It’s fall, grape-crushing’s under way and food’s on the table. Take a road trip (or two) to enjoy California’s bounty.
October makes us hungry. A snap in the air, fall colors brightening the trees, and pumpkins and butternut squashes remind us that the true feasting season is just a month away. Why not start a little early? Because nothing goes better with food than wine, we hit the road this month to explore a few wine regions we don’t get to often. We head northwest to Sonoma, and south to San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles, and make little journeys to Placer County and Livermore—a couple of smaller grape-growing regions with not a lot of marketing push, but plenty of food and wine to share. Bring your appetite, your designated driver and your open mind. There’s a lot to taste out there.
Bits of Sonoma County
The roads of inland Sonoma County are gorgeous, lined with verdant vineyards, and rolling hills and mountains. You could spend your entire tasting weekend in Sonoma proper, wandering around the plaza. You could do the same in Healdsburg, another small town farther north. Travel the roads between the two communities, exploring little shops, wineries big and small, and quaint towns, and you’ll have a fulfilling weekend no matter where you stop along the way.
The streets surrounding Sonoma’s 20th-century city hall, which anchors this square and remains in operation today, bustle with food and wine business. Even shops that seem to have nothing to do with wine invite tasters in to belly up to wine counters. Wander into Junipero & Co. to taste olive oil and smell French bath salts, or across the doorway into Tiddle E. Winks for an old-fashioned candy fix (candy sticks, giant lollies, Sugar Daddys, Pop Rocks, Necco
Wafers and the like), or down the street for wine and beef jerky at Sonoma-Enoteca. In a little courtyard behind The Plaza Bistro, taste 38, 61 and 72 percent chocolate discs at Wine Country Chocolates.
Eat—As an appetizer, nibble your way through the Sonoma Cheese Factory, where you can toothpick samples of Jack cheese in a variety of flavors, including garlic, pesto, Mediterranean (tastes like pizza), jalapeño (hot!) and lavender (tastes a little soapy). Lunch at the renowned The Girl & The Fig—the grilled fig and arugula salad tastes like wine country on a plate; follow that with pan-seared local halibut and you’ll be fueled up for the afternoon. For dinner, a little place on the southeastern side of the square packs them in: Cafe La Haye, where a daily risotto, a daily roast chicken and a daily fish special—and a daily soup—keep the menu interesting. Other dining options include The Plaza Bistro, El Dorado Kitchen, Sunflower Caffe, Harvest Moon Cafe, Maya Restaurant, Della Santina’s Trattoria or Taste of the Himalayas, where the vegetable curry is so aromatic it scents the whole courtyard.
Stay—At the contemporary El Dorado Hotel, 27 rooms invite guests to plop down on down-duvet-covered four-poster beds, lounge poolside or step through French doors onto balconies that overlook the plaza. For a more historic edge to your stay, reserve one of the six rooms at the Ledson Hotel, where antiques and individually lavish décor in each room make this a luxurious option.
On the Road: Wine Tasting
Take Highway 121 out of Sonoma and discover an unparalleled wine-tasting journey. The route rolls past such heavy hitters as Valley of the Moon Winery, BR Cohn, Benziger (take a tram to tour the barrel caves) and Gloria Ferrer, another cave stop. Highway 121, also known as Arnold Drive, winds through the little town of Glen Ellen, where you can almost imagine Jack London writing The Valley of the Moon, then out onto Highway 12, through Kenwood. Stay at the gorgeous Kenwood Inn and Spa, have dinner at Kenwood Restaurant (the mushroom ravioli—oh, my!) and stop in at Kunde Family Estate or Kenwood Vineyards before you continue on your ride to Healdsburg.
About 12 miles north of Santa Rosa on U.S. 101, Healdsburg draws visitors with its upscale plaza full of art galleries, wine-tasting rooms, restaurants and boutiques. Taste wine at plenty of trendy spots, including Baci Cafe & Wine Bar, Kendall Jackson Tasting Room, Stephen & Walker Cult Wines, Prohibition Speakeasy Wine Club, Vintage Wine Estates and Thumbprint Cellars, where the artisanal wines carry a novel thumbprint wine label.
Eat—The famous sticky buns and doughnut muffins at Downtown Bakery & Creamery taste best with a giant cup of coffee; start your day that way and maybe, just maybe, you’ll be ready for lunch or dinner at Healdsburg Bar & Grill, the Charlie Palmer Dry Creek Kitchen or Affronti (a lovely location off the main drag where ordering the fresh fish en papillote lets you open a steaming package of aromatic spices).
Stay—Get a room at the Four Sisters’ Healdsburg Inn on the Plaza, a boutique hotel built in 1901, and you’ll be right in the middle of the action. Many rooms come with gas fireplaces, jetted tubs and fluffy soft robes.
San Luis Obispo and Paso Robles and Beyond
About 4 ½ hours southwest of Sacramento,the cities of Paso Robles and San Luis Obispo, which sit just a few minutes from coastal beaches, beckon wine lovers and foodies with several wine-growing regions and lots of restaurants serving inventive cuisine. Paso Robles gained notoriety as a hotshot wine destination; San Luis Obispo, about 30 miles south, is a college town anchored by California Polytechnic State University. Drive out to Morro Bay (see the rock!) and Cayucos, a coastal community with a wide white-sand beach and a terrific restaurant called Hoppe’s Bistro & Wine Bar. Don’t drive past the Brown Butter Cookie Company without stopping in for a small, salty and sinful cookie.
