Sunday, April 21st Winehike: Goodspeed Trail to Gunsight Rock

7 strenuous miles, 1900′ elevation gain, Spring wildflowers + Sonoma Valley wine tasting

Along the Goodspeed Trail in April, the ephemeral Golden Fairy Lantern may just leave the light on for us.

Along the Goodspeed Trail in April, the ephemeral Golden Fairy Lantern may just leave the light on for us.

Meet: 9:00 a.m.
Hike: 9:15 a.m.
Duration: approximately 4–5 hours
How to confirm your attendance: Simply add a comment at the bottom of this post.*

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park & Hood Mountain Regional Park
2605 Adobe Canyon Road
Kenwood, CA
(707) 833-5712

THE HIKE
It’s been said by the locals that the trail to Gunsight Rock, high on the side of Hood Mountain, is one of Sonoma Valley’s premier hiking routes. Tough though the trail may be, if you’ve ever thought about hiking to the top of Mt. St. Helena in Napa County, the hike to Gunsight Rock outweighs the hike to Mt. St. Helena in almost any context, except one: the view from the summit of 2,730-foot Hood Mountain is a big disappointment. Manzanita and pine trees cover its wide, rounded top and, unless you feel like shinnying up a tall, sap-sticky pine after the impressive climb to the mountain’s summit, you just can’t see a danged thing from up there. (Though I tried, once.)

Fortunately Hood Mountain has Gunsight Rock located three hundred feet below its summit and a quarter mile away by trail. From this lofty vantage point, you can see just about everything in Sonoma Valley, plus the big mountains of Napa and Marin. Not only that, but Gunsight Rock’s bouldered outcrop is perched so dramatically on the slope of Hood Mountain that its steep drop-off makes the wide view even more impressive.

Peering down through the fog and the gunsight onto the wine country town of Kenwood.

Peering down through the fog and the Gunsight
onto the wine country town of Kenwood.

The real bonus, however, is simply in observing the trailside splendor on your way to Gunsight Rock; the floral diversity of the Goodspeed and Nattkemper trails is alone worth the hike. Redwoods, laurels, manzanitas, oaks, grasslands, wildflowers, serpentine rock, wildlife and vistas make this hike an absolute must-do adventure.

Of course, after surveying Sonoma Valley wine country from above, it’ll only be right to explore it from inside a wine glass! So, we’ll return downhill for a potluck picnic lunch and for tasty local wines (winery to be announced).

GETTING TO THE TRAILHEAD
From U.S. 101 in Santa Rosa, take the Fairgrounds/Highway 12 exit. Highway 12 becomes Farmers Lane as it heads through downtown Santa Rosa. Continue on Highway 12 south for 11 miles to Adobe Canyon Road and turn left. (Or, from Highway 12 in Sonoma, drive 11 miles north to Adobe Canyon Road, then turn right.) Drive 2.2 miles to the small parking area on the left at a bridge over Sonoma Creek (it’s 1.3 miles before the entrance kiosk for Sugarloaf Ridge State Park).

CARPOOL
If you’re in the South Bay or on the peninsula, my current plan is to leave my house in Sunnyvale at 6:15 a.m. If there’s sufficient interest in this hike, I may later advise that we concentrate the most bodies into the fewest cars by meeting in Kenwood before heading to the trailhead due to its potentially limited availability (this parking area is a postage stamp!). If you’re attending, please leave a comment below if you wish to carpool from either location along this route. For those of you arriving from the East Bay or elsewhere, please contact others near you to arrange carpooling.

NOTES
Parking at Sugarloaf Ridge is typically $5 per vehicle at the entrance kiosk, but we won’t be going that far up the road. The small parking area by the bridge at Sonoma Creek is known to be fee-free. Drive time from San Jose may take 2-1/2 hours; from SF, perhaps 45-60 minutes less. Please allow adequate time to arrive by 9:00; our hike will begin promptly at 9:15. (Our early meet time is primarily to obtain parking at this tiny trailhead. Believe me, it’ll be very much worth rising early!) Dogs are not allowed on this hike.

The Golden Fairy Lantern, Calochortus amabilis, is also called Diogenes' Lantern.

The Golden Fairy Lantern (Calochortus amabilis)
is also known as Diogenes’ Lantern.

Be sure to bring plenty of snacks/lunch items and water for the trail. I highly recommend bringing an extra pair of shoes – even clothing – to change into after the hike. Please allow plenty of time to arrive, and watch for cyclists during your drive.

Also, wear sturdy shoes for this hike – we will hike over rough, technical terrain in places, and sections of muddy trail may present themselves.

