Sip and Cycle - It's the Only Way to Travel; California's Napa Valley May Be a Wine Lover's Paradise, but the Neighbouring Sonoma Valley Is Also a Great Place to Appreciate a Fine Tipple, Writes Jon Perks
Byline: Jon Perks 1
There are Californian winemakers who still shake their fist at the mere mention of Paul Giamatti's name.
It was his character, Miles Raymond, in Alexander Payne's fabulous comedy drama Sideways, who uttered the famous line that angered so many Napa Valley growers: "No, if anyone orders merlot, I'm leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing merlot!" Sales of merlot noticeably dropped both sides of the Atlantic, and they still furrow their brow at the mere mention of the film.
Happily for the folk in the neighbouring Sonoma Valley, they do so much more than merlot.
In Sonoma, 'zin' is in. That's zinfandel to you. That, pinot noir, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon ('cab sav') and some cinsault.
Sonoma is Napa's lesser-known little brother; quieter, less brash but no less impressive.
There are just as many vineyards in Sonoma where you can sip, slurp and spit - 400 and counting - with some beautiful rugged coastline, stunning scenery and interesting towns - including Bodega Bay, where Hitchcock shot The Birds - in between all those tastings.
Our journey to Sonoma, north on Route 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge out of San Francisco, took around two hours, to the quaintly quiet 'town' of Occidental, some 40 minutes south of Healdsburg, probably the centre of the area's wine industry and home to its fair share of wineries. Occidental itself little more than a single road with a few decent restaurants, pub, general store and the wonderfully relaxed and welcoming Inn at Occidental. Owned and run by Tina and Jerry Wolsborn, it's a secluded haven with characterful rooms (ours included a four-poster made from silver birch tree trunks), where there's always a pot of coffee on the go and every day at 5pm is cheese and wine on the patio. Marilyn, one of their cheery staff (she and chef Victoria appear permanently sunny and smiling) tours the verandah constantly topping up your glass. If you've not had your fill of reds and whites in the day, that is.
But if you have, you're on the wrong holiday.
The weather was uncharacteristically overcast on the morning of our 'Sip and Cycle' tour, but it didn't bother us or our guide Tom from Getaway Adventures.
As the name suggests, this is a two-wheeled tour of Sonoma's vineyards, sampling as you go, punctuated by a wonderful picnic and mile after mile of fields of vines. You'll usually start in Healdsburg, but Tom kindly met us in Occidental and first took us up the Coleman Valley Road which heads down to the coast. After a bracing ride to the sea, we next visited the Armstrong Redwoods, an area of stunning woodland saved from the axe by the eponymous conservationist, a former Civil War colonel. One of the trees, a 300ft tall specimen which dates back 1,400 years, bears his name in tribute.
But enough of redwoods - it was oak barrels we had come to seek out. While Sonoma Coast and Russian River are predominantly pinot noir and chardonnay growing regions thanks to the coastal fog and damp conditions, Dry Creek - our destination - favours zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon et al. …