Every spring unveils an awakening along the rural back roads of Sonoma County. Vineyards striped in yellow mustard give way to pink flashes of plum blossoms as quilted patterns of wildflowers return to the fields in purple and gold.
As we thaw out from a long, challenging winter, the need to bask in the sun feels strong. Make a beeline directly to the source — where the crabs are harvested, the cheese is aged, and the vineyard cover crops flower. This is a time to celebrate life: bowlegged lambs playing king of the mountain, baby seal pups lumbering across a beach, a young kingfisher teetering on a telephone line.
These three spring drives delve into the bounty of the county. Compare clam chowders along the coast in Bodega Bay and Jenner, nibble on fresh cheeses amid the green pastures of west Petaluma, or take in budbreak and wildflower season in the sister valleys of Dry Creek and Alexander, just outside Healdsburg. Because spring is meant for exploration and discovery — and a meander along our rural country roads feels just right, right now.
Wildflowers & Wine
Dry Creek Valley to Alexander Valley, Healdsburg
Dry Creek Valley, west of Healdsburg, is a place steeped in rustic highs and lows, where A. Rafanelli Winery sells coveted $140 Cabs while weeds grow through rusted farm equipment retired beside the road. Starting off on Highway 101 near Healdsburg, head west on Dry Creek Road, where “tractor crossing” notices give way to peace signs and placards reading “Eggs $5 a Dozen” are mounted on barns.
This is a valley that takes spring planting seriously. A quick stop at The Gardener outdoor retail shop offers a peek at Italian terracotta pots and carved stones from Mexico. Further down the road, look out for the frontyard plant sale along Yoakim Bridge Road just before West Dry Creek.
The landmark 1881 Dry Creek General Store is well-stocked with hearty takeout fuel for the road, from spicy chorizo breakfast burritos to the Bark Shark’s slow-cooked brisket sandwich. And no Dry Creek spring jaunt is complete without a trip to Preston Farm & Winery, where peach and plum trees are beginning to blossom, bees are buzzing in the mustard, and farmer Kristin Morrison looks forward to transitioning from a long winter in the greenhouse. The farm store sells everything from eggs and dried peppers to the popular Guadagni jug wine (a delicious Zin blend)— plus the farm’s own line of organic marigold and gourd seeds, sold “by the pinch.”
Along with Preston, Mounts Family Winery is the epitome of all that is salt-of-the-earth and unpretentious about Dry Creek Valley. Just ask winery dogs Lewie and Scrappy, who spend all day chasing after rabbits. This is the time of year when owner Lana Mounts enjoys watching their 50-year-old fig tree come to life near the tasting room. “As the buds open, the tree is laced with leaves that resemble butterflies,” she says. “It’s as if hundreds of green butterflies are perched on the branches.” Look for the winery’s April release of Grenache and Petite Syrah, along with rarer Rhône varietals Clairette Blanche and Counoise.
At the upper reach of the valley, past the dam at Lake Sonoma Recreation Area, take time out from eating and tasting for a stunning hike. The out-and-back trail from the Little Flat parking area to Bummer Peak packs a punch, tracking through oak and manzanita woodlands before topping out at unmatched views of the entire valley. It’s a fitting finish in Dry Creek before connecting over Canyon Road to Geyserville, the gateway to Alexander Valley.
In Geyserville, you’ll face one of the toughest decisions of the day: Truffle fries and ten-layer lasagna at Catelli's or prosciutto-and-funghi pie at Diavola Pizzeria. Rolling through on the weekends, keep an ear out for local musician Pat Simmons (not to be confused with the Doobie Brothers guitarist) playing keyboards in the parking lot next to Bosworth & Son western wear shop, where you can always score a sweet Stetson.
Wandering back toward Healdsburg via Highway 128, some of the best Alexander Valley lookouts are at Robert Young Estate Winery's new Scion House and from the sweeping deck overlooking the vineyards at Hanna Winery. A stop at Silver Oak is a must, not only for world-class Cabernet Sauvignon, but to marvel at one of the most sustainable wineries in the world. The vast solar array on the roof supplies energy, and underground tanks irrigate the 75-acre vineyard with harvested rain water.