The phone number above is for Sugarloaf Ridge State Park.

Meet 9:00 a.m., hike 9:15 sharp.  See you at the trailhead!

————————— ♦ —————————

Would you like to attend this hike?
If so, let me know you’re coming – simply reply in the Comments below.
Thanks!

————————— ♦ —————————

*Your comment on this post is your RSVP. Consider also checking the box labeled “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” so that I can share my cell phone number with you a few days prior to this hike – just in case you need to contact me on your way to the trailhead.

This event is listed on my 2013 Schedule of Hikes.

~winehiker

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Trip report: Spring serenity at Briones Regional Park

From Briones Peak, a view to the north of cattle ponds and Carquinez Straits.

From Briones Peak, a view to the north
of cattle ponds and Carquinez Straits.

The day after a snowstorm, folks who ski tend to reference sunny, clear-blue skies as evidence of a bluebird day. If I can extend that term to include my hiking adventures, then I’ve recently enjoyed two bluebird days – one at Big Basin Redwoods back on February 24th, and the other this past Sunday at Briones Regional Park.

Quite fortuitously, each of these hikes had occasion to occur two days after moderate seasonal rainfall late in the week, each rain quickly giving way to clear weather and allowing adequate drainage and drying of the trail surface. By the time I’d arrived at their trailheads, the soils at each park had yielded a near-perfect tack, comfortable underfoot and presenting only minor incidence of loose footing in the shadowed low spots.

Red Maids (Calandrinia ciliata) were a common sight on the sunny saddle between Briones and Mott peaks.

Red Maids, Calandrinia ciliata, were a common sight on the sunny saddle between Briones and Mott peaks.

It had been another in a series of long weeks at work, and I first had to get past the frustrations of deciphering dense Engineerese and an all-too-tall pile of workload. A good night’s sleep and a few miles of road between my Sunnyvale home and the hills of Orinda seemed to carve away the vestiges of these vexations, but once I stepped out of my truck at Briones Park’s Bear Creek Trailhead, breathed the cool green hills, laced my boots and embraced a friend, all care quickly melted into a serene pace and welcome chatter.

Within a few steps, my week had suddenly and gratefully distilled into a decoction of carpe the damn bluebird diem.

We strode out on a counterclockwise loop, Angela and I, first walking a trail east along Bear Creek before angling right along Homestead Valley Trail. We encountered the softest earth along these lower flats which, though pocked with cow sign, were easily navigable, yet too laden with moisture to support wildflower displays. After perhaps a mile, our route took us left onto Briones Crest Trail and into hills rampant with coast live oak, yet studded here and there with madrone, bay laurel and, as we climbed higher to a junction with Table Top Trail, a scattering of surprisingly tall, quickly-growing buttercups.

Mt. Diablo glows in the morning haze.

Mt. Diablo glows in the morning haze.

Eventually we emerged from the trees onto an open ridge below Briones Peak and enjoyed our first glimpse of the surrounding countryside. Mt. Diablo shimmered beyond us to the east above the town of Walnut Creek, its twin peaks prominent on the morning skyline; to the west, we could easily recognize the unmistakable contours of Mt. Tamalpais.

We sauntered on, gaining Briones Peak, then continued northwest, following the crest of the ridge toward Mott Peak. The land undulated away to the north below us, offering a dazzling view of the Carquinez Straits, the Mayacamas Ridge in Sonoma County beyond and, just below us, the twin Sindicich lagoons.

Up until now we had generally followed the main trails, which had in large part been wide ranch road. But having seen that the trail we were on skirted the high point of the park, Mott Peak, I eschewed pretense and instead decided to follow a fenceline cow trail directly upslope to its summit. Mild protestations from Angela elicited a brief discussion of rhythmic breathing technique and, before we were scarcely aware of it, we were communing with the meadowlarks and ravens atop the peak, and hungrily unwrapping our sandwiches.

The Herrick Red from Conn Creek Winery: well-structured, fruit-forward, and absolutely delicious.

The Herrick Red from Conn Creek Winery: well-structured, fruit-forward, and absolutely delicious.

At 1,424 feet, the view from Mott Peak is nothing if not commanding, and so we sat and gazed awhile at the splendor surrounding us, gratefully chowing down and occasionally commanding sips from a bottle of Herrick Red from Conn Creek Winery, a classic yet affordable Bordeaux-style wine sourced and blended from Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes grown in Napa Valley’s Rutherford district.

