California Vineyard Crawl

Posted from Sonoma, California, United States.

Okay…full disclosure: the past week and probably the next couple of weeks we are more like tourists than pilgrims.  The posts may not be as wickedly tantalizing as reading about our shoveling cow manure at 6:00 a.m.  In addition, the days have been extremely full and they almost never include access to internet.  Therefore we have gotten behind on personal emails; please forgive our tardiness.  We are still working to savor every moment of every place we go, and hopefully this post won’t veer off into “My Summer Vacation” territory.  But if you love the Wine Country of California, you will love this post!  (Also, the photos from this week, especially the sunsets and Snoopys, are pretty spectacular.  Make sure you check them out here.)

After our Friday morning mindful walk along the beach (see previous post) followed by wi-fi mooching at Starbucks while we shared a small coffee (cheapskates!) in Fort Bragg, it was off to meet our SERVAS hosts for the weekend in Willits, CA.  These were people we didn’t know previously but were registered Hosts with SERVAS, an organization with which we are registered Travelers.  (Similar to Couch Surfing, but it’s been around for decades and means to promote peace through cultural exchange.)  The drive to (and from) Willits is slow and mountainous with sharp curves.  It is almost incomprehensible how anyone could do it daily – or even more than once a week.  For those with motion sickness, this is not a good time.  To prolong the nausea, the eight-mile trip from the highway to the house of our hosts was one of the most intense ever, complete with narrow, gravel roads, steep drop-offs, wildlife crossing the street, and a constant steep grade.  But once we arrived at their house, it was worth it.

The house is about 3000 feet up in the mountains, pretty much the highest peak in the area, and therefore wonderfully secluded.  In the area there are bears, mountain lions, deer, rattlesnakes, etc, and the house is off the grid (as are most of their neighbors), meaning that their power comes from several impressive solar panels.  Our hosts were wonderful, vibrant, and interesting people, small business owners and artists, and very caring about how they live in and effect the natural environment around them.  Our first night there was comfortably mild and clear.  After enjoying a stunning sunset over the hills and ocean, which was about 25 miles away, we were shone stars, the Earth’s moon, and Jupiter and four of its moons with the aid of a telescope.  Seeing distant celestial bodies was a totally new thing for us, and we were in awe over the experience.

After a blissfully quiet Saturday morning (really, an unusual experience for two guys who almost always have something to do or somewhere to go) that included watching dozens of hummingbirds, we went on a tour of their yard which included a mushroom hunt!  There was concern that it was still too early in the season, but since mushrooms make their appearances very quickly they need to be checked almost daily this time of year.  It’s true, our hunt came up short, but Joe did find a chanterelle that could be harvested and was sampled later that evening.  He was very proud about that accomplishment, but it makes sense: if there is food to be found, he will find it.

That second evening, instead of a beautiful sunset and a star show, we witnessed an amazing fog roll in from the west, covering all the hills and valleys except for the three very tallest peaks.  And since the house was on the ridge, the fog stopped in front of us and went no further. Occasionally the setting sun would peak through the high clouds and paint their undersides pink and magenta and even orange, but over the land there was only a thick blanket of graying-white.   No moon or stars that night.

The fog was still around Sunday morning when it was time to bid a melancholy farewell to these wonderful people whom grew to like so much with their interesting lives, inspirational outlooks on life, great stories from previous travels, and genuine appreciation for where they currently are in life (in all senses), and we had to venture back down the 8 mile windy, hilly route to the highway in the fog.  Luckily our hosts were also heading out for an engagement and we were able to tailgate them.

