The Grape Escape to the Sonoma Coast

Point Arena Lighthouse. | Photo by Ethan Daniels

Point Arena Lighthouse. | Photo by Ethan Daniels

When the endless bluebird skies and oven-like breath of Las Vegas overwhelm, that’s the moment to escape summer’s dog-day doldrums. Not to some lush, tropical somewhere, but to our city’s polar opposite: the wild Sonoma Coast, about a two-hour drive north of San Francisco, where wind-whipped trees shiver on craggy cliffs above a roiling sea.

The Sonoma Coast is wine country, to be sure, but one cut from a different cloth than other California wine regions. While inland valleys bask in the sun and relative calm of summer, Sonoma’s ridge vineyards brace for wind, rain, fog and cold—a paradise for makers of cool-weather and high-elevation chardonnay and pinot noir. Of particular interest in the area right now is the new Waters, Woods & Wine package at Flowers Vineyard & Winery near Jenner ($500 per person for groups of six;

Tasting visits are already by reservation only and—like the estate-tier wines—are available first to recipients of Flowers’ newsletter. But a new weekday offering brings together three of the region’s favorite sports: kayaking, foraging and wine tasting. The triathlon begins when you hit the surf with the aptly named local kayaking guide Suki Waters. Next, enjoy a picnic lunch with local forager Gerard Nebesky. The mussels, cockles, seaweed, mushrooms, nettles, fiddlehead ferns and herbs you gather will reappear—combined with seasonal ingredients—in the third leg, on the evening’s menu. That three-course wine-pairing dinner and cooking lesson is held at Flowers’ Camp Meeting Ridge vineyard and farmhouse, 1,150 feet above the sea.

Sonoma’s coast will almost always be cooler than whatever Vegas is throwing at you, but if you need an even more contrasting getaway, director of winemaking Dave Keatley suggests late July/early August, when the place is socked in with fog that pairs nicely with the cool winds.

“We’re farming a hard and special place,” Keatley says. And for their estate wines, they’re doing so using sustainable, organic and biodynamic practices. The payoff comes when you sink your teeth into the Camp Meeting Ridge and Sea View Ridge pinot noirs and chardonnays, of which Flowers makes less than 5,000 cases annually. If you’re lucky, you might even get a taste of the estate rosé—at just 170 cases, it’s one of Flowers’ smallest productions, nearly all of which is snapped up by club members. It’s bright, racy and coral in hue. Like the rugged, extreme Sonoma Coast itself, it must be seen to be believed.

How to get there

Fly into San Francisco, rent a car and take U.S. 101 north across the Golden Gate Bridge to Petaluma. Exit at Washington Street and head west toward Bodega Bay (about 90 minutes). From there, head north on Highway 1; it’s about 20 minutes to Jenner, 75 to Sea Ranch and 90 to Gualala, Sonoma’s border with Mendocino.

Where to stay

There’s no shortage of inns, bed-and-breakfasts and AirBnBs dotting the coastline. But for a laid-back resort experience, nothing compares to the charmingly weathered Sea Ranch Lodge, set high on the rugged cliffs, with a retro feel, in-room fireplaces and magnificent views. A ways down the coast in Jenner, Timber Cove Inn is a similar mixture of rustic and chic, with a grand fireplace lounge and equally breathtaking seascapes.

Where to dine

After you’ve worked up an appetite climbing the Point Arena Lighthouse, lunch at Franny’s Cup & Saucer in Point Arena. (Just bring cash or check, as they don’t accept cards!) … In the evening, it’s an easy stroll—or mad dash in the rain—from your Sea Ranch room to Black Point Grill for fresh-caught fish and chips and award-winning chowder. … If you venture inland, Guerneville is a must-stop on the way back from the Anderson Valley. This ex-logging town along the Russian River has blossomed into a sort of LGBT Hamptons of the West Coast. Foodies will appreciate the honest flavors and attractive presentations at Seaside Metal Oyster Bar.

What to do

It’s not difficult to find a place to pull off Highway 1, what with there being a State Park at nearly every turn. Hike Salt Point State Park to see the Pygmy Forest. … At Fort Ross—an early 1800s Russian outpost—the Historic Orchard is home to fruit trees planted in the fort’s time, as well as twisted redwoods running right along the very visible San Andreas Fault. … Inland daytrips include Mendocino’s Anderson and Russian River Valleys, where you’ll find Goldeneye Winery, among others.

Don’t miss

Sure, you’re here for the wine, but don’t miss out on the beer! Enjoy Winter or Summer Solstice fresh from the source at Mendocino’s Anderson Valley Brewing Co. taproom in Boonville.

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