On such a comfortable, sun-warm day, it was easy to accept the notion that we should simply linger in the grass among the Red Maids, allow the gentle Bay breeze to caress us, and let our thoughts wander in unbroken reverie, but our feet eventually ruled the moment, given to notions of wandering themselves. And so we ambled downhill, back along Mott Peak Trail to Black Oak Trail which, though it descends sharply enough to wisely warrant a counterclockwise circumnavigation of the Briones Crest, quickly returned us to Old Briones Road and our cars.

If you’re going to Briones Regional Park

The wildflowers are just beginning to bloom, so now through mid-May is a great time to explore the magic of Briones Regional Park. The majority of the park’s over 6,000 acres of open space is unshaded and open to the elements, so be sure to wear sunscreen, even a wide-brimmed hat. The Briones Regional Park website a includes a downloadable trail map; parking at the Briones Park office and the Alhambra, Bear Creek, Lafayette Ridge and Reliez Valley staging areas is $3 and is open from 8 a.m. to sunset.

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Have you hiked Briones Regional Park?
If so, did you see any wildflowers or enjoy the view from Mott Peak?

————————— ♦ —————————

~winehiker

Sunday, March 24th: Vista Grande Loop, Sunol Regional Wilderness

From Eagle Valley Trail looking east.

From Eagle Valley Trail looking east.

6.1 moderate miles, 1700′ elevation gain, early Spring wildflowers

Meet: 9:30 a.m.
Hike: 9:45 a.m.
Duration: approximately 3–4 hours
How to confirm your attendance: Simply add a comment at the bottom of this post.*

Sunol Regional Wilderness
The end of Geary Road
Sunol, CA
(510) 635-0135

THE HIKE
A trip to Sunol is a trip to the country. Unlike many other East Bay parks, Sunol isn’t bordered by neighborhoods or major thoroughfares. You can’t reach it any other way than to drive slowly on a narrow country road. When you hike the grassy, oak-studded hills of Sunol, all you see are more grassy, oak-studded hills! Those, and an occasional glimpse at shimmering Calaveras Reservoir.

Our hike is a six-mile loop tour of Sunol that reveals many of the park’s best features. It is steep in places, so come prepared for a hike that feels like a bit more than six miles. We’ll warm up gently, though; the route for our hike will navigate the relatively easy Canyon View and Ohlone Road trails adjacent to Alameda Creek before we turn uphill at Cerro Este Road. We’ll climb for at least a mile to Cerro Este Overlook at 1,720 feet, where we’ll catch our breath before we bear left on Cave Rocks Road toward a right turn on Eagle View Trail. A gentle ascent over the next mile will bring us to a magnificent view at Vista Grande Overlook at 1,680 feet. We’ll then turn west on Vista Grande Road and descend to High Valley Road, where we’ll turn left and head toward the barn and picnic area at High Valley Camp. From there, we head toward Indian Joe Creek Trail, which we’ll descend back toward where we started.

The view from Vista Grande Trail above High Valley Camp.

The view from Vista Grande Trail above High Valley Camp.

After the hike, expect to be hungry! So let’s adjourn to downtown Sunol and enjoy lunch together at Bosco’s Bones & Brew.

GETTING TO THE TRAILHEAD
From Interstate 680 south of Pleasanton, take the Highway 84/Calaveras Road exit. Turn left on Calaveras Road and drive south 4.2 miles. Turn left on Geary Road and drive 1.7 miles to the park entrance. Continue about ¼ mile to the entrance kiosk, pay your fee, then drive 100 yards past the visitor center to the parking lot across from the horse rental area. The trail begins on the left side of the rest rooms at the footbridge.

CARPOOL
From the South Bay: meet at 8:30 a.m. at the 680/Mission Park n’ Ride Lot located at the intersection of Highway 680 and Mission Blvd. in Fremont. We’ll leave at 8:45 sharp. For those of you arriving from The City or elsewhere, please contact others near you to arrange carpooling.

NOTES
Parking at Sunol Regional Wilderness is $5 per vehicle; here’s an online trail map. Drive time from San Jose may take 25-30 minutes; from SF, perhaps 20-30 minutes longer. Please allow adequate time to arrive by 9:30; our hike will begin promptly at 9:45.

Parking should be adequate at our trailhead near the horse stables. Nevertheless, I urge hikers to please carpool if possible (see above). Dogs are allowed on this hike for a $2 fee per dog.

Maguire Peaks under cloud shadow at Sunol Regional Wilderness.

Maguire Peaks under cloud shadow at Sunol Regional Wilderness.

Be sure to bring plenty of snacks/lunch items and water for the trail. I highly recommend bringing an extra pair of shoes – even clothing – to change into after the hike. Please allow plenty of time to arrive, and watch for cyclists during your drive.

