By Max Hartshorne, GoNOMAD Editor
A February trip to the Russian River Valley in California’s Sonoma County was the perfect mix of scenery, greenery and laid back culture that’s home to many culinary wonders. We also sipped some fine wines.
While most travelers compare Sonoma with its high priced neighbor, Napa Valley, on our trip we spent our time in the small towns near the coast. They have plenty of wineries there too, but there was also a sense of small town California you can’t find in Napa. But the two counties have distinctly different characters. Sonoma is about the size of Rhode Island, so there is much to explore. We chose the western side, near the ocean and the Redwoods.
“Sonoma was known as the place for San Francisco’s working class to spend the summers by the river,” said our Innkeeper Diana Van Ry, who runs the Case Ranch Inn in Forestville. “Napa was for the rich, but Sonoma was the place where the firemen, the carpenters, and the ‘regular folks,’ liked to come.
The difference was striking between the vast manicured estate-like wineries of Napa, where you drive up such a long driveway you feel like you’re visiting an English manor. In Sonoma, the wineries are easy to reach, right off the road, and much more friendly.
We began our trip with an early morning visit to Armstrong Woods in Guerneville, where towering redwoods form a canopy of indescribable quiet and beauty. Looking up at the 300-foot tall, 1400-year-old trees, a hush came over us; the only sound was the shiver of the wind. The 805-acre preserve of Sequoia sempervirens, or coastal redwoods is a perfect way to start your day, or better, for a picnic amidst the towering trees.
This sanctuary is located just outside of the town of Guerneville, population 1400, with one quaint main street and the Russian River running right through it. The flooding of early 2006 caused damage to some parts of town, but most businesses and homes are back to normal just a month later when we visited the area in February.
The rich and famous know Guerneville because of a secret club in nearby Monte Rio. The Bohemian Grove has annual summer encampments that bring dozens of Lear Jets to the local Charles Schultz airport in Santa Rosa. Then a parade of black limos brings the rich and powerful, both political and business bigwigs to the gates of the wooded grove. Nobody really knows what goes on there but folks like Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford, Howard Baker and dozens of CEO’s of the world’s biggest companies make the trip to convene with like minds. It’s a closed club for the public, only the invited get to venture beyond the guarded gates.
Outside of the gates protesters regularly set up pickets trying to reach the powerful en route to their rural retreat. Alexander Coburn writes about some of the club’s rituals on his website.
Like all such institutions the club has its rituals, its ceremonies, its hallowed rules. In June there are three long weekends of Springjinks, mostly attended by Californians. At the opening of each summer season proper, on July 14 this year, there is the traditional masque, representing the banishment of Care. Amid somber music, horses carrying caped riders gallop through the trees. Then, eerily picked out by torchlight, robed tycoons move slowly into a clearing with a bier supporting the effigy of Care. Amid stentorian chants, a blare of music and leaping flames, Care is finally cremated. In its place the flame of eternal friendship is ignited and three weeks of Boho-dom are underway.
We drove up to the Bohemian Grove’s locked gates and then continued our journey to discover the charms of this river valley. We decided to visit one of the 200 or so wineries that produce fine wines from the Sonoma soils, and stopped by the Dutton Estate Winery, in Sebastopol.
Wine Tastings for Free
One tip—if you stay in one of the member B&Bs in the Russian River Wine Road association, you can get a Wine Tasting Hospitality card. Present this card to any wineries with a tasting fee, and they’ll waive it for you, as long as you are staying at any member inn.
The Duttons grow apples along with their grapes, and three generations have worked on the 1150 acres of grapes and 150 acres of apples since the 1920s. Across the street Koslowski Farms offers a dizzying array of fruit baskets, homemade jams, jellies, pies tarts and sandwiches.
Dutton’s director of hospitality, Jennifer Burden, told us about the amazing effect the popular movie Sideways (which was filmed in the Central Coast near Santa Barbara) has had on the wine business. “Nobody wants merlot any more, and now, everybody is interested in Pino Noir!” (Unlike Miles, I resisted taking a swig from the slop bucket)
Dutton Estates is among the larger producers in the county, they grow grapes for many other vineyards as well as providing fruit for Koslowski’s. We learned a few more things when we toured the Iron Horse Ranch and Vineyards, right down the road.The outdoor tasting bar here provides magnificent views of the rolling hills, covered with old vine vineyards. It is interesting to note the many different types of vines you see; old gnarly ones, newer, thinner trelised varieties, and others that sweep in big strands off of the stands.
Dawnelise Regnery told us that that many wineries have signs that say “tasting by appointment only” so they can accommodate large groups. But if it’s only a few of you, just proceed up the driveways in spite of these signs and you’ll usually find wine to taste.
Dawnelise told us over sips of her fine voignier red that October is the busiest time in Sonoma, when the weather is crisp and sunny, and many visitors come up from San Francisco and the East.
