6:00 am. Saturday morning. Forty-five minutes earlier than I normally get up during the week for work. For some reason, I’m unable to sleep. I figure it’s because of the overnight trip planned for the Sonoma Coast. My excitement and inability to sleep due to the trip is probably a testament to how old I’ve gotten, or, possibly, how old I act. I could ask what twenty-four year old guy is excited about small towns, wine tastings, and secluded cabins; but I think a better question would be, who isn’t?
I know twenty-four isn’t old, but it’s a long way away from the sleepless nights I had as a kid. I remember waiting on my parents to pack everything up and whisk my sister and me away at 7:00 am to make the drive down from Northern California to Disneyland. It’s a long way away, but I still get the same feeling about this trip.
My girlfriend, Liz, suggested we take a trip out of San Francisco and by suggest, I mean she told me we were going to take a trip out of the City. The daughter of a flight attendant, she’s never been the kind of girl that likes to stay in one place too long, and her new desk job has kept her from traveling as much as she’s used to. Coincidentally, we originally planned a last-minute trip to Disneyland, or more specifically California Adventure, to experience their Food and Wine Festival. After looking at the total cost of flights, lodging, and tickets, we decided it wasn’t in our budget. After about five minutes of thinking, I asked if she’d like to go up north instead and experience the real thing.
The Sonoma Coast, an appellation that, although well recognized by many, is often left in the shadow of its more often visited, and probably more well-known neighbor, Napa Valley. A friend of Liz’s scoffed, “It’s not Napa” after Liz told her where we decided to go overnight. Although I love Napa, and grew up next to it for a portion of my life, I always found it to be a Disney version of what a wine region should be (sorry about the Disney. I promise that’s the last time it makes it in this story). It’s easy to reach, the wine is easy to drink, and the people who visit are easy to please.
The more famous wineries (i.e. Marcassin and Flowers Vineyard and Winery) in the region located on the edge of California are low-key, covered in fog, and shrouded in mystery. Marcassin’s website for example has nothing on its page except a waiting list to join it’s mailing list, and Flowers Vineyard makes exceptional wines, but doesn’t allow you to visit the winery or vineyards. The cell reception in the region is spotty and the roads are windy. I guess all of that makes it more intimidating to the average wine drinker.
We were ready to explore and find out what the region had in store for us. At 7:30 am, we hit the road and started to make our way from San Francisco to Windsor. BurtoNZ Bakery was the first stop on our trip. The bakery’s claim to fame is their meat pies. The owner is from New Zealand and, in my experience, no country makes their meat pies as good as New Zealand. It’s still the case with Burtonz. The crust was perfection; flakey and buttery, and the filling was the perfect consistency to where you didn’t have to worry about it falling out while eating it. In less than five minutes, we devoured both hand pies. As hungry as we were, we probably could’ve eaten more, but like at any food and wine trip, the key to lasting all day is to pace yourself. We still had breakfast reservations in nearby Forestville at Backyard. A short twenty-minute drive away.
The best way to describe Backyard is quintessential Californian cuisine. It’s sustainable, it’s seasonal, it’s made from products from local farmers, and it’s delicious. We snagged a table inside as it was a little too chilly to sit outside comfortably, although I can imagine during the summer the outdoor patio being packed. We were presented with our menus at the table, but, being millennials, already knew what we wanted from studying the menu online: two mimosas, a bucket ‘o doughnuts, and the fried chicken benedicts. As the food came out, Liz and I talked about our expectations for the weekend. Although the weather forecast originally called for rain partially for the day, the sky was perfectly clear.
