A cold snap or two, and suddenly you’re on the road, like in a car commercial, zooming along and throwing reddish-orange leaves off your tires, snuggled down inside your ecru cable-knit sweater, your sweetie by your side.
Outside your window, maybe you see maples, crape myrtles, liquidambars and live oaks, painted overnight, it seems, in red, yellow and orange. Or perhaps you’re passing grapevines tipped amber and burgundy now that crush has passed. In higher elevations, pines stay green while aspens flame yellow; this, against a cerulean sky, creates sharp, brilliant edges you can’t help stopping to photograph. Pack an overnight bag and gas up the car. We’re off to explore some of Northern California’s color.
Oh, the beauty of the almost-coastal wine country, where the vines—stripped of the year’s fruit—glow with color. Grape leaves gilded red and gold march up hills and down valleys, backed by cloud-studded skies. Fog drifts across vineyards in the morning, hovering close. All of Sonoma’s wine-producing valleys color up each fall, but one of the most stunning is Alexander Valley. Take Highway 29 out of Napa until it becomes Highway 128 (around Calistoga) and keep on going. Soon, it winds among oaks and redwoods, sometimes opening to broad buff meadows backed by beautiful grapevines and wineries, some large, some small. With its warm climate and gravelly soil, this is cabernet and chardonnay country. Pull in to any of the 40-plus wineries along the way—as you get toward Healdsburg and Geyserville, they’re thick. A few options near Healdsburg: Alexander Valley Vineyards runs tours of its caves every day at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Fieldstone’s oaks practically beg you to picnic beneath them, and the wraparound porch at Hanna Winery is too inviting to pass up. Closer to Geyserville, deLorimier pours two state fair award-winning zins, and Trentadue’s gondola tasting takes you, glass of sparkling in hand, out into the vineyards. You’re in Silver Oak territory here, too—stop by the tasting room and indulge in some cab. At Francis Ford Coppola Winery, a spectacular compound surrounded by vineyards invites wine enthusiasts to taste and wander, admiring the pool (closes the last weekend in October), the retail shop stuffed with international treasures (don’t miss the wall of Coppola movie memorabilia) and the bocce ball courts. (The accompanying park includes game tables for cards and backgammon, checkers and chess.)
GRUB STOP: Just stay put at Francis Ford Coppola for a meal at Rustic, the restaurant serv-ing “Francis’s favorites.” The menu includes descriptions of Coppola’s experiences with each dish—for example, “I went in the kitchen and watched an old man make it,” says the copy beneath the chicken mattone, a half chicken smashed and sauteed in paprika and garlic. Go for something like rack of lamb, grilled on the parrilla, the Argentine grill that sits central in the room. By all means, eat outside if you can—it’s no wonder the place has been voted “best outdoor dining” in numerous polls.
SPEND THE NIGHT: Hope-Merrill House in Geyserville, an Eastlake-style Victorian restored to glory, gleams with historic decor properly reflected from the wainscoting to the wallpaper. It’s elegant and grand. No room duplicates another, and it is very easy to imagine living back in the late 1880s, simpler times. Go for the Sterling Suite with its fireplace settee and private garden patio. And at some point, relax on the grounds and let the fall breeze ruffle your hair.
While the higher elevations and cooler temps elicit deeper hues, our own region is no slouch when it comes to pretty trees.
East Sac/Fabulous 40s—The wide streets canopied by trees, especially between 40th and 46th streets, blaze with color each fall. Drive slowly and admire scads of sycamore and stately Dutch elms that have survived disease.
Curtis Park/Land Park—Other old neighborhoods teeming with brilliance each autumn, these closely linked areas bloom orange and yellow this time of year as the mature sycamore, zelkova and liquidambar trees turn. Newer plantings—maples and dogwoods— add to the allure.
American River Parkway— Whether you’re on foot or bike, take to the trail for some satisfying leaf crunch beneath and gorgeous leaf glow above. Out here, you’ll find native trees like sycamore, black walnut, blue oak, valley oak and Oregon ash.