Touring & tasting on the Russian

Tour the Tasting: Riding and savoring Sonoma County’s Russian River Wine Road
The Sacramento Bee, May 5, 2005


When Cyrus Alexander, a failed fur trapper from Illinois, first rode his horse through the Napa Valley in 1840, the land had been divvied up, settlers staking claims with the government of Mexico, of which California was then a part.

So he moved over the hills to the north and west and staked out the area that would eventually bear his name: the Alexander Valley.

It was a second choice that looks pretty good.

The Alexander Valley, which lies along Highway 101 and is centered on Healdsburg, population 10,000, still plays a secondary role to the world-famous Napa Valley. But the area is more familiar to outsiders than they might at first think, and for a simple reason: Like the weather, the wine is good here, too.

Wines that many think of as being from the Napa Valley actually come from the area around Healdsburg: Kendall Jackson, Foppiano, DeLoach, Rodney Strong and Clos du Bois are among them.

The Alexander Valley is home to the Russian River Wine Road, a designation for the area from Santa Rosa up Highway 101 to Cloverdale. It offers much that the Napa Valley has, including tours and wine tasting. But because it has lighter traffic and a more laid-back atmosphere than Napa, there is an opportunity to combine two seemingly incompatible passions: outdoor recreation and wine tasting.

Call it “sip and roll.”

Several companies offer bike tours of the area, and the gently rolling roads make biking easy for anyone but the most car-bound visitor. On a recent visit, we hooked up with Getaway Adventures for a daylong loop from Healdsburg. We visited three wineries in a trip that was paced so that sipping didn’t lead to tipping … over.

It is, after all, quite possible to get a ticket for a BUI – not an actual legal acronym but useful shorthand for biking under the influence.

Likewise, the roads of this area are narrow and, as on Dry Creek Road where we started, generally lack shoulders.

Still, on a quiet Friday morning, led by our “professional guide and wine cave spelunker” Shea T. Lehman, 22, five of us set out to sip and roll our way approximately 10 miles, up Dry Creek Road, across Lambert Bridge Road and back down into Healdsburg.

There are dozens of wineries in the area, so which ones you visit depends on where you ride; or, if you’re a wine aficionado, where you ride depends on where you want to taste. But it’s a fairly large area to cover on two wheels, so don’t even try it all in one day. You’re not going to be able to combine a visit to Martinelli, south of Windsor, with another to Geyser Peak in Geyserville. That is what makes Healdsburg a good starting point.

After riding for about 45 minutes, we stopped at the gorgeous Lambert Bridge Winery, with its enormous tasting and barrel room, sampling chardonnays and zinfandels – along with strategically timed chocolate morsels. This was not going to be a typical bike ride. Power- Bars were not welcome, or necessary.

The pace is casual; after all, a glass of wine, even just a sip, is meant to be savored, and Lehman squeezes every bit of pleasure out of it. Describing the making of the barrels in the high-ceilinged barrel room or showing a guest how a good wine looks when held up to light, Lehman clearly loves his work.

He also keeps an eye on his guests, making sure they are pedal-worthy before returning them to the ribbon of road that winds north, up the valley.

At a second stop, the gorgeous, family-owned Passa- lacqua Winery, Lehman lets guests taste wines inside while he lays out a lunch of bread, cheese, fruit, bruschetta, cold cuts and, of course, wine. And water. Lots of water. Lunch, along with the bikes (and water), is included in the $115 cost. Wine tasting usually costs about $5 per winery, though some seem lax about collecting.

An hour later, we were rolling past 100-year-old vines such as those at Maple Vineyards, before our final stop at the Seghesio Family Vineyards on Grove Street, on the north side of Healdsburg. The employees tell the story of the Seghesio family, which has been making wine here since 1895. And the cyclists keep sipping.

The alternation of biking and sipping seems to work. Even riding in the late-afternoon sun, no one seems to feel any ill effects.

If you pace yourself, you seem to burn off the alcohol at the same rate you consume it. The tour ends about 3:30 p.m., as planned, back in town.

Healdsburg is close enough for a day trip – less than two hours from Sacramento – but why rush? There are a variety of accommodations, from bed-and-breakfasts such as the Haydon Street Inn to the way-upscale new Hotel Les Mars in Healdsburg.

And the restaurants in Healdsburg are aiming right at the Napa Valley’s upscale eateries, such as the world-famous French Laundry. Surrounding the downtown square called the Plaza – wherein sits an old millstone preserved from a gristmill built by none other than Cyrus Alexander – are a number of restaurants and cafes that could have been plucked right out of Napa Valley …. or San Francisco.

The most recent addition is Cyrus, at 29 North St., which its religiously inclined namesake, Alexander, might have found decadent with its caviar, steak tartare and fine wine selection.

