San Francisco greeted us with drizzle and a bay socked in by fog. Well, we couldn’t visit San Francisco and not have some fog could we?
We checked out of our room, jumped in the car to head to Sonoma. We pulled off the road at the turn off right before the Golden Gate bridge so we could take some photos of the icon before we drove over her.
Sonoma is only a little over an hour from San Francisco and it did occur to me that we could have visited with a day trip, but we decided we’d like to spend a little time there. We arrived before noon and found parking at Sonoma Plaza and walked around. There are a ton of little shops and restaurants to check out. We stopped in at the tourist information center and a lady there gave us a lot of information on vineyards and wineries in the area plus a lot of “two-for-one” coupons for wine tastings. We also picked up a couple of maps while we were there which would prove helpful over the next couple of days.
I’d read rave reviews for the Girl and Fig restaurant. Although a very pricey stop for lunch, we didn’t find another restaurant that really jumped out at us, so we ended up dining there. We both had the white asparagus soup and DH had a veal stew which was part of the Prix Fixe menu, but they allowed him to order it a la carte. I had a croque monsieur which was tasty, although more a regular ham and cheese sandwich than a “croque monsieur” (no sauce), it was on wonderful fresh bread.
After lunch we drove to Benziger Winery, which was one of the places recommended by the tourist information center because they did a tour through their vineyards on a tram. It was a neat tour, giving us the opportunity to learn a lot about wine. This vineyard was particularly interesting as it’s all organic (they call it “Biodynamics”), using no chemicals of any kind. After the tour, which lasted about 45 minutes (and included taking us into their wine caves), we tasted a few wines with our guide, and then went into the tasting room where we could taste a few more. I was glad to be inside as the weather continued to be raw and overcast. Brrrr!
When we bought the tickets for the tour, we were given a coupon for two free tastings at their sister winery, Imagery. We had enough time before they closed, and they were on our way back to the hotel, so we figured, why not? Realizing that taste is subjective, I have to say none of the wine we tasted was appealing. Imagery is run by a couple of the adult kids of the Benziger family and perhaps it’s a matter of just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I don’t mean to be harsh, but it really just wasn’t good.
When I had been looking for a hotel to book in this area, I had a very difficult time. DH doesn’t like bed and breakfasts or “inns”. He wants a straight forward, full-service hotel and there were none to be found in the area of Sonoma I wanted to be in (near the Sonoma Plaza). I had wanted to book the MacArthur Place Hotel (which was really an inn, but had great reviews) but the prices were crazy (a minimum of $279 a night). I finally settled on the Renaissance Spa as it at least was a Marriott property and more affordable (over $100 a night more affordable).
We arrived at the hotel and had a bit of a snafu checking in. They didn’t have the room we requested available. So after some back and forth, we ended up in an upgraded room. However this meant we were in one of their cabanas instead of the main building. It was a bit of a pain wheeling our luggage through the maze of buildings, THEN hauling those bags up the stairs to our room, but the room was very nice with a fireplace in the sitting area and a huge tub in the bath. One thing I couldn’t figure out was that they kept trying to “sell” me on a room overlooking the pool as though it were some kind of perk. We walked by the pool on the way to the restaurant, past all of the screaming, splashing kids, and couldn’t figure out for the life of me why being on top of all of that noise would be an upgrade!
The Renaissance has a wine tasting room that is leased by a co-op. We’d received vouchers for the wine tasting when we checked in. There were two people from small vineyards (we’re talking 1,000 cases a year) offering up samples of their wine. It was interesting talking to them about what they did and the wine was pretty good too!
After our final tasting of the day, DH just wanted a beer (no more wine!), so we went to the bar at the hotel’s restaurant. While sipping beer, we caught some NHL playoff action and just relaxed. We decided to forgo a big dinner and got appetizer-sized pizza at the bar (which was made fresh right in front of us as the pizza oven is behind the bar!). It was very good and one of our cheaper meals in California despite being at a hotel!
The next morning we went to Sonoma Valley Bikes (a mile from our hotel, which is why I wanted to be in this area) for our “Cycling IN the Vineyard Tour”. They gave us very nice Specialized mountain bikes (they hadn’t asked for our heights beforehand so my bike was on the shrimpy side for me). The tour took place in the Los Carneros region of Napa and began at the Bouchaine vineyard, where we were able to bike amongst the vines. We rode for about an hour and a half, through the vineyard, down to a marshland area and back up again. The weather cooperated (yay!) and it was in the 60’s and sunny. Perfect biking weather. We arrived at the winery around 11:30 and would have a wine tasting while our guide went to pick up our lunch. This wine was VERY good! So much better than what we’d sampled yesterday. In fact we purchased two bottles…a very nice “silver” (non-oaked) chardonnay and a rose.
Lunch was robust sandwiches and salads that we dined on while sitting outside on available picnic tables. The rest of the ride would predominately be on the road, but there was a bike lane for most of the trip and not much traffic. We’d stop at two more winerys, but the best was at the end, McKenzie-Mueller. They too allowed us to ride through their vineyard (the first time they’d given permission) and we were given a private tasting amid their casks. It was very cool just talking wine, while trying 8 or so different wines, and watching the family’s dogs wrestling outside. The wine was delicious! They intentionally make wines that they ship 3-5 years after they’ve been harvested. They don’t want you to open a bottle of their wine and think “Oh, this might mature into something more drinkable.” We had a cabernet sauvignon that was bottled in 1998 and was fantastic (and I usually don’t care for red wine!). We purchased a lovely pinot noir, wishing we could buy more. Massachusetts doesn’t allow you to ship alcohol from other states, so we were limited to buying what we could drink in our last three nights in California!
After all of that exercise and two weeks of eating very fresh seafood in Hawaii and San Francisco, I thought we might be in the mood for some red meat, so I’d made dinner reservations at Saddles, the steakhouse at MacArthur Place. The food was very good and a nice change of pace. The atmosphere was a little strange…there was a large room that looked like banquet space that had tables set in it. While we dined one couple was seated in there. It must have been disconcerting to be in that big room all by yourself. The bar area was very tiny and decorated (no surprise!) with saddles everywhere. After seeing the public area of the hotel, I’m sure DH liked where we stayed much better! The appearance made me glad that I wasn’t able to book our hotel room there after all! Not to say that it wasn’t fine, it was just a bit hokey for us.
Tomorrow we would drive back to San Francisco…after a detour to the north!