As it goes with airlines, I have no status. I am not a medallion member…neither platinum, silver, gold or even bronze. My profile is represented by some random pastel color with no upscale or metallic qualities at all. I travel often (so I thought) but apparently not often enough, according to the airline industry. So, when making plans to head to San Francisco area for a writing conference, I was prepared to squeeze in the economy cabin with all the other light purple-status people. It was only by association that I was able to elevate my low-flying status and upgrade to first-class, even if just for one cross-country flight. Enter Betty, (United Airlines super Medallion member with elevated status), who just happened to be traveling on my same dates, to visit her daughter, also in the Bay area. She happily used her status to pull me along for an upgrade. And, what an upgrade it was. Steerage and the first-class cabin, it’s like The Ritz in NYC compared to a bed bug-ridden hostel in a third-world country.
Just the leg-room in my personal pod gave me sublime feelings of a new sense of flying comfort. Add in hot towels, warm nuts, cookies and a stream of beverages, I was literally on top of the world. There was no oversized neighbor to bump my arm or hog the armrest and no waiting for a paltry cup of ginger ale. I did not have to turn sideways to stretch my 5’ 10” frame all the way. Instead, I reclined, sighed deeply and thanked my friend Betty for the much-appreciated perks. She smiled, knowingly. My destination: Marin County and the Book Passage Travel Writers Conference. The plan was to transform my travel-writing hobby, in the company of writing gurus, agents, publishers and other eager attendees. Flying first-class set me up well for four-days of brain-stretching, writing and networking with seasoned industry stalwarts. Post-conference, a wine-biking tour awaited in nearby Sonoma.
Yes, wine-biking, instead of the more traditional visits by car, limo or a bus tour. I found Sonoma Valley Bike Tours online and had reserved a self-guided biking tour for my friend Betty and I. We picked a moderate route that would take us to five wineries, with a total of 17 miles to pedal. They suggest a morning start from downtown Sonoma to allow for lunch, tasting and ride time. A west coast sun warmed our backs as we set off just after 9 a.m., south toward Homewood Winery. We arrived at Homewood and selected a picnic table outside, near the garden lined with tomatoes and herbs. It seemed early to be drinking wine, so I slowly sipped a selection of two reds and two whites. I think my palette was still on the eastern time-zone – I poured most of the tastes in the disposal jug. Betty and I munched on breakfast bars, in between sips and decided not to purchase wine at our first stop. But, our tour guides had alerted us to a brilliant perk of wine-biking. We merely had to call for a purchase pick-up anytime before 5 p.m. on the day of our tour. Our wine would be safely secured for us at the bike rental office when we returned later in the day.
We consulted our route map then hopped back on the bikes. We crossed highway 12 and retraced a short flat section of road before turning into the well-marked entrance to Gundlach-Bundschu Vineyards. A manicured stone sign opened to acres of perfect rows of fruit that would someday be processed, bottled and drank. Sonoma’s rolling hills and regional beauty was on display, when perfect rows of green vines were accented by an earthy clay that flowed past my sightline. We encountered our first small hill that led to Gun-Bun’s tasting room (everyone shortened the name to replace the longer unpronounceable German name). We parked our bikes next to the wine cave, where thousands of bottles aged in the dark and headed in for our second tasting. We tried a 2011 chardonnay then skipped to 2010 pinot noirs, a tempranillo and a zinfandel. I was on a mission to transform Betty into a red-wine drinker but she had not found a red yet that impressed her palette. The pinot stood out to me, among all the tastes at Gun-Bun, but not so much that I placed an order. We perused the merchandise store and the Gun-Bun bike jersey and t-shirts that lined the walls.
Next stop was Buena Vista Winery for our lunch and third tasting. The route followed a slight steep, through a gate on the backside of Gun-Bun’s farm then down a bumpy side road that led to Old Winery Road. The hills had multiplied on this section but we both decided it helped keep our buzz in check. (The pedaling in between all the sipping helped to stave off wine-head). A memorable and picturesque section was lined with stately sycamore trees directly lining the narrow road leading into Buena Vista’s grounds. The impressive trees welcomed us to stop # 3 and a bike rack in the visitors’ lot. A picnic table, just outside the tasting room, held a cooler with a label “Holmes party” from our Sonoma tour guides. The cooler did indeed hold a lunch party inside. We ate gourmet turkey sandwiches paired with tomato/mozzarella salad, drizzled with olive oil and basil. We agreed we had earned our calories, while sipping waters and admiring the stone archways, buildings and walkways. Inside, a handsome bloke, in a black suit, led us on a tasting. We tried wines from the southern Carneros region, including a chardonnay, a merlot and pinot noir then splurged on a zinfandel reserve. Here, we were scolded for rinsing our glass with a splash of bottled water. Our host suggested, wine after wine was better than wine after water. I would consult my wine snob book later to clarify! Typically, most tasting flights were $10, unless you planned to purchase a case or more. We made our first purchases and set aside several bottles of the 2011 pinot noir’s for our trusty guides to pick up later. In a buying mood, we pedaled on to winery number four.
