‘Never go back down those country roads’ might be the advice of some plaintive troubadour or a stressed-out Sat Nav, but when it’s Northern California how could I resist? My previous trip to the Napa Valley and Sonoma had been a wine-soaked idyll from sumptuous bases in Relais & Chateaux properties, but the simpler pleasures on the side seduced me too.
Hence a planned two week road trip between San Francisco and Seattle had to include some blissed-out backwoodsmanship and watching ocean sunsets with chilled IPAs.
Here are 10 places along the route where we ditched the hire car and went native…
Ram’s Gate Winery
OK, so a vineyard had to be our gateway. Ram’s Gate is possibly the closest winery to San Francisco, so perfect for a wine tasting lunch. It’s set on a hill off State Route 121 heading for Sonoma among its own 28 acres of vines, but since its inception in 2011 its terroir-driven selling point has been its handling of small-lot Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes from across Sonoma and Carneros.
The very definition of a Californian boutique winery, it is architecturally stunning. Inside it’s vintage chic, almost clublike; from the outside it lives up to its claim to be a modern interpretation of the weathered farmsteads of old Carneros, while below the vine-clad hill the wildlife habitat, Tolay Creek, signals the sustainable ethos.
Ram’s Gate is open Thursday-Monday , 11am-4pm, for tasting appointments. We went the whole hog and had the $160 a head Five Course Wine and Food Pairings, featuring the likes of saffron poached lobster and pasta, smoked bavette, raspberry shortcake with brown sugar chantilly. Out on the terrace, naturally with some lovely wines.
Jordan Vineyard & Winery
Another winery, can’t resist, but the vineyard tour here is something special. You can spot the French influence on this chateau-stykled family winery, which opened back in 1971 and is single-minded about producing just two wines – a Cabernet Sauvignon Bordeaux blend and a Chardonnay. Tasting both in a luxury hilltop gazebo overlooking the entire 1,200 estate with some seriously gourmet small plates was the culmination of a tour that took in a look at their own organic veg garden and apiary, natural habitat, a tasting of their own estate olive oil and real insights into vineyard practice. You can understand why it has won a clutch of awards. The three hour tour costs $150 plus tax; available May-October only, weather permitting. More affordable is theWinery Tour & Library Tasting, which features wine tasting with food pairings for $75 plus tax.
My, how this town has gentrified, gussied itself up big time, especially around the central lawned Plaza. When I first visited a quarter of a century ago there was hardly a bespoke tasting room in town. Hell, this was Sonoma, not Napa; you had to go out into the country and find the winemakers. Now a raft of grape-driven opportunities rub shoulders with designer shops and small batch coffee haunts. Still it’s undeniably attractive and some favourite spots remain – the Hotel Les Mars, where we stayed last time, and the homely Oakville deli/cafe on the Plaza, but the raucous Bear Republic brewpub just off the main drag has bitten the dust. Fear not they are still brewing elsewhere that quintessential West Coast IPA, Racer 5. After a couple we started noticing more the hardware stores and simpler liquor stores of an older Healdsburg; the apple orchards and ranches that dot the Sonoma hinterland – a world away from the polished wine palaces and their millionaire owners in Napa.
The Bohemian Highway
Definitely a world away from Napa. This was the country road we needed to get back on and it didn’t disappoint. Our destination was a log cabin lodging with ocean views at Jenner at the mouth of the kayak-thronged Russian River. Direct way from Healdsburg is the 116 up the valley, but we mooched further south towards Sebastopol to join the Bohemian Highway
Rarely has a road so lived up to its name. Orchards, redwood groves, vineyards and grazing land are the heavenly backdrop to laid-back small settlements. Occidental and Monte Rio are folksy cute, but Freestone, official population 50, is my favourite. Mainly because it’s home to the Wildflour Bakery and Freestone Artisan Cheese store, an essential stop on the California Cheese Trail.
Wildflour boasts a wood-fired brick oven, lit each afternoon with a wheelbarrow of eucalyptus kindling. Scones and all kinds of delights are produced, but it is the Organic Sourdough that rules supreme. Thick of crust and yet airy-light inside (even the rye variety), this is the best bread you’ll find anywhere.
At the cheese store affineur Omar Muller sells locally pressed olive oil, almonds and walnuts and a range of dairy-related artefacts, but the glory is the cheese. Try the local Bleeting Heart sheep’s or more widely available cheeses from the Cowgirl Creamery. A bottle of Pinot Noir from the nearby Joseph Phelps completes the picnic.
River’s End Restaurant & In, Jenner
A tea-time sea fret shrouded the extended estuary of the Russian River. It grew thicker as we checked into the River’s End Inn and settled into our cabin. What chance a glimpse of their legendary sunset from our wooden porch? There were going to be few other distractions. With no cellphone or internet accessibility, no telly, we could have been back in the days when it was built as a wayside inn for loggers and fishermen.
