Sonapanoma: A Tale of Two Wine Countries|
by Karen Misuraca
"Just listen," Suzanne whispered. "Listen to the silence. I had no idea
how quiet it would be. Are we even moving?"
Indeed, we were moving, in a hot air balloon over the Sonoma Valley. A
red and orange ball against a pinky dawn rising over rows of vineyards,
the balloon glided silently at the same speed as the gentle wind on
this cool morning. The utter silence was a surprise to my friend,
Suzanne. A Manhattanite, she was visiting for a long weekend, staying
with me at my home in the town of Sonoma.
Startled by the sudden rush of the fiery gas jets, Suzanne busily
snapped photos of the balloon, the balloon pilot, the three other
passengers and several other balloons nearby--one on the ground, slowly
expanding with gas, and three more, at about our altitude of about a
thousand feet, all in all a surreal experience for someone who had
dreamed for years of seeing the California wine country.
I see hot air balloons, the icons of the Sonoma and Napa wine regions,
from my front yard much of the year. I never tire of them and try to
not miss the annual Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic in July, when
about forty glowing globes ascend, simultaneously, in a breathtaking
Napa or Sonoma?
When friends visit for the first time, I often arrange a balloon ascent
for them. And, when they ask me whether to spend their vacations in
Sonoma or Napa counties, I quiz them: "What appeals to you? Tuscany or
Bordeaux? Indiana Jones or James Bond? Zinfandel or Champagne?"
Although separated by the Mayacamas Range of low hills and mountains,
the two counties are adjacent to each other, making it easy to get a
taste of both over a long weekend. A life-long resident here, I
recommend the Sonoma wine country to people who like bike rides and
evenings by the fire in quaint country inns, family-owned wineries,
farm markets and long walks on the beach. About the size of Rhode
Island, Sonoma County is blanketed by pasturelands and vineyards, and
the watersheds of three major rivers--the Petaluma, the Russian and the
Gualala--winding from redwood forests to the sea.
A little less bucolic, a little more cosmopolitan, Napa County to me is
sparkling wine and sports cars, the magnificence of the Culinary
Academy of America at Greystone; the classic Opus One Winery and the
French country elegance of Auberge du Soleil Resort. Half the size of
Sonoma and with one river, the Napa, running right up the main valley,
this wine country is rampant with European-style glamour, as compared
to Sonoma's charm and rusticity.
History and Hollywood
The birthplace of California winemaking, in Sonoma, Buena Vista Winery
was founded in 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman
who became known as the father of California viticulture. Today's wine
lovers tour the countŐs original, vine-covered stone press house to see
artifacts from winemaking days gone by, and to sip cabernet in an oak
Among other 19th century sites open to the public in Sonoma is Lachryma
Montis (Tear of the Mountain), the lovely Gothic-Revival home built in
1849 by the Mexican general, M.G. Vallejo, commander of the northern
Mexican frontier and founder of the Pueblo--now the town--of Sonoma.
One of the historic landmarks of the Napa Valley, built in 1879, the
former Inglenook Chateau is now Rubicon Estate Winery, owned by the
Hollywood producer, Francis Ford Coppola. Visitors listen to Italian
opera in the tasting room of the semi-Gothic/Eastlake-style stone
mansion, and stroll in the park modeled after the Luxembourg Gardens.
At another impressive Napa winery, the pure white, Greek-island-style
fortress of Sterling Vineyards, you can ride an aerial tram 300 feet up
to the terrace for wine tasting and a bird's eye view of the valley.
Another example of the laid-back character of Sonoma vs. the glamour of
Napa: Harley riders and some boot-scootin' locals gathered at last
October's outdoor concert in Sonoma to hear Willie Nelson and the
Doobie Brothers, while during the same month, the sophisticated sounds
of jazz trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, filled the Napa Valley Opera House.
Proud of their countrified, often humorous approach to the mystique of
winemaking, Sonomans get rowdy at the annual Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine
Auction, when local winery owners kick in a chorus line, perform
Broadway numbers and generally get silly to get top prices for auction
lots of rare wines and fabulous trips, all for charity. The auction is
billed as "the perennial lamp shade on the head of the wine industry".