Also, wear sturdy shoes for this hike – we may be hiking over rough terrain in places, and sections of muddy trail may present themselves.

The phone number above is for East Bay Parks.

Meet 9:30 a.m., hike 9:45 sharp.  See you at the trailhead!

————————— ♦ —————————

Would you like to attend this hike?
If so, let me know you’re coming – simply reply in the Comments below.
Thanks!

————————— ♦ —————————

*Your comment on this post is your RSVP. Consider also checking the box labeled “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” so that I can share my cell phone number with you a few days prior to this hike – just in case you need to contact me on your way to the trailhead.

This event is listed on my 2013 Schedule of Hikes.

~winehiker

Saturday, March 9th: Loop of the Briones Crest, Briones Regional Park

 6.8 moderate rolling miles, with scenic ridgetop views

Meet: 9:30 a.m.
Hike: 9:45 a.m.
Approximate hike duration: 4-5 hours
How to attend: Reply in the Comments section of this post.

Late winter rains add vivid color to the hillsides at Briones Regional Park.

Briones Regional Park
Bear Creek Valley Entrance
Orinda, CA
(888) 327-2757

THE HIKE
This rambling loop hike includes parts of the Homestead Valley, Briones Crest, Table Top, Mott Peak, and Black Oak trails, and is a great introduction to the southwest half of this expansive, 6,117-acre park. It’s an area of rolling hills, high ridges, and forested canyons, but the real reward for hiking the Briones Crest will be late Winter/early Spring wildflowers and those stunning 360-degree views.

Much of our route will be out in the open, climbing high atop the rolling hills that characterize this regional park, but we’ll also appreciate the wide variety of trees that grow along Bear Creek. Birds appreciate this landscape too, and we may hear the sharp cry of a northern flicker or the call of a California quail as we amble along.

After the hike, we’ll be hungry! So let’s all chow down on wood-fired Mexican comfort food in downtown Orinda at Barbacoa.

GETTING TO THE TRAILHEAD
From Highway 24 in Orinda, take the Orinda exit and drive northwest 2.2 miles on Camino Pablo to Bear Creek Road. Turn right and, after 0.3 mile, reach the entrance kiosk; continue 0.1 mile to the last parking area. Our trailhead is just beyond this last parking area.

CARPOOL
From the South Bay: Let’s meet at 8:15 a.m. at the 680/Mission Park n’ Ride Lot located at the intersection of Highway 680 and Mission Blvd. in Fremont. We’ll leave at 8:30 sharp. For those of you arriving from The City or elsewhere, please contact others near you to arrange carpooling. Thanks!

NOTES
Parking at Briones Regional Park is free; here’s an online trail map. Drive time from San Jose may take 55-70 minutes; from SF, perhaps 10-20 minutes less. Please allow adequate time to arrive by 9:30; our hike will begin promptly at 9:45.

Parking should be adequate near our trailhead at the end of Bear Creek Road. Nevertheless, I urge hikers to please carpool if possible (see above). Dogs are allowed on this hike for a $2 fee.

Be sure to bring plenty of snacks/lunch items and water for the trail. I highly recommend bringing an extra pair of shoes – even clothing – to change into after the hike. Please allow plenty of time to arrive, and watch for cyclists during your drive.

Also, wear sturdy shoes for this hike – we may be hiking over rough terrain in places, and sections of muddy trail may present themselves.

The phone number above is for East Bay Parks.

Meet 9:30 a.m., hike 9:45 sharp.  See you at the trailhead!

————————— ♦ —————————

Would you like to attend this hike?
If so, let me know you’re coming – simply reply in the Comments below.
Thanks!

————————— ♦ —————————

*Your comment on this post is your RSVP. Consider also checking the box labeled “Notify me of follow-up comments via email” so that I can share my cell phone number with you a few days prior to this hike.

This event is listed on my 2013 Schedule of Hikes.

~winehiker

When it pops, it’s really gonna pop!

The continual March rains have hit the west coast and made a firm down payment on April. But sooner or later, Spring is finally going to arrive, and when it does, I have a feeling that California’s many species of wildflowers will unleash themselves in a colorful eye-popping frenzy much like last year’s record show.

In the meantime, the weather hasn’t kept me off the trail, no sir. In fact, I must consider myself lucky, in that I’ve somehow managed to schedule my winehiking days when there’s been a brief lull in the storm pattern.

Last Saturday was one of those days. I met a group of winehikers in Santa Clara down by the university and drove them to Henry Coe State Park, the humongous 87,000-acre natural area so close to us here in the Silicon Valley, and yet seemingly so far away when you walk its trails.

