Sonapanoma: A Tale of Two Wine Countries
by Karen Misuraca

"Just listen," Suzanne whispered. "Listen to the silence. I had no idea how quiet it would be. Are we even moving?"

Indeed, we were moving, in a hot air balloon over the Sonoma Valley. A red and orange ball against a pinky dawn rising over rows of vineyards, the balloon glided silently at the same speed as the gentle wind on this cool morning. The utter silence was a surprise to my friend, Suzanne. A Manhattanite, she was visiting for a long weekend, staying with me at my home in the town of Sonoma.

Startled by the sudden rush of the fiery gas jets, Suzanne busily snapped photos of the balloon, the balloon pilot, the three other passengers and several other balloons nearby--one on the ground, slowly expanding with gas, and three more, at about our altitude of about a thousand feet, all in all a surreal experience for someone who had dreamed for years of seeing the California wine country.

I see hot air balloons, the icons of the Sonoma and Napa wine regions, from my front yard much of the year. I never tire of them and try to not miss the annual Sonoma County Hot Air Balloon Classic in July, when about forty glowing globes ascend, simultaneously, in a breathtaking "Dawn Patrol".

Napa or Sonoma?
When friends visit for the first time, I often arrange a balloon ascent for them. And, when they ask me whether to spend their vacations in Sonoma or Napa counties, I quiz them: "What appeals to you? Tuscany or Bordeaux? Indiana Jones or James Bond? Zinfandel or Champagne?"

Although separated by the Mayacamas Range of low hills and mountains, the two counties are adjacent to each other, making it easy to get a taste of both over a long weekend. A life-long resident here, I recommend the Sonoma wine country to people who like bike rides and evenings by the fire in quaint country inns, family-owned wineries, farm markets and long walks on the beach. About the size of Rhode Island, Sonoma County is blanketed by pasturelands and vineyards, and the watersheds of three major rivers--the Petaluma, the Russian and the Gualala--winding from redwood forests to the sea.

A little less bucolic, a little more cosmopolitan, Napa County to me is sparkling wine and sports cars, the magnificence of the Culinary Academy of America at Greystone; the classic Opus One Winery and the French country elegance of Auberge du Soleil Resort. Half the size of Sonoma and with one river, the Napa, running right up the main valley, this wine country is rampant with European-style glamour, as compared to Sonoma's charm and rusticity.

History and Hollywood
The birthplace of California winemaking, in Sonoma, Buena Vista Winery was founded in 1857 by Count Agoston Haraszthy, a Hungarian nobleman who became known as the father of California viticulture. Today's wine lovers tour the countŐs original, vine-covered stone press house to see artifacts from winemaking days gone by, and to sip cabernet in an oak grove.

Among other 19th century sites open to the public in Sonoma is Lachryma Montis (Tear of the Mountain), the lovely Gothic-Revival home built in 1849 by the Mexican general, M.G. Vallejo, commander of the northern Mexican frontier and founder of the Pueblo--now the town--of Sonoma.

One of the historic landmarks of the Napa Valley, built in 1879, the former Inglenook Chateau is now Rubicon Estate Winery, owned by the Hollywood producer, Francis Ford Coppola. Visitors listen to Italian opera in the tasting room of the semi-Gothic/Eastlake-style stone mansion, and stroll in the park modeled after the Luxembourg Gardens. At another impressive Napa winery, the pure white, Greek-island-style fortress of Sterling Vineyards, you can ride an aerial tram 300 feet up to the terrace for wine tasting and a bird's eye view of the valley.

Another example of the laid-back character of Sonoma vs. the glamour of Napa: Harley riders and some boot-scootin' locals gathered at last October's outdoor concert in Sonoma to hear Willie Nelson and the Doobie Brothers, while during the same month, the sophisticated sounds of jazz trumpeter, Wynton Marsalis, filled the Napa Valley Opera House.

