DAY TRIPPING | Russian River Area

DAY TRIPPING | Russian River Area

By: Lynda Hopkins

Jan. 12, 2011


With the rolling hills painted in festive colors and summer’s sweetness lingering on the tongue, fall might be the perfect season to play tourist in your own backyard—if you’re not already a visitor touring the area. All it takes is a car, a bit of cash, and a spare day to explore the natural and culinary bounty of the middle reaches of the Russian River.

While Westside Road is renowned for its densely packed wineries, make no mistake: this was once beer country. And there’s more to the region than just wine tasting. In fact, the Westside & Eastside loop just south of Healdsburg offers plenty of entertainment opportunities—not to mention glimpses into agricultural history—to please children and non-drinkers as well as wine lovers.

Whatever you do, don’t pack your lunch. Bring a knife, but leave the Tupperware in the cupboard and the leftovers in the fridge for another day. Fall is the season for feasting and you wouldn’t want to miss the last local peppers and tomatoes of the year. (Besides, this is your vacation: the less cleanup, the better.)

If it’s a Saturday, begin your journey at the Healdsburg Farmers Market at the intersection of North and Vine. Think simple but savory for picnic ingredients: freshly baked bread with farmstead cheese and sliced Brandywine tomatoes or salami.

At the farmers market, two different family farms offer cheese. To decide between them simply choose your dairy animal.

If you favor cow’s milk cheese, head over to Valley Ford Cheese Company. Courtesy of her family’s herd of 400 Jersey cows, Karen Bianchi-Moreda offers two types of small-batch, Italian farmstead cheese: Estero Gold (Asiago style) and Highway 1 (Fontina style). These robust cheeses are so addicting that you might want to buy two wedges, so as to avoid fighting over the last slice. (This writer polished off half a wedge of Highway 1 in one sitting all by herself.)

If goat cheese is more your style, stop by Shamrock Artisan Goat Cheese for light, spreadable fresh cheeses in a variety of flavors. “For a picnic, I’d recommend either the basil, garlic, or jalapeno on some fresh bread,” said owner and cheese maker Gilbert Cox. “I just had some jalapeno that way myself.”

For the fresh bread, try Preston Vineyards or Full Circle Baking Company. A sourdough baguette or soft ciabatta pairs nicely with cheese, and Full Circle’s “scrambolini”—a savory creation that spirals like a cinnamon roll but is instead stuffed with seasonal peppers, tomatoes, and cheese—makes an excellent shared appetizer.

If you happen to plan your journey on a Sunday, you might consider an alternative departure point: Windsor. The Windsor Farmers Market is open from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., and packed with friendly Sonoma County vendors. So wander down the aisle and pick out a Pan-O-Rama focaccia with seasonal toppings, your favorite flavor of The Hummus Guy hummus, some Spring Hill Cheese, and fresh fruit.

If neither farmers market is open or you need some additional supplies, Shelton’s Natural Foods Market and Big John’s Market in Healdsburg both offer local farm-fresh produce, bread, and cheese, not to mention salads (try the orzo with feta at either location) and sandwiches pre-made for picnicking. Big John’s is locally famous for its delectable selection of Sonoma and Marin hard cheeses, and the cheese counter is staffed so that you can solicit advice and sample before selecting.

Once your food is procured—don’t worry, drinks will come later—head south out of Healdsburg on Mill Street, which becomes Westside Road. Just outside of town is Dragonfly Farm, a peaceful place that seems designed to ease visitors into relaxation. Sit in the shade of a willow circle; watch the farm’s friendly hens and ducks go about their daily business; wander through 2,000 rose bushes (in bloom until Thanksgiving) and chat with the farm’s owner. And don’t forget to pick up dessert: sweet heritage apples and pears from the farm stand.

 “We started this twenty years ago,” owner Bonnie Z said. “Before that, this land was all grapes.”

Now, festooned with flowers for half the year, the farm is a bee haven and community gathering place. “We encourage visitors to bring their easel or camera, and kids can bring games to play. Just come, hang out and enjoy the garden,” said Carlisle Degischer, the owner’s daughter.

“Or take a nap in the shade,” her husband Ray added.

Back on the road, you might drop by Mill Creek Winery for a tasting or even just exploration. Take some time to ogle the water wheel; consider that flour used to be milled under this kind of water power and anticipate that first bite into your fresh artisanal bread.

