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Russian River and Sonoma Coast

October 5, 2008 Leave a comment

Today was Russian River Valley day, a mix of vineyards and the part of Sonoma County west of wine country — redwoods, farms, and the coast.

We left the hotel at 10:15, hoping to stop at two or three wine tasting rooms before heading to Jenner, where the Russian River meets the Pacific, for lunch. We arrived at our first intended stop, Arista Winery, at 10:30, but they didn’t open until 11:00, so we continued on another couple of miles to Porter Creek. As our hotel’s wine expert, Ron, explained last night, this is a low key place, with some pretty laid back people doing the wine pouring in a simple building. We parked just off the road in a small gravel lot, just past which was a house with a dog, and beyond that was a wooden shed, where our wine pourer awaited us, as did two more dogs, one young and destined to be big, the other immense. We had a great time there, trying several wines, listening to his explanation of the joy of smelling wine, and hearing his views on life and vineyards in general. They have a small amount of land just outside with Pinot Noir grapes, and he offered us three Pinot Noirs made from them. The difference in the three, he explained, is that the grapes for the reserve came from the vines on the upper part of the slope, the grapes for the cheapest Pinot were from the middle, and the grapes for the final bottle were from the bottom. (The final wine is generally only made available to restaurants, but for a short time each year regular people like us can taste and buy it. On the wall was a list of New York restaurants that have bought the wine.)

One side note: Dee, who has been on duty the last two mornings at Les Mars Hotel, made some suggestions yesterday for our Dry Creek Valley exploration. She also urged us to tell the tasting room people that we are staying at Les Mars. Doing so would ensure good service. We might get wines not given to the usual tasters, or we might get the tasting fee waived, for example. This didn’t work so well yesterday. But this morning, on our way out, she insisted again that we do so. “It really makes a difference.” And Ron, our hotel wine advisor, had urged us last night to try Porter Creek, speaking about it in such detail that I thought maybe they know him well. Therefore, on arrival at Porter Creek this morning, I told the fellow that Ron at Les Mars said we had to stop there. He said “Les Mars? What’s that?” I decided that was enough name dropping for the trip.

From Porter Creek, we arrived in just 5 minutes at Moshin Vineyards. The tasting room was more sophisticated, with vineyard hats and shirts available for purchase. Once again, we had the place to ourselves, and we had a wonderful Scottish woman helping us. I asked right away where she’s from. “Scotland.” “No, no, I know that, but where?” “Edinburgh.” We talked for a few minutes about Scotland, her move here eight years ago, the fact that lots of people can’t place her accent or think she’s Irish, and then got started with the wines. We were having a most pleasant time, but then a man came in and took over. Quite a friendly guy, but extremely talkative, full of questions, and full of information about himself. Most of this was directed to the pourer, but some to us as well. He’s from New York, a doctor, out for a conference in Mill Valley led by a woman who helps doctors with burnout, which he is, and now he was staying for another three days at a nearby bed and breakfast, so he could explore vineyards. He knew all about the various places, bought from a distributor in the city, and on and on. I asked at one point where he lives in New York and he asked if I knew it. Well, gee, I don’t sound any different or probably don’t look much different either. I thought New York Jews knew how to recognize members of the tribe. I must be losing my markings. He’s on the upper east side, and commutes out to a hospital on the Island, in Oceanside. Near the end, we had some trouble getting the woman’s attention so we could complete a purchase of a few bottles — a Pinot Noir, a Zinfandel, and an unexpected and quite good “port” that she pulled out at the end as a tasting bonus.

The next place Ron had told us to try was just around the bend. Gary Farrell. He said go more for the views than the wine. It sits up a ways on a hill, rather than being just off the street. We dutifully turned in, checked out the view from the parking lot, but didn’t go inside. We were really ready at that point to head to the ocean.

We continued roughly westward along Westside Road, paralleling the Russian River, past several more vineyards, ending with a Korbel Champagne site. Beyond that, the vineyards gave way to redwood forests, as we passed through the adjacent towns of Rio Nido and Guerneville. This stretch had the familiar feel of old logging towns. We continued on California Highway 116 towards the sea, passing through alternate stretches of woods and grazing land until 116 ended at Highway 1. The town of Jenner is just 1.5 miles north from the junction on 1. The river turns north too and the highway continues alongside it, heading north and northeast and north and then turning west to go up a bluff before turning north again and leaving town. We drove accordingly, until we reached a parking lot and vista just past town, with a view to the river and the ocean. With the river running north-south, all that separates it from the ocean is a narrow spit, as pictured below.