Proud of their countrified, often humorous approach to the mystique of winemaking, Sonomans get rowdy at the annual Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction, when local winery owners kick in a chorus line, perform Broadway numbers and generally get silly to get top prices for auction lots of rare wines and fabulous trips, all for charity. The auction is billed as "the perennial lamp shade on the head of the wine industry".

At the annual Napa Valley Wine Auction, Michael Jordan, Jay Leno, Ryan Seacrest and Geena Davis have been among the celebs joining high stakes bidders to raise millions for local charities. At the 2006 auction, five bottles of Staglin Family Vineyard wine and a trip to France with the Staglins went for a record-breaking $1.05 million.

The rest of us indulge ourselves for three days every July at the Sonoma County Showcase of Wine and Food. Serious oenophiles sign up for private winery lunches, dinners and barrel tastings, while thousands gather for samples from over a hundred wineries, and gourmet food from local restaurants, at all-day grand gala, the Taste of Sonoma.

Old Sonoma
Since Suzanne was looking to de-stress from her hectic life in New York, we spent her visit enjoying the quiet pleasures of Sonoma County.

One day, we took a hike on the Overlook Trail in the foothills on the edge of Sonoma; the trailhead is on First Street West, a block north of the plaza. At the top of the trail, views of the entire valley are dazzling, and, on a clear day you can see the glinting expanse of the Pacific in the distance.

We trudged back down to browse the shops around the tree-shaded central plaza, which is the largest original Mexican plaza in the state, and stepped into San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, a California mission built in 1841. Among other attractions on the plaza are General Vallejo's military barracks, fancy Victorian mansions and thick-walled adobe buildings housing boutiques and restaurants.

You can rent a bike or a Segway here and get a guided town tour, or wheel away on your own, from winery to winery on the outskirts of town.

A few blocks from the plaza, the Ravenswood Winery tasting room is tucked into an oak-forested hillside. Ravenswood is popular on summer weekends for their barbecues on the terrace, where Ragin' Raven barbecue sauce flavors the homemade sausages and the Ravenous burgers, washed down with their famous hearty zinfandels. The Ravenswood motto is: "No Wimpy Wines".

A short stroll away at the end of an allée of trees on Castle Road, at Bartholomew Park Winery stands a reconstruction of the rather peculiar Pompeian villa built by Harazsthy. Just beyond, a Spanish colonial-style building houses a tasting room, a museum, and a gallery of Victorian-era photos. One of the nicest picnic grounds at any California winery, and open to the public, the Wine Garden lies beneath a canopy of oaks. From here, three miles of hiking trails loop around the foothills and meadows, a wildflowery experience in the spring.

Winemaking history was made in Sonoma by Samuele Sebastiani, who emigrated from Tuscany in 1895. He eventually acquired the original Spanish mission vineyards here and built a stone winery in 1903, which today is the headquarters of Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery, on Fourth Street East near the plaza. Samuele's descendants operate the winery, welcoming visitors to an elaborate food, wine and gift marketplace and tasting room.

After exploring Sonoma thoroughly, Suzanne and I spent two days rambling around the county, stopping to shop in Santa Rosa at Railroad Square at antiques and curio shops in circa-1880 brick and stone buildings. The county seat and business center, Santa Rosa is also the location of the regional Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport, named for a beloved departed resident, Sparkie Schulz, creator of the Peanuts cartoon gang.

We headed on, a few miles north, to more shopping, this time around the town square of Healdsburg, a charming agricultural community established in the 1860s, now headquarters for expeditions to the wineries of the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys. We stepped into a few tasting rooms around the plaza--there are more than twenty right in town--and drove a few blocks to the Front Street Wineries where five small, premium wineries offer hospitality in an updated, riverfront warehouse district. The owners of Camellia Cellars, here, are related to the innkeeper-owners of the Camellia Inn, one of the oldest-established and most elaborate of the Victorian-era B&Bs in town. At Huntington Wine Cellars, we sipped Russian River Valley Chardonnay while hobnobbing with the resident artist, Ken Schilling, whose original paintings are on display, and they're on the wine labels, too.

