Savoring vino and more in Sonoma and Napa counties
Sonoma and Napa counties are home to more than 800 wineries and numerous other attractions. After getting rave reviews from various sources, we put five wineries, two art collections and several outdoor activities on our must-do list. Even though my husband, Jim, and I experienced less than 1 percent of what the region has to offer, our weeklong visit was 100 percent fun. We used Napa Valley Expo RV Park as our home base for the first three days, then moved our motorhome to Bodega Bay RV Park for the rest of the week.
Our first stop was a guided tour at di Rosa, an art museum with nearly 2,000 works of contemporary art by 800 Northern California artists. Three galleries and a sculpture park are situated on 217 acres in the Carneros region of Napa Valley. di Rosa is a nonprofit public trust established by two devoted patrons of the arts, Rene and Veronica di Rosa. Our tour started in the Gatehouse Gallery, the only one visitors can tour without a guide. The 125-year-old Residence Gallery originally housed a winery and was the home of the di Rosas from 1960 to 1996. In the Main Gallery, we enjoyed Rene’s playful appreciation of art. Artist David Best transformed a 1967 Pontiac, once owned by Rene’s mother, into Mother Tina’s Car by covering it with a large horse-head sculpture, a saddle, a pair of table lamps and a bunch of small trinkets.
While at di Rosa, we heard about Cornerstone Sonoma, a nearby marketplace featuring shopping, restaurants and gardens. After a quick and delicious lunch at Park 121 CafÃ© & Grill, we set off to explore the gardens, which consist of nine Cornerstone Gardens and Sunset magazine’s five Sonoma Test Gardens. Landscape architects and designers created the Cornerstone Gardens to “celebrate the connection between art, architecture and nature.” The Sunset Test Gardens cover a quarter acre and highlights a wide variety of plants and design.
The rest of our afternoon was devoted to wine tasting. Buena Vista Winery, in Sonoma, is California’s oldest premium winery, founded in 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy. In 1878 the property was purchased by a couple uninterested in wine making; new owners revived the winery in 1949, and have been making fine wines ever since. Jim and I shared a tasting. We especially liked the Sheriff of Buena Vista, a wine honoring not only Buena Vista’s founder, who served two years as sheriff of San Diego County, but also honors today’s sheriffs by donating a portion of the proceeds of every bottle sold to the National Sheriffs’ Association Education Foundation.
We ended our first day with another shared tasting at Ledson Winery and Vineyards in Kenwood. We weren’t familiar with Ledson wines, but we were intrigued by the 16,000-square-foot French Normandy winery known as “The Castle.” There’s a good reason we’d never heard of this brand; Ledson wines are sold exclusively at the winery, on its website and at the Ledson Hotel in Sonoma. Before our tasting started, we noticed the vineyard rows behind The Castle were labeled with the names of the owners of each row. By reserving a row for a minimum of three years, members get four cases each year and their personalized labels on their bottles.
With all the good food and wine we were having, we figured we’d better start the next day with a hike. Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is at the north end of Napa Valley. We hiked along a creek though a redwood forest. We passed a quiet campground with 30 RV sites (no hookups, and maximum motorhome length is 31 feet).
Napa Valley had been producing wines for more than a century before it got the respect it deserved. In the Paris Tasting of 1976, a Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon took top honors in a blind tasting comparing California wines to the best wines of Bordeaux and Burgundy. At Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars’ new FAY Outlook and Visitor Center, we sipped wines while admiring the view of the vineyards and the mountains, known as Stag’s Leap Palisades.
Not only does The Hess Collection Winery make some tasty wines, it also has an impressive art collection. Donald Hess began collecting art in 1966. Less than a quarter of this collection is displayed here; the rest can be found in museums around the world. As a collector, Hess has developed long-term relationships with 20 living artists. One of those featured artists is Leopoldo Maler, who encourages viewers to “apply their imagination to his pieces.” I imagined Homage – an old Underwood standard typewriter with flames coming out of the top – symbolizing the inspiration for a red-hot novel. For Maler, it was a personal tribute to his uncle, a well-known Argentinian writer, who was assassinated for the inflammatory content of his political essays.
For dinner, we decided to check out the Oxbow Public Market in Napa, a 40,000-square-foot indoor marketplace with local and regional artisan food and wine vendors. After dining on delicious oysters at the Hog Island Oyster Co. and indulging in chocolate from Anette’s Chocolates, we browsed other shops. The Napa Valley Distillery’s Tasting Salon reportedly has the largest collection of artisan cocktail bitters and syrups in the world. The complimentary bitters tasting was enlightening. I tried some delicious ones with fruity and ginger flavors; none of them were bitter at all.
After three short days in Napa – time flies when you’re having fun – we moved to Bodega Bay RV Park. As soon as we were settled, we drove our dinghy vehicle to Bodega Head, a rocky promontory that forms the entrance to Bodega Harbor. We hiked the 1.8-mile Bodega Head Trail, stopping often to admire the stunning views of the Pacific Ocean. A small herd of deer watched us nonchalantly as they munched on grass.
