"To take wine into our mouths is to savor a droplet of the river of human history."
― New York Times, 1967
Twice this year I had the opportunity to visit both Napa and Sonoma, but only recently did I have the chance to discover this little gem called Santa Rosa. Nestled within Sonoma County lies this beautiful and captivating city that boasts all the charm one would expect whilst visiting Wine Country, yet is removed from the slam of tourists that a place like Napa would get. I have been to Napa on several occasions, most of which were to race a 70.3 triathlon, but I had always wondered why Ironman got rid of the beloved Vineman and the 70.3 I'd been racing had been through a separate company called HITS Triathlon Series. It turned out that there is still a Wine Country Ironman (for those wondering), and it is indeed in Santa Rosa. I must have not done my research on this, otherwise, I would have considered IM Santa Rosa as my first, full Ironman race.
Nevertheless, for those of you who are traveling to Wine Country for everything but distance racing, I'd like to take you with me on a journey to Santa Rosa, known for it's Pinot Noirs, wildlife safaris, zip lining in the Redwoods, hot air ballooning, river canoeing and beautiful bays.
Out trip started off at the lovely Bodega Bay Lodge which overlooks, surprise, the Bodega Bay. Calm, serene and naturally beautiful, it was a lovely place to rest our heads for a few nights.
The spa, pool, hot tub and fitness areas were wonderful (props to the fitness room design!). I was even able to do my swim training sessions in their outdoor pool, which was heated! The food in their restaurant was delicious, and the Chef made a special appearance to explain the dishes and offer us a steak, just to taste. The calming indoor atmosphere sit amidst the bay along with the warm fireplace made this a lovely dining experience.
If you're wondering where we went for breakfast the day before my Birthday, we headed to The Birds Cafe in Bodega Bay (nearby where the film 'The Birds' by Alfred Hitchcock was filmed). This little nook was packed and though they had only a small menu with a few items, boy were those items fresh. Oysters, fried prawns, artichoke tacos. We then proceeded to a little local store that sold fresh taffy. Neither of us liked taffy much, but we couldn't resist the pink color of the shop and the tiny interior filled with candy. We spent about $50 dollars on candy alone on flavors like pumpkin pie, cookie dough, birthday cake and chocolate hazelnut, and thought it'd be a good idea to give them away as gifts.
We then headed an hour inland to the Redwoods to go zip lining with Sonoma Canopy Tours. The staff were so helpful and informative, especially for first timers like me, and the Redwoods were just spectacular! I could have sat amongst the trees and just observed these giant forces of nature for eternity. It was a scorching 95 degrees that day, but the slight breeze made the experience so worth it.
Afterwards, we headed to Sebastopol (where they filmed '13 Reasons Why'!) to a beautiful outdoor tavern called HopMonk. The Managers were so kind and our waiter was most definitely educated and entertaining when it came to beer and informing us about the area. After some Kombucha beers and nice little appetizers, we listened to a live band play and met some new friends.
The next morning, it was my Birthday where the morning of, we headed to Jeffrey's Hillside Cafe instead for a proper brunch consisting of bloody mary's and mimosas (our theme), eggs benedict and pancakes, of which we could only handle a couple of bites because boy, was this pancake BIG. What a way to start off 29! We headed to Francis Coppola Winery for some poolside lounging and relaxation before dinner at Rustic. We were still quite full from breakfast, but managed to order a cheese and charcuterie board along with their special cool soup to go with our cabernet. We watched the sunset and melted into the pink skies and bright green vineyards as little bunnies hopped by.
Bike wine tasting came next! We arose early to get ready for a 10am tour with Getaway Adventures! You really can't go wrong with a company that boasts nearly 5 star reviews on Google as well as an array of activities to suit any level of adventure. Our guide was so sweet and ensured that my friend, Janelle, felt at ease as she road the rolling hills and vineyards on her mountain bike. My friend Janelle rarely bikes, so this to her was what the zip lining experience was for me; a bit terrifying. Nevertheless, the wine stops at Dutton Goldfield and Martin Ray Winery made up for any weariness, we embraced each tasting as we learned the process behind Pinot Noir and stone baked pizza. I was truly impressed with Martin Ray; the staff, the scenery, the photo ops and that brick oven pizza made us feel like we could stay all day at that one winery. We actually missed our next tasting because we took our time enjoying the moment, but we wouldn't have had it any other way :).
