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Alexander Valley and Calistoga

Our plan today was to visit the third of the wine valleys that abut Healdsburg, the Alexander Valley. These wine valley divisions are somewhat artificial. The Alexander Valley, after all, is in fact a part of the Russian River valley, in the sense that the Russian River runs through the middle of it. But officially, for wine purposes, a certain segment is called Alexander Valley and a segment downstream of it (plus lots of land to the south) is called the Russian River Valley.

We headed north from Healdsburg in Highway 101 to an exit about 10 miles north above Geyserville, so we could start from the north and work our way southwards through the valley. Our first stop was Silver Oak Cellars, which makes only Cabernets. They had a beautiful building with a big wine tasting room accessible via a courtyard. We had the tasting room to ourselves. There’s not much to taste — the most recent vintages of their Alexander Valley cab and their Napa Valley cab. And this for $20, the most expensive wine tasting fee we had stumbled on, for the fewest tastes. And in contrast to every place else, buying wine did not result in a fee waiver. You got $10 waived if you bought one of the two tasting wines, nothing waived if you bought an earlier vintage. Plus, the prices for the Cabs were the highest we had seen, starting at $75. We were a little put off by the experience, but we chose to play by the rules. We tried the wines and ended up buying an older one (untasted), with no fee waiver.

Silver Oak Cellars, Alexander Valley

Silver Oak Cellars, Alexander Valley

The Alexander Valley has much more open vistas than the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys. The Russian River has limited views because it is heavily forested when not planted. The Dry Creek Valley is much narrower. But the Alexander Valley has broad views across miles, which gives it great beauty and character. California Highway 128 runs north-south through it, paralleling the Russian River, until 128 turns east to head over the hills to Calistoga. From Silver Oak, we followed 128, through Geyserville, passing the restaurant where we dined on our first night here (Santi), and continued farther south for a few miles until we reached a turnoff for Robert Young Estate Winery. We passed lovely vineyards, then came to a complex with a small tasting room on one end of a barn.

Robert Young Estate Winery, Alexander Valley

Robert Young Estate Winery, Alexander Valley

There were no cars in the parking lot, but lots of bicycles. We could barely squeeze into the room, filled with 15 bicyclists. They were a most friendly and pleasant bunch, so we all happily accommodated ourselves to the space. One fellow was filling out a wine club enrollment form. When the pourer asked him about what he had given as his hometown, we were able to learn that he was from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Gail heard from one of them that they were part of a club. It wasn’t clear, since we didn’t ask them, if they were part of a local club, all from the same place, or a national club, all descending on the region for the trip. They eventually left the tasting room, but by then we were done too. We made a purchase and got back to our car as they took off. Only then did I see that in addition to the 15 bicyclists, there was a tour group host, driving an SUV with a trailer hitched behind and bicycles on top of the trailer roof. The name of the touring company was on the side.

We drove back to 128. Just around the bend was Stryker Sonoma, a beautifully set vineyard with a great tasting room location. On three sides, it overlooked the vineyards, with glass walls. On the fourth side, one could look through a window to a wine storage area below. The tasting room had a long bar and lots of patrons. They were also generous with the range of wines they offered for tasting, well beyond the official list. Despite the crowd, it was an excellent experience. We bought several wines, returned to the car to get the camera, and came back to take photos.

Stryker Sonoma, Alexander Valley

Stryker Sonoma, Alexander Valley

The next stop was to be Hanna Winery, at just the point, a couple of miles south, where 128 turns east and climbs out of the valley. But it was 12:30, we had done three wine tastings, and lunch seemed more pressing. We drove past Hanna, stayed on 128, and headed east for the 15 mile drive to Calistoga. The road climbed, curved a lot, passed through a wooded area, and then came out on high flat ground, with hills just a short distance away. The flat ground had a mix of farms and vineyards, continuing for about 4-5 miles, then a second winding climb began, through woods. At the high point of the drive, the top of the pass, we left Sonoma County for Napa County and began a descent into the north end of Napa Valley. More woods, then more vineyards, then flat ground, then we entered Calistoga city limits. After another 2 miles, we turned left for downtown Calistoga, with 128 continuing south down the Napa Valley to St. Helena. We could see a two-block stretch ahead with stores lining both sides and diagonal parking all the way down, so that’s where we headed.

