WHEN YOU THINK of autumn leaves, you probably think of New England — or maybe the Midwest. Their stands of fiery maples and golden birch are so resplendent; they call to a whole class of tourists called Leaf Peepers.
But here on the West Coast, we have our own fall color. It peaks more toward winter and is every bit as beautiful as a deciduous forest. It’s the wine country, where the leaves on the vines blush brilliant shades of burgundy and gold. It’s nature’s great show, and the timing couldn’t be better, as the crush is just ending and the vineyards sleep silently until spring.
The Sonoma wine country is simply gorgeous this time of year. The days near Halloween are a cacophony of color for grape-growing regions like Dry Creek and the Alexander Valley. Head north on Highway 101 to Santa Rosa and stop for a cup of coffee at the historic Railroad Square. Locals and tourists alike come here and you’ll feel the energy as you browse the antique shops and the hip cafes. It’s a great launching point for your fall color tour and tastings.
With Santa Rosa as your starting point, you can choose from three colorful country drives. All are lightly traveled and incredibly romantic this time of year. The northern route takes you through one of my favorite places, Healdsburg. Lovers still stroll hand-in-hand in this charming town, window shopping and exchanging pleasantries with neighbors and merchants on the street. Healdsburg is known for its restaurants, which feature a bounty of meats and produce raised in the region. You’ll find everything from Muscovy duck to goat cheese and Pacific oysters, any of which can be packed for an afternoon picnic. From town, head toward Highway 128 for a delightful drive through the Alexander Valley. There are 28 wineries in this region, and more than 15,000 acres of vineyards blanketing the valley and surrounding hillsides. The wines run the gamut from soft cabernets to rich chardonnays and newcomers like French syrah and Italian sangiovese.
The second route takes you west from Healdsburg through the cooler climates of the Russian River appellation — perfect for pinot noir. There are 50 wineries in this region as you wind your way toward Jenner and the Pacific Ocean. In early November, you’ll still see pumpkins on the vines, along with colorful flower farms and places to cut your own Christmas trees.
If a warmer climate suits you, the third route takes you southeast from Santa Rosa along Highway 12 — through Sonoma’s famous Valley of the Moon. This is where Franciscan Padres planted the county’s first grapes in 1823 and you can still see the ancient winery stone shells today. With charming old towns like Sonoma and Glen Ellen, Highway 12 is a favorite route through a region that produces everything from peppery zinfandel to buttery cheese.
While cars and motorcoaches are the easiest way to tour the Sonoma Wine Country, they may not be the most satisfying. Consider riding a bike along the miles of flat and gently rolling roads that traverse the vineyards.
There’s a sweetness to the air as you ride past fields and farms and stop to taste a grape or two. On a bike you can take your time to stop at the bounty of boutique wineries that dot the country lanes.
If adding a little horsepower to your vehicle sounds better, you can do it, literally, by renting a horse-drawn carriage from Flying Horse Carriage Co. Using elegant coaches and well-behaved draft horses, they take you on a delightful ride through the Alexander Valley, where the sounds of the wagon wheels and the horses hooves almost lull you to sleep.
The owner and coachman, Bret Le Rolland, loves to stop and pick you a grape, then compliment it with a glass of wine and fine cheese. For sunny days he provides parasols — on cooler days, blankets. Along the way, he points out things of interest as the horses climb the hillside for a gorgeous view of the valley below.
There’s another way to see the Sonoma Wine Country, if you have the stomach. Just south of Sonoma is a regional airport where Chris Prevost keeps his planes. Not just any planes, but vintage World War II planes with open cockpits. Just say the word and he’ll show you a view of the wine region that few get to see. Donning a parachute and leather helmet, you climb the ladder to the cockpit where you’re strapped in for a thrill ride of dips and turns that are as mild or as wild as you request. Chris takes you low over long-lashed cows and fields of clover, then up for a wide-angle view of the valley and beyond. It’s one of the best ways to see the Sonoma Wine Country.
So pack a blanket and a thermos of soup, and head north this fall for some of the best autumn colors on Earth. When it comes to seasons — Sonoma can hold its own with the best of them.