Thursday, May 30, 2013

Sonoma Road Trip: The Alexander Valley


 If you're based in Healdsburg and want to take a scenic day drive, the Alexander Valley is a good bet. It's not touristy at all, the driving is easy and you'll see the best of rural Sonoma County. And of course, there are plenty of tasting and shopping opps along the way.

     Treat yourself to breakfast at Costeaux Bakery (417 Healdsburg Ave., (707) 433-1913) in Healdsburg, and then start your drive traveling north along Healdsburg Avenue. After passing Simi Winery, turn right onto Highway 128, aka Alexander Valley Road. About a mile down the road, you'll see the gates to Jordan Winery on the right. Continuing on, you'll cross over the Russian River and the valley opens up to gorgeous views of rambling vines.
     At the first and only stop sign in the Alexander Valley, you can turn left to follow 128 to Geyserville, but should keep going straight to Jimtown. Jimtown once had a post office and legal identity, but is now just a modern general store. It's a perfect stop for lunch or picnic supplies; try the baked egg sandwich and bread pudding. If your name happens to be "Jim", sign the shop's autograph hound and become part of Jimtown's legend.
     On down the road past Jimtown, you'll come to another fork; take a right (hwy 128) and drive along the valley, where you'll see Hanna and FieldStone wineries. Hanna has won lots of awards at the local Harvest Fair and FieldStone (dug into a hill and constructed of old stone, duh) is a good place to eat that picnic from Jimtown.
     Keep driving along Route 128, around another bend, and bear right onto Chalk Hill Road. Beware of bikers (the lycra-wearing pedalers) on this route. Soon, you'll see the fancy stucco columns and entrance to Lancaster Estate winery (tours by appointment). At the top of the second big hill, look for the whitish volcanic rock that gives "Chalk" Hill Valley its name, and of course, its distinctive white wines. The largest and most famous winery, Chalk Hill, produces award winning wine season after season.
     On Chalk Hill Road, head back to Jimtown to continue the journey. From Jimtown, the scenic option to Geyserville is on Red Vinery Road. If you're pressed for time, take 128 instead, which will lead you past River Rock Casino (pass quickly) and into Geyserville.
     If you choose a western route out of Healdsburg, don’t miss Hop Kiln, located on Healdsburg’s Westside Road (#6050, 707/433-6491) in the heart of the Russian River Valley. Hop Kiln is not only one of the area’s most picturesque wineries, but also produces some of the county’s best wines.   There is a much photographed building, famous in many architectural magazines and a landmark for in-the-know- design freaks. Inside, the tasting room is as wide open as a bard, and filled with not only wines, but zillions of specialty goods and gourmet foods. Hop Kiln is famous for their Zinfandel infused mustard and the gif balsamic vinegar is thick and sensational.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Sonoma Road Trip: Bohemian Rhapsody

     The Bohemian Highway is a 10 mile scenic drive connecting Highway 12 with Highway 116 in Sonoma Valley. If you're not planning to drive all the way to Bodega Bay on the coast, this is your route north.
     From Hwy 12, turn right onto The Bohemian Highway, where you'll immediately come to tiny town of Freestone. Don't blink or you'll miss it. First up on the right will be Freestone Winery (at the corner of El Camino Bodega, 707/ 974-1010), where there's a guest center and tasting room offering Pinot Noir and Chardonnay pours.
     Onward, the Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary (209 Bohemian Hwy., 707/823-8231) is located on the right side of the highway. If you're traveling through the nippy Sonoma fog, this is a good pit stop. Book their signature cedar enzyme bath and collapse into a warm bed of softly ground evergreens, known for boosting metabolism and circulation.
     Continue on to Monte Rio, which lies at the intersection of the Bohemian Highway and Highway 116. You’ll pass Bohemian Grove, a 2700 acre Redwood forest where one of the most important annual events in the world takes place.
     It's the ultimate VIP boys' club. You can't buy your way in, and you probably won't be invited.  Bohemian Grove, an annual two-week camp in the redwood forests near Monte Rio, attracts some very elite and surprising campers for male bonding, bizarre rituals, and serious political and business discussions. Every July, the guys meet, wearing Halloween appropriate costumes, to conduct secret meetings and indulge in male fantasy behavior. Staff members are sworn to secrecy and People magazine isn't allowed.
     The very private Bohemian Club has been in existence for almost 150 years and boasts members from the upper echelons of the business and political world.  All Republican presidents since 1923, a few Democratic presidents, and many cabinet members have all been members of the Club. Corporate CEO's, including leaders of the Federal Reserve, major financial institutions, military contractors, and the national media have representatives in the highest levels of the organization.  There are even a few entertainment celebrities that belong to the group.  Big names, such as George Bush, Sr., George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Henry Kissinger, Walter Cronkite, Colin Powell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, William F. Buckley, David Rockefeller, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld have been Bohemian Club members and attendees of the Bohemian Grove summer camp.
     What exactly happens at this summer getaway? There's the bizarre ritual of the Cremation of Care ceremony where the boys dress up in red robes and hoods around a giant Owl statue that is voiced by none other than the late Walter Cronkite.  It's a ceremony that symbolizes the secrecy of the meeting and that everyone is free to do as they like during the two weeks without fear of getting caught.
     There's also serious networking and important negotiations taking place among these powerful guys. Supposedly, The Manhattan Project was discussed and enacted at the Grove in 1942 - ever hear of the Atomic Bomb?
    For the rest of us, the quaint little hamlet of Monte Rio is a family-friendly vacation destination in itself. The main attraction is the Russian River, where Monte Rio Beach offers a children’s swimming area, canoe and kayak rentals, and old fashion concession stand. There's even a dog-friendly section of the beach for your 'River Rover'. In summer months, the river is gentle and warm. There's a big celebration, the Monte Rio Water Carnival, held over the fourth of July, where a 'water -curtain' of the US flag flows from the bridge, followed by fireworks.
    At Monte Rio, you connect to Hwy 116 - go west to the coast, east to Guerneville and Forestville.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Sonoma Road Trip: Apples and Antiques on the Gravenstein Highway