Close to Backyard is Hartford Family Winery, a winery that specializes in making wines from single vineyard sites, and you can tell. The quality of the wines is outstanding. Tastings go for $10 per person, with one comped with a bottle purchase. The chardonnay we tried (2013 Hartford Court Jennifer’s Chardonnay) was unusual for the region, with flavors more towards the tropical end and had a buttery feel. Another standout was the 2014 Hartford Russian River Valley Zinfandel. One of the most jammy and smooth zinfandels I’ve ever tried, I knew immediately I had to have a bottle. As my card was swiped for the purchase, I turned to Liz and asked, “Weren’t you supposed to stop me from buying a bottle on this trip?”
With the sounds of Khalid’s “American Teenager” playing in the car, we made our way from Hartford to Guerneville. The road between the two is littered with wineries and vineyards. Korbel has free winery tours and a delicatessen, in addition to a tasting room (complete with gift shop). Stumptown Brewery on the outskirts of Guerneville is a nice break from the wine. Carrying their own beer, as well as other local beers, they boast being the biggest beer garden on the river. A kitchen and board games make this an ideal place to spend a slow and lazy afternoon.
Our primary destination in Guerneville though was Nimble and Finn’s Ice Cream. Located in a bank turned art center, it’s a popular spot with locals for ice cream and pies. After tasting all they had to offer, a double scoop of Chocolate Raspberry and Lavender and Honeycomb was decided to be the winner. The ice cream highlighted the quality of the organic, seasonal ingredients from the local Straus Creamery. Creamy and flavorful, it’s the kind of ice cream you can only still find in small towns like Guerneville.
We booked a cabin at River’s End, which runs a total of five cabins as well as a restaurant in Jenner, where the Russian River pours into the Pacific Ocean. River’s End is the kind of no frills lodging you stay at when you want to disappear. The remote location means there’s no cell reception and, a rarity today, there’s no Wi-Fi provided. The perfect size for a couple, what the cabin lacks in modern amenities it more than makes up for in natural beauty. The River’s End website states “if you do not like the sound of the ocean, this is not the place for you”. And indeed, the only sounds you hear from your private balcony or even from inside are that of the waves crashing some 200 yards away, and possibly a distant seagull.
After a quick rest, we made our way up Highway 1, possibly the most scenic and famous drive in the United States. While the southern portion gets most of the attention, the short drive from Jenner to Fort Ross Winery provided enough competition to make one question whether it’s even worth driving south. Redwood covered turns gave way to open green pastures dotted with cows, horses, and other farm animals grazing a stone’s throw away from sweeping ocean vistas and grassy cliffs. It’s hard to believe the cowboys and ranchers in the Midwest get the most attention.
As if the drive to the Fort Ross property wasn’t enough to take in, we were greeted by no less than six does lounging by a small lake in the shade of the late afternoon. Fort Ross Winery was opened by a couple from South Africa after they fell in love with the property and saw the potential in the surrounding areas. As a nod to their South African roots, they grow Pinotage. A rare find in the states but a popular grape in South Africa, it’s a testament to the uniqueness that can be found in the Sonoma Coast.
Liz and I sat on the balcony that overlooks both a forest and the Pacific Ocean below. Two other groups were tasting with us, a benefit to tasting in the off season. The two of us sat there taking in the view wondering if we ever had to go back to the City and face reality. We made the windy drive down the coast back to Jenner to enjoy what little daylight we had left. Back at the cabin, we opened a bottle of wine and sat on the balcony on what I imagine was an unusually warm night for season. As the sun fell further and further into the horizon, we talked about our experience exploring the coast and whether we wanted to share this experience with anyone.
Maybe the mystery surrounding the Sonoma Coast isn’t due to the low-key nature and remote location of its famed wineries; I mean sure that probably helps, but maybe it’s due to its visitors choosing not to share their experiences with others as much. The beauty of the Sonoma Coast can only be experienced in person and the inability to communicate with outside world accentuates this fact. It in turn makes it impossibly hard to want to share any moment of your trip with anyone other than who was with you at the time. As we watched the final bursts of orange fade into the dark blue of night over the Pacific Ocean, Liz turned to me and said, “This sure as hell ain’t Napa.”