Fine Vines
Published Nov/Dec 2004

Three special California counties
provide the setting for a vacation of fine vintage.
By Joe Pollack

Slightly to the north of San Francisco, beginning at the edge of San Pablo Bay and curving north and west to the Pacific Ocean, are three counties–Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino–that are the heart of northern California’s wine country.

Napa is the county recognized worldwide for wine and grapes. Warm and dry in the summer, it is highly social and the state’s biggest tourist attraction outside of Disneyland.

It is listed as American Viticultural District No. 2, because little Augusta, Mo., got its application in early enough to be No. 1.

Sonoma soil is so rich that some say a fishing pole stuck into the ground will grow fish, or at least grapes. The county reaches from the Mayacamas Mountains on the east to the Pacific Ocean, and the agricultural bounty is mind-boggling. It’s more laid-back, less formal than Napa.

Mendocino is rural and woodsy. A small redwood forest is one of the loveliest places on earth, and listening to the ocean rumble at the town of Mendocino brings joy and peace. Less wine is produced here than in Napa or Sonoma counties, but a good sparkling wine is made in Mendocino County by Roederer Estates and world-class brandy is distilled at Germain-Robin.

While grapes and wine are the big draw, to recognize these counties only for this achievement would be like admiring the Mona Lisa for her frame or the Gateway Arch for its windows. All three counties are special, from the glorious northern California climate to the mountain ranges and the foaming, roaring, leaping ocean. Some of the best American restaurants are in these three counties. History and culture abound and, of course, there is the opportunity to taste superior wines.

The Wine Highway

State Highway 29, lined with dozens of wineries, carries a lot of traffic through Napa Valley from Napa in the south to Calistoga in the north.

Robert Mondavi Winery, Beaulieu Vineyards, Franciscan Oakville Estate, Louis M. Martini Winery and other pioneer vineyards and wineries have stood proudly for many years, while Cakebread Cellars, one of the newcomers, which had a couple of Quonset huts the first time I visited, now has luxurious, modern quarters. These excellent producers offer tastings for a fee, tours, retail sales and picnic areas. Check out the giant trees that give a name, and great beauty, to the Sequoia Grove Vineyards.

The first town north of Napa on Highway 29 is Yountville, home to Domaine Chandon Winery, first of the French champagne houses to build in northern California. It still is a worthy tour and offers an equally worthy restaurant. Bistro Jeanty and Mustards Grill in town are superior restaurants.

About a mile east of Highway 29 is the Silverado Trail with spectacular views of the Napa Mountains where vineyards cling to the cliffs. Vines, which seem to prefer difficult growing conditions, produce outstanding Cabernet Sauvignon grapes on the hillsides. Try the wines from Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. The Stag’s Leap area, named for an action in an Indian legend, also was the setting for the Falcon Crest television series.

The glorious Greystone mansion in St. Helena houses the West Coast campus of the Culinary Institute of America where chefs come to learn, but there are classes for ardent amateurs. “The Greystone Experience” offers daily cooking demonstrations, shopping in the Spice Islands Marketplace, dining in the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant, plus pastries and a coffee bar in DeBaun Café.

In St. Helena, an old-fashioned drive-in and diner, Taylor’s Automatic Refresher, serves excellent food. Terra restaurant is higher in style and price.

At the northern edge of the county, the little town of Calistoga has natural hot springs for mud baths, mineral baths, relaxation and massages. The town also has a St. Louis tie with the excellent Wappo Bar and Bistro, where Michelle Mutrux is a chef and owner. Her father, Paul, ran the glamorous Three Fountains in Gaslight Square. Her uncle, Richard, named the neighborhood with his Gaslight Bar.

Produce and “Peanuts”

Sonoma County is mainly agricultural; its southern end produces delicious livestock and cheese, along with an amazing array of vegetables and fruit. The ocean provides rich, delicious oysters from the chill waters.

Grapes take over as state Highway 12, known as the Sonoma Highway, moves west from Sonoma to Santa Rosa, home of the Charles M. Schulz Museum, and then west to the ocean at Bodega Bay. Between the towns are Glen Ellen and Jack London Historical State Park. London lived at his Beauty Ranch from 1905–1916. His wife, Charmian, lived in the cottage until her death in 1955. It was her wish to preserve the ranch in her husband’s memory.

Healdsburg on U.S. Highway 101 has an old town square with several fine inns and hotels and a number of fine restaurants. The Downtown Bakery and Creamery offers fabulous wares.

Eucalyptus and mineral springs

A few miles north at Cloverdale, state Highway 128 intersects with U.S. Highway 101, curving and wandering into Mendocino County through small groves of eucalyptus trees and spectacular redwoods. There are cattle, grapes, gorgeous wildflowers and the pungent aroma of eucalyptus.

There’s also the Buckhorn Saloon in Anderson Valley, which makes its own beer in several styles and grills sausages and hamburgers. A few miles to the north, dug into the hillside, is Roederer Estate, another offshoot of a French champagne house. Its sparkling wines have the flash and pop of the sparklers we light on July 4. Handley Cellars is another excellent winery.

The coast offers the sound of the surf and the colorful, dancing waves. There are gardens and state parks. In the right season, whales migrate past.

The town of Mendocino stood in for Cabot Cove, Maine, when Angela Lansbury was Jessica Fletcher in “Murder, She Wrote.”

South of Fort Bragg, walk through the Mendocino Coast Botanical Gardens, sample breakfast at Egghead’s, ride the Skunk Train into the nearby redwood forests and the town of Willits. That’s also where we join U.S. Highway 101 again for the journey south, but with an unusual stop–Vichy Springs, a few miles north of Ukiah.

Named for the famed French carbonated spring, Vichy Springs was popular in the 19th century when Mark Twain, Theodore Roosevelt, John L. Sullivan, London and others visited and took the baths in the huge outdoor concrete tubs. Water constantly flows through the tubs; the carbonation keeps the bather afloat. It’s as relaxing a time as I have ever spent, a perfect way to end some wanderings through three magical counties.

Joe Pollack is a contributor from St. Louis, Mo.

Above: Grapes from the Rodney Strong Vineyards in fertile Sonoma County. Rodney Strong Vineyards photo

Left: Vineyards of Handley Cellars in Mendocino County. Handley Cellars photo

Before You Go

AAA Travel offers a tour, California Wine Harvest, through Trafalgar. Highlights on the six-day tour include sights of San Francisco, a ride on the Napa Valley Wine Train, Mendocino County wineries, and the Charles M. Schulz Museum.

For more information, see your AAA Travel agent. A list of offices to serve you is at
Or contact the following tourism areas for information: Napa Valley Conference and Visitors Bureau, (707) 226-3610; Sonoma County Tourism Program, 1-800-576-6222; Mendocino County Alliance, 1-866-GOMENDO (866-466-3636).

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