By Mary Ann Anderson, Tribune News Service
There’s no denying the lure of California’s wine country. From Napa Valley to Sonoma County to Lodi to Mendocino County, the combination of the rolling hills strewn with vineyards, untold numbers of wineries and cool Pacific breezes that flow in on foggy swirls provide a picture-perfect backdrop for a romantic getaway.
In Sonoma County alone, some 425 wineries are woven into the tapestry of the countryside, with some of them encompassing more than 3,000 acres. When I think of Sonoma, I’m reminded of the wine-growing regions of Old-World Europe, of Bordeaux, of Tuscany, and of the Rhine and Loire valleys with their estates of stone and wood and long rows of vineyards appearing, disappearing and then reappearing over the tumbling terrain of low peaks, canyons and farms that define the wine country of California.
Sonoma County, about an hour’s drive north of San Francisco on the coastal Highway 101 — it crosses the Golden Gate Bridge on its meander from San Francisco International Airport — is much less crowded than Napa Valley, its neighbour just to the east. I like all of Sonoma County’s collection of small towns and villages that include the sophisticated Santa Rosa, the incredibly scenic Bodega Bay on the jagged edge of the Pacific, Guerneville on the Russian River, and Sebastopol with its antique shops, but it is Healdsburg with its pretty, leafy plaza and streets lined with boutiques, tasting rooms, galleries and restaurants that I tend to favor when I visit.
Wineries are certainly the heart and soul of the entirety of Sonoma County, but unless you have unlimited time, it’s wise to plan to visit just a few, which will provide you with a more intimate experience than trying to cram too many into a short visit. Compare it with traveling to Europe. Most like to ricochet from country to country just to get a passport stamp when unhurriedly and thoroughly exploring just one is much more meaningful.
As wineries go, Jordan Vineyard and Winery is spectacular and ideally tailored for romantics. It’s just outside of Healdsburg in the Alexander Valley. You can easily spend a half-day wandering about the ivy-cloaked chateau that looks as if it were lifted straight from France’s Provence region and redeposited into the California landscape.
Now run by second-generation vintner John Jordan, the winery produces only two wines, a cabernet sauvignon and a clean, crisp chardonnay that ranks at the top of my personal white wine list. But what I enjoy most about the estate is that its 1,200 acres are a luxuriant mishmash of vineyards, gardens and pastures where cattle, primarily black angus, feed on its sweet grasses and vegetation. The scenery is made complete with orchards of fruit and nut trees that produce of range of goodies like olives, peaches, figs, pomegranates, apples and hazelnuts. Among the delicacies produced from the orchards is Jordan’s own extra virgin olive oil, a smooth, silky and flavourful concoction that’s just the ideal texture for topping a salad or dipping bread.
Several outdoor tours of Jordan are available, including vineyard tastings and harvest lunches and picnics among the orchards and vines. If you prefer indoor tastings, take a slow-paced walking tour of the winery itself, where the evocative murmur of machinery in the barrel and oak tank room pair well with the almost ambrosial aroma of wine and wood. For oenophiles, it’s a magical combination of scents and sounds, all followed by a seated food and wine pairing in the cellar room, a French-inspired hideaway filled with hundreds of wine bottles and winemaking antiques. But perhaps the best way to see it all is the three-hour Estate Tour and Tasting aboard a Mercedes Sprinter van that takes you to the far corners of the estate for tastings and food and cheese pairings. This particular tour allows for dramatic wine country vistas and views that will steal your heart almost as much as its wonderful wines.
The range of events at Jordan is a sampling of what to expect of Sonoma and its many other fabulous wineries, most of whom offer similar itineraries. Among those are the spectacular Italian-style villa of Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, Matanzas Creek Winery in Santa Rosa, Chalk Hill Estate Winery also near Healdsburg, Korbel Champagne Cellars in Guerneville and the castle-like Ledson Winery and Vineyards in Kenwood.
Take your romantic wine getaway up a notch by staying in one of Sonoma County’s bed-and-breakfast inns. The Inn at Tides in Bodega Bay will treat you to a bottle of wine upon arrival, plus the Bayview Restaurant and Lounge and the Tides Wharf and Restaurant are onsite and offer Italian and fresh seafood selections. You’ll love the themed rooms at The Inn at Occidental (think: Safari Suite and the Folk Art Room), plus it’s framed by iconic California redwoods. The stunning Raford Inn in Healdsburg is a gorgeous Queen Anne Victorian built in 1880 and is super-cozy with only five rooms.
Sonoma County is culinary heaven. The quantity and quality of restaurants is nothing short of dizzying, from the 11-course fine dining of Single Thread Farm Restaurant and Inn to the big omelettes and biscuits and gravy at the Hole in the Wall in Sebastopol. There’s almost no possible way to come up with a shortlist of spots to suggest, but as a true-blue Georgia girl, I had to sample Southern food, California-style, at Sweet T’s Restaurant and Bar in Windsor. I did not come away disappointed with the fried catfish plate that was so good it made me homesick. Try the fried chicken and devilled eggs, too. At the highly recommended Chalkboard in Healdsburg, known for its small plates and wine pairings, I tried the Old Bay Strozzapreti with fat Gulf shrimp and garlic, but old favourites of New York strip and New Zealand lamb are on the menu, too.
No doubt Sonoma County inspires togetherness. When you’re ready to sip, nibble and ramble around its patchwork quilt of small towns, rural roads and vineyards, all you need is love, a wine glass and a table for two.
If you go
For a comprehensive listing of wineries, restaurants and inns and hotels, visit Sonoma County Tourism at www.sonomacounty.com. Visit Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau at www.healdsburg.com. Charles M. Schulz Airport (STS) is located in Santa Rosa, 12 miles south of Healdsburg, and is served by Alaska Airlines, American Airlines, Avelo Airlines, and United Airlines. All major airlines serve San Francisco International Airport.
Plan your adventures throughout the West Coast at westcoasttraveller.com and follow us on Facebook and Instagram @thewestcoasttraveller. And for the top West Coast Travel stories of the week delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our weekly Armchair Traveller newsletter!