Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Forging a Wine Trail

Wine tasting in Napa and Sonoma Valley has become somewhat of a cliche, not because everyone does it, but because of how they do it. Drive to a vineyard, taste any number of reds or whites, contemplate why they taste different, then jump back in the car, head to another vineyard, and repeat. It has become monotonous, and potentially dangerous depending on how much you actually drink. I have never gone wine tasting in Northern California--though I am dying to go--but I read an interesting story about a guy who decided to switch things up on his wine tasting experience, exploring each vineyard by foot.

Daniel Duane found that walking tours are much more popular in Europe, and he cannot see why. "There is no more meaningful way to connect with a place than by exploring it, literally, one step at a time," said Duane. So he set out to forge a new trail through Sonoma County, with a focus on its southeast corner. He initially wanted to explore Napa, but found it was not the ideal setting for walking. In Sonoma, near the base of the Carneros Hills, there are quiet lanes, bike paths and footpaths. Also, Sonoma's diverse landscape and geographic features made for a few more surprises in the wine selection. It is known for producing great chardonnays and pinot noirs, but it also can throw a few curveballs.

Duane made Les Petites Maisons, small rental cottages operated by a store called Sonoma's Best, his base for the trip due to its central location.

Since there are no designated walking routes between wineries, Duane had to create his own. In the days leading up to his trip, he spent hours looking over trail maps and satellite images from Google. In the end, he came up with two walking tours that never required him to walk further than 30 minutes between each stop.

The first stop was Ravenswood Winery, where he received a glass of gew├╝rztraminer upon arrival. (This is learned is a white wine grape that produces off-dry wines with flowery and passion fruit aromas, and is one of the few wines that goes well with Asian cuisine.) After a few other samples, Duane headed over to Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery, which took a little bit of backtracking and extra walking. This vineyard is one of the oldest in the United States, and was founded back in 1904. To Duane's disappointment--and mine,-- the area outside the cobblestone building was packed with tour buses, filled with all those tourists who decided to wine taste the typical way. After ordering a seven-wine sample, Duane headed down the Sonoma Bike Path, which conveniently ran past the winery. Along the route, he stumbled upon an organic farm called The Patch, a quaint treasure easily missed when driving in a car.

Duane's second day started at Buena Vista Carneros Winery, the first winery built west of the Mississippi. There he sampled a "silky" pinot noir and what he claims to be the best chardonnay of the whole trip. Since he was walking, he was able to take a small footpath--which someone at Les Petites Maisons had told him about--to his next destination, Bartholomew Park Winery. The path ran through a hidden garden , leading him through lawns with picnic tables and eventually to the door of the vineyard. As he sipped the winery's notable cabernet sauvignons, the owner told him all about the trails that surrounded the property. After departing his last winery, he found an old railway easement that weaved through tall pine trees to lead him right back to his cottage. A perfect little secret, just waiting to be found.

A walk through wine country can clearly yield tremendous benefits, including stumbling upon places one would have missed otherwise. I find it remarkable how much his tale of exploring Sonoma by foot is similar to wine tasting itself. We come across something, take a sip, and discover a wonderful array of flavors, aromas and textures. Sometimes it can be comforting, sometimes surprising, but it's always an adventure.

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