|Dry Creek Valley's most famous crop|
A day touring vineyards and wineries in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley may seem like a strange outing for someone who has no intention of actually sipping any wine. After all, the main reason why most people visit is to drink wine, duh. Just outside of the town of Healdsburg, California, this official American Viticultural Area is only 16 miles long and 2 miles wide. Families first began growing wine grapes here in the late 1880's, and it now has more than 70 wineries.
The wonderful thing about these vineyards is that many are more than just a tasting room and wine shop. They are surrounded by acres of lush gardens as if you had stumbled upon some modern day Eden. Walking through the gardens is typically free of charge and can end up being a relaxing and cheap way to spend the day. It's a great outing for kids and adults who don't drink but still love nature and the outdoors. If you want to add extra adventure to your day, Wine Country Bikes has cycling tours of the area as well as bike rentals including tandem bikes and child trailers.
|Spoilt for choice at the crossroads|
My guides for the day were my friend, Julia, and her nine-year-old daughter. They are lucky enough to live in Sonoma and get to explore this region whenever they want. While Julia's husband is a wine connoisseur, Julia suffers from the same, bothersome Asian glow affliction that I do. Our bodies don't metabolize alcohol correctly, meaning that our skin starts to flush beet red and we start feeling a little unwell after a few sips. So, we decided to do a non-alcoholic tour of Dry Creek Valley vineyards. Obviously, their little girl won't be drinking during our outing either.
Lunch at Costeaux French BakeryWe started off with a ladies lunch at Costeaux French Bakery in the charming town of Healdsburg. It's known for the artisan breads which they use in their delicious sandwiches. My turkey sandwich was far from ordinary. Turkey breast, French brie, cranberry and baby greens were served on multigrain bread spread with avocado aioli. It was so big that I packed up half to take home but ended up giving away to a hungry young man who asked me for my leftovers as I was walking away from the bakery.
|Best of Show artisanal breads (image courtesy of Dress Code Finder.com)|
Julia's daughter asked for the Princess Cake which is one of their specialties. Three layers of moist chiffon cake are layered with Bavarian custard, raspberry conserve and whipped cream then enrobed in a thin layer of light green marzipan. So delicious!
The Tuscan Villa of Ferrari-Carano Vineyard and Winery
Julia must have wanted to really impress me because our first stop was amazing. Ferrari-Carano Vineyard and Winery is like a piece of Tuscany transported to California. The grandiose Villa Fiori (House of Flowers) is surrounded by five acres of beautifully manicured gardens with 65 additional acres of vineyards spreading beyond them.
|Welcomed to the villa by a bronze boar|
Ferrari-Carano is a family-owned vineyard, and the gardens began as a labor love by owner Rhonda Carano. It took her 16 months to design and do the initial planting. I've been working on my own yard for years and, believe me, it looks nothing like Carano's. The gardens closest to the villa are formal with parterre style plantings showcasing neatly trimmed hedgerows in geometric designs. The ones nearer to the driveway entrance feel like a relaxed park.
|On the villa's terrace overlooking the fountain and parterre gardens|
|Walking paths invite guests to take a walk in the park|
The Villa Fiori houses the tasting rooms, oak barrel room, steel tank room, wine library and gift shop. Be sure to go in to take a look around. Even if you are not on a tour, you can still go downstairs and peek through the window at the barrel room and private tasting rooms. See Ferrari-Carano's website for details on how to book a tour and tasting.
The Farm Store at Preston VineyardsTo me, the best part of Preston Vineyards is the Farm Store. While eating local and buying from a Farmers Market stand has a certain allure, purchasing the produce just a few steps from where it was harvested is even better.
|Self-serve farm store at Preston Vineyards|
Preston Vineyards began as a traditional, family-run vineyard in the 1970's and has evolved into a more diverse farm including a grove of olive trees, fruit trees and organic vegetable gardens. The family considers themselves stewards of the land and promote Socially Responsible Farming. Tasting Room visitors can try wines and olive oils — both just-pressed, cloudy Chaste Maiden and the classic extra-virgin — created from the fruits harvested right there on the farm.
The Farm Store is a self-service enterprise. Baskets of juicy peaches, farm fresh eggs, and English walnuts lay on one rustic table while another displayed bins with different varieties of garlic. A counter in back held Red Vine Vinegar and Apple Cider Vinegar for customers to decant into glass bottles or small, plastic containers. Next to it, bushel baskets were piled with squash. Homemade bread, jars of sauerkraut, cured olives and local cheeses are also available. After customers select what they want, they simply leave the money in a little collection basket on the way out the door. I almost felt like we were in an old-fashioned, small town store where the owners knew and trusted everyone.
See the Preston Vineyards website for more information on visiting them.
Biodynamic Farming at Quivira VineyardsI've always dreamed of having an expansive vegetable garden where I could pick my own produce for that night's dinner. As long as I'm dreaming, I may as well aim high and imagine something like Quivira Vineyards. The beds looked so bountiful and verdant, nothing like the drought-stricken, brown plants that I seem to produce.
|My dream backyard vegetable garden|
According to Quivira, the secret to their success is their dedication to Biodynamic farming. Part of it involves following scientific practices like maintaining healthy soil full of beneficial microbes instead of relying on manufactured chemicals. Then, there's the adherence to mystical methods like only making fertilizer during certain moon phases and stirring in different directions at different times. Whatever they're doing, I like the results.
The three of us strolled through the gardens, admiring the rattlesnake pole beans and valerian herbs. Tall stalks of sunflowers reached for the sky surrounded by blue lupine. Apple trees and olive trees grew off to the side. Julia's girl dallied a bit by the chicken pen, poking an offering of a green leaf to the clucking hens.
See the Quivira Vineyards website for more details on visiting the estate.
I have so many more photos of my walks around Quivira and Preston Vineyards but am saving them for next week's post.
Dinner at Dry Creek Kitchen by Charlie Palmer
Julia, her daughter, and I ended the evening by meeting up with her husband at Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg, just across the street from the quaint town square. The restaurant was created by famous Master Chef Charlie Palmer who is known for his Progressive American cuisine. After dining there, I can fully understand all the hype around Palmer's restaurants. The food was delicious, the presentation was intriguing, and the service was impeccable. This gourmet restaurant is in the $$$$ price range with main courses ranging in price from $25-40. Most people get a first course and dessert as well. It's really the type of place where you should go all out and splurge. A more economical Sonoma Neighbor Menu ($36 for three courses) is available Monday through Thursday. As a side note, I would only bring extremely well behaved children here. Luckily, that exactly describes Julia's nine-year-old. Being a mini-foodie, she was just as excited as I was to be there.
|Housemade Charcuterie Platter with Pickled Vegetables and Assorted Mustards|
See the Dry Creek Kitchen website for the current menu and to make reservations. If you have time, browse through the stores surrounding the town square.
Suggestions for nearby Napa Valley
If you're in the area, I'm sure you have plans to visit nearby Napa Valley. If you want to continue your non-alcoholic tour of California Wine Country, be sure to make a stop at the stunning Castello di Amorosa, the medieval Italian castle and winery which I wrote about in my previous post. Follow it up with a meal at the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone and leave time to browse their Spice Island Marketplace for cookbooks and kitchenware.
What do you look forward to when touring a Wine Region?
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