It was approaching 2:30 as we rolled past Bartholomew Park, known for its organic wines and farming. Realizing time was a factor, we skipped a tasting and decided to head to Ravenswood next and hopefully add in a bonus stop at Sebastiani in downtown Sonoma. Our bikes had to be returned around 5 pm. We rode past sun-basking vineyards on Lovall Valley Road then turned toward Ravenswood to a rather taxing and long climb. Ravenswood Winery’s slogan is, No Wimpy Wines, so to honor that, we selected four robust reds for sampling. More purchases ensued. Betty and I started another box and added four bottles of the 2010 old vine zin’s. We thanked our host and milled around on the patio area overlooking Sonoma valley and a beautiful flower garden with a smoke tree at its center.
We were rewarded with a long, fast cruise down the slope and back into the city center to our final stop at Sebastiani. The name gives away the Italian heritage, as did the manicured tall cedar trees that lined the driveway to the Sebastiani home. Betty was tiring but we both agreed to push through one more tasting. She was a trooper and her knee had survived, having gone through a scope just three weeks prior. It was already 4 p.m. so we power-tasted through our last flight. We found our favorite Chardonnay – a 2012 Russian river valley steel chardonnay. This stainless steel aged white, left a crisp clean finish, sans the oaky aftertaste you might typically get with this style wine. Betty and I both agreed we’d need several bottles for summer nights back in Michigan. The reds improved for me, perhaps because of my disposition toward Italian style wine that remain so memorable from a 2006 trip to Tuscany. The California Pinot’s continued to lead the way in the red category but we had our host pour us samples of a rosso, a cabernet and finally a syrah. Betty and I sipped our last reds of the day and agreed our palettes’ were no longer able to discern another sip. We were done. And, thankfully we only had two blocks to pedal with a solid wine buzz settling in. Our materials clearly stated it was illegal to ride under the influence of alcohol. On our last two stops, we may have been riding illegally but thankfully were not pulled over by the wine police. We returned safely to the bike shop to collect all our purchases. Our wine tour concluded and we hauled several boxes of wine back to our waiting car. We walked off our slight buzz and landed in a stocked market full of cheeses, wine, and a variety of tapenade choices. A bag of gourmet snacks procured, we headed back to the Glen Ellen Inn for naps and relaxation before dinner.
It was a low-key night and dinner that did not include a glass of wine. Betty and I agreed we could taste no more after trying well over 25 selections. Glen Ellen Inn was home for two nights – a quaint inn with seven cottages set in a garden patio area laced with trickling fountains and thick vines overhead. The attached restaurant held a charming outdoor balcony and patio for dining. And, each day the staff stocked a bowl of fruit, cookies and scones on the cottage table. The next day, our retreat winding down, we headed back into Sonoma for coffee and culinary stops then agreed to find Jacuzzi Winery on the way out of town, known for olive oil tasting. The Jacuzzi’s as you have guessed, are the same family who make tub enclosures for bathroom and hot tubs. We pleasantly discovered, they were pretty good at olive oil and wine making as well.
Jacuzzi Family Winery’s grounds, gardens, a Trevi Fountain replica and impressive buildings gave off a distinct Italian vibe. Feeling as if I was in the old country, I joined Betty who was excited to taste something other than wine. Bits of bread were waiting for us to dip and taste, seven plus oil varieties. An eager host guided us through the process and explained the subtleties between the arbequina and the master blend, for example. The Olive Press was a wealth of choices for an aspiring gourmet so I selected a variety pack that held seven small bottles. Betty continued her shopping spree and I wandered back to the lobby and inexplicably found myself drawn into the wine tasting room. Greeted by a man, bearing the name-tag, Bob, I approached the counter and picked up the tasting menu. He asked if I had some preferences for tasting. I replied, “Reds of course, what would you recommend?” Bob took my taste buds on a fun wine tour of Californian/Italian fusion; I peered over to The Olive Press searching for Betty. Continuing on alone, Bob poured a barbera that led to a 2011 primitivo followed by an anglianico. My taste buds began to perk up, realizing I tasted some of my favorite Sonoma wines so far. Bob saved the best for last and pushed my stemmed glass toward me with a 2010 sangiovese. I swirled, sniffed then sipped and knew I had found the one. It was a medium body, easy drinking red with notes of fruit but not too dry, that disappeared off my tongue. Betty wandered in by this time, smirked as she caught me sipping and laughing with Bob. I excitedly waved her over and told her I had found her new favorite red. In perfect precision, without being asked, Bob poured and placed the glass at her fingertips. She sipped and nodded her head in approval and said, “Now… I really like that, I can drink this wine.” Pleased, Bob slid an order form towards us. We conferred briefly while still sipping, then split a case that would be shipped to Michigan. We had found Betty’s red and my mission had been accomplished, literally on our way out of Sonoma.