For one of the best views of the Russian River Valley, head up the hill to the Mill Creek picnic deck and gaze out over the sweeping acres of vineyard to the oak-studded hills beyond. For a few weeks, the valley lights up as the grape leaves change color: a foreground impression of yellow, orange and red against a background of brown hills and blue sky. The season is brief and if you miss it you’ll be left with skeletal grape wood until April, so drink in the beauty of the vineyards while you can.

Speaking of drinking, after you’ve lingered and snapped a few photos, you might visit the tasting room to pick out some picnic wine.

“I know it might make some people nervous, but what I think is one of our best picnicking wines is our Gewürztraminer,” said Bruce Thomas, the tasting room manager. “It’s an off-dry Gewürtz, which makes it just perfect for a picnic. And of course, there’s always our Sauvignon Blanc, best of class at the Harvest Fair, which is nice on a hot day.”

Thomas noted that there’s something special about a simple picnic meal and encouraged guests to take their time, soak up the ambience, and enjoy a meal on the picnic deck or beside the water wheel. “Even just bread, salami, cheese, and a little bit of wine. It’s what Europeans do and it’s so simple, so civilized.”

But depending on when you get started, you might not be ready for lunch when you reach Mill Creek Winery, in which case it’s time to press on to another historic winery: Hop Kiln.

Built in 1905 by Italian stonemasons, the winery’s namesake hop kiln is a California registered historical landmark. Impressive to behold, it possesses three stone kilns for drying hops, a wooden cooler and a two story press for baling.

On a Saturday, the Hop Kiln Winery tasting counter will be packed with tourists. So instead of waiting in line, try out an alternative tasting and head to the round table where stacked jars of mustard fan out like a color wheel. This is mustard like you’ve never imagined: over one dozen different flavors in shades of hot pink (Cranberry Dijon), maroon (Raspberry Jalapeno), and sea green (Sake Wasabi), as well as the more traditional oranges and yellows.

Honor Hop Kiln’s beer heritage by trying out the IPA Sweet Fire (warning: very spicy). If you’d like to maintain the integrity of your taste buds for wine tasting here or at neighboring Rochioli Vineyards & Winery, try the milder mustards: Curry, Sweet Garlic, or Sesame. (Sweet Garlic in particular offers a subtle twist on the classic that could easily become a kitchen staple.)

Hop Kiln has a well-stocked refrigerator of natural and traditional sodas, and since you’re approaching the valley’s best picnic spots, it’s the perfect time to pick up non-alcoholic picnic beverages.

As you continue down Westside Road, admire the privately owned hop kiln and baling barn on the left hand side, just past the Westside Farms sign. When the road wends its way from open hillsides to shady conifers, make a left onto Wohler Bridge. The river access here is open from October 1 to May 15, and on a sunny October day there’s nothing quite as refreshing as a quick wade in the Russian River.

But for more established picnic grounds, continue across the bridge and turn left onto Eastside Road, which will carry you to Riverfront Park.

The natural beauty of Riverfront Park—home to towering redwoods, ponds, and of course the river—is adorned with picnic-friendly tables and benches. Ensconced in shade and moist, cool air, it’s time to dig in to that farmers market picnic and taste the many forms of agriculture still thriving in this region. After lunch, finish off the day with a walk around the pond: you’ll appreciate the Dragonfly Farm fruit dessert even more.

Of course, if you’re still feeling up for adventure, Healdsburg’s Bear Republic Brewing Company & Restaurant offers a perfect way to honor wine country’s hops heritage: beer tasting. But there’s no rush, and there’s plenty of time to soak up the ambiance of the east side of the river.

Do obey the speed limit and keep your eyes on the road, but feel free to pull off, get out of the car and gaze across the valley to the pine-serrated mountains beyond. The view is different from this side of the river: those sprawling, open hills that you saw from Westside Road now tower behind you and the fall colors of the vineyard stand out, starkly contrasting with the coniferous coastal range.

After you exit Riverfront Park and turn left onto Eastside Road, keep your eyes peeled for another privately owned hop kiln—this one cinderblock—and a few beautiful old barns. After a left onto Old Redwood Highway, you will cross Memorial Bridge and end up back in town.

When you’re sipping your locally brewed beer after a hard day’s play, don’t forget to toast your own good fortune of exploring wine country in its most striking season.

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