Heading west from Healdsburg toward the coast, we passed by some of the more than three dozen wineries in the Russian River Valley. One of the most impressive, Korbel Champagne Cellars is housed in ivy-covered stone buildings and a tower erected in the 1880s by pioneering winemakers, the Korbel brothers, who were immigrants from southern Bohemia. The guided tour here is among the most complete of all California wineries, and includes a museum, a film, an in-depth introduction to classic methode champenoise production, and a glass of bubbly!

In Guerneville, we walked under 300-foot-tall, 2,000-year-old redwood trees at Armstrong Redwood State Reserve, and stopped at Sophie's Cellars in Monte Rio to buy artisan-made cheeses and local wines and vinegars for Suzanne to take home.

Once we arrived in the fishing village of Bodega Bay, we sat down to a dinner of fresh salmon at the Tides Wharf, and stayed overnight at the Inn at the Tides. Next morning we watched kayakers paddling the bay, while they watched the harbor seals that pop up around the docks, cruising for fish scraps tossed from the boats. One- and two-person kayaks can be rented from Bodega Bay Kayak in the Blue Whale Shopping Center in town. And they also offer guided kayak tours along the Russian River where it empties into the ocean. A herd of seals is often sunbathing and surfing at the river's mouth, and in the Spring, they give birth to their pups here, away from deep-sea predators.

After fortifying ourselves with breakfasts of Dungeness crab benedict at the Sandpiper Seafood Restaurant, we drove north on Highway One along sixteen miles of rocky coves and sandy beaches, known as the Sonoma Coast State Beaches, from Bodega Bay to Jenner. Before we reached Jenner, from Shell Beach, I took Suzanne for a hike on one of my family's favorite hiking trails, a three-mile round trip from the beach over rolling hills to a natural spring in a small redwood forest.

A little tuckered, we headed home, stopping once more to pick up sandwiches, at the General Store at Duncan's Mills, a village comprised of buildings remaining from an 1880s railroad stop.

Vintage Napa
When my friend comes again, we'll spend time in the Napa Valley, strolling the quiet country byways that criss-cross the valley between the busy main thoroughfare of Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail. Suzanne will love the art galleries in Yountville and St. Helena, and we'll take mud baths at one of the hot springs spas in the Victorian-era town of Calistoga, which looks as it did when people came here a hundred years ago in horse-drawn carriages to "take the waters".

Thirty-five miles long and about five miles wide, the Napa Valley is liberally endowed with large, estate-like wineries and by eateries to which foodies and restaurant critics flock from around the world. The famously upscale New York deli, Dean and DeLuca, has an outpost here, and cafes and restaurants are often French-inspired. Said to be the best restaurant in the United States, The French Laundry is in an old stone building, with no sign, in Yountville (your best chance at a reservation is to call two months ahead to the day). Also in this tiny mecca of cuisine, the bistros Bouchon and Bistro Jeanty were recently awarded much-envied Michelin Guide stars.

Although mild, Mediterranean weather prevails most of the year throughout the California wine country, two of the best months to be in the Napa Valley are February and March, when wild yellow mustard blooms in profusion, streaming between the vineyard rows, a never-to-be-forgotten sight from a balloon. Celebrating the spring and the beginning of a new vintage, the annual Mustard Festival this year opened with a French-themed soiree at the Culinary Academy, plus an international mustard competition, a connoisseur's marketplace and a jazz festival.

Paddling Around
Although kayakers and fishermen do ply the Napa River, which flows right through downtown Napa, a river more widely known for recreation is the Russian in Sonoma County. My granddaughter, Leah Misuraca, Manager of River's Edge Kayak and Canoe Trips based in Healdsburg, said, "We get all ages, from college kids to thirty-somethings to families, and tourists from all over the world who have heard about how fun it is to paddle the Russian. We call it our "Cure for Nature Deficiency Disorder." The gentle current sort of pushes the kayaks and canoes downriver past vineyards, redwood groves and many pebble beaches along the way. People usually stop to picnic, and they swim in the deeper pools, fish for bass and catfish, and birdwatch. And, the kids always love the rope swings hanging from the riverbank trees. "We shuttle the paddlers up to the start of their trip, and they finish at their vehicles. They end up a little sunburned sometimes, feeling like they were really a part of the wine country, and for sure, they're relaxed."

