Wine. It can be as simple as choosing between red or white, or it can be a passionately debated topic that carries a discussion through an entire evening and beyond. Winemaking and its seductive artifact are part agriculture, part history, part culture and an undeniable delight for the senses--all in one beautiful bottle.
If you're passionate about wine, the world is an increasingly desirable place! It seems there is always a new wine region popping up on the map, from Croatia to Oregon and beyond. However, one particular region remains a personal favorite. It's a place that truly encapsulates the exquisite, the profound and the enchanting nuances of wine culture. That place is beautiful Wine Country California.
Viticulture has a long history here in the sunny hills of northern California, reaching back to the early Spanish missions and settlers who came here in the mid-1800s. But it was in Napa Valley in the early 1970s that American wine production came into its own and founded a tradition that continues flourishing with inventive and delicious wines.
California, nicknamed the Golden State (for its sunny dry weather), is home to over 100 wine appellations -- more formally known as American Viticulture Areas or AVAs--protected federally recognized geographic regions for wine grape-growing. Distinguishable by specific climatic and geographic features, AVAs are designated by a bureau within the US Department of the Treasury so that American vintners can accurately describe the origin of their wine and so that consumers are better informed about the wine they are buying.
The Backroads California Wine Country Bike Tour travels through the heart of Napa Valley --considered one of the premier wine regions of the world--and Sonoma County, celebrated for its unique terroir and Europe-esque landscape. In the course of the week we pass through numerous AVAs, including Rutherford, Oakville, Sonoma Valley, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley and the lesser-known Bennett Valley. Working as a Backroads Leader in this incredible region, I have come to know well several wineries we visit on our trips. My favorite? It's honestly too hard to choose, so I'll just name a select few to give you a taste of what you can expect to experience when you travel with Backroads in this extraordinary destination.
Clif Family Winery
There's nothing more delightful than arriving--on two wheels-- in the town of St. Helena in Napa Valley for a garden-fresh lunch at the Clif Family Winery. Co-owners Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford (of Clif Bar fame) were so inspired by their days of cycling through the wine regions of Italy that they returned to their native California to share their passion for bicycle touring, artisan food and wine culture. A visit to their tasting room and complementary food truck are really a celebration of the distinctive union of the vine and the vélo! Here you're treated to a fun atmosphere punctuated by the sight of classic bicycles mounted on the walls, a Peloton Wine Club, a welcoming outdoor patio and the perfect spot to park your bike, relax and fill your glass during your Backroads trip.
After a particularly challenging climb on the bike, it's so sweet to arrive at Matanzas Creek Winery estate in Sonoma County's Bennet Valley. Hop off your bike to take in the lavender-scented air and the incredible views of the surrounding vineyard-covered hillsides. Bennet Valley, established as an AVA in 2003, is a peaceful area with 36 vineyards, a majority of which are family-owned. Matanzas Creek is the only winery in this region open to the public and it's an exceptional place to take a moment to relax and savor a glass of the winery's famed Sauvignon Blanc.
Cabernet Sauvignon, a cross-breed of Cabernet Franc and Sauvignon Blanc, is the most planted wine grape in the world. Cabernet wines have been celebrated for specific features and characteristics like fruit quality, depth of flavor, freshness, structure, oak integration, overall balance and age-worthiness. The best Napa Valley Cabernet wines boast a depth that reveals layers of flavors that evolve over the duration of the tasting experience. You might say it's an intricate feast for the senses!
Back in 1972, a Napa Valley winemaker with a dairy barn and a Colorado entrepreneur came together to form a partnership in Napa that still operates as a family business. Today, Silver Oak Winery operates six vineyards set in the rolling foothills of the Mayacamas mountains. And they focus one fabulous varietal... Cabernet Sauvignon. Backroads visits their newest winery in Alexander Valley. It's an impressive operation with sustainable long-term strategies, precision farming and LEED-certified buildings. It seems that innovation is the predominant driver here... with alternative energy sources, impressive water reuse systems and the use of reclaimed materials to construct new buildings. My advice? Don't let all the bells and whistles distract you from the real reason we stop here! You may decide you want to focus your attention on tasting Silver Oak's 2014 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. It's been described as having "an alluring nose of chocolate-covered strawberries, vanilla, nutmeg, truffle and sage with a broad yet delicate entry on the palate offering cranberry flavors complemented by raspberry and pluot with savory black olive characters on the mid-palate, finishing with silky tannins, cedar and bramble flavors with excellent length and return." Umm....wow!
Twomey Cellars: From the family of Silver Oak
The founders of Silver Oak Winery, the Duncan Family, decided to expand their wine making repertoire to pursue the production of varietals other than their wildly successful Cabernets. With their sights set on Pinot noir, Merlot and Sauvignon blanc, the family acquired a number of exceptional vineyards including Soda Canyon Ranch Vineyard in Napa Valley, West Pin Vineyard in Russian River Valley and Monument Tree Vineyard in Anderson Valley, Stonegate Winery in Calistoga and Roshambo Winery in Healdsburg. Today, Twomey's operation is self-described as "a marriage of classical French technique and an extraordinary vineyard." Twomey has two tasting rooms: Twomey Healdsburg, the home of their small-production winery-only Pinot Noirs and Twomey Calistoga, home of their Soda Canyon Ranch Merlot, one of the few single-vineyard Merlots in California. Backroads visits their Healdsburg location, after which we pedal the last few miles into the downtown of one of the most beloved towns in all of California Wine Country. The northern Sonoma County town of Healdsburg is truly unforgettable. With over 30 tasting rooms and a thriving farm-to-table food scene, there's no denying that it's a world-class wine destination.
To me, Hanna Winery in Sonoma County's Alexander Valley AVA feels reminiscent of a family-owned villa in Europe. Perched on a hilltop with yellow ocher-painted walls, a terracotta-shingled roof and a sprawling heritage oak tree that casts a bit of welcome shade over every grateful cyclist who arrives at this incredibly scenic spot. Hanna Winery was founded in 1985 after Dr. Elias Hanna and his daughter Christine had been making homemade wine on their 12 acres in the Russian River Valley since the 1970s. Christine Hanna manages the winery today, which has expanded to 600 acres in Russian River, Alexander and Sonoma Valleys. Backroads visits their Alexander Valley Tasting Room, the ideal location to enjoy a glass of their iconic Sauvignon Blanc while relaxing your bike legs on the deck in the shade of that magnificent oak tree.
Northern California's Wine Country is vast and varied and traveling there with Backroads means that you can experience a curated adventure specifically designed to introduce you to the best hotels and spas, the most scenic bike routes, the most tantalizing food culture and some of the most unforgettable wine tasting in the region.
Join us on our Backroads California Wine Country Bike Tour where you can spin, stop, sip, savor, spa and smile with old and new friends as come to understand the essence of a unique place with small-town charm and international allure!