Positioned along U.S. 101 inland from Cambria, Paso Robles’ quaint downtown surrounds a city park and draws visitors into its restaurants and tasting rooms. Meritage, Arroyo Robles and Edward Sellers have tasting rooms within sight of the park. Arroyo Robles is worth a visit just to check out the extensive gift and goodies inventory, including maple syrup and pancake mix.
Eat—Taste local extra virgin olive oil at Pasolivo, where you can learn how the oil is made and check out the olive press. The similarly named Panolivo restaurant is worth a stop for lunch. The crab cake salad or brie turkey panino will ready your belly for an afternoon of wine tasting; just don’t order the small burger unless you really want a small burger (slider size). For dinner, Bistro Laurent, with its six-course tasting menu, gives foodies a chance to try such niceties as warm lobster salad, smoked salmon tart, sautéed sea bass, sweetbreads (come on, give ’em a try), several cheeses and desserts.
Stay—Two wineries worth checking out for a night’s stay: Wild Coyote and Justin Winery. At Wild Coyote, stay in a Taos, New Mexico-style casita on the hillside overlooking the vineyards. Lavish, European-style suites keep guests cozy at Just Inn Bed & Breakfast at the Justin Winery.
SAN LUIS OBISPO
Bars, restaurants and tasting rooms pepper SLO’s downtown streets, and a short drive out of town takes visitors to the Edna Valley, where wineries are spread out on rural roads. Stop in to Talley Vineyards for a flight, then explore its tasting room’s shelves, well-stocked with wine-related merchandise. Follow the dirt road up to Wolff Vineyards, which affords one of the best views of the valley. At Edna Valley Vineyards, learn what’s what in the demonstration vineyard, then get inspired in the tasting room, where you can drink a little wine and page through some beautiful cookbooks.
Eat—Downtown SLO is where it’s at, foodwise. The cioppino at Ciopinot Seafood Grille will have you begging for more dunking bread, and the small plates at Palazzo Giuseppe make for a fun meal—try lamb lollipops, or a dish of corn, chard and bacon. Or splurge on a big bowl of housemade pasta. Across the street, at Koberl at Blue, the eclectic menu includes such variety as fresh fish, sautéed veal liver, potato pierogi, and buffalo and butternut squash empanadas.
Stay—The famous Madonna Inn sits just off U.S. 101 in San Luis Obispo, and it’s a charmingly weird slice of SLO culture known for its high use of Pepto-Bismol pink as décor. Opened in the late ’50s, the place has 110 rooms, all themed differently, some with rock walls, many painted bright colors. At least indulge in a slice of pink champagne cake after dinner in the pink-anointed Gold Rush Steak House. If you’re seeking a more traditional stay, you can’t go wrong at the Embassy Suites up the road. The morning omelet bar, included in your room rate, will give you a good foundation before a day of wine tasting.
On the Road: Wine-Tasting
The country roads surrounding Paso Robles will take you to clusters of wineries eager to share their product. More than 100 wineries dot the verdant landscape—get a map and taste to your heart’s content. At Carmody McKnight Estate Wines, peruse an art gallery of stunning terroir landscapes; at Eberle Winery, tour the 16,000-square-foot cave beneath the redwood-sided winery and tasting room. Sculpterra Winery keeps a sculpture garden sure to capture your eye.
Believe it or not, the Livermore Valley is one of California’s oldest wine regions, around since the mid-1700s when Spanish missionaries planted the first grapes. The first commercial vines went up in the mid-1800s, with pioneer winemakers C.H. Wente and James Concannon founding wineries in the early 1880s. These days, more than 40 wineries operate in the area, and 10 of them are within a few miles of each other in the Vasco Road/Livermore Avenue/Tesla Road/East Avenue vicinity, including Wente and Concannon. Stop for a pile of pasta at the beautiful Terra Mia Cucina Italiana, a variety of small plates at Underdog Wine Bar & Restaurant on the Concannon compound or some fresh fish tacos at the Zephyr Grill.
Up near Newcastle and Auburn, this wine region delights tasters with family-run wineries and rural foothills scenery. Some 15 wineries exist here, providing tours and tastings of varietals such as Syrah, Voignier, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and lots more. Visit Fawnridge to taste inside the winery—barrel tastings are particularly fun in this setting. For a look at the county’s largest winery since Prohibition, check out Mt. Vernon Winery. Viña Castellano is a lovely picnic spot—plop down by the pond with a sandwich and a bottle of Cabernet Franc. In Auburn, settle into a booth at the Monkey Cat restaurant for a meal of duck breast in port wine reduction. Start with one of Monkey Cat’s house salads—dried cherries, toasted hazelnuts and goat cheese spice it up. At Latitudes, go vegetarian with East Indian curried tofu or teriyaki tempeh. For a fun pairing of food and wine, visit Carpe Vino, where short-run wines from throughout the state are paired with dishes created from Placer-grown ingredients.