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StarTribune Travel: Sonoma produces a nice blend for travelers

  • May 10, 2014

In a world of wineries and natural beauty, Napa’s neighbor balances upscale and down-home vibes.

Keith Hall pulled a bottle out from under the sleek granite-top bar and carefully poured some dark red wine into my glass. Between sips of the hearty, peppery Ridge Lytton Springs blend, I looked out the floor-to-ceiling window at the lush vineyards from which the grapes came. Surveying the room’s sleek lines and light polished wood, I mentioned the contrast from my first visit there a decade earlier.

Instead of a trailer, we were ensconced in a sturdy, glistening, sustainably constructed building crowned with solar panels. Instead of free samples, I was paying $10 for an “estate, single-vineyard flight.”

“It’s quite a building, huh?” Hall said, who confessed that his winery sees a lot more tourists, including many who have opted for Sonoma over Napa. “But we’re still the same old Ridge, and the same old Sonoma. … We’re still country, and we’re still friendly.”

Hard to argue with that, and truth be known, the important stuff was the same as it ever was: stylishly simple labels, the Optima font entering its fifth decade, and gnarly zinfandel vines a few feet away, some of them 125 years old.

Unlike their counterparts to the south and east of county seat Santa Rosa, the folks in this part of Sonoma County harbor a fierce desire not to become “Napa-ized.” They’re trying to steer away from their eastern neighbor’s ritzy glitz, to balance the yin of luring wine-country visitors with the yang of retaining farm-country roots.

And they’re succeeding by balancing contemporary and down-home. Over the years, the wide swath of Sonoma to the west and the north of Santa Rosa has dipped its toe in both worlds and landed squarely in Eclectic Land, chichi here and pastoral there.

In other words, it has something for everyone — and everything for someone like me. The food, wine and lodgings come in all cultural shapes and monetary sizes.

For every polished, fit-for-a-queen tour at the chateaulike Jordan winery, there’s a homey tasting at Unti (both appointment only), not to mention a nonstop party at Coppola, complete with Francis Ford Coppola’s movie memorabilia.

For every refined restaurant like the Farmhouse Inn, there’s a stellar small-plate sanctuary like Willi’s Wine Bar, not to mention a thoroughly lived-in pub like the Underwood Bar & Bistro, a winemakers’ hangout

There are hoity-toity hotels such as Les Mars in Healdsburg, but also a nearby Best Western for us hoi polloi, not to mention a wonderfully austere, way-off-the-grid cabin at River’s End in Jenner.

And for every upscale Oakville Grocery (a Napa outpost), there’s a fresh-foodstuffs mecca like Andy’s Market and Jimtown Store, a quirk place dispensing bubble-gum cigars and amazing spicy olive salad.

The scenery is every bit as varied as the brick-and-mortar offerings, replete with woods and waters, or stunning cliffs and more waters, or rolling hills and dales.

On our last visit, my wife and I headed south from Jenner on Hwy. 1, stopping at a beach where the Russian River meanders into the Pacific and signs warning “Do not pick up the seals” dot the sandscape.

Since there’s little to see or do in Bodega Bay, we headed inland on the Bodega Highway. After a few miles of verdant dairyland, we slowed so as not to miss the turn to a local landmark.

“Oops, passed it,” Sandy and I said in unison before turning around to get a longer glimpse of the church and school that were indelible parts of Hitchcock’s classic “The Birds” (most of which was filmed in this area).

Driving and not drinking

The roads around Guerneville and Monte Rio wind through old woods galore, with often haunting vistas thanks to the fog rolling up the Russian River. Make time for a hike in Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve, to stretch your legs and your mind amid ancient giants.

And feel free to try to find the Bohemian Grove, where for decades the rich and powerful (including several U.S. presidents and the 1942 Manhattan Project scientists) have held a two-week retreat every summer, burned a wooden coffin under a 40-foot owl sculpture and, according to a 1989 Spy magazine article, “pee wherever they like.” Their motto: “Weaving spiders come not here.” As we seemed to get close, uniformed constabulary marched our way at least somewhat menacingly.

U-turn time.

Just as pastoral is West Dry Creek Road, which has no shoulders and wends its way through weathered vineyards planted with some of the world’s oldest and best zinfandel grapes. Many of the wineries there have prime picnic spaces with stunning vistas.

At the north end of that road, Anoka native Andy Cutter lives and makes his Duxoup (yes, pronounced “duck soup”) wines. Cutter has been there for more than three decades, keeping the operation small enough for most of the work to be done by him and his wife, Deb (there’s no tasting room). They have resisted following some of their neighbors in selling out to gazillionaires, who generally pull out the zin vines and plant cabernet sauvignon.

“There is so much money sloshing around,” said Cutter, a tall, bearded man whose well-worn smile lines and frequent cackles belie his somewhat Bunyan-esque countenance. “For some unexplainable reason, either Bernie Madoff logic or romance of the wine, tons of loot is being poured into wine schemes.”

Still, in the Dry Creek and Alexander Valleys, one sees endless signs for multigenerational Italian families (Pedroncelli, Seghesio, Teldeschi, Rafanelli), and a scant few for nouveau vintners. The men and women on the tractors are more likely to have been born on this land than to be working for some latter-day Oliver Wendell Douglas, the city slicker turned farmer in “Green Acres.”

More character and characters

The changes in northern and western Sonoma, then, have been incremental and subtle.

More wineries charge tasting fees, but they’re still generally nominal and are usually waived if you buy a bottle or three. New multipurpose food and wine buildings — the Shed in Healdsburg, Barlow in Sebastopol — have taken root. But they’re paragons of Wine Country casual chic, more inviting than imposing, with stands of insanely fresh produce and breads next door to superb winery tasting rooms such as Wind Gap, La Follette and MacPhail.

Healdsburg, for decades known as the “buckle of the prune belt,” has gotten ever more gentrified, especially in and around its still-charming town square, but retains its easygoing pace. Smithsonian magazine recently listed it second among America’s top small towns (15,000 and under), and it’s a perennial in Fodor’s “top 10 small towns” listings.

In much of this bailiwick, though, little has changed. Cranky aging hippies look suspiciously at strangers in Cazadero. A bartender at River End was telling us about a place in tiny Valley Ford with a wonderful name: Rocker Oysterfeller’s. “If you go,” he said, “you might not want to talk too much politics, especially if you’re a Republican.”

Along the western leg of the Russian River, gay-friendly Guerneville and Monte Rio could pass for mid-20th-century towns, complete with five-and-dimes. They’re packed with small houses that generally are occupied in the festival-happy summers and available for rent in the winter, a fabulous salve for anyone who gets cabin fever (and for those of us who love the cabin experience without the hassle of owning one).

Several years back, we rented a house with a tree growing up the middle of it and a hot tub in the front yard that once had been part of a Jesuit enclave. I can’t imagine that it gets any more California than that.

Upon departing, sated beyond words, we drove past a block-wide, overhanging sign that appeared to date to WPA days. It reads: “Monte Rio awaits your return.”

Not as much as we do