The second phase of our trip involved a hotel move to the magnificent Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa. I could have sat on that balcony for weeks just admiring the serenity of it all. I was thoroughly impressed by the Vintners Inn, it's charm, cuisine and Tuscan/French inspired beauty. Everyone I talked to in town also boasted positive comments saying; "that's the place to stay". When we arrived that morning, we spent the day exploring the property and simply relaxing. I had a lot of work to catch up on and so we essentially just chilled in our large and peaceful room as well as on the balcony and property. Believe it or not, we didn't eat until dinner... surprising, right (LOL)?! But after spending the past several days feasting and drinking, we wanted to utilize this day to recoup... and fine, also get hungry for dinner, which was at their John Ash & Co. restaurant. We ordered a waiter recommended glass of Pinot to go with our yet again, cheese board (this one though, blew us away), and yes, even oysters, which I'm aware doesn't go with seafood, but we took the chance, and it was divine. We tasted flavors from their home made gelato and creme brûlée before hitting the hay, happy and content :). We were to get up at 4am the next morning for a hot air balloon ride...
4am came and went as it oftentimes does when attempting to embark on a sunrise hot air balloon ride. Whether or not we take off is entirely dependent on fog and clouds, and both times where we woke up at 4am and called in, our appointment was cancelled. In fact, when we went back to bed after calling and woke up a few hours later on both occasions, we could see why. It was foggy, but then would clear up at around 10am. In all honesty, I wasn't too bummed, I've never done it but I'm also afraid of heights (I came to realize during zip-lining), but Janelle was eager to go, and secretly, I did, too. But, these things happen and it's totally okay! We had a big day ahead of us which included going on a safari in the mountains (wine-less, for those wondering). It was a hot day, but we sat on the top of the truck and saw birds, giraffes, among many other animals, but most importantly (for me), CATS. I forget what this type of cat was called (so NOT cat lady-esque), but observing it was the highlight of my day. It wasn't a cheetah, though there was a cheetah nearby. Either way, I was captivated.
While it was wonderful and educational (highly recommended for animal enthusiasts and kids!), the safari took a lot out of us. It was very hot out and the drive took an hour or so, there and back, and by this point we were ready to refuel with some... yep, you guessed it... food and wine :). We headed to the town of Santa Rosa to 2Tread Brewing Company for some flutes to test our beer knowledge. The Manager was so kind and helpful, and he essentially picked our appetizers to go along with our beer flutes, consisting of IPA's, (which we both lacked knowledge and fine taste in), so that we could develop a greater understating of hops. We loved them all, and headed off to the adjacent mall to grab a quick back massage to end the day, much needed.
Somewhere in between, we did head to Beer Baron, where they had an amplitude of beer and whiskey selection to choose from. The outdoor atmosphere was fun as was the interior, and we found the crowd to really make the place enjoyable. But if you haven't tasted their churro waffle desert, you're missing out ;).
Our time in Santa Rosa was coming to an end, but we had one more special visit of the week, and that was to the Ferrari-Carano Winery in Santa Rosa. We had no idea what was in store for us at this particular winery as we didn't research beforehand (we like surprises), but we knew it was going to be epic. This winery went above and beyond both in botanicals, with their gift shop and wine tasting. After making our way through the gardens, we headed down to the cellar for a tour and the most lavish tasting I'd ever experienced in my life; a 5 wine, 5 cheese, 5 chocolate CABERNET tasting in their special private tasting room, called the PreVail. We felt like queens as we savored every sip of my favorite blend of red wine, paired with delectable cheeses and chocolates to go with. Our 'Wine Educator' made sure to captivate our minds with knowledge and history as we dove into this wonderful experience. Afterwards, they gifted us a bottle of our favorite, which was true icing on the cake. I would go back in a heartbeat.
Having traveled all over Sonoma Country and Napa County, I would tell you that hands down, Santa Rosa is a gem worth visiting and even going back to on multiple occasions. Can I tell you that as I was driving back down to Portland to San Francisco, I shed a tear as I passed the exit to Santa Rosa, knowing all of the beauty, taste and luxury that the city boasts. Should you consider a trip to Wine Country, I'd highly recommend that you add Santa Rosa to your list. Get away from the traditional tourism slam of Napa and head to this refined area of the world for your true, American wine tasting adventure.