Spring explorations north of Sonoma
"Alexander Valley Merlots are so chocolaty ― you're gonna love this," Molly Meeker says as she pours a glass of deep ruby liquid. Of course, you'd expect a local winemaker to extol the virtues of her region's product. But you don't expect to hear it through the wooden teller window of an old brick bank building.
There's a refreshing kind of "anything goes" attitude in this little-known wine region. Spend a day or two poking around the Alexander Valley, which is just north of Healdsburg on the Russian River, and you'll find a historic bank turned tasting room, a great barbecue joint in a former general store, and quirky art in a grocery store.
The Alexander Valley is way more laid-back than its prominent neighbor to the southeast ― the Napa Valley. Here, there are a couple dozen wineries, not hundreds, and you can easily tour the area simply by following State 128, which cuts through the valley.
The small town of Geyserville is the valley hub. You can taste wine right here at the Meeker Vineyard (21035 Geyserville Ave.; 707/431-2148). Then make a stop for lunch at the rustic yet stylish Santi Restaurant (lunch Thu-Sat, dinner Tue-Sun; 21047 Geyserville Ave.; 707/857-1790); osso buco is a specialty. Or try Geyser Smokehouse (lunch and dinner daily; 21021 Geyserville Ave.; 707/857-4600), where you can sample slow-cooked ribs in a building that started out as a general store around the turn of the century.
Hit the highway and head for more wineries. In the Alexander Valley, tasting is usually free and the wineries are friendly ― and often unconventional. At Johnson's Alexander Valley Wines (8333 State 128; 707/433-2319), Ellen Johnson offers this incentive: "You buy wine, the organ plays." And sure enough, a visitor buys a bottle of Pinot Noir, and the massive, 1,000-pipe organ starts playing the theme from Phantom of the Opera. White Oak Vineyards & Winery (7505 State 128; 800/544-7273) is more conventional: you can sip old-vine Zinfandels in a new Mediterranean-style facility.
One of the best spots for a picnic with a vineyard view is at Field Stone Winery and Vineyard (10075 State 128; 707/433-7266), an underground winery built into an oak tree-covered knoll.
Forget your picnic fixings? Stop in at the Jimtown Store (6706 State 128; 707/433-1212). You can buy wine, sandwiches, and deli foods, including the store's own fig and olive spread, or step into the back room to shop for colorful folk art. Folk art in a grocery store? Why not ― in the Alexander Valley, anything goes.
WHERE: Geyserville is 75 miles north of San Francisco; take U.S. 101 to the Geyserville exit (State 128 east).
LODGING: Geyserville Inn. Spacious and comfortable rooms next to vineyards. From $100. 21714 Geyserville Ave.; (877) 857-4343, or (707) 857-4343.