TRAVEL TALK - - VOLUME 4 - - SPRING/SUMMER 2011
SONOMA AND MENDOCINO COUNTY, CALIFORNIA
The Pacific Ocean and Wine Country
We have always wanted to return to Northern California and we were not disappointed on our fall 2010 vacation. We stayed in Point Arena California just a mile or so from the Pacific Ocean. From that point, we took daytrips to see the wine country and cities nearby. We had stayed four nights in San Francisco on our last trip, so we traveled north on 101 immediately after departing from Oakland. We had cheap flights and arrived late the night before so we stayed at the Holiday Inn Express Oakland Airport which was very nice and had a good breakfast included with the room rate.
Santa Rosa, California
We made a quick coffee stop in Santa Rosa which was home to Charles Schultz the creator of Peanuts. We did not stop at the Peanuts museum, that is the highlight of the town as we are heading up north on the coast. After a quick purchase of a few souveniers for John's Snoopy collection it was off to the wine country. Santa Rosa looked like a nice full service town with restaurants, a main street with galleries and stuff to do if you are looking for a place to base between Sonoma and Napa.
Alexander Valley, Sonoma County California
We got off of 101 about a half an hour north of Santa Rosa and took the two lane road that wound through the Alexander Valley. The Alexander Valley is known for great cabernet's as it is located along the Russian River Valley and we were not disappointed. As we were driving all the way to the Mendocino Coast, we shared our tastings which the wineries do not mind given the strict drunk driving rules in California. Napa and Sonoma wineries charge around $5 for a tasting and you usually can try five different vintages from a menu. From the Alexander Valley road, we crossed the Russian River and stopped at an attractive winery called Medlock Ames. We shot some pictures at the Stryker Sonoma Winery then made a stop at De Lorimier Winery which had a nice selection including Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and even some Sangiovese that were grown by local Italian families who settled in the valley about 1900.
We enjoyed wines and conversation from the tasting master who suggested a local restaurant that elevated the food product we ate all week. After the tasting, we wandered out back and they were squeezing Pinot Noir that day. They were separating the husks from the grapes and explained that only with Pinot did they remove the husks as they made the wine bitter. As they poured a whole box of grapes onto the conveyer belt, we remarked to ourselves that it reminded us of Lucy at the chocolate factory as five workers tried to keep up. Everybody in California was very friendly and we learned a lot about California wines Even the dog was nice that hung out back with the workers. We were staying in a timeshare unit with a kitchen so our tasting day in Sonoma was combined with shopping for the condo. We stopped at a farmers front yard where produce was for sale and I saw a quaint throwback to my childhood. There was a tend full of home grown organic produce with prices per pound and a self service scale. When you totaled your bill, you simply put the money in the box as there was no attendant. We got some great local corn and airloom tomatoes in various colors.
The folks at De Lorimier suggested we stop at Diavola Pizzeria and Salumeria http://diavolapizzeria.com for lunch in Geyserville. Now I had pretty high expectations since this place had Salumeria in the name and we were pleasantly surprised that we had to buy a styrofoam cooler after lunch with our purchases. We saw sausages and proscuitto when we entered the restaurant. There were even hind quarters of prosciutto hanging from the rafters in the restaurant. We ordered a great pizza with a local green salad and some house wine for lunch. While the pizza was cooking, John got up to check out the case full of stuff in the lobby. After lunch I inquired if the sausage and prosciutto was for sale. The waitress spoke with the owner to get some prices and came back to tell us with reluctance that the prosciutto was $10 a pound. We knew this had to be locally produced, because the hind quarters still had some pig hair on them and we immediately ordered a pound for the condo. As we have traveled extensively in Italy and Sicily, we could not believe that we were lucky enough to find artesianale proscuitto, sausages, olives in hot peppers and homemade cheeses in California. In addition to a pound of proscuitto, pound of italian sausage and mixed olives put up in local olive oil and hot peppers, we also bought two kinds of cheeses. One kind of like a blue cheese and the other was a young pecorino romano that almost had the consistency of brie. We stopped in Healdsburg for a shopping run and then headed out of Sonoma County into Mendocino County for the run to Point Arena. The road from Boonville to Point Arena was called Mountainview Road, so we wanted to get out of the mountains before nightfall.