At the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction, Michael Jordan, Jay Leno, Ryan
Seacrest and Geena Davis have been among the celebs joining high stakes
bidders to raise millions for local charities. At the 2006 auction,
five bottles of Staglin Family Vineyard wine and a trip to France with
the Staglins went for a record-breaking $1.05 million.
The rest of us indulge ourselves for three days every July at the
Sonoma County Showcase of Wine and Food. Serious oenophiles sign up
for private winery lunches, dinners and barrel tastings, while
thousands gather for samples from over a hundred wineries, and gourmet
food from local restaurants, at all-day grand gala, the Taste of
Since Suzanne was looking to de-stress from her hectic life in New
York, we spent her visit enjoying the quiet pleasures of Sonoma County.
One day, we took a hike on the Overlook Trail in the foothills on the
edge of Sonoma; the trailhead is on First Street West, a block north of
the plaza. At the top of the trail, views of the entire valley are
dazzling, and, on a clear day you can see the glinting expanse of the
Pacific in the distance.
We trudged back down to browse the shops around the tree-shaded central
plaza, which is the largest original Mexican plaza in the state, and
stepped into San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, a California mission built
in 1841. Among other attractions on the plaza are General Vallejo's
military barracks, fancy Victorian mansions and thick-walled adobe
buildings housing boutiques and restaurants.
You can rent a bike or a Segway here and get a guided town tour, or
wheel away on your own, from winery to winery on the outskirts of town.
A few blocks from the plaza, the Ravenswood Winery tasting room is
tucked into an oak-forested hillside. Ravenswood is popular on summer
weekends for their barbecues on the terrace, where Ragin' Raven
barbecue sauce flavors the homemade sausages and the Ravenous burgers,
washed down with their famous hearty zinfandels. The Ravenswood motto
is: "No Wimpy Wines".
A short stroll away at the end of an allée of trees on Castle Road, at
Bartholomew Park Winery stands a reconstruction of the rather peculiar
Pompeian villa built by Harazsthy. Just beyond, a Spanish
colonial-style building houses a tasting room, a museum, and a gallery
of Victorian-era photos. One of the nicest picnic grounds at any
California winery, and open to the public, the Wine Garden lies beneath
a canopy of oaks. From here, three miles of hiking trails loop around
the foothills and meadows, a wildflowery experience in the spring.
Winemaking history was made in Sonoma by Samuele Sebastiani, who
emigrated from Tuscany in 1895. He eventually acquired the original
Spanish mission vineyards here and built a stone winery in 1903, which
today is the headquarters of Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery, on Fourth
Street East near the plaza. Samuele's descendants operate the winery,
welcoming visitors to an elaborate food, wine and gift marketplace and
After exploring Sonoma thoroughly, Suzanne and I spent two days
rambling around the county, stopping to shop in Santa Rosa at Railroad
Square at antiques and curio shops in circa-1880 brick and stone
buildings. The county seat and business center, Santa Rosa is also the
location of the regional Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, named
for a beloved departed resident, Sparkie Schulz, creator of the Peanuts
We headed on, a few miles north, to more shopping, this time around the
town square of Healdsburg, a charming agricultural community
established in the 1860s, now headquarters for expeditions to the
wineries of the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys. We stepped into a
few tasting rooms around the plaza--there are more than twenty right in
town--and drove a few blocks to the Front Street Wineries where five
small, premium wineries offer hospitality in an updated, riverfront
warehouse district. The owners of Camellia Cellars, here, are related
to the innkeeper-owners of the Camellia Inn, one of the
oldest-established and most elaborate of the Victorian-era B&Bs in
town. At Huntington Wine Cellars, we sipped Russian River Valley
Chardonnay while hobnobbing with the resident artist, Ken Schilling,
whose original paintings are on display, and they're on the wine
Heading west from Healdsburg toward the coast, we passed by some of the
more than three dozen wineries in the Russian River Valley. One of the
most impressive, Korbel Champagne Cellars is housed in ivy-covered
stone buildings and a tower erected in the 1880s by pioneering
winemakers, the Korbel brothers, who were immigrants from southern
Bohemia. The guided tour here is among the most complete of all
California wineries, and includes a museum, a film, an in-depth
introduction to classic methode champenoise production, and a glass of
In Guerneville, we walked under 300-foot-tall, 2,000-year-old redwood
trees at Armstrong Redwood State Reserve, and stopped at Sophie's
Cellars in Monte Rio to buy artisan-made cheeses and local wines and
vinegars for Suzanne to take home.