As long-time Peanuts fans, we were delighted to learn of the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. Not only did we enjoy reading some of the comic strips and learning about the development of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Snoopy and the gang, we were impressed by Schulz’s many accomplishments and honors.
Peanuts first appeared in seven national newspapers on October 2, 1950; the last original strip was printed February 13, 2000, the day after Schulz’s death. At that time, Peanuts was in 2,600 newspapers in 75 countries in 21 languages. In addition to five awards from the National Cartoonists Society, he received an Emmy and a Congressional Gold Medal, Schulz was inducted into the United States Hockey Hall of Fame, has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and is a recipient of the Silver Buffalo Award by the Boy Scouts of America. NASA astronauts honored Schulz by naming the Apollo 10 command module “Charlie Brown,” and the lunar module, “Snoopy.”
The museum sits across the street from Snoopy’s Home Ice, an ice rink built by Schulz that has hosted the Senior World Hockey Tournament since 1975, and Snoopy’s Gallery and Gift Shop, with its wide variety of Peanuts memorabilia.
Just 10 minutes from Santa Rosa is La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard in the heart of the Russian River Valley. We were thrilled to discover that on the day of our visit, the vineyard was having a grand-opening party where wines were being paired with food.
Outside among the vines, we sipped chardonnay and ate Hog Island oysters on the half shell. In the multilevel tasting room, we enjoyed a generous assortment of red and white wines, and tasty food. On the deck, a happy crowd listened to live music, ate paella and drank pinot noir.
Our trip to California would not have been complete without spending time in a redwood forest. Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve near Guerneville is a 30-minute drive from La Crema. The 805-acre grove is filled with Sequoia sempervirens, commonly called coastal redwood. These ancient trees are the tallest living things on earth. We followed the 1.5-mile Pioneer Nature Trail on our self-guided tour. We marveled at the Parson Jones Tree, the tallest one in the grove, standing more than 310 feet – longer than the length of a football field. The Colonel Armstrong Tree is the oldest one, estimated at more than 1,400 years old.
This was a day of serendipity. Earlier in the week, while I was planning our visit to Armstrong Redwoods, I discovered that the Annual Old Grove Festival was scheduled for the evening of our visit. We were lucky enough to get tickets for the event that soon sold out. The concert is held in the historic Redwood Forest Theater each September. This amphitheater was built in the 1930s. The festival is sponsored by Stewards of the Coast and Redwoods, an organization that provides support for state parks in the Russian River area.
Our last wine tasting was at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens, maker of my favorite chardonnay, in Fulton. We did a wine and food paring. The first two courses were served with white wines: sauvignon blanc with fried green tomatoes garnished with oyster leaf (yes, a green leaf that tastes like an oyster!) and chardonnay with polenta, cheese and garden vegetables. Since I generally favor white wines, I assumed the best came first.
The next three courses were served with red wines: pinot noir with duck breast, syrah with pork belly sliders and cabernet sauvignon with lamb tacos. When I tasted the syrah, I thought I’d found a new favorite wine. It was perfect with the pork belly. The lamb tacos were even better, and I figured it, too, would be best with the syrah. That was when I gained a new appreciation for pairing wine and food. The syrah was still good, but not as good as with the food the chef had paired with it.
Since my knowledge of pairing food and wine is “red goes with beef and pork; white goes with chicken and fish,” I hoped to gain some insight from this experience. When Executive Chef Justin Wangler came by our table, I asked him about this. He said it takes practice, balancing flavors and textures. When he and his team put a new item on the menu, they try it with several different wines to find the optimal combination. I also found some excellent food and wine pairing tips on its website (www.kj.com/blog/food-pairings).
After lunch, our server, Savannah De La Cruz, gave us a tour of the demonstration vineyards and gardens. She is the Tasting Room Lead, and has an impressive knowledge of wines. We tasted grapes right off the vine, comparing zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon and mourvÃ¨dre grapes. The Estate Gardens include seven distinct areas. Some grow the specialty produce featured in our farm-to-table meal, while others are meant to be educational or simply to inspire visitors with their beauty.
We’d driven through the town of Sebastopol, population 7,500, several times. On our last day in the area, we finally had time to stop. Several fanciful metal sculptures scattered around town caught our attention. They were created by “urban folk artists” Patrick Amiot and Brigitte Laurent. Amiot sculpts “junk art” out of objects destined for a landfill, and Laurent paints them to create the finished product. For about a block on either side of the artists’ home on Florence Avenue, front yards are adorned with cartoonish likenesses of things like a used-car salesman, fast-food workers in a taco truck, firemen in a fire truck, and Godzilla carrying a car and a windmill. My personal favorite was two campers roasting marshmallows next to their RV, which was aptly named Happy Trails Camping.
Our week in Napa and Sonoma was indeed filled with happy trails. They led us to vineyards, museums and redwood forests. Cheers!
For More Information
Bodega Bay RV Park | 707-875-3701 | www.bodegabayrvpark.com
Napa Valley Expo RV Park | 707-253-4900 | www.napavalleyexpo.com
Sonoma County Tourism | 800-576-6662 | www.sonomacounty.com
Visit Napa Valley | 855-847-6272 | www.visitnapavalley.com