       I'm fortunate to live in Marin County, just a short drive from the vines of Sonoma and Napa Valleys. While most people head to the wine country to visit the wineries (duh), I go to shop. There are so many great places to visit and I hope you'll enjoy this series of Sonoma Valley road trips. 
      This detour off of Highway 101N is one of my favorite drives, a farm trail route I always take when heading north to Sonoma County from the Bay Area. There are lotsa apple orchards along the way, hence the name Gravenstein Highway, and most sell fruit, homemade jams and pies at roadside stands during apple season. There are also honey farms, Christmas trees, and two fabulous antique collectives.  And that farm offering free horse manure? Now that’s hospitality.
     From Highway 101N, take the Highway 116 W exit at Cotati. You're now on the Gravenstein Highway, headed towards Sebastopol.    Pick up a copy of Sonoma County Farm Trails Map & Guide at your first stop. It's free and has detailed maps with listings of farm stands, farmers' markets, and even recipes.
     On the right, you'll quickly come to Llano House Antiques (4353 Gravenstein Hwy S, 707/829-9322), a little red antiques cottage specializing in American glassware including Depression Glass.
    Further along this road, also on the right, pull into FFT Antiques (2701 Old Gravenstein Hwy S,  707/823-3101) This 3,000 square foot collective has well priced goods, mostly 20th century Americana. I found a beautiful oil painting by an unknown artist here for $50; an antique dealer from the east coast offered to buy it for $650. No thanks.  I love it and it hangs on my bedroom wall. All sales from FFT benefit Food for Thought, Sonoma County AIDS Bank.
     Next time you come over for a glass of wine, please check out the two matching antique French tables, which I bought for $20 each at Antique Society (2661 Old Gravenstein Highway,  707/829-1733), located across the street from FFT. This collective is larger than FFT and has European goods as well as American antiques.
     After your antiques adventures, look for Bassignani Nursery (1841 Old Gravenstein Hwy S, 707/823-3984) and Beekind Honey Shop and Apiary (921 Old Gravenstein Highway S, 707 824/2905), both on the righthand side of the road. Bassignani is a one-stop shop for gardening gadgets and gifts and at Beekind, you'll find honey, lotions, and soaps alongside their award winning beeswax candles.
     Take some time for local shopping in Sebastopol before taking to the road again. Sebastopol's Main Street is home to the kind of friendly merchants who are usually only found in small towns. The residents are welcoming, if a bit quirky; most could easily be at home in Berkeley and some still brag of attending the Woodstock festival in 1969. Power to the people.
     Just west of Main Street, you'll find Florence Avenue, a three-block stretch of local landscape art. Most lawns feature sculpture by local artist, Patrick Amiot. Quirky and colorful, the pieces are made entirely from recycled goods, or as some say - junk! Mermaid scales are made from tin can lids and old clocks have become eyeballs. A waitress' tray holds pasta made from chain links and springs and an old wall heater doubles as a tractor. This is local color at its best.
                Now it’s decision time. From Sebastopol, you can head east/north on hwy 12 toward Santa Rosa or continue on the Gravenstein Highway to Graton. I recommend the latter, as you'll pass several apple vendors including Mom's Apple Pies (4550 Gravenstein Hwy N, 707/823-2330) where, in season, you can choose from more than 15 varieties of apple pie and a dozen or so made from other fruits. Foxglove Farms (5280 Gravenstein Hwy N, 707/887-2759), is next, followed by my favorite stop - Kozlowski Farms (5566 Gravenstein Nwy N, 707/887-1587; I shop Kozlowski for their homemade jams, jellies and fruit pies, which are available fresh or frozen.
     Another must-stop is Andy's Market (1691 Gravenstein Hwy N, 707/823-8661), a huge roadside produce store. The goods are fresh-from-the-soil and prices are less than local outdoor markets.
     Now, take it slow or you may miss your next stop. Graton, a tiny one street town with only about 700 households, is an enclave of artists, musicians, writers, teachers and other creative types. Some are new in town, some have been there for decades, but all support Graton's strong sense of community. A former air raid siren enthusiastically announces each day's noon arrival, courtesy of the fire department. Graton may be small in size, but its main street (with only two stop signs) is well worth a stop.
      Now, from Graton, backtrack to Sebastopol, head east on hwy 12 toward Santa Rosa and on to the Sonoma Valley. After leaving Sebastopol, you'll pass Willie Bird Turkey (5350 Hwy 12, 707/545-2832; where you can buy picnic fare as well as holiday fowl including organic turkey, duck, and chicken. I once ate something called a turducken which is a New Orleans specialty. It has layers of turkey, duck and chicken rolled into a big roast and is one of the worst dishes I've ever tasted. But that's another story and another road trip.