A view to the southeast from Henry Coe State Park's Flat Frog Trail.

A view to the southeast from Henry Coe State Park’s Flat Frog Trail.

Our group was happy to enjoy the path that leads northward from the Visitor Center up toward Eric’s Bench for a nice blend of oak, yellow pine, bay, and manzanita forest along with a scant few wildflowers in filaree, hound’s tongue, buttercups, and a scattering of shooting stars. Returning from the Little Fork of the Coyote River via Flat Frog Trail, a single-track trail that can often showcase the park’s best wildflowers, we realized that Spring had not yet descended upon the area, but that some of the flowers just can’t wait!

In the sparse forests and grassy meadows of Flat Frog Trail, crossing over many small seasonal streams, we saw many more shooting stars, lupines, and milkmaids, and out on the grasslands approaching the Manzanita Point Road, we saw violets, popcorn flower, many more buttercups, as well as one of my all-time favorites, the fleeting red maids.

I think it’s a simple bet that when we get a string of a few good days of warm sunshine, we’ll start seeing the likes of checker lily, chinese houses, larkspur, blue-eyed grass, and Ithuriel’s spear. I’m almost counting on it. But I’m monitoring the weather reports too.

Meanwhile, Coe Park had borne a foot of snow only 8 days before our tour, and it had left its mark along the contours of Flat Frog Trail. We must have stepped over or circumvented no less than 10 downed trees – pines, manzanita, madrone – there was almost no steep hillside that didn’t show Nature’s depradations. The trees just weren’t used to holding all that snow in their branches.

If I can have moments like this one, I'll want to have a million more.

If I can have moments like this one, I’ll want to have a million more.

Not yet satisfied after our stroll, my intrepid winehikers and I drove back down to Morgan Hill for a catered lunch at Pedrizzetti Winery, where tasting manager Stacie poured us her wares. It was warm and sunny enough to eat outside and be comfortable, so we enjoyed our feast of fruits, cheeses, salad, bruschetta, pasta marinara, and my personal favorite of the meal, charbroiled chicken with a nice garlicky sun-dried tomato cream sauce. I doff my Aussie hat to Darlene at Golden Oak Restaurant of Morgan Hill, who put on the spread. Of course, Stacie took care of us by pouring cabernet, chenin blanc, and a very light and delectable sparkling wine.

Ah, this winehikin’ stuff is fun. And the season is still young!

~winehiker

Reaching the Pinnacles of early Spring

This past weekend, I led a group of hikers over the singularly unique trails of Pinnacles National Monument. There’s something about this place that attracted me – really gripped me – right from the start. Could it be the Spring wildflowers? Could it be the bat caves? Or, possibly, the chance to see California Condors on the wing? Maybe the wildlife, the chiseled trails, the far-off vistas? The tunnels, coves, grottoes and groves? Perhaps the rock itself?

Late afternoon shadow descends upon the Pinnacle's High Peaks.

Late afternoon shadow descends upon the Pinnacle’s High Peaks.

It is difficult to pick out any one thing about Pinnacles that makes it so attractive, but in combination, a weekend camping and hiking experience at Pinnacles is so magnetic to me that I can’t ever resist wanting to bring other people there to share the experience with me. And you really do need at least two days to experience the full magic of Pinnacles. So, for the 5th straight year, I reserved two contiguous campsites at Pinnacles Campground for a weekend of outdoor fun and frolic in this uncanny, holy place among the hoodoo rock.

The end of March is a fine time to be at Pinnacles, too, when the wildflower blooms are beginning to peak and before the heat of Summer arrives, which it always does at Pinnacles well before it hits the San Francisco Bay Area. Having chosen the last weekend of March each of these past five years, it has been interesting to note the differences in wildflower blooms from year to year. This year, the weather has been much wetter than normal, and as a result, the wildflowers at Pinnacles haven’t quite cranked up to their full showy potential.

A Douglas Wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) blooms along the Condor Gulch Trail.

A Douglas Wallflower (Erysimum capitatum) blooms along the Condor Gulch Trail.

That doesn’t mean we didn’t see them! In fact, many species of wildflowers were popping out there on the trails, beckoning to us to take a look as we passed by them. From buttercups to blue dicks, bush poppies to golden poppies, indian paintbrush to indian warrior, and purple lupines to purple witch nightshade, there were quite a variety of wildflowers to see – just not as many of them as I’m used to seeing.

But it’s only going to get better as the rains taper away and Spring gets more than just a foot in the door. I hope to return to Pinnacles in the next few weeks just to note the difference. If you can, dear reader, snag yourself a campsite and go there for a weekend, before the 90-degree days of late April begin to fade Pinnacles’ many blossoms.

