Whenever we have guests in town, we like to get out of the city for the night and show them a taste of the area that makes living in San Francisco so great. For the past few years these trips have often taken us to Russian River territory in Sonoma County. Most often to Guerneville.
Things that are great about the Guerneville area
- It is hot when San Francisco is cold (most of the summer)
- It is only about 1 hour and 15 minutes from the Golden Gate Bridge without stops. Of course you are going to stop! Stop as much as you like and you will still only be in the car for a total of about 1.25 hours.
- The route is lined with vineyards. We tend to stop at 2 -3 on our way up, I'll tell you about them below.
- There is a delightful, sunny, pleasantly temperatured, calm river for jumping into, swimming around and floating down. And there are rope swings along it. And places to rent crafts.
- It is any extremely relaxed environment with good places to eat and many kitchens to cook in.
Wine Tasting on the 116
When it comes to vineyards on the 116, our first love is Dutton Estates. Upon first glance, this place is pretty low frills, but, the wine is delicious (its one of the older vineyards in Sonoma), the warm hospitality makes us feel right at home and the staff is very knowledgable. And they offer complimentary food pairing with each tasting. At the end of our very first tasting we joined the wine club, which gives us a great excuse to visit- especially since our guests taste for free! Each time that we visit, we ask so many questions that the staff tends to just give us a tour, and we always learn something new. I have become a Chardonnay drinker through their wine, as they make different types, ranging from the traditional buttery variety, to oak-free, clean tasting white wine fermented in a concrete egg. We highly recommend this vineyard. If you do visit, let them know Jessie Flo sent ya!
Our next stop might be Iron Horse Vineyards, which almost exclusively makes bubbly wines. We like it for a variety of reasons, one being that with its sweeping views and party atmosphere, it is a totally different experience from our beloved Dutton. Though the vibe is different, the staff is equally great, and insanely knowledgeable. On our first visit we got talking to an employee named Sean, who gave us such in depth but palatable info on the processing of their wine that Erik and I sometimes refer to him as "the mad scientist at Iron Horse". Mary is pretty great too.
Beyond the expansive views of Ironhorse and the familial atmosphere of Dutton, we recently discovered Russian River Vineyards. It has a true farm to table restaurant - with a multiple acre farm in its backyard, a lovely garden to taste wine in and some really interesting architecture. We tasted a variety of interesting wines that strayed from the normal Chardonnay and Pinot Noir of Sonoma Valley. If I'm not mistaken, they have multiple German, (or was it Italian?) varieties in their cellar. At the time of our tasting the winemaker happened to be lingering so we got all the details of the property as well as the wines. We have yet to try the food, so we will have to make a return trip soon!
The common thread to all of these lovely places is their supreme approachability and excellent hospitality. Each have their own interesting story (which they will happily share) and their own distinctive ways of making wine. We love trying new places upon each trip, and can't wait for our next visit!
After a leisurely morning noshing pastries and drinking coffee, finally leaving our Lower Pac Heights apartment around 10am and tasting wine at a few vineyards, it is now around 3pm. We are ready to hop in the car and put our bags down at our destination for the evening.
Lucky for us, Guerneville is only about another 25 tree-lined minutes from our last tasting destination.
Guerneville Lodge feels to me like a micro resort from the 50's. The whole place is made of wood and the banisters have owls heads at their corners. The staff is very mellow and the vibe is very do-it-yourself. You can camp for $20 a person in their huge, sun soaked field which leads down to a private dock on the river. They also have rooms, both overlooking the field and for a few less bucks, facing the road. We opt for the river facing rooms, and make ourselves comfortable. In case you don't have a tube or craft, the hardware store across the road sells and inflates them. You can also find tubes for sale across the bridge in town. The lodge also features a full kitchen and a great room with a beautiful chess set and bookshelves full of the classics. Town is about a 5 minute walk away - there are myriad bars, restaurants and shops as well as a Safeway in case you forgot to bring your breakfast making materials!
Another lodging option is Rio Villas just down the river in Monte Rio. Monte Rio is a charming little town right on the river. Much smaller than Guerneville (which is pretty small), but with a great public beach that rents tubes for $5, and canoes/kayaks for about $25. This little town is more of a daytime spot, with a great grill in what looks like an old airplane hangar, and a perfect little surf shop that carries all sunny day essentials, in case you came on this trip thinking you wouldn't swim! If you do wander in to Kool City Surf Shop, I recommend talking up the owner. He grew up surfing in San Francisco in the 60's/70's - when surfing was starting! Pretty cool if you ask me. They didn't have wetsuits back then! Think about that.
Jenner is a different option for your night's rest at the end of the Russian River - just before it meets the ocean. We stayed at one of the cottages of the Jenner Inn and were thrilled with our experience. Jenner feels like a sleepy little fishing town, but there is a kayak rental place right across the street, a gas station/general store with everything you need to cook up a meal, and many, many stars in the night sky. In the morning, take a drive to the coast, just past the inn, up the hill to the lookout and watch the seals, egrets and osprey frolic in the marine sanctuary. OR rent a kayak and go kayak amongst them!
No matter where we stay near the Russian River, day 2 of our perfect 36 hour trip is one full of adventure. While we drank wine all day yesterday, today we paddle down the river in kayaks, tubes or canoes; find rope swings to launch from; or take a walk amongst the giant redwoods of Armstrong Reserve.
Here are some suggestions for food along the way :)
Brunch in Petaluma at Tea Room Cafe. This cozy counter service cafe has loads of delicious options including fresh squeezed orange juice, house made baked goods and awesome egg options. It has a farm to table feel, and great ambiance.
Dinner in Guerneville at Seaside Metal Oyster Bar. This is a lovely upscale treat to compliment a refined day at the vineyards. Sister restaurant to Bar Crudo on Divisadero in San Francisco, this bistro offers friendly table service, and eloquently prepared dishes revolving around fresh fish. The ambiance is nuanced and set to guarantee the type of dinner that lingers over engaged and intimate conversation as well as just-full bellies.
Day-two lunch at Rio Cafe Take 2 is everything that you want for lunch on a sunny day after playing in the river. Relaxed atmosphere, themed (cinema, and hot rods), outdoor seating and summer camp type food options done very well. They also serve up great beer options, and of course a fine selection of wine. Soak up the sun on the patio while you wait, or check out the Kool City Surf shop just next door.
We love the Russian River and all of the goodness that surrounds it. Use these tips as a starting point, I am quite sure that this area is full of secrets (just like Big Sur), and is made for adventure, exploration and new experiences!
Got any additional tips, I would love to hear about them below!!