Practically next door, Alexander Valley Vineyards never misses a chance to celebrate the March 15 birthday of valley namesake Cyrus Alexander each year with the release of their newest Cyrus Bordeaux blend. Spring is winery co-owner Harry Wetzel’s favorite time of the year. In a battle of floras, the hills turn a bright Irish green, he says, “but in many places the wildflowers actually overpower the green hues and turn the hills yellow. Not golden like the dried grasses of the summer, but mustard-yellow, purple, orange, and white.”
The Gardener, 516 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-431-1063, thegardener.com
Dry Creek General Store, 3495 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-4171, drycreekgeneralstore1881.com
PRESTON FARM & WINERY, 9282 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-3372, prestonfarmandwinery.com
MOUNTS FAMILY WINERY, 3901 Wine Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-292-8148, mountswinery.com
THE BUMMER PEAK HIKE starts at the Little Flat trailhead at Lake Sonoma Recreation Area. 4.7 miles roundtrip with a moderate climb. Take Dry Creek Road to Rockpile Road. Park in the Little Flat lot, on the right just after you go over the bridge. alltrails.com
CATELLI’S, 21047 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville, 707-857-3471, mycatellis.com
DIAVOLA PIZZERIA, 21021 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville, 707-814-0111, diavolapizzeria.com
BOSWORTH & SON, 21060 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville, 707-857-3463, bosworthandson.com
HANNA WINERY, 9280 Highway 128, Healdsburg, 707-431-4310, hannawinery.com
ROBERT YOUNG ESTATE WINERY, 5102 Red Winery Road, Geyserville, 707-431-4811, ryew.com
SILVER OAK, 7300 Highway 128, Healdsburg, 707-942-7082, silveroak.com
ALEXANDER VALLEY VINEYARDS, 8644 Highway 128, Healdsburg, 707-433-7209, avvwine.com
Family Farms & Fresh Cheeses
Chileno Valley to Spring Hill Loop, Petaluma
Think of this breezy drive through low-lying pasturelands as a celebration of all things dairy, in a valley once settled by Chilean immigrants, where locals love their cheeses, their wines, and even their precious native newts. As you head out from downtown Petaluma on Western Avenue, the best morning pit stop is at the bright yellow, two-story Petaluma Creamery, which looks like it could play an old-timey hotel on the set of a TV western. Purveyor of all-organic Spring Hill cheeses, butter, and eggs, it’s also a great spot to pick up a panini or tri-tip sandwich for the road. And the garlic curds make ideal picnic poppers because you don’t have to slice them.
Or for a deeper dive into specialty sandos, like Frederick’s Chicabacon, Ray's Delicatessen is just a few blocks down the road on the right.
Before you get to Chileno Valley Road, hang a quick right on Chapman Lane, where Rick and JoAnn Wallenstein run the Lavender Bee Farm. Make an appointment to visit the farm store and taste honeys and other products made from lavender, which starts to bloom around the first week of June.
Soon after turning left on Chileno Valley Road, you’ll hit the spring spectacle of green rolling hills and oaks leafing out at Helen Putnam Regional Park. The 216-acre preserve boasts six miles of trails, with panoramic views, picnic spots, and even a chance to wet a line for bluegill and bass in Cattail Pond.
Just down the road on the right, lies cheese heaven: The Achadinha Cheese Company, which takes its name from the tiny Portuguese town (say “Osh-a-deen-a”) where the owners, the Pacheco family, has roots. “Life is never calm during kidding season,” says Donna Pacheco, who looks forward to the spring arrival of baby goats. “The girls” on this 230-acre farm supplement their diet of lush spring grasses with brewer’s grain from Bear Republic and Russian River Brewing Company, producing milk for a stunning array of cheeses. Prep your taste buds for the nutty Cowpricious, aged on cedar planks; the ripe Portuguese Broncha, a Greek-style feta; and the yogurty kefir. And Achadinha has to be the only cheese company around to sell a DIY poutine kit in celebration of the gravy-drenched, late-night Canadian hangover food.
