Wineries, the rugged Pacific coastline, redwood forests, and the winding Russian River offer plenty of outdoor excitement.

By By Gail Harrington / September 2005
August 09, 2005
Douglas Merriam

Winemakers feel a surge of excitement in the fall as they wait for the grapes to ripen. When the fruit is pronounced ready, the race is on to pick and move the harvest to the crusher and fermentation tanks. Crush may be the most exciting time at the wineries, and you don't have to be a vintner to feel the thrill.

Make a plan: Assembling the perfect picnic in wine country becomes an adventure in itself, especially during the fall harvest. You'll find juicy heirloom tomatoes, Gravenstein apples, and organic fruits and veggies at Oak Hill on the Sonoma County Farm Trail (800-207-9464, For delicious artisanal cheeses, try Vella Cheese (800-848-0505), which makes cheddar colored naturally with annatto seed, and Italian specialty cheeses, all cut or rolled by hand. Standing in line is worth the wait for a loaf of homemade organic bread from Healdsburg's Downtown Bakery and Creamery (707-431-2719).

Once you've made your selections, head for one of the many quiet corners of wine country, such as Armstrong Redwoods State Reserve (707-869-2015). For a picnic with an ocean view, take Highway 116 to Sebastopol, then Coleman Valley Road through forest and farmland to the Pacific. When you reach the end, pull over and gaze down the coast for miles.

Wednesday is volunteer day at Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (707-874-1557, ext. 201), where you can work alongside master gardeners. At Burke's Canoe Trips (707-887-1222,, a guide will outfit you for a paddle downriver through the redwoods to a private beach in Guerneville (a return shuttle is provided). Light winds make fall the best time for sea kayaking, too. Try it on the bay with a guide from Bodega Bay Kayak (707-875-8899). Curious seals will surface and dive around you, and you may spot leopard sharks feeding on the ocean floor.

Kitchen smarts: A cooking school plus a bed and breakfast, Ramekins (707-933-0450) offers courses taught by noted chefs. Ramekins' Explore Sonoma Day includes a field trip to local cheese makers or olive farms for ingredients used in class. Gloria DeMaria, of Cook Sonoma (707-473-9624), teaches cooking at boutique wineries that aren't otherwise open to the public.

Good food: Make reservations early for Charlie Palmer's Dry Creek Kitchen (707-431-0330), overlooking Healdsburg's charming town square. Simple dishes, such as pan-roasted Bodega Bay halibut, take center stage. At historic Sonoma Plaza, El Dorado Kitchen (707-996-3030) features the French/Mediterranean cuisine of Ryan Fancher, former sous chef at famed French Laundry.

Call it a night: El Dorado Hotel ($150 to $190; 707-996-3030, was built in 1843 as a private residence for the brother of Mexican General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo and occupied by the Bear Flag Party during the early days of the Mexican American War. Quirky as it sounds, contradictions seem to work at Gaige House Inn ($275 to $575; 707-935-0237,, a Queen Anne-style home with eight new Japanese-style spa suites inspired by the Ryokan inns of Kyoto.

California Oil: The winemakers may get more buzz, but the Sonoma Valley is also home to a growing number of award-winning olive oil purveyors. Vintner B.R. Cohn (800-330-4064, ext. 24, produces several extravirgin oils, including one from French picholine olives, and offers tours and tastings on request. A daily olive oil tasting bar is offered at The Olive Press (800-965-4839,, which makes award-winning extravirgin olive oils, citrus oils, and oils infused with blood oranges, Meyer lemons, and clementine. It also presses olives for the community and larger growers. The largest American producer of estate-grown, certified organic extravirgin olive oil, the 550-acre McEvoy Ranch (707-778-2307,, straddles Marin and Sonoma counties, with 80 acres devoted to 18,000 Italian olive trees of six varieties.