TRAVELING IN THE
California Wine Country
Looking for a blend of elegant lodging, superb food, choice wines and dazzling scenery? There are so many places in California where everything that the traveler is looking for can be found, that it’s hard to single one out.
So, let’s pick half a dozen, all bound into one bundle by the tendrils of wine grape vines, which flourish today, as they did more than one hundred years ago in these prolific wine counties of the Golden State of California. Each has a past rich in stories of valor, romance and tender human emotions, and all of these stories are rooted in the rich, fertile soil.
Let’s start the journey in the best known, most highly- traveled section of California’s wine country – the Napa Valley. For most wine-lovers, Napa simply means fine wine, and Robert Louis Stevenson said it best when he referred to Napa Valley’s wines as “bottled poetry”. Importing premium grape varieties and classic winemaking skills from the fabled regions of France, the earliest grape growers and winemakers in the Napa Valley soon were producing wines which gained international recognition. Even through the dark days of Prohibition, many vineyards survived by shipping grapes east to home winemakers across the nation. With Repeal, these men and women jumped right back into wine production and started building an awareness of the excellence of their products. The Napa Valleyans put their wine in bottles, attached attractive labels and began to establish an identity. Soon, travelers were flocking to the region to find out how those wines were made. The Napa Valley is an easy place to visit. A mere 25 miles long and five miles wide, the wineries line up along two parallel roads: Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. If one tasting room is full, move on a mile or two, and visit another. For more private tastings, call ahead to establish an “appointment only” tasting for not-to be missed wineries and their distinctive wines.
Sonoma County, physically almost as long as it is wide, is more challenging for the Visitor. Sonoma County’s wineries dot the verdant Alexander Valley, east of Healdsburg; Dry Creek Valley, noted for its Zinfandel; the Russian River Valley, home to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and the Sonoma Valley, as rich in history as it is in premium grapes. The seeds for California’s wine industry were planted, quite literally by the Franciscan Fathers as they headed north into Alta California establishing their missions a day’s journey apart from San Diego to the town of Sonoma. Another serious grape grower in the little community of Sonoma was General Mariano Vallejo, and not too much later, Count Agoston Haraszthy, carried grape cuttings back from Europe and established the beginning of the premium grape-growing activities in the Golden State. There are wineries to visit everywhere in this county which stretches across rolling hills, past lush and fragrant vineyards to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. And its easy to combine wine tasting with water sports, beach-walking, hiking and riding through redwood groves or investigating past history.
State parks, fishing villages, art communities and scenic roadways have long lured visitors to this redwood-rich northern county. In recent years, outstanding wineries have been added to the mix, particularly in Anderson Valley along Highway 128 near the quaint towns of Boonville and Philo. Cool climates make Mendocino County a comfortable home for white grapes: the grapes of Champagne and famous German varietals. Annual festivals, combining the luscious wines with succulent local crab, clams and seafood, attract visitors who nest at cozy bed and breakfast inns, enjoying water sports on the Noyo River, Big River, or the Pacific Ocean at Noyo Harbor in Fort Bragg. Others head to the unspoiled town of Mendocino for picturesque views of the Pacific Ocean, where frolicking whales pass in their annual migrations. For dramatic vistas, take a side road and enjoy a rare drive in quiet relaxation.
The ‘49er’s intent, understandably, was to get rich by the fastest means possible and the most likely place to do so was in The Mother Lode, a rich vein of gold that stretched 270 miles from Sierra City south to Oakhurst, near Yosemite. Highway 49 which ties the counties and cities of the Sierra Foothills together like beads on a silken cord. For the wine-seeker, the clusters of wineries in Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado and Placer Counties are the primary destination points, Wine is not the only attraction—these areas are rich in history. Start at the top of the 49er’s route by following Interstate 80 north to the junction of Highway 49 at Auburn, still the largest city in the Mother Lode. Heading south on 49, drive through the narrow streets of Placerville, once known as Hangtown; and in the summer season, enjoy the apple crop on Apple Hill while tasting prize-winning local wines. Some of the largest, most productive mines in the Mother Lode existed here until fairly recent times and the rich history has been preserved in old buildings, caverns and museums. Immediately following the Gold Rush days, there were 100 wineries in the Sierra Foothills counties. Most were abandoned by the time the scourge of Prohibition hit in 1919, although some isolated vineyards remained. One of the oldest vines in California still flourishes in Amador County. In the 1860’s, El Dorado County had more acres of vineyard than either Sonoma or Napa. Today, the old mining towns are populated with antique shops, art galleries, and bed and breakfast inns. Gold Country became California’s first economically successful winemaking region.