Lowland Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon clevelandii ssp. patulum) add joy to the living art that is Pinnacles National Monument.

Lowland Shooting Stars (Dodecatheon clevelandii ssp. patulum) add joy to the living art that is Pinnacles National Monument.

~winehiker

Visiting A Winery – 5 Ways to Avoid Learning Anything

Next time you visit the wine country, hire yourself a big limousine and follow these simple guidelines:

1. Plan your day around visiting as many wineries as possible.

2. Go to the same wineries everybody else does. After all, those are the popular wineries to go to, and they’re more than ready to put a wine glass in your hand.

3. Don’t listen to the tasting room staff, and be especially sure not to ask them too many questions. They’re not paid enough to be knowledgeable professionals.

4. Have a strong desire to self-medicate. Start your wine tasting early in the day, and get sideways by noon.

5. Get your exercise! Walk back and forth from the limo to the tasting room, and repeat often.

Now THAT’S your kind of wine country vacation, right? Many others just like you think so, too. Aren’t you glad you’re not alone? Be sure to keep the above guidelines handy, and refer to them often.

A Word to the Wise

Dear reader, as you may have guessed, the 5 guidelines above only apply to April Fools. For the rest of us who might consider ourselves to belong to the greater majority of responsible wine-loving adults, tasting wine is an experience to be savored and discussed, appreciated and remembered.

To tour a series of wineries to get a buzz is not what the wine-tasting experience is all about. Wine is food! And like the pleasure that comes from eating your favorite cuisine, wine can provide a similar allure. Food and wine, as many know, complement each other well. As with food, if you choose to taste wine, do it because you truly enjoy tasting it. But unlike food, don’t go to a tasting room because you’d rather be drinking a lot of wine. Instead, stay home! But be responsible there, too.

If you would maximize your visit to the wine country, let us then provide contrast to the above guidelines and consider what will allow your wine country vacation to be a memorable experience – not just a sideways tour.

5 Ways to Maximize Your Wine-Country Experience

Call it wine country appreciation. Or, call it self-appreciation. In either case, if you would choose to truly benefit from a trip to the wine country, here now are five responsible guidelines signified by letters, instead of numbers, to differentiate from the list above.

A. Plan your day around visiting the wine country, not just its wineries.

There are a whole host of wonderful opportunities to be found in the wine regions of the world, whether you’re touring the famed Bordeaux region, Oregon’s Willamette Valley, or the up-and-coming Calaveras County area west of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. A visit to these wine regions can include a number of historical, cultural, educational, heritage, and active outdoor pursuits. Quite often, having a local guide can dramatically enhance the personal growth aspects of vacationers.

Gaining appeal with today’s travelers are tours ranging from culinary education classes that take place in spectacular settings to wellness retreats that offer exercise and nutrition counseling as well as superb pampering. Or, if you desire to be more active, you can find tours that offer a few days of exploring the flora, fauna, and scenic vistas of local open spaces, then a superb meal with wine tasting. Travelers are increasingly booking such tours, and they are trending heavily toward booking them online on a myriad of tour and travel websites.

B. To properly enjoy your wine-touring experience, choose your winery destination carefully. Visitors are often drawn to the popular wineries that are located alongside the wine country’s main arterial routes; for instance, Highway 29 in the Napa Valley. And yet those are the areas in which you’ll find the greater share of vehicle traffic, especially during the summer tourist season. Of course, the traffic isn’t just cars, limousines, and tour buses. After you get off the bus or out of your car and into the winery, you’ll often wait in long lines of human traffic just to taste a wine or two. Ironically, this can defeat the purpose of Guideline A.

Many wineries and lodging operations offer better service and better vacation deals for your dollar during off-peak seasons. As a result, you’ll find that you get to linger longer at a restaurant or have a conversation with a winemaker that goes beyond the merely casual. Having the time to relax and not compete with other tourists on your vacation can dramatically augment not only your sense of well-being, but also your wine knowledge and your social network.

In addition, there are many family-owned wineries that are real treasures. It’s easy to overlook them, but once you make the effort to seek them out, you’ll often be rewarded with an experience that will have you telling your friends about them. You may even find the winegrower getting off his tractor to take you for an impromptu tour of his vineyard or winery operation. Of course, he might have you consider purchasing a case of his wines for his trouble. But then, you may also find that you’re not paying nearly the premium that you’ll pay at the more popular wineries along the main wine roads.

