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'Sideways' in Sonoma Northern California county welcomes wine lovers
By Mike Kelly | Daily Herald Correspondent

You'll stop for tastings during a Sip 'n' Cycle bike tour.

 

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DONNA KELLY

Break up winery visits with shopping or dining in town, far right.

 

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DONNA KELLY

The family that runs Passalacqua Winery is in its fourth generation.

 

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DONNA KELLY

Low-cost tastings are available at more than 200 wineries in Sonoma County.

 

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DONNA KELLY

The Honor Mansion dates from 1883. After a $1.5 million renovation, it has earned the AAA Four-Diamond rating.

 

PHOTOS COURTESY OF DONNA KELLY

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Published: 5/17/2008 8:43 PM

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HEALDSBURG, Calif. -- When people mention "California wine country," they're most likely referring to Napa Valley, unless they've seen the 2004 movie "Sideways," in which case they might be talking about central California where the wine-soaked buddy film was shot.

But a growing number of visitors are discovering the wines and the many small wineries of northern California's delightful Sonoma County. One of the most picturesque grape-growing regions in the world, its rolling hills are covered with row after row of vines, some more than a century old and still producing.

The largely rural region is about an hour's drive north of San Francisco and like Napa Valley, its better-known neighbor some 20 miles to the east, Sonoma County is full of wineries.

But there's a big difference between them.

Napa, which is far more upscale, boasts nearly 400 wineries, many of them housed in fancy complexes built to look like European chateaux and country manors. Some have well-known names, such as Mondavi, Beringer, Gallo and Inglenook, and wine tastings there can run as high as $20 or more.

Many of the 250 or so wineries tucked among the hills and valleys of Sonoma are small boutique operations, some run by second- or third-generation family members using methods, and even equipment, that's been handed down from their fathers and grandfathers. Tastings, which until fairly recently were free, now top out at around $5.

It was Sonoma, not Napa, that gave birth to the California wine industry back in the 1850s when European immigrants began growing grapes here. Both regions had vineyards, but most of the actual winemaking took place in Sonoma. By the turn of the century, the area had become the epicenter of California winemaking.

But between the Great Earthquake of 1906 and the seismic effect of Prohibition (1919-1933), the state's wine industry was decimated. It wasn't until the 1970s that California winemaking began to re-emerge. At that point, Napa seized the spotlight from its rural neighbor by knocking off a number of French wines in head-to-head competitions.

That helped launch a relentless promotional campaign that made the word "Napa" synonymous with California wine in most people's minds, a position it still holds today.

Heart of wine country

The tiny city of Healdsburg (HEELDS-burg), population 10,700, is in the heart of Sonoma wine country, and it's a perfect jumping-off spot for exploring the region. It's right where three major appellations, or grape-growing regions, come together. Between them, the Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley appellations contain more than 38,000 acres of vineyards. That translates to more than 150 million bottles of wine per harvest, in case you were wondering.

Lodging choices in the area include bed-and-breakfasts, economy motels and even a couple of high-end hotels. My wife and I visited the area in February, and on the recommendation of friends, we stayed at a place called Honor Mansion, a Victorian-style "resort inn" that's just a short walk from downtown Healdsburg.

Built in 1883 by a wealthy cattleman, the inn takes its name from that of a subsequent owner, Dr. Herbert Honor, whose family owned it for a century. (Good thing it wasn't named after the original owner, whose name was Butcher.)

The place is now owned and operated by Steve and Cathi Fowler, who bought it in 1994 and have since spent more than $1.5 million restoring, renovating and expanding it. It apparently was money well spent: Honor Mansion is the only lodging place in Sonoma County to have earned the prestigious AAA Four-Diamond rating, and it's done so for nine consecutive years.

Between its main house and outbuildings, the inn has 13 guest rooms and suites. What differentiates it from a typical bed-and-breakfast are the many amenities it offers within its three well-groomed acres. Those include a swimming pool, tennis court, grass bocce-ball pits, half-court basketball, a croquet lawn, putting green and a quarter-mile walking trail, as well as a koi pond and a private, canopied area for massages.

