My wife and I have learned during our motorhome treks that an increasing number of RVers are looking for wine tasting opportunities. Gayle and I count ourselves among them. Our palates aren’t sophisticated enough for us to be considered connoisseurs, but we do enjoy relaxing and socializing at the end of the day with a good glass of wine. So after hearing about the many things to see and do in California’s northern Sonoma County, and especially about the unusually large selection of tasting opportunities, we were determined to try it out.
In particular, we wanted to explore the area through which the Russian River and U.S. Highway 101 traverse, often referred to as The Wine Road. Located in the pristine coastal mountains of Northern California, it includes three beautiful valleys (Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River) that have ideal soil and climate conditions for growing premium varietal grapes
The region is too vast to take in during a single visit. More than 200 wineries exist there, ranging from small mom and pop operations that specialize in one or two types of wine, to some that offer not only a large selection of premium varietals, but also unique dining, entertainment, and even recreational opportunities.
We focused primarily on the Russian River Valley, where there are 130 wineries, growing 30 different varietals. Directional signposts are prominently displayed at many major intersections to point the way to the wineries. Surrounding those vast vineyards are forests of tall redwood trees, stately oaks adorned with Spanish moss, and a large variety of other flora. In a state suffering from drought, it was nice to see so many shades of green. And the climate is mild enough that you can take advantage of the location year-round.
The day after setting up our base camp at the Russian River Resort, we set out to taste wine and were almost immediately overwhelmed with the number of choices. No matter which direction you head, whether on the freeway or biking along rural roads, there are wineries, wineries, and more wineries. We were like kids in a candy store, trying to decide what to sample without getting carried away (or soused!). Gayle prefers reds and I prefer whites. But we each like tasting both. Some places charge a fee and some don’t. But either way, we found it practical to just share samples normally provided to one person. That way we saved money too. Never before have we sampled such a wide variety of wines, including several that had won coveted gold medals. Let me just summarize our wine tasting experience this way: whether wining and dining, or just wining, we didn’t have a bad experience at any of the locations we visited. But there were two unique wineries that we felt should not be missed by any visitor.
For those who appreciate champagne, the Korbel Winery will not disappoint. Established in 1882 by three Czechoslovakian brothers named Korbel, it was purchased by Adolph Heck in 1954. Heck’s son, Gary, took it over in 1974. Over the years since then, production has been increased from 150,000 to over 1.3 million cases per year. They have the growing, blending, production, and tasting experience down to a tee. You can easily spend a couple of hours or more at their beautifully landscaped facility, while looking out over some of their well-maintained vineyards that are surrounded by scenic redwood forest. One of the highlights is a 50-minute tour that is offered throughout the day, every day of the week.
Wine by the Pool
The other location that should not be missed is the Francis Ford Coppola Winery, where the entire family could easily spend an entire day without becoming bored. This is the showcase of the many winery acquisitions of this Academy Award winning film director, producer and screenwriter. We enjoyed it so much during our first visit that we returned for a second. That is when we realized how much we had missed before.
From Memorial Day weekend through roughly the end of September, bring a swimsuit, sunscreen, camera; also, a big appetite for wine, food and fun. There is a huge pool in a large courtyard, complete with cabanas and lounge chairs that can be rented for a short period or all day. Attendants see to your every need, including beverage and food service. There are four primo bocce ball courts, a very nice outdoor stage and dance floor, and dining—both inside and out. On some weekends you can be entertained with live music and dancing under the stars. During one visit we enjoyed an authentic muffaletta sandwich in the outdoor café, overlooking the pool area. Not since 1980 when we were last in New Orleans have we experienced the real thing. According to our server, Coppola has some of the ingredients—including the special bread—flown there directly from The Big Easy.
Wine tasting is offered at a large horseshoe-shaped bar downstairs, and also in a wonderfully serene lounge and bar upstairs. Tours can be arranged to see and learn more about this amazing place. Strategically placed throughout the facility are displays of props from several of Coppola’s biggest and best motion pictures, including the Godfather series (1972, 1974, 1990), Dracula (1992), Apocalypse Now (1979), and Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988). The classic Tucker automobile used in the film is among the displays.
Of course not everyone will be interested in checking out the region for its wines. For those who aren’t, there are plenty of other attractions in Sonoma County and neighboring Napa County. You could go hot air ballooning, visit museums (including the Snoopy Museum and the Pacific Coast Air Museum), tour botanical gardens or pamper yourself with a hot mud bath at one of the wonderful spas in Calistoga. Other attractions include the largest complex of geothermal plants in the world, California’s Old Faithful geyser, the Jelly Belly factory, Lake Sonoma, the Petrified Forest and casinos. During the warmer months, the bohemian-influenced Russian River Resort area offers all sorts of recreational opportunities for young and old.
All of these attractions can be conveniently reached by day trips from where we set up—at the Russian River Resort. It is open throughout the year, and can accommodate virtually any rig. We had no problem finding plenty of sites to choose from for our 35-foot motorhome and tow. The area has many other RV parks too, including a KOA in nearby Cloverdale.
This beautiful Sonoma County area, with its mild climate and textured topography, can’t help but enchant even the most jaded of travelers. There are even some unusual surprises along the road to bring smiles, including whimsical painted metal bar sculptures that are tall enough to be seen from long distances. The sculptures look like stick figures in various running poses, all painted in different colors.
We returned home with plenty of fantastic wines and experiences. The stay was thoroughly enjoyable for so many reasons. If you get the chance, check it out. There is so much to see and do that you will want to return (as we do). n
Ken Reid, an RVer for more than 40 years, lives in Modesto, California.
F YOU GO:
Korbel Winery: The winery is at 13250 River Road, not far from Guerneville. There are 50-minute tours throughout the day. (707-824-7708; korbel.com)
Francis Ford Coppola Winery: The winery is at 300 Via Archimedes in Geyserville. If your GPS device doesn’t recognize the address, just take the Independence Lane exit off Highway 101. You can’t miss seeing it from the freeway. (707-857-1471; franciscoppolawinery.com)
Russian River RV Resort: The resort, at 33655 Geysers Road about three miles north of Cloverdale, can accommodate almost any size rig and has river frontage, wildlife, and hiking trails, but no sewer or 50-amp service. Your GPS instructions may direct you on a 12-mile stretch of mostly single-lane road, with steep grades and lots of curves, potholes, gravel and dips, overhanging branches and no place to turn around. Luckily for us, a representative from the RV park called us a couple of days in advance with a warning. To avoid a big problem, take the Geysers Road off-ramp (Exit 525) from Highway 101; then travel south along the river about 1.3 miles to the entrance. The website is (rvonthego.com/california/russian-river-rv-campground).