By Amy Lively Jensen
Many wine lovers travel to Napa Valley for a glamorous wine vacation. However, there is a refuge nearby where you’ll find a laid back and relaxed lifestyle, with award-winning wines, wineries and restaurants. Russian River Valley in Sonoma County, California welcomes you to slow down and savor wines at more than 80 wineries that have specialized in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But, just because you’re making a trip to wine country doesn’t mean you have to spend all of your time in tasting rooms. Following the cheese trail, shopping in charming small towns, hiking or camping while being in awe of 1400-year-old redwoods or just soaking in a rejuvenating Cedar Enzyme Bath are pleasures you shouldn’t miss.
After recent travels to Russian River Valley, we’ve only scratched the surface of exploring unique wineries, plus all the recreation, food, shopping and relaxation that abounds in this idyllic location. Here is a taste of what you can expect.
Vintner’s Resort, in the heart of wine country, has the feel of Tuscany. With picturesque buildings overlooking fountains and sleek new buildings nestled in the vineyards, this is an oasis of relaxation. As you enter your large, stylishly furnished room, you’ll find a complimentary bottle of wine to enjoy on your balcony/patio or in front of the fireplace. There’s even an irresistible cookie on your pillow before restfully sleeping in the plush bedding. The luxurious spa at Vintner’s Resort is just what you need after wine tasting and touring. A visit to their heated soaking pool, steam shower, gym, spa treatments and the bocce ball court will help you unwind. You have a choice of three restaurants; John Ash and Company is the fine dining icon of gourmet wine country restaurants. They create a flawless dining experience with innovative dishes that pair with regional wines from their award-winning wine list. During our flawless dining experience, we found the food superlative, super fresh, well-seasoned, perfectly prepared and presented. Don’t pass up their signature items, including the amazing foie gras sampler, roasted beet salad with goat cheese that is a work of art, and the roasted diver scallops and gulf prawns in a wonderful sauce. (www.vintnersresort.com)
If you are a cheese-lover, the Sonoma County Cheese Trail is a must-do. Close to 30 farms and creameries produce distinctive, hand-crafted cheeses. You can print out a Cheese Trail map at www.cheesetrail.org Plan ahead as some tours need reservations a month ahead, or only have a few tours a year. Among the oldest cheese makers is Vella Cheese Company in downtown Sonoma. Their famous variety of Monterey Jack cheeses is a hit among locals.
There is a variety of recreational activities you can explore. The most amazing is a fairy cocoon of redwoods at Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve. It is mesmerizing to walk in the silence of the trees in this redwood forest. A feat of nature, these trees stand up to 300 feet; redwoods are the tallest living things on our planet. The majestic Colonel Armstrong Tree is estimated to be 1400 years old. Choose a short, flat walk among the majestic trees, or be ambitious and tackle a longer hike up the ridges. See the suggested walks and hikes at www.parks.ca.gov. Another way to experience the redwoods is by zip line. You streak through the trees at 35mph on a seven-line course. Other options are hot air ballooning, a challenging 18-hole golf course, water-oriented activities on the Russian River, mountain biking and horseback riding.
For ultimate relaxation, visit one of Sonoma’s 40 spas and wellness centers. Pamper yourself at the only day spa in the US that offers the Cedar Enzyme Bath at Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary in Freestone. In this rejuvenating heat treatment from Japan, you are covered up to the neck with a mix of ground cedar, rice bean and plant enzymes that has been fermented. This stress reducing treatment is said to stimulate metabolism, improve circulation, relieve joint and muscle pain, and thoroughly cleanse your skin. After 20 minutes, you shower and go upstairs for a 75-minute massage. Then, feeling utterly tranquil, take a leisurely walk through the Spa’s Meditation Garden and ponder the koi swimming in the pond. (www.osmosis.com)
No holiday is complete without shopping. The hippest new destination is The Barlow in Sebastopol. It is a 220,000-square-foot outdoor market area full of shops, art galleries, restaurants and bars. It used to be an apple cannery but was redone a few years ago to be a “makers marketplace.” They feature artisan wine, local beers and coffee, plus a distillery called Spirit Works. (www.thebarlow.net) Sebastopol tops the list for art lovers, and many towns have charming downtowns with locally owned boutiques. Try the historic Sonoma Plaza, Petaluma’s Premium Outlets, Healdsburg Square, and Santa Rosa’s Old Town in the Railroad Square Historic District.
There are an abundance of wine and food tasting experiences you can take advantage in Russian River Valley. One of the most elegant is at the Bubble Room at J Winery in Healdsburg. Beneath the glass chandeliers sculpted into clusters of bubbles, you can indulge in their five-course tasting menu with J wines paired with each gourmet offering. They have four distinctly different tastings in various areas including an artisan cheese pairing on the delightful terrace. (www.jwine.com)
The whole point of your Russian River vacation is to drink and eat well. There are over 100 restaurants with a range of styles, price points and cuisines. Some have garnered awards from Michelin and Zagat. At many restaurants, you’ll relish farm-to-table presentations. If your timing is right, you can try out many at amazingly low prices during Sonoma Restaurant Week. This year it will be held February 21 through March 1. They offer delicious and unique pre-fixe menus at a variety of restaurants. (www.sonomacounty.com)
We highly recommend the “Trust Me Menu” that we encountered at Valette Restaurant in Healdsburg. Their redwood tables welcome you to a warm, intimate setting as you begin your culinary journey. For this unparalleled tasting menu, you choose five or more courses from the chef’s recommendations. A server fine-tunes the options by asking your preferences. The twist is that each couple receives two different versions of the tasting menu chosen by celebrated chef, Dustin Valette. You can experience ten unique courses, assuming that you have a partner who agrees to share! A sumptuous dish is scallops that arrive beneath squid ink puff pastry, into which the server pours a caviar champagne-beurre blanc sauce. The service and wine list were equally wonderful and on point at this gem of a restaurant. (www.valettehealdsburg.com)
On the other hand, you can have choose from a selection of hearty sandwiches, wood-fired pizzas and salads at Oakville Grocery, which is in downtown Healdsburg. It has been a wine country institution since 1881, and is on the Register of Historic Places. Carry out a box lunch for a picnic in the vineyards or a scenic park, or just unwind on their patio. The hot and cold sandwiches are large portions; you can’t go wrong with the turkey pesto sandwich. While you’re there, you can also shop at their grocery, featuring products from small-scale producers in wine country and a vast selection of wines. (www.oakvillegrocery.com)
Take time to explore the downtown square in Healdsburg. At the JCB Tasting salon, you will be greeted by a beautiful stuffed peacock when entering. The distinctive décor was designed by French wine impresario Jean-Charles Boisset (aka JCB.) On emerald green couches surrounding a golden sculptured tree, you can try their bold sparkling wines and floral rosés. (www.jcbcollection.com/location/tasting-salon-healdsburg)
One of the region’s first vineyards is Russian River Vineyards in Forestville, California. Co-founder and Winemaker Giovanni Balistreri described his winemaking style: “Think of vineyards like a dance partner. Every year we dance with Mother Nature, and she leads.” This results in world-class wines. They offer five wine tasting choices, from a casual tasting flight to an over-the-top luxury VIP experience. The view, the gardens and the ambiance of rustic elegance under the redwood trees are as stunning as a postcard. The food is also remarkable with ingredients courtesy of their 1.25-acre culinary garden. (www.russianrivervineyards.com)
Exploring and sipping your way through Russian River Valley is an extraordinary adventure and perhaps, you may chose to stay and not return home.