Once we arrived in the fishing village of Bodega Bay, we sat down to a
dinner of fresh salmon at the Tides Wharf, and stayed overnight at the
Inn at the Tides. Next morning we watched kayakers paddling the bay,
while they watched the harbor seals that pop up around the docks,
cruising for fish scraps tossed from the boats. One- and two-person
kayaks can be rented from Bodega Bay Kayak in the Blue Whale Shopping
Center in town. And they also offer guided kayak tours along the
Russian River where it empties into the ocean. A herd of seals is often
sunbathing and surfing at the river's mouth, and in the Spring, they
give birth to their pups here, away from deep-sea predators.
After fortifying ourselves with breakfasts of Dungeness crab benedict
at the Sandpiper Seafood Restaurant, we drove north on Highway One
along sixteen miles of rocky coves and sandy beaches, known as the
Sonoma Coast State Beaches, from Bodega Bay to Jenner. Before we
reached Jenner, from Shell Beach, I took Suzanne for a hike on one of
my family's favorite hiking trails, a three-mile round trip from the
beach over rolling hills to a natural spring in a small redwood forest.
A little tuckered, we headed home, stopping once more to pick up
sandwiches, at the General Store at Duncan's Mills, a village comprised
of buildings remaining from an 1880s railroad stop.
When my friend comes again, we'll spend time in the Napa Valley,
strolling the quiet country byways that criss-cross the valley between
the busy main thoroughfare of Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail.
Suzanne will love the art galleries in Yountville and St. Helena, and
we'll take mud baths at one of the hot springs spas in the
Victorian-era town of Calistoga, which looks as it did when people came
here a hundred years ago in horse-drawn carriages to "take the waters".
Thirty-five miles long and about five miles wide, the Napa Valley is
liberally endowed with large, estate-like wineries and by eateries to
which foodies and restaurant critics flock from around the world. The
famously upscale New York deli, Dean and DeLuca, has an outpost here,
and cafes and restaurants are often French-inspired. Said to be the
best restaurant in the United States, The French Laundry is in an old
stone building, with no sign, in Yountville (your best chance at a
reservation is to call two months ahead to the day). Also in this tiny
mecca of cuisine, the bistros Bouchon and Bistro Jeanty were recently
awarded much-envied Michelin Guide stars.
Although mild, Mediterranean weather prevails most of the year
throughout the California wine country, two of the best months to be in
the Napa Valley are February and March, when wild yellow mustard blooms
in profusion, streaming between the vineyard rows, a
never-to-be-forgotten sight from a balloon. Celebrating the spring and
the beginning of a new vintage, the annual Mustard Festival this year
opened with a French-themed soiree at the Culinary Academy, plus an
international mustard competition, a connoisseur's marketplace and a
Although kayakers and fishermen do ply the Napa River, which flows
right through downtown Napa, a river more widely known for recreation
is the Russian in Sonoma County. My granddaughter, Leah Misuraca,
Manager of River's Edge Kayak and Canoe Trips based in Healdsburg,
said, "We get all ages, from college kids to thirty-somethings to
families, and tourists from all over the world who have heard about how
fun it is to paddle the Russian. We call it our "Cure for Nature
Deficiency Disorder." The gentle current sort of pushes the kayaks and
canoes downriver past vineyards, redwood groves and many pebble beaches
along the way. People usually stop to picnic, and they swim in the
deeper pools, fish for bass and catfish, and birdwatch. And, the kids
always love the rope swings hanging from the riverbank trees.