Unlike most bed-and-breakfasts, this one has no formal seating times for its gourmet breakfasts, which include such staples as eggs benedict and caramel apple french toast bake. The Fowlers switched last fall to a "freestyle" buffet that's available daily from 8 to 10 a.m., and they also host a complimentary wine and appetizer hour every afternoon at 5 p.m.

The couple also serve as concierges for their guests, helping plan their day's outings, suggesting the best wineries to visit and even making dinner reservations at nearby restaurants.

A visit to wine country during the off-season means it's not as crowded, and prices are lower. Our room at Honor Mansion would be about $100 a night more from mid-April through mid-November. The flip side, however, is that winter is the rainiest and coldest time of the year, which curtails some of the outdoor activities, such as canoeing, golf, biking, hiking and hot-air ballooning that can be enjoyed during warmer months.

No pretensions

Wineries aren't hard to find in Sonoma County. It seems as if you can't drive more than a few minutes along one of its narrow, meandering country roads without running across one. And wine tasting here is anything but pretentious, with owners themselves often doing the pouring.

Though the winemakers obviously know their stuff, you won't find many of them droning on about their product having "a big nose with brilliant texture and a long, succulent, harmonious finish." No, they're more likely to say, "Here's another neat one I think you're gonna love."

And they're usually right.

Our winery rounds started about a block down the street from Honor Mansion at the Seghesio Vineyards, a family operation that's been around for 113 years. Founder Edoardo Seghesio started out small, but at one point was able to buy a much larger winery, Italian Swiss Colony. Good move, bad timing -- six months later, along came Prohibition.

Today, 10 members of the family are employed at the winery. In addition to the requisite tasting area, there are two private rooms in the wine cellar where weekend visitors can sit at long oak tables made from old wine barrels and enjoy hour-long wine-and-food pairings. They feature some of Seghesio's best vintages along with small samples of the family's recipes. The day we were there, the pairings featured Chianti, Petite Sirah and a pair of Zinfandels served with risotto, penne pasta, crab Florentine and fried cardoni.

Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves are at the end of a narrow road, so no tour buses could get there even if they could find it. Owner Scott Adams created the caves a few years ago by blasting out the side of a hill, careful not to disturb the century-old grapevines atop it. The caves serve as a natural climate-controlled storage area (a constant 59-61 degrees) for wine barrels, where Bella wine is aged from 15 to 18 months. Bella's tasting room is also in one of the caves.

In another part of the winery, Adams showed off his sophisticated cross-flow filtering system, which removes "MOG" from the juice -- that's "material other than grapes," which can sometimes include some pretty unappetizing things.

At Passalacqua Winery, young owner Jason Passalacqua poured us a sampling of his hand-crafted Zinfandels and Cabernets. The fourth generation of his family to produce wine in Sonoma, Passalacqua employs the legendary Margaret Davenport as his chief winemaker. She made her reputation years ago at the huge Clos du Bois winery, which turns out close to 2 million cases a year. Passalacqua, like all of the wineries we visited, produces less than 10,000 cases a year.

The outdoor tasting area at Dutcher Crossing Winery is in a covered breezeway between two barn-like buildings, and it affords a great view of the hillside vineyards beyond. Among winemaker Kerry Damskey's most popular creations is a Cabernet-Syrah blend that's become the winery's signature wine.

"My goal is to create wines that are elegant, yet have the 'yummy' factor," Damskey said.

Top-notch dining

As more tourists have discovered Sonoma, its restaurants have multiplied and become more upscale.

Zin, in Healdsburg, is a converted storefront that specializes in California regional dishes, from batter-fried green beans to its signature dish, Coq an Zin: chicken braised in Zinfandel with smoked bacon and mushrooms over celery root mashed potatoes. Not surprisingly, its wine list is weighted heavily toward Zinfandels.

At Syrah in nearby Santa Rosa, owner-chef Josh Silvers uses organic and sustainably farmed foods in his Cal-French bistro cuisine. The restaurant offers an extensive wine list and a selection of artisan cheeses to go with it.