Russian River meets the Pacific

Russian River meets the Pacific

From the parking lot, we drove about 200 yards south, back into Jenner, where the River’s End Inn and Restaurant sit atop the bluff. Despite the remote location, the restaurant has a superb chef and excellent menu. It’s more than just a burger and fish & chip place, though it has them on the menu. We shared the crispy duck confit roll appetizer, then shared two entrees: the almond encrusted halibut and the special of the day, lobster and crab cakes. The duck roll and hailbut were excellent. The lobster and crab cakes seemed a bit lacking in flavor, but maybe I was spoiled by the version we had last month at Topper’s in Nantucket. In any case, it was a fine lunch with striking views.

River's End

River's End

After lunch, we drove south along Highway 1 for about 10 miles to Bodega Bay. Along the way, there are lots of parking areas leading down to beaches. We pulled into Portuguese Beach, which is described at a Bodega Bay website as “one of the Sonoma Coast’s most expansive beaches, with lots of sand between the steep interior cliffs and the ocean.” On our way down to the beach, signs were posted warning that it is one of the most dangerous beaches in California. We kept our distance from the waves.

Portuguese Beach, Sonoma Coast

Portuguese Beach, Sonoma Coast

From the beach, it was just 3-4 miles to Bodega Bay, where we searched in vain for scenery that looked familiar from Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds. After giving up, we headed out of town, eastwards, away from the ocean, turning off Highway 1 at the Bodega highway to head northeast through the town of Bodega. Off the main road to the east was St. Theresa’s Church, which I now see was made famous through Ansel Adams photographs, and which appeared briefly in The Birds. Behind the church is an old school that was used in the film for several scenes. Oh well. We’ll take a closer look next time.

Bodega Highway leads to Sebastopol, but halfway between Bodega and Sebastopol, we turned north on Bohemian Highway at the town of Freestone. Just a few miles north of there is Occidental, where we stopped to stroll through town and see some of the shops. Both towns go back to the 1870s, when a railroad was constructed, and I read now that Occidental was an old logging town. As was the case on our way out to the ocean, we passed an alternating mix of forests and farms as we drove through here.

Occidental, Sonoma County

Occidental, Sonoma County

Next we headed east to Graton, at which point we began to pass vineyards again. Zigzagging northwards from Graton, we passed The Farmhouse Inn and Restaurant in Forestville, then crossed a bridge back to the north side of the Russian River, near Moshin Vineyards, and headed upstream, reversing the morning route.

This time, when we reached Arista Winery, they were open and we pulled in. As we headed from our car through the parking lot to the path leading to the tasting room, a gigantic Chevy Suburban pulled in right at the walkway and 7 adults fell out, in full party mode, not necessarily sober. We got into the room ahead of them, a small and crowded tasting room, but they were soon upon us. Oddly enough, the tasting room bar had a small tv on the wall, and it was turned on to a football game, Broncos vs. Bucs. The new arrivals immediately asked about the game. One of them, it turned out, was from Denver. Someone already there had a Mike Ditka cigar club t-shirt on. A new arrival mentioned going to school at Iowa, and another of the already-there crowd, to show Big Ten bonding, said he went to Michigan State. The tasting room was turning into a sports bar. Not a great experience. We tried a few wines, including the first Pinot Gris of our trip, which we took outside at the pourer’s suggestion in order to enjoy the sitting area by the Japanese Garden. Then we bought some of the Pinot Gris and left. On our way out, we saw that the Suburban had a sign on it with some tour operator name, which is when we realized that the party crowd must have had a designated driver/tour guide, leaving them free to get pretty drunk by 4:30. We were happy to call it a day. We got back on Westside Road and drove the 7 miles or so back into Healdsburg, taking a welcome rest at Les Mars Hotel before the nightly wine tasting and the dinner outing.

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Categories: Food, Travel