Working Man Vacations
Our next stop after the hush of the forest was the Sonoma sea coast. The county is large, stretching over 1600 square miles, and the county is bisected by the Russian River. The river is known for rafting, and swimming and in the ‘50s and 60s, was a place where the working man relaxed on vacation.
Many rafting companies offer rentals and portage for kayaks and canoes. The gentle swell of the Russian River is a perfect river for this, you don’t find whitewater but you do have enough of a current to drift lazily down around Guerneville.
The little village of Guerneville has a few unique shops, including Hemp and Chocolate, where all things made of hemp share space with chocolate treats. It doesn’t take long to pass through, but walking the little main street feels like a stroll back twenty years.
But the ocean is as lovely a part of Sonoma as are the rolling hills, so we headed down CA 116, winding road through Monte Rio to Duncan’s Mills (a blip on the road) and finally reaching Jenner at the end of the road. It is here that the Russian River spills into a delta and finally, the ocean.
You can explore the estuary where the river meets the ocean near Goat Rock State Beach. You’ll see surfers plying the waves and a dramatic sweep of the land extending for miles. This is definitely a photo opportunity, we were blessed with a gorgeous clear day without fog, and we could see for many miles. Our guide told us he hadn’t seen this clear a February day in years, we snapped away and took it all in.
Bodega Bay, the little hamlet was made famous in 1960, when Alfred Hitchcock came here to film his legendary horror movie “The Birds,” is a tranquil undeveloped spot on the coast. The town was a stand-in for New England, and made the tiny village world famous. You can still see the little schoolhouse that was featured in the movie. The town is now just as famous for whale watching, magnificent scenery, and seaside winetasting. One shop worth a stop here is Gourmet Au Bay, with more than 200 California wines, handpainted glassware, candles and jewelry.
The Wildflour Bakery is located in the tiny village of Free Stone. We found it just east of Bodega Bay, and you could tell that this was a special place. Locals were lined up to buy bread and pastries; it’s clearly the center of this small universe. But we had to sample that famous bread—and it did not disappoint! Chewy, crusty, and just out of the wood-fired oven, we were instant converts!
Lunch was a treat that waited for us in another small town, Occidental. You emerge from the woods and into another small main street with a small grassy median dividing the only big street. We were headed for a booth at Negri’s for a super cheap meal of wonderfully authentic Italian.
Our meal began with a large tureen of homemade minestrone soup, followed by their homemade ravioli, then their polenta with marinara sauce. The huge meal with coffee and delectable apple fritters for dessert came to $43.00 for three of us.
In Occidental, there are two dominant families, both of whom have their own hotel and restaurant. Locals have their own favorite between Negri’s and the Union Hotel, both serve inexpensive Italian food in casual atmosphere.
All of the people we met in Sonoma told us that Occidental was a place we should not miss. The view from Main Street is of the mountains looming up behind it, walking the wooden sidewalks feels like you’re back in the 18th century.
Russian River Inns is an association of small hotels and B&Bs in Sonoma’s Wine country. We enjoyed the very friendly people at the Case Ranch Inn B&B in Forestville, where Diane Van Rys was helpful in guiding us to the local sites and shared her experiences living in Sonoma with us.
The Case Ranch Inn features delectable and healthy breakfasts, we enjoyed baked pears w/ yogurt, a perfectly made frittata and local sausages during our visit. And excellent coffee too! There is a laptop in the lobby of the Inn, so guests can check email if they don’t have their own computer, and like many other places, there is Wi-Fi throughout the Inn. We enjoyed strolling through the Inn’s lovely backyard surrounded by new neighbor’s new olive grove and fruit trees.
Russian River Adventures offers stable, inflatable canoes as well as guides and picnics on the river. 20 Healdsburg Ave, Healdsburg CA 707-433-5599. www.soar1.com Reservations required.
In Santa Rosa, Zazu stands out, it’s a cozy roadhouse located across the street from a sheep pasture. Duskie Estes and John Stewart have been featured in Bon Appetit and many other regional magazines. “Playful Californian,” is how one writer described their menu. They have an especially good way with the local pork, we tried “jb’s balsamic pork shoulder,” which was smoky and tender, as well as their half chicken under a brick, which was fantastic. A dessert highlight is their homemade gelato, they come in samplers of three flavors for $12—we recommend the vanilla bean and limoncello sorbetto. www.zazurestaurant.com
In downtown Santa Rosa, we had fresh sushi at Tex Wasabi’s rock’n’roll sushi BBQ, with rock music and a lively atmosphere. 515 4th St. Santa Rosa CA 95401 707-544-8399. www.texwasabis.com.
For more information on Western Sonoma county, visit www.russianrivertravel.com
Max Hartshorne has been the editor and publisher of GoNOMAD Travel in South Deerfield Mass since 2002. He worked for newspapers and other sales positions for 23 years until he finally got what he wanted and became the editor at GoNOMAD. He travels regularly, enjoys publishing new writers, and does exactly what he wants to do every day.