Sonoma Wine Country Trip

Note:  This post about our Sonoma Wine Country trip is dedicated to Rosie G., who made our trip so much more memorable.  Thank you, Rosie, for your time and generosity.  You are amazing.

A Ladies only bucket list experience

Heading to California for a Sonoma wine country trip has always been a dream of mine since I started to enjoy drinking wine decades ago.  As time progressed and we traveled more, I learned more about wine, and my taste for various wines expanded.  Ultimately, I set a goal to take a girl’s trip with fellow wine aficionado wannabe’s and enjoy a few days touring the area, tasting the wines, and having fun.

Luckily, my close cousin, Vicki, loves wine as much as I do and agreed to go on this trip with me.  For good measure, we invited another wine-loving friend, Suellen, to go with us. So the three wine musketeers planned for our trip.

Covid was getting under control, and we were all vaccinated, so we planned the trip for the third week in October 2022.  After some research, we decided to get a VRBO for four nights in Santa Rosa, which was centrally located in Napa, Sonoma, and the Russian River Valley.  The three-bed-three-bath home was perfect for us.  We had enough space to spread out, do our own thing, and have breakfasts and other meals at the house.  In addition, the VRBO made the trip more comfortable and affordable as we split the cost of the VRBO.  This left more budget to spend on wine!

We arrived Thursday evening at SFO, grabbed our rental car, and headed north to wine country.  Unfortunately, we hit heavy Friday night traffic, so it took us almost three hours to get to Santa Rosa.  After a quick stop at a Santa Rosa market for provisions, we headed to the house for a light dinner and to settle in.

 Sonoma Wine Country Trip with Platypus Tours:

Friday, our first full day, started with a Platypus wine tour through Sonoma, which we had researched and booked ahead of time.  There are many wine tour options available in Sonoma, from private cars or limos to motorcycle scooters with sidecars and trolleys.  We decided on Platypus because they had excellent reviews, small groups, and comfortable vans with plenty of room.

It turned out we were delighted with our choice.  The tour guide and van picked us up from a nearby hotel in Santa Rosa, about 10 minutes from our rental.  The van could accommodate up to 25 guests, so the 15 of us on tour were very comfortable.  In addition, the seats faced each other, encouraging interaction between fellow wine enthusiasts.  The guide had lived in the area for over 30 years and worked in the business on and off for many of those years.  He was highly knowledgeable, well-prepared, and fun.

Our guide explained we would tour three small wineries explicitly picked because they are good representations of the area and the variety of grapes and wines produced.  Most of the wineries in the area are small boutique growers and wine producers.  He provided several copies of a notebook covering everything we wanted to know about wine growing and tasting in the area. Our education began as soon as we left the parking lot, and the guide referenced the book many times.  We learned about the land, the micro-climates, the varieties of grapes, and the history and growth of the area.  It was all fascinating and presented in a fun, exciting way.  Our ride provided a chance to learn a lot while also getting to know the other people on tour from all over the US.

Where’s the wine?

Vicki and Suellen at J Rickards Winery

Our first stop was J. Rickards Winery in the Alexander Valley of Sanoma County.  Jim and his wife have been producing wine since 2005 after deciding cattle ranching was not their thing.  Jim was there to give us the tour providing a rich history of his life on the land, his eco-sustainable home, and his very cool wine cellar.

The tour started as we stepped off the bus and were greeted by a young man handing out taster glasses of their 2021 crisp and light Viognier—hmm, delicious – great start.  Next, we were encouraged to look around the estate with its beautiful rolling terraced hills of grapes vines, take pictures, and assemble near the barn, where we found a couple of long hand-carved wood tables to continue our wine tasting.

The Beginning:

Jim came out, introduced himself, and began telling his tale of how he came to the area and started growing grapes, built his home, which was 100 yards away, and his very impressive wine cellar.  After we finished the Viognier, they brought out new glasses and poured their signature 2021 Zinfandel.  He told us about the grapes, the old and more recent vines on the property, and a little of his magic in how they pick their grapes and make their wines.  Jim taught us how to properly taste wine by first sniffing the wine and then swirling the wine experiencing the change in aromas. After it was aerated a bit, he explained how to properly taste it using all parts of our mouth to ensure we could pick out the various flavors offered by each wine.

 Kindly warning:

Before bringing out the next wine, he smartly taught us how to taste and not guzzle the wine we tried during our full-day tour, warning us we would be tasting many wines throughout the day.  His advice was to take small sips and slowly savor the flavors.  Then, take another glass of the wines you like, and pour the rest of the others into the waste bucket.  He said everyone’s palate was different, and we shouldn’t expect to love every wine we tasted except his.  Since I was the driver after the tour, I carefully took his advice.

 The dilemma:

The next wine they brought out was a delightful Sauvignon Blanc.  Ok – I immediately identified a problem.  Three wines – three winners; how would we get all this wine home?  Luckily the answer was provided quickly.  They would happily ship any number of wines directly home for us or box them up to take them safely back on the plane. Phew!  Oh, and by the way, these wineries all can stay in business by selling wines through their wine clubs.  They don’t produce enough wine to be distributed nationally through the distributors, so local sales, wine club orders,  and affiliations with various tour groups are their ticket to sustainability.

 The Cave: 

Jim then brought us into and told us about his unique geothermal wine cellar, the cave, where he stores his wine for aging in carefully selected and The Cave at J Rickards winerysourced barrels.  The cave is an eco-friendly geothermal facility built into the land to store and age their wines.  You can view a video of the cave and other interesting information about J Rickards.  The brief explanation is that Jim put his engineering knowledge to work and built a unique cement horseshoe-shaped facility into the hillside, letting the natural cooling of the earth and the open ends allow air to flow freely with the help of large fans through the cave.  This design maintains the perfect constant temperature to age and stores the wines.

We learned how they source barrels and the importance of different types of wood from various trees worldwide.  It was all fascinating and a great start to the day.  Jim was a delight, and we all felt we had gotten special treatment as he gave us the tour personally with the help of his wine-pouring assistants.

 Last stop at J Rickards…:

..was the gift shop where we would pay for the wine tasting, typically $20, or buy a bottle or two of wine, and the tasting fee would be waived.  All three of us purchased wine.  One of us had a ½ case sent home, and the other two brought two bottles each back to the house.  Oh boy, we had two more wineries to go to just on the first day.   No worries – our guide had the answer with wine boxes to take with us to either ship or bring home on the plane. It turned out to be a significant investment of $10, and we were thrilled to have them.

Note: Our guide told us not to tape the boxes shut before we got to the airport.  The baggage claim personnel would want to inspect them.  That advice turned out to be wrong.  The baggage claim guy happily sealed the box for us but told us our information was outdated and incorrect. So tape your boxes shut before arriving at the airport.

 Up Next:

Mill Creeck Winery

Our second stop was Mill Creek Winery in the Dry Creek area of Sanoma county.  The Kreck family owned and established the winery in 1965 when the first grapes were planted.  The Mill Creek tasting room is in a beautiful wooden building with a water wheel and mill pond.  Picnic tables were scattered throughout their tiered patios around the mill pond and tasting building.  This was the perfect place for our delicious box lunch by Platypus.  I realize that delicious and boxed lunches don’t usually go together, but this was the exception.  Since Covid, they have switched from excellent buffet lunches to box lunches.  We were delighted with what was provided.  The folks at Mill Creek greeted us and poured an excellent dry Rose with lunch.

When we were finished eating, Jeremy Kreck, the winemaker and manager gave us an overview of the production and Vicki at the Mill Pondhistory of Mill Creek, which was similar to J. Richards.  As he talked, we were offered tastes of their signature chardonnay (my favorite), Cabernet Sauvignon, and Heathers Cuvee, a red blend named after one of the family members.  All wines seemed excellent, but we were now on our 7th or 8th wine tasting of the day.

After finishing up at the winery store and purchasing the wines we wanted, we strolled around, took some pictures, and viewed the vast expanses of vineyards visible from Mill Creek.

 Last but not least:

Desmond Wines PatioWe loaded up into the van and headed to our final stop.  Desmond Winery was the smallest we visited for the day.  Bill and Danette Robbins, the owners, provided our wine tastings with cheese and crackers on their covered patio. Bill told his story about how they started to grow Pinot Noir grapes.  He had great land and climate, so with the help of a vine expert who picked out the original three varietals, he was in business.  Years later, he transitioned from a grower to a producer with the help of other local winemakers.  Their specialty is a fabulous Pinot Noir, my favorite wine.  This Pinot was a big step above anything I had previously, as was the price, but well worth it.  We bought several bottles of wine and admired their 1953 ford pickup, which he fully restored before returning to the van.

Our guide took us back to our drop-off spot in Santa Rosa at about 4:30 PM.  We thanked him, tipped him, and headed to our car.  I was glad I had listened to Jim and was careful about drinking too much wine during the day. We were tired and happy to return to the house to collapse before dinner.

We headed out for a delicious Italian Dinner at Lococo’s Cucina Rustica in Santa Rosa, recommended by the tour guide.  The restaurant was very crowded, and even with reservations, we had to wait about 15 minutes before being seated. However, our dinners were delicious and well worth the wait.

 Day 2:  A trip to the coast:

Mouth of the Russian River

We all wanted to head to the beach for a drive along Highway 1 to explore.  So, with the help of Google Maps, we headed west along the Russian River to the coastal town of Jenner.  The drive was terrific, passing many different wineries, a redwood forest, and several cute towns and bridges that took us back a few decades.

 The Russians were here:

The Russian River empties into the Pacific, where the town of Jenner is located.  Jenner is a cute quintessential beach town favorite for many in the summer.  The views were stunning.  After stopping for a few quick pictures, we headed north for a winding drive along the cliffs for about 45 minutes.  We found Ft. Ross - Russian Settlementourselves at an 1812 Russian settlement called Ft. Ross.  Stopping to use the restrooms, we discovered an interesting mini-museum about Ft. Ross and its people.  The Forts structures were still in tack on the grounds, and we stretched our legs by walking through the small redwood cluster to the main buildings of the fort and out to the cliffs overlooking the Pacific.  If you find yourself in the area, you’ll probably agree it is a great spot to stretch your legs and learn how the natives and Russian settlers cohabitated peacefully.

A lunch surprise:

While heading back south towards Jenner, our stomachs began grumbling.   Finally, I remembered what looked like an interesting restaurant right at the mouth of the river, which appeared to hang over the cliffs.  I decided to pull in if there was a spot.  Luckily there was a parking spot in front, and I sent Vicki and Suellen to check out the menu.  They came out with a thumbs-up, and we headed in.

Lunch at Rivers EndWow – what a find!!!!   The River’s End restaurant and Lodge is a one-of-a-kind special place.  We were seated at a clothed table on a fully enclosed glass terrace overlooking the mouth of the river and the Pacific.  The room, indeed, was hanging off the cliff.  If the food was as good as the view, we were in for a big treat – and we were.  The super friendly and professional waitress took our drink orders and told us a little about the spectacular menu.  Our eyes grew wide, and we ordered a sampling of too many things.  Oysters Epiphany on the half shell, homemade hot bread, Duck confit rolls, Clams Portuguese, great shrimp tacos, and more.  The food was some of the best any of us had experienced in our lives.  The sauces were excellent, and the presentation was beautiful.

It turns out that River’s End is a legend in the area and has been voted one of the top five most romantic places in California while winning many culinary awards.  Fortune was on our side that day, for sure.  We were hoping to get a good, quick burger someplace.  What a find.  I could go on for several paragraphs about how fantastic the waitress was, but you’re better off going and experiencing The Rivers End on your own.

Note:  After lunch, entertainment was provided by a few teenage girls taking pictures of and checking out the old phone booth outside the restaurant

Another day in paradise:

We woke on Sunday morning with a plan to head back to the coast, taking a route south of Jenner and ending up in Bodega Bay.  Bodega Bay is famous for whales, birds, and Alfred Hitchcock’s movie, “The Birds,” which was partially filmed there.  The house is now a museum and is open for tours.  However, we opted to skip that one.  The movie scared the hell out of me when I was a kid, and I did not want to relive it.

The Bodega Bay area offers stunning views, beautiful beaches, landscapes, and another quaint town.  We weren’t hungry, so we opted to stop at a few site-seeing spots and take pictures here and there along the coast.  It was windy and cool, but there were still beachcombers walking the beach and enjoying the fresh air.

We crossed a bridge heading back towards the Red Wood Forest we had spotted the previous day.  Upon arrival, it was crowded with hundreds of hikers setting out for a hike, so we hit the restroom and gift shop and headed out with a commitment to return on the next visit.

We were hungry, so we drove to the Famous Francis Ford Coppola Winery. This winery is famous because it was owned by Francis Ford Coppola, who had just sold it, but also for its movie memorabilia and pool.  The pool area(pictured below) is very large and has cabanas available for rent.  The concept is that people could come out in the hot summer months with their kids and spend the day swimming, relaxing, and drinking wine.  They’ll even provide babysitters to allow the adults to enter the restaurants and wine-tasting rooms.  Sounds like a great deal.  It was off-season and cool, so only a few people were at the pool.

We visited the museum area of the winery with some interesting movie props and then settled down at the bar for a casual lunch and, of course, some wine.  We opted for pizza, a few appetizers, and wine.  The bartender was friendly and provided tips for other restaurants in the area.

From Coppola’s, we drove through a few of the small Spanish-style towns and ended up in the old town square in Sonoma.  We walked around the town square, took a few photos, and returned to our place in Santa Rosa, which was a longer drive than we had planned.

Movie set designs at Coppola wines

A friend in the right place:

There is nothing better than having a nearby friend who knows the area and the wineries.  It turns out Suellen knew someone who lived in Santa Rosa.  She reached out to her to let her know we were in town, and wow, what good fortune.  Rosie is a member of several local wineries in the area and offered to take us on a personal wine tour on Monday.

We showed up at Rosie’s doorstep around 11 am, met her husband and dog, then headed out on our day’s journey.  Rosie even brought a picnic basket lunch for us because that’s what you’re supposed to do when visiting boutique wineries.

Truett-Hurst Wine Tasting MenuWe headed to Truett – Hurst Winery, a complete bio-sustainable working farm, vineyard, and winery.  Without Rosie, we would have never known to go to this wonderful winery.  It had a beautiful gift store and tasting room, but the best part was the outdoor patio where we had our wine tasting.  We tasted Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel. They all tasted great to us, and the best part was that I was not driving, so I could enjoy the wines a little more.  Rosie bought a bottle of chardonnay and invited us to follow her through the beautiful property gardens.

After a brief walk, we found ourselves between a bubbling river and a goat farm with the cutest goats.  The goats are part of their bio-sustainability plan.  The river was part of the Dry Creek Habitat Enhancement Project and rambled by with its tree-lined banks providing us with the perfect spot for our picnic lunch on the tables provided by the winery.  Rosie had called ahead to make reservations for the tasting and picnic tables.  Wow – what a great afternoon.  We didn’t have a care in the world.  Great place, with great food, wine, and most importantly, great friends.  It doesn’t get much better.

Onto the Witches Den:

The day was far from over.  After enjoying our lunch and buying more wine, Rosie took us to  the tasting room.  This tasting room is known for its frozen wine witches’ drinks.  Wow, did they go down fast!  They had a fun gift- shop, where I picked up a few wine glasses for my daughters.  Finally, we took more pictures and headed out to our last stop.

Ferrari Carano was the largest, classiest, and most spectacular of all the wineries we stopped at.  Rosie wanted us to see their beautiful gardens as we overlooked the landscape of endless vineyards.  We arrived at their extravagant Spanish-influenced building after walking through the gardens. Upon arrival, we were informed that the winery had Heading back after an awesome day. Ferrari Carano gardensrecently sold, and walk-ins were no longer welcome.  Reservations had to be made in advance.  We had had enough wine for the afternoon, so we headed back through the gardens a bit more and then onto Rosie’s house.  Rosie and her husband were such great people that we invited them to join us at a tapas restaurant they recommended in the area, and we had a blast getting to know them better.

Thank you, Rosie, for the wonderful afternoon you treated us to!  You made our trip better than we could have hoped for, and we now have the privilege of having you and your husband as friends.

Wow – what a trip! We’ll never forget the wonderful memories we made together.  Our four days were a perfect amount of time for us to explore.  I thought we would head to Napa on one of the days, but we decided not to because our guide explained the land was more expensive, so the wine was more expensive, and the tasting fees were more expensive. Up to $100 at some places.

I look forward to going back with my husband or daughters and possibly exploring Napa a bit and more of Sanoma county. Those redwoods are calling my name.

 

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