Thursday, April 30, 2015

A Wander in Glen Ellen

Sonoma  - it's 1.5 times the size of the state of Rhode Island and nearly as big as the state of Delaware. There's a lot to explore there, and as I set off on a new travel book project, I've decided to drive and hike around it a lot more. Starting with Glen Ellen.

The sherry barn built by Kohler and Frohling on Sonoma Mountain above Glen Ellen
Glen Ellen's Claim to Foodie Fame

Is there anyone alive who doesn't know that foodie pioneer and memoirist M. F. K. Fisher lived in Glen Ellen? Not in the village proper, but just outside on the Bouverie Preserve. And no, you can't see her house. But you can see Jack London's house...and that's what I did.

Jack London Ranch Remembered

Saturday morning several hundred of the old-timers from the Jack London Ranch, during the era when it was a guest ranch, congregated in the old Kohler and Frohling winery ruins, those stone walls that stand like sentries looking out upon the higher reaches of majestic Sonoma Mountain.

Docents and old timers enjoyed several hours of Jack London Ranch stories and remembrances in the old Kohler and Frohling Winery ruins on Sonoma Mountain
In pairs and threes, they were interviewed, one after another, on life on the ranch in the 1930's-50's and a little beyond (into the 60's). I'd wanted to hear all of this real life storytelling straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak. Much mention was made of idyllic summers, with lots of horseback riding and swimming in the lake for the kids, and hunting for the men, followed by hours of evening card playing.

In terms of wine, there was a considerable history before London bought the ranch, but when he owned the ranch hay sold for higher prices than wine grapes so the wine grapes were mostly torn out. The property became a dairy farm under his heirs. Perhaps a little bit of pot was grown there, too, some say.
Charmiane London's house, built after Jack's death

The London's cottage, where they lived while at the Ranch, enlarging it an
office for Jack after their new house burned down
You can easily spend the better part of a day exploring the park. There's the House of Happy Walls, the house built by London's wife, Charmiane, after his death, which is now a museum to the two of them. And then there's the tragedy still standing in ruins -  Wolf House, the site of their grandly planned home, which would have looked like a miniature version of the Awahnee, had it not burned down in a freakish fire.

Then there's the whole cottage and London's office to visit. Listen to Enrico Caruso sing opera on a victrola in the study. Docents will guide you through that room and the whole cottage, as well as to the Wolf House. The park is blessed with amazingly well informed docents, and, surprisingly, most of them are men. Charmingly one volunteer plays piano in the House of Happy Walls, just as Charmian would have done, on weekend afternoons. (Speaking of whom, there's a Charmian tour coming up in the park once a month throughout the summer. Click here for details.)

While there's so much cultural history and life to explore, there are also miles and miles of trails to hike.

Jack London's version of "yellow sticky notes"
Benziger Family Winery, the Old Wegener Winery

Up on the hill near London's ranch is Benziger Family Winery, the county's Biodynamic leader, with four Biodynamic vineyards in the county, including one surrounding the winery tasting room on Sonoma Mountain. This is the former home of the Wegener Winery, which is apparently where London got the white wine he liked to drink with duck every night.

Terroir made visible: the soil cases at Benziger's tasting room
Today Benziger's famous for its tram tours, but it also offers some other new experiences that are worth a visit, if you've already had the vineyard tour and tasting.

Like many Sonoma vintners, Benziger's ventured into Pinot Noir from Sonoma Coast vines. Its are located in Freestone, right next to Joseph Phelps. The winery makes three different Biodynamic Pinots from that single vineyard (as well as a few more), and displays the varied soil types in a beautiful case in the tasting room. You can see why each wine tastes so different. Visitors can book the new Pinot Noir tasting, housed in the winery's elegant, historic private tasting room, and taste five Pinots.

The Village

Drive back down the hill into the village, and you can wander awhile from tasting room to tasting room.  They're small and it doesn't cost a fortune to taste.


I stopped in at Talisman, a Pinot house specializing in single vineyard designates. Winemaker Scott Rich got his start long ago working under Tony Soter at Etude.

Talisman does a beautiful job with Adastra's organically grown grapes (from the Carneros) and on Saturday just happened to be serving several vintages.