Willi's Wine Bar, also in Santa Rosa, is an "international small plate" restaurant where diners can order mini-servings of anything from pomegranate-glazed chicken meatballs to lobster and corn gnocchi. Wine is sold in 2-ounce "tastes" as well as by the glass or bottle, so customers can experiment with different wine-food pairings.

Costeaux French Bakery & Cafe in Healdsburg is a breakfast and lunch place known for its award-winning sourdough bread, French onion soup and inventive desserts. (Hint: Don't miss the Chocolate Bomb.)

One afternoon, we considered making the short drive to the Pacific Coast, about 30 miles to the west, where migrating whales can sometimes be seen from its rocky bluffs and secluded coves. Alfred Hitchcock thought so much of the rugged scenery around Bodega Bay that he filmed his 1963 movie "The Birds" there.

Since it was a partly sunny day, though, we opted instead to take a three-hour Sip 'n' Cycle bike tour of the county with a local outfit called Getaway Adventures. It was an easy ride, pedaling along ribbons of back roads at what our guide, Randy Johnson, called a "stop-and-smell-the-Zinfandels" pace. Naturally, we dropped in at a couple of wineries for samplings, but Randy made sure no one was tipsy before we mounted up to continue our tour.

Sonoma County might not be as touristy and commercial yet as Napa, which locals here refer to as "the Disneyland of wine country," but it has succumbed to a certain degree of gentrification in recent years. Healdsburg's pretty, tree-filled downtown plaza is lined with trendy boutiques, galleries, cafes and wine-tasting rooms.

One afternoon while my wife was checking out the plaza shopping scene, I came across a dark and welcoming refuge just off the square. The family-owned Bear Republic Brewing Co. is a haven for those who find as much enjoyment in a well-crafted pint of ale as in a glass of well-rounded Cabernet.

When I couldn't decide which of the many microbrews I wanted to try, bartender Ryan Lindecker helpfully set me up with a sampler of nine of them, which ran the gamut from a crisp pale ale to a chewy stout. As I began working my way through them, I got a bit of advice from the guy sitting at the bar a few stools down, a weathered old fellow who could have passed for Dennis Hopper's twin.

"Find one you like," he said. "And then when you're done fooling around with that wine, come on back here."

I never did make it back to Bear Republic, but next time we're in Sonoma County, I'm sure I'll drop by again. And yes, there will be a next time. After all, we've still got more than 200 wineries to fool around with.

If you go

Sonoma County wine country

Go: If you like wine, gorgeous scenery and great dining for less than you'd spend in Napa Valley

No: If you want a kid-friendly, family vacation

Need to know: Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, (707) 522-5800, www.sonomacounty.com; Russian River Wine Road, (800) 723-6336, www.wineroad.com

Getting there: Sonoma County is about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. American and United airlines have nonstop flights to San Francisco from O'Hare and Southwest flies nonstop from Midway. Southwest also has nonstops to Oakland, Calif., in the Bay Area.

Where to stay: Honor Mansion, Healdsburg, (800) 554-4667, www.honormansion.com. Rooms and suites for $230 to $600 a night, depending on season.

Where to eat:

In Healdsburg: Costeaux French Bakery & Cafe, (707) 433-1913, www.costeaux.com; Zin, (707) 473-0946, www.zinrestaurant.com

In Santa Rosa: Willi's Wine Bar, (707) 526-3096, www.williswinebar.net; Syrah Bistro, (707) 568-4002, www.syrahbistro.com

Wineries: Bella Vineyards and Wine Caves, (866) 572-3552, www.bellawinery.com; Dutcher Crossing Winery, (707) 431-2700, www.dutchercrossingwinery.com; Passalacqua Winery, (707) 433-5550, www.passalacquawinery.com; Seghesio Family Vineyards, (707) 433-3579, www.seghesio.com

Biking: Getaway Adventures, (800) 499-2453, www.getawayadventures.com