"We shuttle the paddlers up to the start of their trip, and they
finish at their vehicles. They end up a little sunburned sometimes,
feeling like they were really a part of the wine country, and for sure,
The Russian is one of four Sonoma County valleys known primarily for
wine production: the Alexander, the Dry Creek and the Sonoma Valley. At
the north end of the Dry Creek Valley, Lake Sonoma is a major
destination for year-round bass fishing, boating, camping, hiking,
horseback riding and mountain biking. Surrounded by a wilderness of
craggy mountains threaded with trails, the lake's fifty miles of
shoreline dotted with sheltered coves.
An enjoyable way to get oriented to the glories of the lake is on the
guided "Sunset and Full Moon Kayak" tour offered by Getaway Adventures.
Romantic highlights of the tour are the waning sun reflected in the
water, and moonrise over a picnic dinner on the beach.
Getaway Adventures also offers a Dry Creek Valley "Sip N' Cycle" guided
ride on fifteen to twenty miles of easy roads with winery stops and a
picnic lunch (similar tour offered in the Napa Valley); and the "Pedal
and Paddle" tour comprising a seven-mile ride in the Alexander Valley
and a kayak float down the Russian River.
Biking Napa and Sonoma
The director of the international travel program for The Culinary
Institute of America, and a Napa resident, Michael Coon said, "I often
take early morning walks in the foothills in Alston Park near my home,
and I see hot air balloons land almost every day. It's about a three
mile, easy trail, and in the winter and spring, the wildflowers are
fantastic. When friends visit, they often want to take a bike ride
through the vineyards, so we go to Milton Road in the Carneros
district, where the Napa River enters San Francisco Bay. We usually end
up for lunch on the deck at Moore's Landing Restaurant at the boat
launch, where we can watch egrets and herons there in the wetlands and
on the river banks."
Another biker of note, Levi Leipheimer, a Tour de France veteran and
one of the world's fastest bike racers, lives in Santa Rosa, from where
he bikes for miles out to the coast. He said, "I moved to Sonoma County
for the many beautiful roads to ride my bike and for the huge choice of
outdoor activities. I can ride past vineyards, through redwood groves,
along the Pacific Ocean on Highway 1 and up the numerous mountains in
Mere mortals mountain bike on more than twenty-five miles of trails in
Annadel State Park, just outside of Santa Rosa, and on the north end of
the Napa Valley, they navigate bone-rattling descents down the side of
Mount St. Helena.
You can rent bikes and explore on your own in both counties, or book
with a company that provides everything from tour guides to gourmet
picnics and a "sag wagon" van for stragglers. Owner of Wine Country
Bikes in Healdsburg, John Mastrianni takes bikers on guided daytrips
and on luxury multi-day tours in the Dry Creek, Russian and Alexander
Valleys. Several winery visits are on the itinerary of the two-day
"Short Escape Luxury Tour", along with picnic lunches from the
excellent Oakville Grocery, an overnight at the award-winning Grape
Leaf Inn, and options for spa treatments.
Mastrianni said, "I spent twenty-five years in the bike business and
raced on the pro circuit, touring in Europe. I even spent a year
working as a bike messenger in NYC. One thing this experience taught
me is that the secret to a wonderful ride is in the details--a clean,
smooth running bike, a well-chosen route, the right attitude and a
great lunch all add up to a fantastic day."
Having explored just about every bike trail in the Sonoma wine country,
last summer my husband and I climbed on our bikes at the south end of
the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley and pedaled north below the high
crags of the Vaca Mountains. Looking out across the seemingly endless
carpets of vineyards and passing the golden columns of the Darioush
wine estate and the French-American sparkling wine cellar, Mumm Napa
Valley, we were reminded of when we had biked along the Loire River in
the northwest of France between wineries and chateaux. After a
leisurely thirty-mile ride, we ended up at the north end of the valley
at Calistoga Spa Hot Springs where we floated in a hot mineral pool
until we could hardly lift our heads or our wine glasses. Napa,
Sonoma--it's a toss-up!