Photo: Nader Khouri & Åsa Lundqvist

Food & Drink

Spinning through Sonoma

An occasional cyclist and her companion jump on electric bikes for a three-day tour of California’s most celebrated wine county. Winding their way through unspoiled natural surroundings, they sip Pinot Noirs and check out the scattered charming towns.

In California, cycling is a way of life – as I recently discovered on a biking-centered trip there. No doubt about it. The street signs tell you whenever you’re in a bike-friendly community, so motorists are constantly reminded to share the road with us cyclists – should there be no bikeway. Even on very busy roads, cars keep their distance and show us plenty of respect.

What with all ages and body types visible in the ­Golden State, it’s hardly surprising to see most cyclists pedaling along their merry way, dressed as if they were competing in the Tour de France.   

Today, we’re biking in Sonoma County, California, which, for the unfamiliar, is an hour north of San Francisco. Sonoma is the state’s oldest wine region, and, according to many, its best. The climate here is perfect for wine growing, with sunny days and cool nights, river­­banks and sea breezes – so no wonder over 400 wineries are located here.

We’re spending three days in Sonoma, cycling around the Russian River – a distance of about 140km.

Francis Ford Coppola has a winery here (complete with a swimming pool and cabins that visitors can rent). Celebrity wines of course have been on the rise in recent years, but I must say that the Coppola wines I tried on this outing gave a good account of themselves.

We’ve set our sights on small wineries, however, and that noble but challenging red grape, Pinot Noir. Often used in champagne, it also constitutes the heart of red Burgundies. In other words, this is a stellar ingredient.     

On our first day, we find ourselves in the small town of Graton, where we park our bikes for a lunch stop. The sidewalk is overflowing with bicycles. I overhear a group of people standing nearby… talking about bikes. We’re on electric models, which are attracting particular attention in front of the restaurant we’ve parked at. A fairly old guy is talking about the intricacies of cycle weight with a younger man who looks like an elite cyclist. He’s holding the handlebars of one of the latest racing models. The older man gives our electric bikes a long, hard look and remarks, “Electric bikes totally change the picture.”

A curious passerby asks what it’s like to ride them, and then says, almost disappointedly, “So you still have to pedal?”

Everyone in Sonoma is interested in bicycles. Nearly all the local residents are members of a cycling club. This county may sound sports-mad, but that’s not necessarily the case. What’s going on is much more of a ­s­ocial phenomenon – it’s about coming together and biking as a group. Some cycling clubs feature daily rides; all of them welcome cyclists at every level.

So who are we, cycling around here for three days? What’s our profile? I’m 52 years old, carrying the usual five kilos too many. My traveling companion is 60, and he too has put on a few extra kilos. We’re far from being professional cyclists, but we’re no couch potatoes, either. We chose electric bikes after doing plenty of reading and detailed study of the cycle route we selected. Its difficulty level is categorized as “Intermediate” to “Advanced.” Initially, and with a little prejudice, I thought that “Advanced” in the US is probably not that difficult.

Then I read in the tour information provided by our trip planner, Wine Country Bikes, that on the very first day we’d be pedaling up a 3.7km hill! And each day, we’ll cover 40–60km. Of course it made a big difference for us to learn that while we’ll be cycling from town to town, our bags will make the journey by car, so the only things we have to drag around are ourselves.

Everything has been impressively planned by Wine Country Bikes. Its founders, John and Heather Mastriann, are former professional cyclists who’ve remained such ardent fans that they started this two-wheel touring company 15 years ago. Back then, cycling was already a way of life in Sonoma, but bikes weren’t readily available for visitors. Since the Mastrianns’ passion for cycling was something they wanted to share with others, they began renting out bikes from their backyard. Distributing flyers to local hotels, they supplied everyone who wanted to go for a spin. Now, 15 years on, they operate this cycling center, with lots of different bike adventures to choose from. You can ride with a guide, rent a bike for a day, or, like us, cycle between the different towns on your own.