Having successfully navigated our way to the highway, it was officially Wine Tasting Season!  Our first stop was recommended by our hosts, are we are glad they mentioned it.  Parducci and Paul Dolan vineyards share a tasting room, so we were able to sample two vineyards at one stop.  Our pourer (Hi to Dann!) was wonderfully generous in letting us taste, and because it was Sunday morning and not super busy he gave us an impromptu tour of Parducci.  We were very interested in Parducci’s “green” factor: not only is it carbon neutral, but so much of the daily workings of the vineyard are eco-friendly, from cork recycling to composting to solar panels to Earth-friendly labels and ink.  And they have these awesome holding barrels made from local redwood.  Mendocino County even advertises itself as the “greenest” wine region in the U.S.  After three more winery stops in Anderson Valley, it was time to find a place to camp at Hendy Woods State Park.  There, we drank our newly-purchased bottle of rosé brut sparkling wine with our peanut butter sandwiches.

Monday morning we were off and rolling for more wine tasting in Anderson Valley.  First stop was Brutocao, where we had the most fantastic time with our delightful pourer (Hi to Erica!), chatting about wine and food and…well, more wine.  And – get this – It turns out there is a statue in Guatemala erected in honor of a distant relative of hers, so we will try to scope it out for her when we are there.  We loved spending the morning with her, and knowing of our trip she was rather generous when ringing up our purchase.  (Plus, honestly, the wine was really good.)  Then we hit two more vineyards before heading to Sonoma County for a recommendation we received on this website from a friend (Merie!), Ferrari-Carano, where we had a very nice tasting and walked through their exquisite gardens.  But it was apparent we weren’t in Mendocino Country anymore, where the tastings are usually complimentary and the vibe is friendly and laid-back.  Now it was becoming less personal and more commercial (and expensive).

Just over the hill from Ferrari-Carano was Bella Vineyards.  The tasting room is in a cave, which is a nice gimmick but severely limits your ability to examine the color and clarity of the wine.  (Just saying.)  The small bar was packed with tasters, who, we might add, were taking up more space than they needed to, and some had obviously had more than enough wine for the day, so we stood off to the side with a nice lady from southern California who arrived the same time we did.  Long story-short: we chatted with the nice lady (Hi to Joann!) for over an hour, sharing our experiences on tasting rooms and the differences between the different wine regions not only in terms of wine but also in terms of attitude.  Sometimes you just hit it off with people, and this was one of those times.  She was a joy to converse with and very impressed to hear about our trip, so much so that she very generously bought us a bottle of wine from Bella.

Yes, it was a wonderfully thoughtful gesture from a stranger, but it rang louder than that for us: the past few days were a big reminder that there really still are people in this world who do things like that, who don’t think twice about spontaneously acting in a way to benefit someone else.  She comprehended that we weren’t in a position to buy a bottle from this vineyard, but she believed in our trip and wanted us to have it.  It’s hard to describe just how meaningful those gestures are to us.  Like our SERVAS hosts, like Dann at Parducci and Erica at Brutocao, and like Joann at Bella, sometimes people just briefly pass through your life (and you through theirs); you don’t know if you will ever see them again, but they have an impact on you, even with a seemingly small gesture, that you don’t quickly forget.  We are really touched by the generosity these people showed in their own ways, just because for some reason we connected with them.

After Bella, we had planned to visit more vineyards but the clock was ticking.  It was 5:00, most tasting rooms were closed, and more importantly we needed to get to our campground.  We spontaneously decided to camp somewhere near where we were, which was not our original plan.  Unfortunately, our spontaneity did not pay off that evening.  We tried four campgrounds, including a public campground in a state preserve, and they were all closed for the season.  So we felt that we had no choice but to resort to our original plan, which necessitated driving about 30 miles past Santa Rosa.  Sugar Loaf Ridge State Park was open, but it was 7:00 which meant it was dark.  After our full day, it was too dark to consider making dinner so we just went upstairs to Maggi and read for the rest of the evening.

