Touring the Napa-Sonoma Wine Country

Appeals to lesbians and gays, both as a destination and as a place to live

The Russian River Valley may be best known as Northern California’s premier gay resort town, but this same lush woodland in western Sonoma County is also part of North America’s most famous wine-producing region. Wine-touring is a favorite hobby of visitors to Sonoma and neighboring Napa counties, two areas that have also long appealed to lesbians and gays, both as destinations and as places to live.

There are a few different ways to approach a wine-tasting adventure in the Napa-Sonoma Wine Country. If you’re primarily interested in the Russian River queer scene, and perhaps incidentally the nearby wineries, base yourself in Guerneville, where gay accommodations and bars abound. From here it’s at least an hour’s drive east to Sonoma’s and Napa’s wine-making hubs. But in Guerneville itself you can tour Korbel Champagne Cellars, which is headquartered in a century-old, creeper-covered brick building. An adjoining deli and microbrewery serves excellent salads and sandwiches (try the one with salami, Brie, tapenade, roasted peppers, and greens) on a tree-shaded deck.

There are several more fine wineries nearby, including the first-rate Mark West Estate, which like so many Russian River wineries, produces an outstanding pinot noir – the tasting room is at the Blackstone Winery, in the quaint village of Graton; Blackstone also produces its own excellent wines. Also try the intimate and delightful Joseph Swan Vineyard in nearby Forestville.

Among greater Guerneville’s many gay-popular resorts and inns, Applewood Inn has 16 luxurious rooms split between a 1922 Mission Revival house and a newer building modeled after it. There’s a superb restaurant attached that’s open to nonguests on a space-available basis.

If you’re looking to balance extensive wine-touring with plenty of gay club- and restaurant-hopping, stay in the small but lovely city of Santa Rosa – an easy 60-mile shot up U.S. 101 from San Francisco. It’s midway between Guerneville and the Napa and Sonoma valleys. Although low-keyed, Santa Rosa does have a bit to see and do, and it also claims a visible queer community.

Shoppers should investigate the city’s Historic Railroad Square, and garden gurus can head to the verdant Luther Burbank Home and Gardens, the fascinating estate of the renowned horticulturist. A bit west of town, Zazu is worth the trip for outstanding California cuisine, such as orzo tossed with morel mushrooms, ricotta, and radicchio.

If you’re a die-hard wine-tasting aficionado, and especially if you and a significant other are seeking a quiet, romantic vacation together, skip the Russian River and even Santa Rosa and stay in the heart of either Napa County or eastern Sonoma County. There are several gay-friendly accommodations out this way, as well as some of the most acclaimed eateries in North America.

Sonoma’s main wine-growing region runs parallel to and west of Napa’s for about 30 miles, from the town of Sonoma north through charming Healdsburg – whose courtly Spanish-influenced green is shaded by palm and redwood trees – and on through Geyserville and Cloverdale. Sonoma itself is especially picturesque, also anchored by a historic plaza, in this case fringed by Spanish Mission-style buildings. You can eat at any of two dozen restaurants near the plaza, or drop by the Sonoma Cheese Factory to pick up a little of wine’s favorite companion.

Giving a definitive list of recommended wineries in the heart of the Napa-Sonoma Wine Country is nearly impossible – there are simply too many exceptional facilities to name. But here’s a sampling of stellar ones.

Many oenophiles focus on the 17-mile-long Valley of the Moon, from Sonoma north through Glen Ellen and Kenwood. Glen Ellen’s Benziger stands out among the many competitors by offering interactive tram tours, during which you’re regaled with the ins and outs of modern-day wine making. Count Agoston Haraszthy’s Buena Vista Carneros is steeped in history; the art-filled, ivy-covered visitors center is impressive. Kunde, where the genial staff explains the entire wine-making process, is ideal for first-timers. Noted for its rich and full-bodied zinfandels, Ravenswood serves wines in a rustic, airy space that’s warmed by a fireplace in cooler weather.

A star in the county’s northern reaches, Geyserville’s Clos du Bois can become crowded, but it makes a pleasant excuse to wander through this charming little town, and the views of the Alexander Valley are stunning. Famous for its award-winning fume blanc, Dry Creek has magnolia- and redwood-studded grounds.

Broad and flat, the Napa Valley has scenery that is pleasant if not quite as lush as Sonoma’s. The valley runs from the rather prosaic town of Napa north toward hippie-dippy Calistoga, which is famous for its several hot springs and spas, all of them quite gay-popular. Commercial wineries line traffic-clogged Highway 29; running parallel and just east, the delightful and less-crowded Silverado Trail skirts the eastern foothills.

Tasting highlights include the century-old Beaulieu Vineyard, set on Rutherford’s glorious town square. Beringer has been around for more than 120 years, having survived Prohibition by producing communion wines. Be sure to tour the 1883 Rhine-style mansion in which the winery is housed. Come to Clos Pegase as much to admire Michael Graves’ innovative postmodern architecture, the extensive sculpture garden, and the provocative modern-art collection as to sample the wines.

Despite its growing reputation, St. Supery remains a surprisingly friendly and low-keyed facility that puts on a very nice tour. Stag’s Leap produced the wine that put the Napa Valley on the enological map two decades ago, and it remains a star vintner. Its dashing grounds are set away from the hustle and bustle of Highway 29. An aerial tram sweeps visitors up to the main buildings of the area’s winery in the sky, Sterling Vineyards, which has one of the largest gift shops in the region.

Napa has several world-class restaurants. The distinguished fare of Terra spans several regions: Northern California, East Asia, and the South of France to name a few – it’s not every day that you find a menu with duck-liver wontons. The definitive Wine Country restaurant, Mustards Grill can be experienced without breaking the bank – sample the spicy grilled-pepper appetizer filled with tamales and topped with tomatillo stuffing, or an entree of roasted rabbit.

As for where to stay in the heart of the Wine Country, there are countless gay-friendly options. The choice of foreign dignitaries, San Fran yupsters, and other money’s-no-object sorts, Auberge du Soleil is a discreet 48-room retreat with a Tuscany-meets-the-Southwest sensibility – it’s in the Napa foothills, overlooking miles of vineyards and orchards below. Even if you don’t stay here, consider a meal at its heavenly restaurant. Sonoma’s posh MacArthur Place Inn & Spa, a few blocks from the historic plaza, has 64 spacious, high-ceilinged rooms and striking grounds comprising rose gardens, an inviting pool, and a sumptuous spa.

Finally, keep in mind a few general tips before setting out to visit wineries. The Sonoma and Napa valleys are no longer the land of free wine; count on paying a nominal fee to sample most vintages. Only a limited number of smaller wineries offer free tastings. Also, wineries sell their stock at retail, often for 10 to 20 percent more than what you’ll pay at some liquor stores back home. Wine-touring is for the fun of trying different vintages and seeing where and how they’re produced – it’s generally not a way to pick up wines at a discount. Finally, it’s always a good idea to call a winery ahead to learn of upcoming special events – from jazz concerts to food festivals – and to confirm tour times and whether reservations are necessary.

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