John has been cycling since he was 14 years old. Just as dedicated motorists have gasoline in their blood, he has bike oil in his system. He cycles every day and knows all the routes – and every bump in the road.

Before we set off, he goes into detail about what awaits us, where the tight bends are, the steep hills, wide roads, narrow lanes – you can tell he’s pedaled around the block here more than a few times.

As mentioned, I’m far from being a pro cyclist, and – since I neither commute to work nor even own a bike at home –  I feel really rusty when it’s time to start pedaling. But they say that once you’ve learned how to ride... well, we’ll soon see if that’s true. All the details John has shared about what lies ahead have evaporated out of my head. One thing he said I do remember, though: “Have fun is the mantra!”

Our trip begins in the beautiful and prosperous town of Healdsburg, where it doesn’t take long before a feeling of joy floods through my entire body. We’re surrounded by undulating vineyards and apple orchards, intoxicated by the smell of ripe apples and sun-warmed earth. We encounter more bikes than cars. The first day takes us through fertile agricultural landscape. Vineyards are everywhere. My plan was to jump off the bike and sample wines whenever the opportunity arose. But I feel so incredibly good cycling here, right in the middle of nature, that I decide to remain in the saddle.

As we roll along from fertile vineyards to barren hills lined with cow pastures, the days that follow are diverse and beautiful in this landscape so reminiscent of Ireland. We also cycle along the Pacific coast for a time. There, we can feel the power of the ocean, which has worn away some of the road and the land.

On some sections, we glide along narrow, secluded paths through residential areas that sprang up out of nowhere. These are lush, quiet and secret locations that few will find. It’s as if we’ve been transported to a fairytale world, complete with all kinds of fancifully designed houses. Small redeveloped apartment buildings and large villas line the verdant streets in higgledy-piggledy fashion.

It’s not just the highly personal and imaginative homes that are magical. Take a look at the street names: Vine Hill Road, Bohemian Highway, Moscow Road, Armstrong Woods Road – these secret places, which are now also my secret, are far removed from the neighborhoods we see in movies, with rows of box-like houses, driveways and sidewalks that all have the exact same angles and proportions. In this particular terrain, the mailboxes dotting the roads are often shared by several neighbors.

We also hug thousand-year-old redwood trees – they’re so tall we can’t see the tops.

But what about all the wine tasting? That, and improving our knowledge of the fine wines of the Sonoma Valley, was the whole idea of the trip. After all, this terroir is where Pinot Noir grapes have cult status. That beautiful queen of white wine grapes, Chardonnay, is also cultivated here.

It would certainly have been a waste to simply enjoy the surroundings when we’re in the middle of all these vineyards. And noticing all the street signs pointing to multiple wineries on our final day, we find it very difficult not limiting our visit to just one. But, it turns out, that couldn’t be easier. All we have to do is just swing off the road.

We stop at three wineries. A tasting, called a flight, consisting of six wines, costs $20. Since cycling when tipsy isn’t recommended, we decide to share a flight. The vineyards are used to this, and there are always spittoons on the table. At the same estate, you can try a single grape grown at different heights. And you needn’t be a professional taster to notice the difference in taste among the different wines.

The wineries themselves are incredibly beautiful and inviting. Here in Sonoma, there’s a lovely tradition of providing a picnic area for passing guests. You can often buy a picnic basket at the winery, but you’re equally welcome just to order a glass of wine. Then all you need to do is sit back and enjoy it, along with a packed lunch, as you take in the surroundings.

It’s with a slightly sore rear end, many new tastes on the tongue, memories of plentiful sunshine and stronger bones that we return our bikes. We used the electricity quite sparingly, I would like to point out.

We covered 135.19km and burned around 5,030 calories, with some steep ups and downs along the way. Now we’re not only left with tasting memories, but with wanting still more of the cycling lifestyle.

And finally, it’s true what they say: once you’ve learned how to ride a bike, you never forget.  

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