Napa & Sonoma Valleys have long been synonymous with wine growing (and tasting), but after a Bicycling Magazine article listed it among the world’s best places to ride, cyclists began visiting in numbers. The magazine wrote; “Napa and Sonoma are not merely local favorites; they’re legitimate international must-rides. The varied terrain can satisfy everyone from the flat-seeking novice to the hard-core hammerhead. The roads are lightly traveled. The cuisine maintains its gourmet appeal while ranging in price from cheap basics to outrageously expensive feasts. And there’s a wine tasting, it seems, on every mile.”
Having biked from Burgundy to Bordeaux, and Piedmont to Puglia and (almost) everywhere in Europe between, I wasn’t expecting to be as impressed as I was with California’s wine country. My wife and I are somewhere between ‘flat-seeking novices and hard-core hammerheads’ and chose Randonnee Tours new 7 day trip, starting from Napa, just north of San Francisco. We arrived at the first hotel, the historic Napa River Inn, which boasts a riverside location and has lots of shops, galleries and restaurants within steps. Our first ride was a wonderful easy-going loop where we visited the former estate of Rene di Rosa, the founder of Winery Lake vineyards and an eccentric art collector with a huge collection of Northern California’s emerging artists work.
We had lunch at the Boon Fly Café, a classy restaurant with a lively lunch-time crowd. There was a long loop option to Sonoma (the reward would be lunch at Sondra Bernstein’s first restaurant, the Girl and the Fig) but we decided to make it an easy first day. The ride back to Napa earned us dinner at famous international Chef Masaharu Morimoto (a k a the Iron Chef) where we dove into the omakase tasting menu that ‘wowed’ us course after course after course. Next day, riding north of Napa along a mix of bike paths and secondary roads, we noted many of California’s best known appellations including Plumpjack Winery, Frog’s Leap, Silver Oak, Opus One to name a few , tempting us to taste.
Arriving in St. Helena, we stayed at the Wydown Hotel, a newly restored historic property downtown, with contemporary design and huge guest rooms. We dined the first night at La Condesa, a casual restaurant with a lively bar and gregarious bartenders eager to please.
Next day, the Howell Mountain – Pope Valley loop ride of 36 miles was a perfect mix of hills and undulating roads with virtually no traffic for much of the way. We considered the afternoon 17 mile option but decided instead to enjoy St. Helena some more. After visiting several galleries, we moved on to Goose & Gander’s casual bar and bistro, where we enjoyed the rustic arugula and pear salad and delicious burgers. The crowd was young and hip and it was a fun night to be hanging with locals.
Next day, we cycled north to Calistoga, with brief stops at Clos Pegase and Sterling Vineyards. From Calistoga, we cycled the additional loop of the Franz Valley, over the Mayacamas Mountain Range and back to Calistoga. We stayed at the Mount View Hotel downtown, but next trip would choose to splurge at the new Solage Hotel on the outskirts of town, with its huge swimming pool and ultra-luxurious spa. We did have dinner at Solbar, the one-star Michelin restaurant there and that was one of our favourite meals of the trip.
From Calistoga, we continued north to Healdsburg. At the entrance to town, there was an option to loop further north which we chose. This was one of my favourite rides of the trip, to Geyserville and back along West Dry Creek Road. In Healdsburg, we stayed at the fabulous Healdsburg Hotel, located in the historic district, with lovely courtyard pool, and wonderful lounges and sitting areas. Our room and bathroom/ shower was luxurious in every way and the hotel staff couldn’t do more to please. We ate the first night at Dry Creek Restaurant, where the knowledgeable sommelier took the time to decant the wine we had brought in (no corkage fee for Sonoma Valley wines).
Next day, we did a scenic loop in the Russian Valley, passing perfect vineyard after perfect vineyard, stopping at the Dry Creek General Store, which has been open since 1881 and is a local institution. We sat on the veranda having lunch and talking to an octogenarian couple who wanted to hear about the cycling, telling us they were avid cyclists in their day. Later, cycling back to Healdsburg, we stopped to taste at the VML winery, which has gorgeous gardens and fountains in an unpretentious setting. Back in Healdsburg, we visited several galleries, resisting the temptation to bring back some of the local art. For our final night dinner, we chose Scopa, a small Italian style bistro filled with local winemakers for yet another perfect meal. Our trip finished the next morning and we elected to drive back via Bodega Bay and Hwy 1 to San Francisco.
The longer Randonnee itinerary offers up to 2 more days; one from Healdsburg to Bodega Bay (staying at Bodega Bay Lodge) with the chance to do a loop ride that traces much of what Levi Leipheimer calls ‘the best ride in North America’ along King Ridge Road and back along the coast. The final day of riding is from Bodega Bay to Sonoma, finishing at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa. If you have the legs, (and time), this would make a great finish to your trip!
Robbin McKinney, Owner of Randonnée Tours
If you go: here are different options to choose from: