Magazine article Sunset

Sonoma County Rambles

Magazine article Sunset

Sonoma County Rambles

Article excerpt

Three country drives that lead you to the region's best meals, produce, and wine

* A red tractor chugs along the crest of tawny hills speckled with sheep and black-faced goats. Bins overflowing with red peppers and fat tomatoes line produce stands along the byways. Curving country roads descend into lush valleys.

Sonoma is often compared to its showier neighbor, the Napa Valley. Both areas produce outstanding wines. But where Napa is spotless Jeep Cherokees and tony shops, Sonoma is pickup trucks and country stores. Like Debbie Reynolds in Tammy and the Bachelor, Sonoma is wholesome, down-to-earth, and more than a little bit country.

As it has been for a long time. The state's first premium winery, Buena Vista, opened here in 1857. Jack London built his Beauty Ranch here in 1904, startling his neighbors by growing grapes as well as raising cattle. Today, Sonoma's 505,000 agricultural acres yield products so choice that well-known chefs from all over the San Francisco Bay Area flock here to select supplies: free-range poultry, unique cheeses, succulent greens, and baby vegetables.

One reason for this bounty is Sonoma's varied topography and microclimates, which range from a misty, redwood-shaded river basin to dry, oak-studded hills. Between the Coast Range and the Mayacmas Mountains lie the most productive valleys - Russian River, Dry Creek, Alexander, and Sonoma.

Three driving tours give you a good sense of them: from Sonoma into the Valley of the Moon (Sonoma Valley); from Santa Rosa into the Russian River Valley; and from Healdsburg into the Dry Creek Valley.

Valley of the Moon

We start our tour at the Mexican-style plaza in the town of Sonoma. At the Sonoma Mission (part of Sonoma State Historic Park), plantings of agave, grape, and pomegranate hint at the food and medicinal plants the Spanish padres cultivated. Elbowing into the busy Sonoma Cheese Factory, we pick up picnic supplies.

Heading north on Arnold Drive and up the Valley of the Moon, we move through a tunnel of flame-colored maples and liquidambars before stopping at the Benziger Family Winery in Glen Ellen for a fascinating and comprehensive tour. Our guide, Michael, stands before a backdrop of rolling vineyards and the rock-candy peak of Sonoma Mountain. "Volcanic forces created the undulating landscape you see. And the different soils it gives us - red to black - is like having a spice rack for the grapes."

Jack London certainly would have agreed, having grown grapes on his own farm just up the road. Now a 1,500-acre state historic park has opened much of the author's Beauty Ranch to the public, including the tall concrete silos and the pig palace - an imposing brick structure.

As we roll down into Glen Ellen, the town appears little changed from London's era, with its Victorian homes and stone buildings. We prowl among the dusty volumes at the Jack London Bookstore, admire the elegant foodstuffs at Lesley B. Fay Fine Foods of Sonoma, and sip through the Glen Ellen Winery's tasting room and museum. But it's the massive old grinding wheel in front of a converted winery on Arnold Drive that captivates us.

"This is the way olives were pressed for centuries," says Ed Stolman, standing by the 3-ton granite pressing wheel in front of his shop, the Olive Press. A trip to France and Italy infused him with a passion for olive oil. Returning to Sonoma, he built a Tuscan-style villa, planted 2,400 olive trees, and opened this shop and oil-pressing facility.

As we wind along State 12 to Kenwood, then backtrack to return to Sonoma, we can't resist stopping at more tasting rooms - Kunde Estate Winery and Kenwood Vineyards are highlights - and stocking up at the produce stands.

DRIVE HIGHLIGHTS

Benziger Family Winery. 10-5 daily. 1883 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen; (707) 935-3000.

Glen Ellen Winery Tasting Room. 10-5 daily. 14301 Arnold Dr., Glen Ellen; 939-6277. …

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