C. The tasting room staff earn their pay, and they do it out of passion. Let them guide you.

The wineries aren’t in business to attract more tourists. They’re in business because they have a clear understanding of the needs of their customers. If you’re not the world’s greatest wine expert, don’t worry! You’re among friends. Learning is why you traveled to the wine country in the first place, and winemakers and their staff love to talk about what they do. Listen, and ask questions. If you should visit more than one winery, ask the same questions.

You’ll enhance your understanding by the answers you’ll hear, and what’s more, you’ll be delighted that you asked.

D. Be fully aware of your experience. Participate in it, and find yourself enchanted by it. Don’t desensitize yourself to the magic of the wine country.

“The advantages of wine touring are beautiful scenery and a new learning experience. The disadvantages are that there’s not enough wine.”

This author has actually read the above statement in a review by a supposedly-serious wine expert. I’ve heard similar quips from the lips of the not-so-pleasantly plowed. While I might agree with the “advantage” half of that statement, the desired outcome of your wine tour should be a quality experience, not a quantity experience. Wine touring is not meant to be a dormitory-style competition.

Therefore, pace yourself. Pour the wine you no longer want into the proper receptacle, usually a spit bucket. Spit the wine into the bucket if necessary – it’s perfectly acceptable within the context of tasting wine. But nobody likes a drunken tourist – not the winery staff, not the patrons, and especially not the wine country police.

E. To properly enjoy the wine country, get out of the land yacht and explore your surroundings.

Bring your hiking shoes with you, and find a local trail. Or, if you prefer to connect to your new surroundings on a deeper level, hire a guide. The reasons that grapes do so well in the wine country are often the same reasons why most areas surrounding the wine regions of the world offer a number of marvelous outdoor experiences. You’ll find that a walk in the redwoods, an expansive mountaintop view, a remote meadow full of wildflowers, or a glimpse of a bobcat on the trail can heighten your wine country experience in sensational ways.

Plus, the exercise and the fresh air you’ll get from your outdoor excursion will build your anticipation of those fine meals and exquisite wines that you came to the wine country for. They are the reward for your physical efforts, they balance your intrinsic desire for deeper understanding, and they make your vacation complete.

Russ Beebe is an experienced wine taster and hiking guide who leads naturalist tours in the California wine country. Discover how you can enjoy the quintessential California experience at californiawinehikes.com.

Record Northern California 2005 Grape Harvest

Though I often find myself embracing quality over quantity in my life, I suspect that the 2005 Napa and Sonoma grape harvest will find wine collectors, futures buyers, and consumers embracing both, and snapping up as much 2005 Napa Valley and Sonoma County Cabernets and Merlots as possible.

Imagine the best wines you could ever drink at a price you’d never expect to afford. Now imagine having so much of it available to you that you could die happy, a heartily-satiated wine lover. I think life for an admirer of wine just doesn’t get any better than that. As long as you’re still embracing life, of course.

Hey, you can’t drink wine when you’re dead, right?

Even as far back as a year ago, on a wildflower jaunt to Death Valley, I thought 2005 was going to be a banner year. Multiple storms had pounded Southern California, delivering record-breaking rainfall and spawning prolific 100-year wildflower shows in Death Valley and the Carrizo Plains. But these constant heavy rains had also soaked deep into the terroir of California’s myriad expanse of grape-growing regions. I had thought at the time that winegrowers around the state would benefit from a record quantity of grapes, therefore keeping prices low for consumers. But with the consummate knowledge that California grape growers and winemakers have applied in recent years, I felt that those of us who are ardent wine fans might just enjoy a great synergy of quality, as well as quantity, from the 2005 grape harvest.

Indeed, what I suspected has become wonderful news, as you’ll see in the following story reprinted from the Napa Register.    

Napa grapes brought in more than $500 million; harvest up, prices steady, and cabernet is still the king
By L. PIERCE CARSON, Register Staff Writer Saturday, February 11, 2006 1:10 AM PST

Weighing in at a record 180,813 tons, Napa Valley’s 2005 grape crop is the largest ever harvested.

As a result, the value of last fall’s grape crush — a cool $541 million — is the largest amount ever paid local growers for prized Napa Valley grapes. Tonnage registered half again as much as the previous year’s harvest, while the average price paid for a ton of Napa Valley grapes — $2,989, the highest price per ton in the entire state — crept up a modest 2 percent last year. Pricing and tonnage information about the most recent harvest is contained in the preliminary 2005 grape crush report released Friday by the California Department of Food and Agriculture.

The value of Napa’s 2005 crop is estimated at more than half a billion dollars, noted Sue Brewster, an associate with industry analyst George Schofield, of St. Helena. A 54 percent increase in income for growers when compared to 2004, it also eclipses the prior record of $390 million set in 2003, Brewster added.