Point Arena, Mendocino County California
The locals were right, Mountainview Road was best for a daylight crossing but a beautiful drive with a large herd of deer on a lawn as we came out of the mountains. Before we got to Point Arena, we had to cross over the mountains from the Anderson Valley near Booneville. When we got to Point Arena on Friday, our cabins were just a campground full of modular huts, off of California 1. The timeshare resort was the GEVC at Lighthouse Point. We actually liked the unit very much as it was the best designed 400 square feet we had ever seen with a fully equipped kitchen and plenty of room for two people. We were near the Point Arena lighthouse so we stashed the bags and went down to the sea. The cliffs along the Pacific were great walking area for miles along the cliffs. The State of California had a longtime land buying program and owns a lot of access along the coast that is designated public areas for walking. We enjoyed a simple antipasto and salad for dinner that evening as we were pretty beat from the long drive and crossing the mountains. The next day was Saturday and it was a local festival in Point Arena to support the light house. John had read in the local paper that the festival included a craft beer tasting from brewers in the local towns so the festival got put on the schedule. The pier in point Arena is a strange affair as it is like a local boat ramp but guys are putting slings on the boats and using a crane to lower them into the Pacific. It was abalone season so the pier was pretty busy with the recreational abalone divers and the commercial fisherman going out. This was mixed with northern California surfers and those local residents that dropped out over the years to the solitude of Northern California. That evening, we went to the Pier Chowder House and Tap Room for the best sole dinner we had ever eaten in our lives. It was "pretty food" as John calls it, but plenty of it with a great taste. The chef had taken thin fillets of sole and pan fried them with crispy edges and put it over a bed of California greens punctuated by fresh figs that were in season at the time. Gina took a doggy bag and John tried two different kinds of local beers.
Ukiah, Mendocino County California
One of our daytrips was off to Ukiah which is further up in the Russian River Valley. This was probably one of the most interesting stops of our trip. We stopped at one of the commercial wineries that we like called Parducci. We have purchased this wine in Tampa as we have always liked the lighter Mendocino wines. Because of the elevation and the fact that it is further from the San Francisco Bay and Ocean the wines seem to get lighter as you go further north from Napa to Sonoma and then Mendocino. Parducci is a nice label but one of the larger commercial wineries in the area.
Our second stop in Ukiah was a winery called Rivino which is located within a large farm on the banks of the Russian River. Upon entering, we see a planting of Sangiovese and the name Rivino made us think it was owned by Italians but it is explained later that the name is simply a combination of River and Vino that these two new winemakers simply made up as with many of the label names in California. After all, it really is just fermented grape juice so marketing is really important to create a mystique. In fact Jason said it is getting pretty hard to make up a name at this late stage of the game as most of them have been done already. This particular winery makes reds that are a Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and a blend called Sedulous that is a 69% Merlot, 30% Cab Franc and 1% Viognier (a white grape). They also make a very good white Chardonnay and Viognier. The Mendocino tasting rooms are different than the larger wineries further south. This is only open Tuesday through Friday 1P to 5P and you actually sit on the porch of the cooling house overlooking the fields with the wine maker. In Napa, they make each vintage in the thousands of cases, in Sonoma, the wines were made in the range of 1,000 to 3,000 bottles but the smaller Mendocino wineries make a few hundred bottles of this and a few hundred of that so they can fuss over the details and taste with a personal taste. Many small wineries simply rent a winemaker and share them with a few other wineries. It was refreshing to see someone learning a new craft and doing it very well.
Jason McConnel is from Vancouver and has a BA in Mechanical Engineering. The winery is part of the 212 acre Schrader ranch that was originally planted mostly in pears (we did get great varietals of California Pears and Apples on this vacation). Most of the fruit on this farm goes to Kendall Jackson but they keep some and make their own lable. Suzanne's dad owns the ranch and grows grapes under contract for the larger winery. When Jason explained he came from a mechanical engineering background, we talked about the fact that he is able to control the process in a precise way and further explained he built his own winery building from scratch. We don't usually drink much white wine, but Jason was so proud of his new venture (started in 2008) that we went right on with the enthusiasm and tried everything. His Chardonnay was wonderful and not sweet at all plus his Viognier was very good although more like a German Reiseling. We were excited about the reds as we have taken a liking to Cab Franc and have had some wonderful Sangiovese in Tuscany. We started with the Sangiovese that was very, very good. It grows as the large fat grape pictured below. The Merlot was also wonderful and we thought we found nirvanna until he uncorked his Cabernet Franc. This grape is usually used mostly for mixing in blends but when handled right, it makes a wonderful wine as an individual grape. The Cab Franc met up to expectations as a very nice wine but then he uncorked his blend called Sedulous. This was one of the best wines we had encountered in 20 years of traveling Italy, France and other great wine growing areas. Jason explained that the mechanical engineering background enabled him to precisely control the Fermentation process with tempurature so they burned up the sugar slowly before going into the barrel. This was most important with the whites but also important with reds. He also stated he was very lucky to have such good Mendocino County grapes to use from the banks of the upper Russian River. We were getting to maximum weight for our checked bags so it was decision time (only so much dirty laundry can fit in the carry-on to comply with TSA rules) We originally thought we would want a Sangiovese but ended up taking a Cab Franc and Sedulous for a tasting with Christmas dinner. If you are heading up Hwy. 101 any time that Rivino is open make sure you stop as they have their own exit off the highway.
