Days of wine tours and tastings speed by
I'm no wine connoisseur. I have enjoyed many a $10 bottle without wishing it was a $100 bottle.
Yet, I recently found myself beaming uncontrollably while visiting wineries in the picturesque Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, about an hour's drive north of San Francisco.
Not only was I partaking of sublime sauvignon blancs and zinfandels in one of their best growing regions, but I was doing it via Segway.
Three valleys in this northern Sonoma area - nicknamed "Winery Central" because its distinct microclimates are ideal for wine grapes - spread out from Healdsburg. The city is often called "a town for all seasons," but, in my experience, the early autumn wine harvest season is especially spectacular, albeit crowded with tourists.
Yes, standing up on a Segway surely adds a novel and fun twist to the already delicious pastime of wine tasting. Healdsburg is home to three Segway companies, but I chose Segway of Healdsburg on a recent January trip. The company offers tours of the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and the Armstrong Redwoods Preserve.
I had never ridden a Segway, a fact that surely added to my sense of adventure. I'd only seen them at my kids' high school, where the security guards patrol corridors.
During the 20-minute introduction given by our helpful tour guide, Josh, I was equipped with a helmet and a dose of confidence-boosting knowledge, and quickly lost my initial trepidation. In short order, I was practicing and perfecting figure eights around the parking lot on my "trusty steed", aptly named Chardonnay. We were individually coached on dos and don'ts, and with a maximum speed of just 20 kph, I felt safe, even with the prospect of travelling to wineries.
"NO taking pictures, no texting, no drinking water, and no overindulging!" Josh warned the group of riders. He packed my camera and water bottle in the Segway's carrier, and reiterated that there was no need to worry about missed photo opportunities: We would be taking regular stops on the two-hour tour to take photos.
Single file and feeling a bit like robots, we eased onto a country lane, passing vineyards and pretty farmhouses, with warm breezes on our faces and golden and olive green hills in the distance.
"Lean forward a bit," Josh called out, as we eased up the hill to Viszlay Vineyards, a small father-and-daughter-owned boutique operation. There we celebrated our arrival with a fine sparkling prosecco (the only one in Sonoma County) and moved on to a pinot noir and a zinfandel. All too soon, we were back on our "horses" and riding to Limerick Lane, heading toward Christopher Creek Winery, just five minutes away. There, we revelled in the gorgeous views of the Russian River Valley from the outdoor patio tasting area.
Christopher Creek specialises in Rhone-style wines produced from old vines, and we sipped on excellent syrah, petite sirah and, my favourite, a sublime port. After two stops, it was time to turn in our trusty Segways, so I mounted Chardonnay for a final ride and followed the group back to the parking lot, where we did our last 360s and figure eights.
Healdsburg's lush valleys are surrounded by Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley, several of Northern California's finest regional wine appellations. The Alexander Valley alone boasts more than 13,000 acres of vineyards, 30 grape varieties, 28 wineries and more than 200 independent farmers.
Healdsburg's area wineries focus on premium wines made from locally grown grapes. The centrally located town, with just 11,000 or so residents, offers more than 100 world-class wineries and tasting rooms - many within walking distance of each other, as well as a dizzying assortment of fine dining choices. Bring clothing with some "give" to it - you'll need it here.
The next day brought a continuation of winery tours and wine tasting, but this time, we travelled by bike. This beautiful region was named one of the "Seven Greatest Rides on Earth" by Bicycling magazine in 2013, so it was a logical plan. My tour operator was Wine Country Bikes, a company that operates in both Sonoma and Napa counties and features tour routes ranging from a few hours to full weeks, like-new bicycles and very knowledgeable guides.
Our cycling group toured the biodynamic, organic Quivira Vineyard and Winery, tasting a local smoked goat cheddar cheese and sampling a hearty zinfandel and a refreshing sauvignon blanc, while touring the organic farm and perusing its heirloom chicken pens. A quick downhill sprint took us to Lambert Bridge Winery, a small, family-owned and operated winery with all grape-picking still done by hand (no waste, no bruising, they explained).
Lambert Bridge winemaker Jennifer Higgins showed her passion for her craft when describing her choices for our delectable wine-paired lunch. Each Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the winery offers seated pairings replete with exquisite crystal goblets and sparkling china in its beautiful, majestic redwood barrel room, with several times available, by appointment. If you are lucky (as I was), you might be offered the 2011 chardonnay matched with butternut squash soup, swirled with creme fraiche and Tuscan olive oil. And that is just the first course.
There's no end to the wineries and restaurants in Healdsburg, but I wanted to explore the town itself, with its many art galleries, upscale boutiques and jewelry stores, and lovingly restored homes on tree-lined streets. Here, I saw more of those towering palms, olive trees, orange and lemon trees and redwoods, with flowers blooming and hummingbirds flitting everywhere, along with strolling folks looking like they had not a care in the world - a rare sight these days. In Healdsburg's plaza, reminiscent of times gone by, I saw people sitting on benches, just sitting, and gazing, and resting - with nary a cellphone in sight.
That afternoon, we visited Relish Culinary Adventures, which thrives in this "foodie" area. Some say the farm-to-table movement was born in this Northern California gastronomic paradise. Donna del Rey, owner of Relish, says the mushroom classes at this cooking school "always sell out," and indeed, our class was full that day, with about 25 of us sorting, washing, trimming, sauteing and finally indulging in four types of mushrooms at a fabulous lunch spread, where even the dessert bread pudding was made of maplelike Candy Cap mushrooms.
Unfortunately, the typical mushroom foraging in the area has been curtailed by the drought, which has plagued much of California for several years. Thus, Relish had to purchase from another area the mushrooms that we used, and while we were dismayed by the cancelled foraging, our taste buds still delighted in the feast.
During my Healdsburg visit, I stayed at the divinely romantic Honor Mansion, a 13-room-and-suite inn situated just a 10-minute walk from the town. I was charmed at every turn by my Vineyard Suite with its jetted deep tub in a private garden, a fireplace opening to the indoor bathtub and the living space, a four-posted bed with European linens, an alluring decanter of dreamy sherry, and a set-the-mood CD collection.
The breakfast selections (included in the stay) were succulent (you can dine outdoors by the koi pond amid lush landscaping, or indoors in the cozy breakfast room). Owners Steve and Cathi Fowler are clearly passionate about their property, and the accolades have rolled in, including recognition in three categories from Tripadvisor.com's Travelers' Choice 2013 Awards and a fifth-place ranking for the Top 10 Romantic Hotels in the United States. Honor Mansion also earned the AAA 4 Diamond award for 2013 and has been a Michelin-recommended hotel four years in a row.
If you haven't heard of Healdsburg before, now is the time to remember the name. At present, it's still uncrowded and somewhat undiscovered. The crowds encountered in Napa and Mendocino may soon head for this small town, since it was rated last year by Zagat as one of "Twenty Awesome Winter Foodie Destinations" in the world, and by Fodors.com as one of the "Ten Best Small Towns in America."
Whether by Segway, bicycle, on foot or by car, this is a vacation respite that I plan to visit repeatedly.