve heard anywhere from 3 – 6 weeks.
Afterward we walked a few doors down to Willow Wood Market Cafe for lunch, which was highly recommend by everyone and with good reason. Almost everything on the menu was to my liking. We shared a Mediterranean platter, which had possibly the best pesto ever, plus artichokes, hummus, feta, olives, tomatoes, and lots of other good things. I had a ham, brie, and pear sandwich that was as good as it sounds, and Jorge had pork tenderloin and polenta. The cappuccinos afterward were fantastic, and we had fun looking at all the unusual items for sale, such as an emergency underwear kit, an assortment of gnarly teeth, and artsy boxes for storing recipes, treats, and even recreational drugs!
After lunch we decided that we were wined out, and we returned to Vintners Inn for a nap. However, there was a friendly guy offering a free wine tasting right there in the hotel lobby, and we couldn’t resist. He was from Tara Bella Winery, a very small winery that only produces cabernet sauvignon. Next thing you know, we’re sitting in comfy chairs chit-chatting with others who were staying in the hotel, and enjoying more wine. And this time we got snacks! The hotel provided a variety of cheese and crackers, bread, olive oil, and fruit. I don’t know why wineries don’t provide food with wine tastings, but most that we went to had nothing—not even a cracker. It’s not easy to taste six wines in a row without cleansing your palate, not to mention that wines usually taste better with food. Eventually we got our nap and headed out to Willi’s Wine Bar for dinner (click here to read my review), followed by a return to John Ash & Co. for a repeat of the delicious orange pannacotta dessert that we had the night before. We couldn’t have been more pleased with our day in the Russian River Valley. All of the wineries were fairly close to the hotel so we didn’t have to drive far, and we met some new people and tasted a lot of new wines and delicious food.
After another delightful breakfast at Vintners Inn, we checked out of the hotel and headed out. Considering the heavy rain and the fact that wine seemed to be running through our veins instead of blood, we decided to drive through the rest of Sonoma and Napa to look at wineries without tasting. This part of Sonoma had larger wineries that you will likely recognize from your grocery store shelves. We stopped at Chateau St. Jean, finding a very large, beautiful property, but more commercial than any of the ones we saw in the Russian River Valley. The main tasting room had a large retail store and a lively crowd. We were told that we could taste for $15, or go into the next building for a $25 reserve tasting. I guess Hubby forgot about our decision not to taste, because he immediately headed toward the reserve tasting. We decided to share one tasting between us, since he was driving. Drinking and driving is never a good idea, and drinking and driving in a rainstorm is even worse. Our wine expert here was very knowledgeable and helpful, but there was a steady push to join their wine club, which was a little uncomfortable. Even though we weren’t far from where we were yesterday, we were now in a different climate, which creates distinctly different flavors of wine. To my palate, the wines here were more harsh, but to others they are more bold—it’s all a matter of personal preference. We stopped by Kenwood, but didn’t taste, and then went into the town of Sonoma for lunch at Sunflower Caffe. It had an adorable patio, but it was closed because of the rain, and therefore crowded inside. I had grilled cheese and tomato soup, which was perfect for a rainy day, and Jorge had the duck sandwich. We both had delicious lattes served in bright red cups. Only downer: I had to stand in a line outside in the rain to use the bathroom.
The torrential downpour continued, so we chose only one winery to visit in Napa. (The real focus of our wine trip was the Russian River Valley, and it’s just too hard to do the whole area at once—at least for us. We can only taste so much wine without getting overwhelmed. We will come back another time to focus on wineries that we missed.) The Napa winery we picked was V. Sattui Winery. Driving from Sonoma, we enjoyed the scenery immensely—it was lush and green with rolling hills in the back and vineyards in the front. Most of the wineries were right off the road, and we could see the tracks for the wine train that runs up and down Napa, which might be a fun thing to do with friends. The buildings of V. Sattui looked like they could have been in Spain, but the downstairs tasting room was very crowded and noisy. There were several tasting bars offering $15 tastings, and each one was packed. The nice thing about this winery is that you can pick any six wines to taste, rather than them picking for you. They also have a full deli here, with a great selection of cheeses, prepared picnic foods, and wine accessories. Luckily for us, they were having a reserve tasting in the tower for $20, so we were able to get away from the crowd. Again, we could pick any six wines from the menu, but unlike other wineries, they do not waive the tasting fee for purchases. We made the most of it, and chose different wines so we could taste 12 altogether. While the downstairs tasting had a wide variety of wines including pinots and rieslings, the upstairs was heavily concentrated on cabs and zinfandels plus a couple of whites and dessert wines. This was a most interesting tasting, because for the first time in all the many wine tastings I’ve done, we tasted the same wine from three different years. A 2012 cab was good, but the same wine from 2010 was really good. And the same wine from 2008 was phenomenal—the best cab I ever had. Since the 2012 was $85, and the 2008 was $150, we decided to buy the 2012 and let it sit for a couple of years. We also tasted a Madeira made from a mother wine that is over 120 years old. It had a wonderful caramel taste. I like dessert wines on occasion, but they usually go bad long before I can finish a bottle, but this one is supposed to last 60 years after opening. Sold! After our tasting, the rain finally stopped, so we bought some cheese and crackers and chicken salad from the deli and had a little picnic with an already-opened bottle of Roth pinot that we picked up at John Ash. The only thing we were missing was glasses, so we drank from the bottle, which somehow made it all the more fun.
Even though we only did two tastings today, we felt that it was a great day and well worthwhile. In fact, it was a perfect ending to our little adventure in wine country. We already have a few places picked out to visit on our next trip, including Healdsburg and the Alexander Valley. We and can’t wait! But in the meantime, we have some nice, drinkable souvenirs from our journey to help us relive the memories.
What to Wear
As is the case just about anywhere in California, layers are your friend, as the weather can change quickly. Check the extended forecast before you go. It’s a lot colder in northern California than it is in L.A., so be prepared. I brought jeans and a simple dress as base layers, and a couple tank tops, Tees, sweaters, and scarves to layer with them as needed. I went in early March, and it was rainy, cool, and muddy, so I wore my boots with low heels just about everywhere. I brought one nice dress and pair of heels for fancier restaurants, along with a trench coat, and I brought a lightweight casual rain jacket for every day. Pack light and mix and match! Hubby brought jeans and a pair of travel pants and some button-down shirts, plus one pair of nice shoes.
When you’re tasting wine all day and eating very good food, it’s not easy to stay in shape. Many people bike between wineries, but I’m not into drinking and biking on strange roads where a lot of drivers have likely been drinking too. There aren’t many sidewalks and the roads don’t seem safe to walk on, so that’s not a good idea. Plus it rained during our whole trip, so outdoor exercise was not an option. Still, I was determined to enjoy everything without gaining weight, so before breakfast every day I either used the hotel gym or did an exercise DVD that I brought from home, since I knew my hotel room had a DVD player. Also, I was careful not to overeat. I enjoyed everything, but kept my portions small.