Korbin and Kameron 

Korbin and Kameron offers wine from  its estate vines, which are planted on the opposite side of Sonoma Valley in the Moon Mountain District. The winery was started in 1999 by Jenny Ming and her husband Mitchell Ming. Jenny Ming was formerly the head of Old Navy and has been a mover and shaker in the fashion retail industry.

Farmed by Phil Coturri, Korbin Kameron (the winery's named for two of the Mings' children) is in the process of transitioning to organic certification and will receive that this year. Two in-transition wines are its whisper light rosé and its Sauvignon Blanc. They were grown during the three year transition to certification when no chemicals are used.

Laurel Glen

My favorite of the organic grape vintners in Glen Ellen among the walk in tasting options is Laurel Glen. Sonoma's higher elevation Cabs compete with the best of Napa, and being on the Sonoma Mountain "vibration" for the day, this was the wine to pair with the day and the place. The vines are located a short distance above Glen Ellen on Sonoma Mountain (and are not marked nor open to the public). The Laurel Glen is restrained and lithe. Justly the Cabernet was awarded a 95 pt. score from Wine & Spirits. (Not that scores mean so much, but it's nice when the overblown Cabs don't hog all the high ones). The Laurel Glen tasting room is just off the main drag on Carquinez.

Further Afield - By Appointment - Lasseter Family Winery

If you're headed to Glen Ellen, don't miss a tasting and tour at Lasseter Family Winery (by appointment only). Disney and Pixar fans often already know all about the winery, but for wine lovers, too it's a must. And apparently for Bill Gates, as well, since, when I went a few weeks ago, our guide told us he'd been there the day before.

Its cobbly soils, remniscent of Bordeaux, produce wonderful red blends.  The tour includes generous cheese pairings as well (tasting, tour and pairing are $25). Not to put too fine a point on pricing, but the same experience and equally beautiful wine and cheese in Napa would easily cost double (or more). It just makes you appreciate Sonoma more. (And maybe it increases your ability to buy some of their wine.)

North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park

One more great reason to visit the area is the new park in the hood - the North Sonoma Mountain Regional Park, the Bay Area's newest park. It's part of the Bay Area Ridge Trail. The road up's a lovely, windy country drive which you won't soon forget - with vineyard vistas and horses and trees and all of nature's creations. When you get in the park and climb a short ways, there are killer views. I only had a chance to run up the hill briefly. But there will be a next visit - and soon.

Be sure to pick up a worthy bottle of wine from one of the tasting rooms and some artisanal cheeses from Sonoma from the local Glen Ellen market in town before you ascend to the mountaintop.

Glen Ellen's Second Annual Block Party - May 17

Four of Glen Ellen's tasting rooms are hosting a block party on Saturday May 17. Tickets are $20.

Wine club members from any of the four participating wineries get club privileges at all of the other participating Glen Ellen Block Party tasting rooms. Food's available from two food trucks - Tips Tri-Tips and Drums & Crumbs. There's be live music from two bands as well.

Postscript: I did return to the North Sonoma Mountain trailhead yesterday, May 3, and hiked to the Bennett Valley Overlook. I have to say, this is one of the greatest hikes I've explored in wine country - or the Bay Area for that matter. There are picture perfect views of Bennett Valley with vineyards and green fields and rolling hills and distant vistas. It makes you think you're on a European vacation. It reminded me of the views in the hills near Tivoli in Italy, the summer palace of the Roman emperors.

From the parking lot, it's a 2.2. mile hike to the turnoff for the overlook. The overlook is a few hundred yards further.

Directions: Heading out of the trailhead parking lot, take the trail that goes to Jack London State Park, which begins by crossing a creek and bridge amid redwoods. (There's a picnic table by the creek in the shade).

The trail then enters a beautiful meadow where views begin immediately, with picture perfect vistas of vineyards and a historic farmhouse below. You walk across the meadow for aways before starting to zig and zag up hillside switchbacks in the oak covered hillsides. Yes, it's a bit of a workout.

After 2.2 miles, there's a trail marker, pointing left/straight towards Jack London or right to the Bennett Valley Overlook. Take the overlook spur, which soon leads nearby powerlines. You can enjoy the view at the flat section of trail here, or proceed to the ridge top for further views.

It can be cool and windy up here - be sure to bring adequate gear.

And if you have a trail you'd like to nominate for Best Wine Country Hike, please add it here in the comments section.

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