But modern visitors with a taste for the finer things – and a wallet to match – will find Cyrus a pleasure. Opened in March by Nick Peyton and chef Doug Keane, co-owners of Market in Napa and Tablespoon in San Francisco, the restaurant has a chef’s tasting menu, for $85 per person, that features an almost overwhelming variety of tastes and sights. It’s accompanied by a wine-pairing menu that covers the local area but also reaches far beyond its bounds.

Beyond the quality of the food, Cyrus is all about service. The final cheese course was a virtual performance by Joseph Bain, a Frenchman with an accent so ingratiating he has done voice-overs on local radio. And with a diner-to-staff ratio of about 2-to-1 on a recent Thursday night, Cyrus’ employees were solicitous but not overbearing, and the place had a casual feel.

That seems characteristic of Healdsburg, where the few people we saw on the streets on a Friday evening – this is, after all, a very small town – actually offered an unsolicited “hello” to a visitor.

If you’re looking for something more casual and less pricey, but still very stylish, there’s Barndiva, 231 Center St., just off the plaza. Reputedly named for the woman who until recently used the enormous, barnlike (but beautifully designed) space as an art studio, Barndiva could be a South of Market, dot-com-boom hangout.

Barndiva is said to have terrific food, but the main attraction seems to be the bar, which features even more wine, as well as other unexpected choices such as organic gin. The crowd ranges from young and rowdy to older and poised.

Other popular Healdsburg restaurants include the Dry Creek Kitchen, Zin and Ravenous.

And if you’re not in the mood to drop beaucoup dollars on food, there are other choices. One is an outpost of the Napa Valley’s famous Oakville Grocery, with its artisan olives, handmade breads and fine wines, and an outdoor fireplace to enjoy them by. This also is a great place to put together a picnic for your bike ride.

Finally, there also are modest taquerias scattered about, serving both budget travelers and the many migrant and day laborers who keep the local economy – the wineries, particularly – functioning.

One of the places to stay is the elegant Madrona Manor, a Victorian mansion built in 1880 and furnished with extravagantly carved antique furniture, framed embroidery and fans, and other Old West crafts. Perched on a hill just west of Healdsburg, it shows that “upscale” Healdsburg is not a contemporary invention.

Nevertheless, even upscale places such as Madrona Manor maintain a very small-town feel. At 6 a.m. on the day of our bike ride, we were awakened by a sound that transcended distinctions between upscale or budget: a jackhammer echoing down the room’s fireplace. Hours later, a conversation with the desk clerk revealed the cause: a lovesick woodpecker banging for a mate – on the copper plate at the top of the chimney.

Unable to do anything about it – they had tried, she was at pains to explain – she offered a sunny, “Welcome to the country!”

Now that, Cyrus Alexander would probably recognize.

Russian River Wine Road options
Here are some companies that offer bike tours of the Healdsburg/Russian River Wine Road area. Most offer bike rentals and one-day or multiday tours for individuals and groups.

Whichever option you choose, remember to bring sunscreen, a helmet, a little food and plenty of water – especially if you’re tasting wine.

And remember to sip, not gulp. You will regret the latter.

On the Internet, a good place to start is www.sonoma.winecountry.com, which serves as a clearinghouse for operators in the area.

The Healdsburg Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Bureau also can be helpful, and may be reached at (800) 648-9922 or (707) 433-6935.

Getaway Adventures/Wine Country Bike Tours
2228 Northpoint Parkway
Santa Rosa, CA 95407
(800) 499-2453
(707) 568-3040

www.getawayadventures.com

A day trip, including bike and helmet, lunch, water and guide, costs $115. Variations on a three-day tour, with lodging, can cost more than $1,000.

Goodtime Touring Co.
P.O. Box 1955
Sonoma, CA 95476
(888) 525-0453
(707) 938-0453

www.goodtimetouring.com

A day trip, including a “gourmet, glass-plate lunch,” costs $125, while four-day trips including food and accommodations run from $1,300 to $1,500.

Napa Valley Bike Tours (serving the Healdsburg area)
6488 Washington St.
Yountville, CA 94599
(800) 707-2453
(707) 251-8687

www.napavalleybiketours.com

Bike tours start at $115 for a day trip. Multisport and multiday bike tours, including lodging, start about $900.

Wine Country Bikes
122 Stanford St., Suite A
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
(866) 922-4537
(707) 545-7960

www.winecountrybikes.com

One-day tours cost $119, inclusive. Two-day tours, with a dinner and one night’s lodging, start at $695.

Or, you can plan a tour yourself. Bring your own bike and pick up a map once you arrive, or check for more information at www.wineroad.com or www.visitwineroad.com.

You also can stop at the sole bike shop in Healdsburg, Spoke Folk Cyclery. The operators know the area and can suggest where to ride, what to look for and even, perhaps, their favorite wineries.

Spoke Folk Cyclery
201 Center St.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 433-7171

www.spokefolk.com

This Web site offers suggestions for do-it-yourself rides. Click on “Rides.”