The next morning our first stop was the Charles Schulz museum in Santa Rosa.  (Joe has been a huge Peanuts fanatic ever since he was very little.)  Unfortunately, this was Tuesday and the museum is closed on Tuesdays.  Good grief!  But the gift shop was open with a nice gallery, which we walked through.  There was also a place to stand where a webcam takes a picture every 30 seconds and puts it on the internet.  We called Joe’s sister, had her go to the site, and she saw us standing next to Snoopy in front of the Warm Puppy Cafe.  Then it was time for a driving tour of Napa Valley, through the charming but pricey towns of St. Helena, Yountville, and Napa.  Since we had been in the Napa Valley on a previous trip, we didn’t stop anywhere but instead continued on to Sonoma, where we did make one tasting stop.  We stopped at Gundlach Bundsch, which was the recommendation of our new friend Joann, and it was excellent.  That night we went back to the same campsite as the previous night, although much earlier than the previous night, and were entertained by the dozen deer and dozens of wild turkeys roaming in front of us.  The whole campground had about 40 sites and ours was one of only four that were occupied that night.  It’s kind of cool to have that much solitude but maybe a little spooky, too.  Just because.

Our campground was just over the mountain and a five-minute drive from our Wednesday morning vineyard destination, Chateau St. Jean.  We have loved the grounds and the wine at CSJ since our first visit in 2003 but haven’t been back since.  We had a private tasting (Hi to Julie!) that was perfect in every way – and we should mention that we planned and budgeted for this since before we even left Minnesota.  That’s how much we really, really wanted to do this before leaving the country.  Blissfully contented with our morning (!) wine experience, we headed back to the Charles Schulz museum, which was of course open.  The museum was fantastic, a touching tribute to the creator of Charlie Brown and Snoopy and all the things that he loved.  It was a very special experience for us, and we are so glad we took the time to go back.  We paid 51 cents for our only souvenir, a pressed penny that now has Snoopy and Woodstock printed onto it.

After camping that night in Marin county, we had a very early wake-up call to allow us to stay on schedule with time to head to Point Reyes National Seashore, a place where Erik had visited many times when he lived in California during his Air Force days.  It was foggy but very little traffic during the 50-minute drive to the Point Reyes lighthouse, built in 1870.  Unfortunately, we were a little too early; we arrived at 8:30 but the staircase with its 300 stairs that descend to the point where the lighthouse sits didn’t open until 10:00.  But we had the entire place to ourselves and battled the fog and gusty winds to look out onto the Pacific Ocean before making the coastal drive to San Francisco, where we will be for the weekend.

That’s enough to read about for now, right?  It’s probably time to open another bottle anyway.  Next up: San Francisco and then to L.A.








This entry was posted in U.S. (Sept - Dec 2011). Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to California Vineyard Crawl

  1. Erica @ Brutocao Cellars says:

    Glad you had a good time! Have a great and safe trip and if you get any pics of my Great, Great Grandfathers statue post it!

    Cheers and enjoy the vino,

    Brutocao Cellars

  2. Britt says:

    You paint a vivid picture of Willits and my cousin and her hubby!

  3. Anne says:

    The Snoopy Museum and environs are great fun. Your blog brought back other memories–the highway along the coastal cliffs and El Capitan in the redwood forest. We miss you but are happy to vicariously enjoy your adventures.

  4. Alice Williams says:

    I love meeting people when I travel, too. Thanks for the good story.

  5. Ron says:

    I guess it goes to say, you are never far from home. With deer, turkeys and humming birds. We have a sad Woodstock here, who would of loved to see his relatives. Glad you got to go back to see Snoopy’s place.

  6. Merie says:

    I’m glad CA has been (mostly) good to you two!

  7. Chuck says:

    You’re right, there are still people “who don’t think twice about spontaneously acting in a way to benefit someone else.” And thankfully there are still people who notice the importance of those actions.

    A nice post in so many ways.

  8. Ford says:

    Oh, you are in one of my favorite places on earth. I’ve had so many wonderful memories made in the San Francisco and L.A. areas over the thirty-five years since I first ventured there. San Francisco feels like my second home when I visit, and it’s been awhile, so I’m longing! Enjoy it!


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