Tasting by Bike in Wine Country
Slowing down and savoring experiences is a key value in visiting Wine Country, and there's no better way to explore and experience the vineyards and lands of Sonoma County than on a bicycle.
There's more to those photos of cheerful cyclists on a quiet country lane, handlebar baskets stuffed with bottles of wine and loafs of bread, than just a photo shoot idyll: the opportunities to combine wine tasting with a bicycle ride are darn near idyllic in many corners of Sonoma County.
The two activities can be easily combined in a morning, afternoon, or all-day tour to suit anyone's ability and cycling experience. You don't have to be an athletic road cyclist — ready to casually quaff a Cabernet on the way back from conquering the 500-meter King Ridge climb, a la Levi Leipheimer's Gran Fondo — to participate.
Here are three rides that range from easy, off-street cycling to riding some of the quieter roads in a valley packed with wine tasting opportunities, with options noted for adding on a more challenging ride.
This Class I bike path, also called Sonoma City Trail, is a rails-to-trails conversion of the route that the Sonoma Valley Railroad Company once used to roll through the town of Sonoma. It runs about a mile from Highway 12 through neighborhoods and fields, past the home of General Mariano Vallejo at Sonoma State Historical Park and Depot Park Museum, ending at Fourth Street East, where you'll find Sebastiani Winery.
Continue past Sebastiani's renowned Cherryblock Cabernet Sauvignon vineyard on quiet Lovall Valley Road, and you'll find street signs pointing the way to Bartholomew Estate, Buena Vista and Gundlach-Bundschu, all easy to reach on tree-shaded country lanes.
Step it up: Cyclists with some hill-climbing experience can make an appointment at picturesque Hanzell Vineyards, giving themselves a realistic time frame to reach it after a steep, but brief ascent up Lomita Avenue at the end of the Bike Path.
Challenging ride: Thanks to the Santa Rosa Cycling Club for their 'ten great rides,' one of which, Cavedale-Mt. Veeder, starts at the free parking lot at Vallejo's house, passes the taquerias and luxury Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa of the Boyes Hot Springs area, and climbs high into the Mayacamas Mountains, returning via the Sonoma Carneros wine region. 45 miles.
Start and finish this mostly off-street ride at The Barlow center in Sebastopol for easy parking and refueling options at restaurants and microbrewerys. The 5.5-mile trail begins at Mill Station Road north of town. At the east end of The Barlow area, follow wide Morris Street north and around the bend to the west. The signed trail then passes through neighborhoods up a gentle grade — once again, a former railroad route — and then parallels Highway 116.
At the intersection, cross the highway and continue west on the wide shoulder of Occidental Road to the trail. Mostly paved, with a section of boardwalk through blackberry-scented marshland and some dirt trail, the West County Trail passes vineyards and the back entrances to several wineries — some of them a little hidden, like Russian River Vineyards, but worth finding.
Also find the tasting rooms of Paul Mathew and Bowman a block from the trail route in the tiny town of Graton; Ektimo Vineyards along the way; and sparkling wine specialists Iron Horse Vineyards a detour down, and then up, Ross Station Road.
Though you might not know where you are at this point (a connecting segment through this brushy area is in the works), the trail ends in Forestville. Detour through a few side streets and then sample Wine Guerrilla's Zinfandel on the hard-to-miss-it main street, and Joseph Jewell's Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, before hopping on the trail for the ride back to Sebastopol.
Challenging: Cyclists training for Levi's Gran Fondo will notice that the trail crosses Green Valley Road, which leads to Harrison Grade and connects to Coleman Valley Road via the town of Occidental, and thus many of the classic routes of the Fondo.
It's difficult not to slow down, way down, when driving West Dry Creek Road. In many places it twists and turns with an almost whimsical character of its own, but it's best appreciated on a bicycle. This 18-mile ride is suitable for cyclists who are comfortable riding on the street, and it features some easy hills that require a bit more effort.
Start at a city lot or plentiful street parking on Grove Street in Healdsburg and follow the street (or the adjacent path) south to Westside Road at Mill Street, and head west under the freeway.
At Madrona Manor, take a right on West Dry Creek Road. The road features gentle hills and passes by dozens of vineyards and tasting rooms. Highlights include Quivira's biodynamic gardens and Lambert Bridge's cozy curl of smoke above the chimney on chillier mornings; a little farther on, the road's dead-end section leads to Preston of Dry Creek. Otherwise, turn right on Yoakim Bridge Road, then right at Dry Creek Road.
This road is wider but traffic is faster and the shoulder varies, so it's time to pay close attention while sightseeing. Wineries abound along Dry Creek Road, such as Cast Wines, with the popular refueling stop along the way being the Dry Creek General Store. Crossing under the 101 freeway, Dry Creek leads back to Grove Street on the right (look for that bike trail after a block or so, on the left).
Step it up: Add a longer hill climb on the return leg with a left on Lytton Springs Road at Mauritson Winery. After passing hilly oak woodland and vineyards, find Chiquita Road on your right, at California Zinfandel and Cabernet legend Ridge Vineyards. Follow Chiquita back to Grove and into downtown Healdsburg.
Challenging: Turn left on Dry Creek Road at Yoakim Bridge, and pass several wineries on the way to the Warm Springs Dam. Keep going to Rockpile Road, a grinding climb capped with an even longer, but gentle roller coaster ride on one of the county's smoothest, yet least-traveled 10-mile rides, maintained by the Army Corps of Engineers. It's an out and back, but the views are grand both ways.
Getaway Adventures: Rental bikes and a variety of guided cycling tours, including Sip N Cycle visits to wineries and Pedals N Pints to craft breweries; also kayaking (including a Pedal N Paddle combo) and hiking tours.
Sonoma Valley Bike Tours: Bikes, guided tours, and route maps, just one mile south of the Sonoma Plaza.
Trek Santa Rosa: Rents both hybrid bikes for casual riding, and carbon road bikes for epic hill climbing. Also, Trek Travel offers fully supported group bike tours (like the 'Sonoma Wine Country Long Weekend') that emphasize both riding and gourmet culinary experiences.
Russian River Cycle Service: Tiny full-service shop on Old River Road (reach via Mirabel Road in Forestville) offering advice, rentals, and the 'Martinelli Road Two-fer,' a rental and wine tasting coupon to Hartford Court on a scenic country lane.
Spoke Folk Cyclery: Bike rentals just off the Healdsburg Plaza.