Downtown Calistoga

Downtown Calistoga, Napa Valley

In planning the trip in August, before settling on Sonoma County, I had been imagining staying in St. Helena, and had read about the Calistoga Inn, Restaurant, and Brewery. In the back of my mind, once we chose to go to Healdsburg, was that if we made it to Calistoga, we should eat there. Well, it turns out that we drove right past it, just a block off 128, the last building before crossing a creek and coming to the two-block commercial stretch. Right past it. Never saw it. We parked, walked up and down the street, and saw many interesting restaurants. Pasta, steak, cheeseburgers, salads, upscale places, less upscale places. Hard to choose. But once we looked at the menu for Miguel’s Restaurant (subtitled California Cuisine), Gail decided that was the place. I resisted for a moment, but then I thought, why not? California cuisine doesn’t have to be Chez Panisse, or the French Laundry. Why not Miguel’s?

It turned out to be pretty good. Maybe the best simple Mexican food we have had since eating at a place in Whittier three years ago. We were happy. But when we walked farther down and found the Calistoga Inn, I was a little disappointed. We could have sat over the creek in their outdoor patio, a lovely setting. Oh well.

As we were driving out of town at 2:00, we saw a museum, made a u-turn, and pulled in. It was the Sharpsteen Museum of Calistoga History. The older woman who greeted us explained that Ben Sharpsteen started it to tell the story of his adopted home, Calistoga. He had been a cartoonist, director, and producer for Walt Disney, quite a prominent one, later receiving an honorary doctorate from UC Davis for his contributions. (The diploma was on display in the museum, in the room devoted to Ben, signed by Ronald Reagan.) I could write at length about the museum, but maybe another time. I’ll just say that it focused on Sam Brannan, who built it up as a hot springs resort starting in the 1860s and eventually failed. Saratoga Springs was his model. Hence the name — California + Saratoga –> Calistoga.

We headed out of town at 2:30 and were back in Alexander Valley quickly, pulling into Hanna Winery at 3:00. Like Stryker, it is beautifully set. We entered the tasting room and squeezed into a space at one end of the bar, next to two women who turned out to be very good company. They are naval officers, with 25 and 27 years of duty. They were working their way over to St. Helena, where they would be staying at a bed and breakfast. The older woman would be celebrating her birthday in 4 days and the trip seemed to be part of her birthday celebration. A few people down the bar from them were our Les Mars honeymooners. They came over and we chatted about where we had each been today. By 3:30, we were done, ready to return to Healdsburg and Les Mars.

After a short rest in the hotel, catching up on the latest stock market news and McCain-Palin news, we headed out on foot to explore Healdsburg again. I showed Gail some of my favorite sights from my walk two days ago, including Powell’s Sweet Shoppe. We passed the Topel Winery tasting room, saw Donnis Topel behind the bar, and headed in to chat some more. (Donnis and her husband poured their wines at Les Mars Hotel our first evening there, just before going out to celebrate her birthday.) We talked about what we had done during our stay, learned that she and her husband ended up having her birthday dinner at Dry Creek Kitchen (in the Healdsburg Hotel, just across the plaza from her tasting room), and bought some of their wine. Thus, our wine tasting ended as it began. We walked around a little more, then sat in Healdsburg Plaza for a while, discussing our trip and watching a five-year-old girl play with her array of dolls on the edge of a pool, with her father nearby.

We got back to the hotel just as the honeymooners pulled up in their convertible BMW, leading to another conversation about the day. They also showed us the special CD they prepared for wedding guests with songs from the wedding, a photo of them, a photo of the winery where they were married, and other remarks for the guests. The father of one of the grooms had died recently, so there were remarks in particular recognizing him.

After another short rest, I went out one more time to get some photos of Healdsburg, covering much the same ground as before, with my camera this time. On my return to the hotel, it was time to get ready for dinner at Cyrus. Another full day of touring had come to an end.

Categories: Food, Travel
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