Sherman's Travel Magazine
Laurel Delp, April 2008
In 1824, Franciscan monks kicked off winemaking in the area by planting the first grapes in Sonoma. Now founding fathers with names like Krug, Niebaum, Schram and Beringer live on in a time when women have become equally influential in the busiuness. After being devastated by Prohibition, the wine industry began rebuilding in the 1960s as a new group of vinters set out to createworld-class wines when wine was not regularly consumed in the U.S. that's changed, of course, and these pioneers were vindicated in a famous blind tasting in Paris in 1976, when two Napa wines - chateau Montelena's chardonnay and Stag's Leap Wine Cellars' cabernet sauvignon - triumphed over French entries.
Today, the region has also become known for its pinot noirs and zinfandels, along with the environments in which you can experience them: everything from imposing chateaux to daring modern architecture, complete with art collections, in-house restaurants, and striking gardens and grounds. Big-name vinters and small-production cult wineries are thriving; hotels and resorts that are the last work in luxury share space with charming B&Bs; and top-flight restaurants showcase fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Organic wines are no longer considered quaint, since enriching the soil naturally can produce grapes that make some monumentally good wines. You can bike, hike, river kayak even ride in hot air balloons -- and detox in spas ranging from cheap and cheerful to super high-end.
When you get to Mendocino, another huge county, you'll notice that things move more slowly here. With massive redwood forests, miles of agricultural countryside, and a dramatic rocky coastline, outdoor activities like river kayaking and mountain biking are a natural. The vineyards are mostly in the south, around Ukiah and in the isolated Anderson Valley, which many say mirrors the Napa of the 1960s. You can take the 101 north from Sonoma into the Ukiah area, a beaufitul drive through ranches and vineyards, or take even more beautiful Route 128, a country road that winds through vineyards into the Anderson Valley, where sleepy Boonville is the main town. The valley, now a mass of vineyards, was not so long ago home to lumberjacks, hippies and old-timers who spoke "boontling" a local lingo designed to confound outsiders.
In Boonville, stay at the old west-flavored Boonville Hotel, where owner John Schmitt is the restaurant chef and the 10 rooms have elegant wood decor (from $125; boonvillehotel.com). Up the road in tiny Philo, Schmitt-family dominance continues at Apple Farm, a farmstand (featuring fresh cider and preserves) and a weekend cooking school run by John's parents along with their daughter Karen (philoapplefarm.com). Mexican restaurant Libby's, also in Philo is crammed with locals who go into mourning when it closes for a month each winter (707-895-2646). Take in the beautiful grounds and champenoise-style sparkling wines of Roederer Estate, the French company that produces Cristal (roederestate.net), or the vine-covered terrace at Handley Cellars (handleycellars.com), where the tasting room is filled with exotic craft items. Both wineries are outside Philo on 128, which, if you drive northwest along it, becomes surrounded by redwoods and then, suddenly, opens onto the coast, where waves pound into driftwood-filled coves.
In windspept Mendocino, perched on cliffs over the water, wander in the streets on foot among art galleries and shops selling art glass, jewelry, and clothing. Stop at the Moosse Cafe (theblueheron.com) for a delicious lunch and a great view, or have a bistro-style dinner near the hearth at Cafe Beaujolais (cafebeaujolais.com).
Sometimes a touristy expedition is popular for a reason. The hokey Skunk Train leaves from Fort Bragg, chugging through redwoods and spectacular mountain gorges. The round trip covers 40 miles in a worthwhile three hours ($47; skunktrain.com).