The Russian is one of four Sonoma County valleys known primarily for wine production: the Alexander, the Dry Creek and the Sonoma Valley. At the north end of the Dry Creek Valley, Lake Sonoma is a major destination for year-round bass fishing, boating, camping, hiking, horseback riding and mountain biking. Surrounded by a wilderness of craggy mountains threaded with trails, the lake's fifty miles of shoreline dotted with sheltered coves.

An enjoyable way to get oriented to the glories of the lake is on the guided "Sunset and Full Moon Kayak" tour offered by Getaway Adventures. Romantic highlights of the tour are the waning sun reflected in the water, and moonrise over a picnic dinner on the beach.

Getaway Adventures also offers a Dry Creek Valley "Sip N' Cycle" guided ride on fifteen to twenty miles of easy roads with winery stops and a picnic lunch (similar tour offered in the Napa Valley); and the "Pedal and Paddle" tour comprising a seven-mile ride in the Alexander Valley and a kayak float down the Russian River.

Biking Napa and Sonoma
The director of the international travel program for The Culinary Institute of America, and a Napa resident, Michael Coon said, "I often take early morning walks in the foothills in Alston Park near my home, and I see hot air balloons land almost every day. It's about a three mile, easy trail, and in the winter and spring, the wildflowers are fantastic. When friends visit, they often want to take a bike ride through the vineyards, so we go to Milton Road in the Carneros district, where the Napa River enters San Francisco Bay. We usually end up for lunch on the deck at Moore's Landing Restaurant at the boat launch, where we can watch egrets and herons there in the wetlands and on the river banks."

Another biker of note, Levi Leipheimer, a Tour de France veteran and one of the world's fastest bike racers, lives in Santa Rosa, from where he bikes for miles out to the coast. He said, "I moved to Sonoma County for the many beautiful roads to ride my bike and for the huge choice of outdoor activities. I can ride past vineyards, through redwood groves, along the Pacific Ocean on Highway 1 and up the numerous mountains in the county."

Mere mortals mountain bike on more than twenty-five miles of trails in Annadel State Park, just outside of Santa Rosa, and on the north end of the Napa Valley, they navigate bone-rattling descents down the side of Mount St. Helena.

You can rent bikes and explore on your own in both counties, or book with a company that provides everything from tour guides to gourmet picnics and a "sag wagon" van for stragglers. Owner of Wine Country Bikes in Healdsburg, John Mastrianni takes bikers on guided daytrips and on luxury multi-day tours in the Dry Creek, Russian and Alexander Valleys. Several winery visits are on the itinerary of the two-day "Short Escape Luxury Tour", along with picnic lunches from the excellent Oakville Grocery, an overnight at the award-winning Grape Leaf Inn, and options for spa treatments.

Mastrianni said, "I spent twenty-five years in the bike business and raced on the pro circuit, touring in Europe. I even spent a year working as a bike messenger in NYC. One thing this experience taught me is that the secret to a wonderful ride is in the details--a clean, smooth running bike, a well-chosen route, the right attitude and a great lunch all add up to a fantastic day."

Having explored just about every bike trail in the Sonoma wine country, last summer my husband and I climbed on our bikes at the south end of the Silverado Trail in the Napa Valley and pedaled north below the high crags of the Vaca Mountains. Looking out across the seemingly endless carpets of vineyards and passing the golden columns of the Darioush wine estate and the French-American sparkling wine cellar, Mumm Napa Valley, we were reminded of when we had biked along the Loire River in the northwest of France between wineries and chateaux. After a leisurely thirty-mile ride, we ended up at the north end of the valley at Calistoga Spa Hot Springs where we floated in a hot mineral pool until we could hardly lift our heads or our wine glasses. Napa, Sonoma--it's a toss-up!

©Karen Misuraca; all rights reserved.