A visit to California’s original wine country is a declaration of love. Go wine tasting, savor fine cuisine, and bed down in elegance. But while you’re there, take the time to visit some of wine country’s hidden gems. Drive on lanes through pristine forests, walk the redwoods, dip your toes into the Russian River. All these create an authentic wine country experience.
Head to Matanzas Creek Winery, located in the Bennett Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area). This remote pocket of Sonoma County is breathtaking. The winery is famous for its Sauvignon Blanc, a fussy wine to make correctly, and Merlot. Both varieties thrive in this valley’s temperate climate. Sometimes the winery has live music on the decks, overlooking gracious lavender fields. (A few orange umbrellas pop up amid the purple.)
In the tasting room, pick up cookbooks that feature lavender or purchase lavender soaps and oils. While you’re in Bennett Valley, stop by the Grange Hall. It’s a sweet blast from the past.
Jack London State Historical Park
The first thing you’ll notice is the buttery light. Jack and Charmian London were adventurers, writers, and dreamers. The two had sailed around the world, and they chose this spot to build their home and writing studio. They were deeply in love, more like one person than two, and that sense of partnership pervades all. First, walk into the home called, “House of Happy Walls.” Charmian filled it with treasures from their travels.
Stroll through Matanzas trees to Wolf House Ruins. Jack started building this home in 1911, and it was nearly complete when a fired gutted it in 1913. Arson was suspected. Charmian wrote, “the razing of our house killed something in Jack, and he never ceased to feel the tragic inner sense of loss.” Jack London died soon after the fire. Wolf House was 15,000 square feet, with 26 rooms and nine fireplaces, and built of volcanic rocks. Wander through the ruins. This is a place to renew your devotion.
Boating into the Bay on the Petaluma River
Consider heading to the town of Petaluma, the most southern part of wine country. There is a charming, well-preserved downtown with buildings that survived the 1906 earthquake. Walk two blocks over from Main Street, and you’re on the Petaluma River.
The weather is always perfect for getting onto the water. Rent a kayak, raft, or stand-up paddle board and head to the San Francisco Bay. There are also themed tours out of Petaluma, including bioluminescence on Tomales Bay or a Petaluma Marsh tour. Sail into the Bay, dock, and enjoy exceptional cuisine at the water’s edge. Laugh under the stars.
Occidental and Freestone
Tucked into the rolling hills, these towns are small miracles. Occidental’s main street is only two blocks long, but there are galleries, crafts, and an ecology center. The Union Hotel, founded in 1879 as a railroad saloon and boarding house, has garden dining and a pizzeria. Across the street, Negri’s is a traditional, homestyle Italian restaurant, owned and run by the Negri family since 1943. It serves up vintage ambiance and Italian classics.
Freestone is just three miles away. Go to Osmosis Day Spa Sanctuary and rejuvenate in the healing alchemy of a Cedar Enzyme Bath. This therapeutic body treatment, straight from Japan, is found nowhere else in North America. The soft, warm cedar leaves you glowing. They also offer couples massage, organic facials, and a Zen meditation sanctuary. Sense the possibilities in new beginnings together.
The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas
Ukiah is an ordinary working-class town in northern wine country. Just two miles east is a surprise—The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. It is one of the largest Buddhist communities in the Western Hemisphere. The street signs are in English and Chinese with names such as Peace, Hopeful, and Mindfulness. The Jeweled Hall of 10,000 Buddhas is adorned with streamers, banners, lanterns, and has a 20-foot statue of a one-thousand-armed Bodhisattva.
There is also the Hall of No Words, Dharma Realm Buddhist University, the Tower of Blessings, the Wonderful Words Hall, and a 10-acre organic farm. Walk the streets and feel the calm. Picnic at nearby Lake Mendocino, another wine country hidden gem, and drop into the Pomo Indian Cultural Center.
Southern Napa Art Park
Protected forever, the Di Rosa Center for contemporary art is like walking into a living art museum and gallery. Settled on 217 of the most gorgeous acres in the Napa Valley, this is a refuge and a delight. Rene di Rosa, addicted to collecting art of all kinds, sold his Napa vineyard and used the proceeds to create this art park.
Huge sculptures sit outside—some are graceful, others funny, still others look as if they dropped onto the land from another planet. This world-class art collection has contemporary exhibitions by Bay Area artists, educational programs, and a permanent collection of works. As a bonus, it’s across the road from the two finest champagne and sparkling wine cellars in Napa County.
The towns of Bodega and Bodega Bay were brought to the screen in the early 1960’s as the backdrop for Alfred Hitchcock’s film classic, The Birds. The Tides restaurant looks considerably different than it did then, but the astonishing views are the same. It may be the most beautiful setting on the Sonoma Coast.
Dine in a window table overlooking the tides, and watch fishermen haul in their catch. The restaurant specializes in local, fresh seafood and it has a very good wine list. Situated where the Russian River runs into the vast Pacific, the water undulates in waves and currents. Sea birds bob on the surface of a sunken ship. Walk out on the deck together and be mesmerized by the endless Pacific Ocean.
Northern California’s Wine Country was made for peace, calm, laughter, and falling in love all over again. The vineyards are incomparable, but Nature is the star of the show. Get outside and explore the redwoods, lakes, rivers, and the ocean. Surrender to wide-open spaces and the primeval forests. California wine country is ideal for a romantic vacation.