Sea Ranch to Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma California
Another of our day trips took us south on California 1 just past Sea Ranch to Stewarts Point. As we headed up for the Skaggs Springs Road we saw this ominous sign about last station for 56 miles so we doubled back to fill up. As we headed up from the coast, the windy road kept going up and up and up pretty quickly. We were in a very thick redwood forest and we came to an Indian village on the top of the mountain. We wound down into a valley and then back up again for almost 4o miles. As we stopped to view Lake Sonoma which is manmade by damming up the Dry Creek. This was one of those roads that you were glad you took (once) but we both immediately agreed we would take another route home. Dry Creek Valley is home mostly to Zinfandels which is not to be confused with blush wine. A red Zin as they are called is a grapey wine. Our first stop was a sprawling complex called the Sbragia Family Vinyards which ironically was not all Zin. These also were Italians who emigrated to California and they used a technique called "field blending". With field blending, they planted cabernet, Zinfandel and even Sangiovese next to each other in the field. When they picked the different varieties, they all went into the same bucket, thus "field blending". We stopped at the Wilson winery as we had a card for a FREE tasting from Alexander Valley earlier in the week. This one only did Zins and Petite Syrah. After that we stopped for lunch at the Dry Creek General Store for sandwiches. Very overstuffed and very overpriced but delicious including the panini with artichoke and Gruyere and the big Turkey sandwich with dijon. We split the sandwiches and were vey full. The last stop was the Mazzocco Winery which did exclusively Zinfandels. We enjoyed the Dry Creek Valley but the grapiness of the Zinfandel grape had us thinking it was a cough syrup tasting after 10 different vintages or so and I needed a big bottle of water on the trip home.
Anderson Valley, Mendocino California
The Anderson Valley in Mendocino does mostly whites and Pinot Noirs. We are getting furthest north in the California wine country and one of the valley's that is most closely located to the California Coast so tempuratures stay cooler and they get the benefit of daily fog banks over the mountains from the coast. Our first stop of the morning was the Philo tasting room of Brutocao Cellars. At the Philo location they grow only Pinot and even have frost fans like I have seen in the Florida Orange fields to ward off the ocassional frost. Husch does a Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer (the other grape grown in the Rhine valley of Germany), Cabernet Sauvignon, Chordonnay, Pinot Noir and Chenin Blanc. We asked about lunch in Philo and were directed to Libby's. This was the best (and hottest) Mexican food we have eaten in a long time. After lunch, we stop at Yorkville Cellars. Yorkville has the nicest dog and nicest cat we met on this trip. Both of them get up to greet you as you enter the big front porch like its their job. Yorkville is an interesting operation that grows purely organically and grows most of the varietals found in Bordeaux including Cabernet, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec, Petit Verdot and Carmenere as well as some very fine whites. These wineries are Boonville, CA and Philo, CA along California 128 which runs from Highway 101 to California 1 on the coast near the town of Mendocino. The last stop for the day before a hike in the woods is Navarro Vinyards which produced a large range of grape types inlcuding Gewurztraminer, Riesling, Pinot Gris on the white side and Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah and Petit Syrah on the red side. This was a busy tasting room with the only crowd of the afternoon. None of our tastings in the Anderson Valley had a charge. On our way back to the coast, we took a hike in the Navarro River Redwoods State Park. This is one of the prettiest drives in California once you leave Navarro, California until you reach California 1 south of the town of Mendocinco, California.
Tracks to Kayaks on the Skunk Train from Fort Bragg
It was an early morning out of the condo for our big day in Fort Bragg. We had tickets for the Skunk Train was originally built as a logging railroad in 1885 and travels from Ft. Bragg on the Coast to Williston in the Redwood forest. The trip that we took was a half day trainride to Northspur where the train stops for lunch and then a couple of miles paddling on the Noyo River to get home. The trainride starts in Ft. Bragg at about 10AM. The Skunk Train runs about 40 miles but our trip was only about 20 miles to the half way point at Northspur where the train is turned around while you eat lunch. Many of the escorted tours use this as a highlight and a big escorted group was onboard including box lunches at Northspur. We really enjoyed the cheeseburger with chips that was only about $7, not bad for an attraction in California with a glass of the Skunk Train house wine. The entire line to Willits croses 30 bridges and two tunnels so it is a very enjoyable ride through the redwood forest. After lunch we made most of the return trip on the open observation car which was a delightful ride on a 70 degree sunny day. They had a period dressed musician onboard and the guy was great. He played picolo, guitar, banjo and a couple of other instruments that I was not sure what they were. On the return trip, it was announced that only the people kayaking back should stay on the observation deck as they were dropping us off and continuing through the tunnel. We said goodbye to some train mates we were talking to as they were surprised we were getting off in the middle of no-where. We were only about five miles from town at the headwaters of the Noyo River and six of us debarked from the train. We had seen the kayaks go out behind us in the morning on a little motorized cart that followed the train. They must have left them at the side of the tracks as the tour guide paddled up the river in his own yak to meet us and the train. We suited up in some dry pants and off we went down the Noyo River. This was a pretty scenic river at the headwaters with only a few houses, but it got more suburban as we got closer to Fort Bragg. We did see seals playing in the river, but they kept their distance along with some Ospreys and other birds. This was a great trip that we enjoyed very much to wind up our week in Northern California.