In a year where prices remained relatively stable, the huge increase in crop value is tied directly to “a huge avalanche of grapes,” declared Schofield, attributed to newly planted vines coming into production. “The relative short production in the four years from 2001 through 2004 — a fairly narrow range of 120,000 tons to 130,000 tons — concealed the effect of the maturing of the significant planting of vines from 1997 to 2001,” he added. “Clearly, the 181,000 tons of Napa grapes for the year 2005 brought this impact into sharp focus.”

“With this volume (of grapes), prices remaining strongly stable and a lot of people looking at quality with high regard, we may have seen the triple crown of winegrape growing,” said Napa Valley Grapegrowers executive director Jennifer Kopp after poring over the 2005 grape crush report. Kopp noted the previous crop tonnage record was set in 1997, with this year’s total coming in 21 percent higher than that.

If one looks at the revenue derived from grapes in the North Coast counties of Napa, Sonoma, Lake and Mendocino, “it comes to well over $1 billion. I think that sends a message about the value of agriculture in the North Coast,” she said. One of the largest independent growers in the North Coast, Andy Beckstoffer said he was surprised at tonnage figures. “But more exciting is that prices held,” Beckstoffer noted. “With that kind of tonnage you’d expect prices to fall. So that’s a great credit to Napa County.  “When you combine record tonnage with stable prices and outstanding quality, you get what they call in hockey a hat trick.

Facts and figures

Cabernet sauvignon remains king of the grapes in the Napa Valley, with a record 69,178 tons harvested last year. That’s an increase of 19,478 tons, or 39 percent, above the 2004 crush. The second largest planting in Napa County is chardonnay, with 33,935 tons harvested last year. That’s an increase of 10,700 tons, or a hike of 46 percent.  Merlot tonnage in 2005 totaled 31,676 — up by 9,415 tons, or 42 percent. Pinot noir weighed in at 10,181 tons, an increase of 1,906 tons, or 23 percent. America’s grape, zinfandel, saw a 22 percent increase in tonnage last harvest — 5,357 tons, up from 4,222 in 2004.

“Indeed, the results for pinot noir point out that the large increase in grape production in 2005 reflects that the year 2004 was about as far below normal as 2005 was above normal — roughly 25 percent each way,” noted Schofield. As for prices of 2005 fruit, cabernet sauvignon remains at the top of the largest planted varietals — an average of $3,970 a ton, an increase of only $17 over 2004. Also registering very modest price increases (between $20 and $26 per ton) were merlot at $2,661 and pinot noir at $2,196.

The average price paid for a ton of chardonnay continued to decline slightly. The average price last year was $2,112 per ton, a drop of $17. The price paid per ton of sauvignon blanc was $1,711, an increase of 5 percent. Other reds gaining popularity here include syrah (4,218 tons, $2,712 per ton), cabernet franc (3,706 tons, $4,125 per ton) and petite sirah (2,229 tons, $3,149 per ton).

“Due to the offsetting effect of the large 2005 crop and the short 2004 — as well as the inherent pricing economics of premium wine grapes — inordinate concern ought not to be raised about a radical price reaction for Napa grapes in 2006,” advises Schofield. “Nevertheless, prudent growers should put some of the 54 percent gain in 2005 revenue in the bank in anticipation of the next down cycle in the industry, which is certain to occur.”

Around the state

The news was also good in neighboring Sonoma County, where total grape crop revenue registered $429 million, an increase of 38 percent over the previous harvest. Grape tonnage in Sonoma is higher than in Napa by nearly 50 tons — an increase of 39 percent from 2004 to 230,000 tons. The chardonnay crop in Sonoma County is more than double Napa’s, weighing 73,241 tons in 2005. But the average price paid for chardonnay in Sonoma is well below Napa’s — at $1,581 per ton. Cabernet sauvignon tonnage in Sonoma County registers 45,399, with the average per ton price of $2,322.

Sonoma County growers received the second-highest return statewide, of $1,868 per ton, virtually unchanged from 2004.  Statewide, the 2005 crush totaled a record 4,318,083 tons, up 19 percent from the 2004 crush of 3,615,278 tons. Red wine varieties accounted for the largest share of all grapes crushed, at 2,220,096 tons, up 35 percent from 2004. The 2005 white wine variety crush totaled 1,524,404 tons, up 34 percent over the previous harvest.  The 2005 average price paid for all grape varieties was $531.65, up 10 percent from 2004. The average price paid for red grapes throughout the state last year was $634.40, an increase of 1 percent; for white grapes, $503.15, up 3 percent from 2004.

~winehiker