I spent a weekend away in California’s wine country this past January. And at first, my partner and I had some reservations…
What’s the weather going to be like?
Will we be confronted with middle-aged wine snobs?
Do we need country club memberships to see arts & culture?
What if there’s no nightlife?
Can we afford it?
Motivated by our love for wine and curiosity about California’s famed wine region, we put our concerns aside and set off to explore one of the finest wine-producing regions in the world.
Temperatures hovered around the 18°C marker, so people watching from one of the sidewalk cafes around the town square is a lovely start to the day. Almost immediately, I recognized the incredibly relaxed and authentic character of Sonoma from my viewpoint at the Sunflower Café. I watched farmers cruise by in their well-worn denim and 1950s Ford trucks. I eaves dropped on local artisans chatting about the inspiration for their wares, source of their materials and the like as they opened up their shops. And I admired a stylish young family as they strolled along sporting sunglasses, even the toddler.
Spinning your wheels in Sonoma is very productive. A bike gets you around town and to most wineries so you can take in the beautiful scenery, taste the wine and avoid any trepidation about your blood alcohol level.
The wineries were filled with incredibly knowledgeable staffs that help people appreciate wine without being pretentious. Expecting a more pompous attitude, I initially mistook this relaxed approach as lack of awareness. However, I was met by superior skills when I tried to drop some science on the viticulture tip. While I was schooled on the grape varietals and history of wineries in the region, I socialized with Sonoma’s many transplants and learned about their migration stories. We continued our self-conducted Tour de Tipple, stopped to picnic in a vineyard and later watched the sunset from a hilltop winery. With only a few gentle inclines, Sonoma was a great place to cycle.
Earlier that day, we cycled into a sound check session at a winery and learned about an outdoor gig happening at a wine cave that night. A cave you say? Naturally, we made plans to attend even though we didn’t know the artists.
It all seemed an unlikely mash-up of culture and genre, but it was very inviting. We looked ahead at the dimly-lit stage illuminated by string lights at the foot of the cave. As we watched folk singers strum their guitars in the cold night air we knew that their fingers must have shivered. The audience listened intently from the floor below absorbing the voices that lingered behind each song. It was an incredibly enchanting evening. Magical. We swayed and sang well into the night. Later we learned that the Gundlach Bundschu Winery’s private wine cave often serves as an outdoor venue for musical acts. Pretty cool.
As I sat on the ground, underneath the tangled web of stars and string lights, a taco in one hand and a glass of wine in the other, I realized how surprised I was by this winter weekend in wine country. Far from pretentious or hollow, I somehow stumbled upon a truly authentic experience complete with a unique musical performance, a finely crafted meal and all without busting my bank account. How’d that happen?
The next morning, my partner and I head to the Oxbow Public Market for breakfast. We reflected upon the weekend and surveyed an endless array of dining options in the massive food hall. That weekend we realized that we had totally misjudged California’s wine country. Do people already know that it’s not strictly a shi-shi destination?
While it’s clear that the privileged and elite classes are in no short supply, it is also clear that California’s wine country maintains an artisanal charm that is available for all to appreciate. Perhaps it’s character was inspired by the struggle for recognition when American wines were lesser known? So much of the regions identity is linked to its grape-roots beginnings so I guess it’s only natural that they welcome and proudly share their local products with everyone that visits.
At 10:00 am, as I plunged into a burger, fries and cookies ‘n cream milkshake at Gott’s Roadside, I confirmed that my preconceived notions about the stiff and stuffy valley were all wrong. Whether it’s food trucks and fine wines, burgers and breakfast or concerts and caves, California’s wine country defies stereotypes with its authentic and firmly grounded culture, literally.
Here are details for a few of the amazing places that made my visit so special:
El Coyote Mexican Food Truck
La Michoacana Ice Cream
Oxbow Public Market
Bartholomew Park Winery
Buena Vista Winery
Gundlach Bundschu Winery