Maybe they would have tucked into a large helping of elk, as I did; the difference surely the finesse with which mine was treated by chef Martin Recoder and it wouldn’t have been imported from New Zealand! Food miles concerns apart – and no problems with the King Salmon starter – this was an extraordinarily fine meal, the best of our whole road trip, even the sophistication of the service belying the rusticity of the Inn. And the wine? It had to be a Littorai Pinot Noir – perfection from legendary winemaker Ted Lemon. We’d visited his biodynamic vineyard above Sebastopol, where the cooling clouds roll in off the Pacific (main image). As if to cue, the clouds here suddenly cleared like ‘curtains up’ to reveal a glorious sunset finale.
Gualala and Point Arena
It’s a switchback car ride north on Highway 1, the Pacific on port side smashing into coves hundreds of feet below. There a few choice stop-offs to catch your breath and get closer to the ocean, notably Salt Point State Park, which has a winding, wooded path down to a sheltered cove. Twenty-five minutes further on and worth a longer visit is Gualala Point, at the mouth of the river of that name. We wandered through the dunes onto a driftwood-littered sand spit and then clambered up the headland, which promised whale watching but didn’t deliver on the day. A further 25 minutes north you hit Point Arena, centred on the lighthouse of that name but pulling in 1,600 acres of National Monument Land, a vast coastal preservation reserve. Fascinating to explore, we’re told, but we had to settle for a sea view, craft beer and San Francisco-style chowder (in a hollowed out sourdough bap) at the Pier Chowder House and Tap Room down by the pier in the historic district.
Albion River Inn
Star brew we tasted at the Pier was a G&T Sour Beer from Anderson Valley Brewery, a craft pioneer 30 years ago and still going strong. On our last visit to Anderson Valley we explored its cool climate vineyards, but this time were happy to go down the hop route – check out Visit Mendocino’s 9 Hop Stops at ABV’s beautifully-situated taproom, enjoying another approachable sour, the Briney Melon variety. We had to resist completism; we were en route for our next lodging, the Albion River Inn – like River’s End on a bluff at the river mouth. The clifftop views were equally spectacular but the style of lodging quite different. More romantic than rustic, with spa baths and panoramic decking.
Similarly high standards in the kitchen serving superb seafood to an 80 cover restaurant, set apart from the 22 room/suite complex and built out of wood salvaged from a 1919 shipwreck.
The Albion River Inn was our base to visit Mendocino, a 10 minute drive north up Highway 1, along which you can sense the locations of one of California’s most gripping and gritty literary fictions, Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling (4th Estate, £12.99). It wonderfully evokes the stunning coastal landscape (though might deter you from going camping!). Mendocino itself was as laid-back as ever. Old hippies and floral New Agers meet clapboard and cliffs. The Cannabis Medical Resource Center is along the road from Virgil’s Vittles – DIY Dog Biscuits. With a year-round population of not much more than a 1,000 there’s little in the way of bar culture but the Cafe Beaujolais offers fine West Coast bistro food. To get an appetite, go for a walk on the town’s great glory, the wave-lashed headland with its maze of easy trails. A pity the vertiginous path down to the beach has been cordoned off. Hardcore hikers can tackle the 130 mile Mendocino County Coastal Trail, which takes in beautiful State Parks.
Avenue of The Giants
I for one can’t get enough of giant redwood trees. Not content with detouring off the Anderson Valley Road to wander in wonder around Hendy Woods State Park (the greatest coastal redwood concentration is in the 80 acre Big Hendy grove) we fixed our GPS on the unique Avenue of the Giants 130 miles to the north up off the inland Route 101. This is a self-guided auto tour through great sleeping forests, 32 miles in length, but you can just access a section if time is short; I’d recommend the Boiling Grove stretch as best to appreciate examples of the Sequoia sempervivens, average age 400-600 years old, the largest living things on earth. Awesome, dudes, as they say in those parts.
I’ve left the most luminous spot till last. Its recent backstory demands pride of place. We stayed, safari glamping style in a tree at this wildlife preserve/conservation centre, nicknamed the ‘Sonoma Serengeti’, a month before the Tubbs Fire, deadliest of the Wine Country conflagrations, ravaged the area. In its path Safari West and its 400 acres, home to giraffes, rhinos, zebras, cheetahs and countless other exotic creatures in the hills above Santa Rosa. On our personal sunset safari, drinking local craft beer on a hilltop surrounded by antelope we’d asked our guide Alex if they had evacuation plans in the event of fire, which he confirmed. Just small talk then after a memorable, eye-opening jeep tour.
Safari West survived the fire thanks to the bravery of owner Peter Lang, who founded the reserve 40 years ago. He and his team saw their own homes go up in flames in the distance, but stayed to fight off the main blaze with fire hoses and a vintage fire engine. All the animals were saved and the park reopened. It is a fascinating place to visit. Check glamping availability and rates here and safari tour rates here.