Further down the road, past Moreda Family Farms, you’ll start to see “Newt Crossing” signs just before Laguna Lake appears on the right. The signs are a testament to environmentally conscious locals who banded together as the Chileno Valley Newt Brigade to shepherd low-and-slow-moving California newts safely across the road to breeding grounds in the laguna. Along the way, don’t miss a chance to photograph the well-preserved and still-operating Laguna School, a one-room schoolhouse with a bell tower, built in 1906.
After turning briefly onto Tomales Road, head back toward town on the narrow, endlessly potholed Spring Hill Road, where Azari Vineyards sits tucked away. An appointment is necessary, but it’s definitely worth it in spring, when the plum and quince trees are blossoming, says Parichehr Azari, who makes fruit roll-ups from the bounty to give to wine club members. Born in Iran, Parichehr and her husband Kamal run the 35-acre farm, making their own olive oil and a delicate Pinot Noir (look for the new 2017 release) that captures the essence of the foggy Petaluma Gap appellation.
Looping back to Petaluma, you might be hungrier for more than just another scoop of lavender ice cream back at the Petaluma Creamery, though that’s always welcome. For something more substantial, check out new hotspot Table Culture Provisions. Chefs Stephane Saint Louis and Steven Vargas dream up a new menu each day, making full use of the local springtime best.
PETALUMA CREAMERY, 711 Western Ave., Petaluma, 707-762-9038, springhillcheese.com
RAY’S DELI, 900 Western Ave., Petaluma, 707-762-9492, raysdeli.com
LAVENDER BEE FARM, 764 Chapman Lane, Petaluma, 707 789-0554, lavenderbeefarm.com
HELEN PUTNAM PARK, 411 Chileno Valley Road, Petaluma, 707-875-3540, parks.sonomacounty.ca.gov/Visit/ Helen-Putnam-Regional-Park
ACHADINHA CHEESE COMPANY, 750 Chileno Valley Road, Petaluma, 707-763-1025, achadinhacheese.com
CHILENO VALLEY NEWT BRIGADE, chilenovalleynewtbrigade.org
LAGUNA SCHOOL, 2657 Chileno Valley Road, Petaluma, lagunaschool.org
AZARI VINEYARDS, 1399 Spring Hill Road, Petaluma, 707 658-0707, azarivineyards.com
TABLE CULTURE PROVISIONS, 841 Petaluma Blvd. North, Petaluma, 707-796 3375 or tcprovision.com
Windswept Beaches & A Seafood Smackdown
Highway 1 Loop, Bodega Bay to Jenner
Behold what might be the most Instagrammed road trip of all. Nearly every turn along this famous stretch of Highway 1 spotlights a jaw-dropping coastal vista — and don’t worry if you miss one, for there will always be another pullout just ahead.
Arrive in Bodega Bay in the morning for an early hike along the narrow straits of the Pinnacle Gulch Trail (check tides first). Hidden within the Bodega Harbour golf course subdivision, this trail is an often-overlooked gem of the regional park system. After, at the south end of Bodega Bay just as you enter town, Sonoma Coast Vineyards offers self-guided flights for two with pre-poured carafes. The winery has just released an excellent 2020 rosé.
Then, hungry from the morning’s jaunts, it’s time for a challenge — let’s call it the crab-n-clam taste test. First, split a bowl of clam chowder and a crab roll with a friend at Spud Point Crab Company, the tiny seafood shack across from Spud Point Marina on Westshore Road in Bodega Bay. Then hop in the car and wind ten miles north to split the same combo at Cafe Aquatica in Jenner — and hold a Food Network-worthy debate over the winner. My money is on the Café Aquatica crab roll, with fresh Dungeness mixed with celery — and not too much aioli — on a bed of arugula, holding down a brioche roll with housemade pickles. It’s a tad more complex than its Spud Point doppelganger, which, while more abundant and bready, veers into the Thousand-Island-secret-sauce category. That said, I’m almost split on the clam chowder, with Spud Point literally tipping the scales with more butter and cream.