Well it looks like I drew the short straw again. Most of the other MOites have young kids and/or needful spouses which all provide convenient excuses, so I was the guy who’d have to ride the BMW R1200RT (MO’s Sport-Tourer of 2014) up to Healdsburg, an hour north of San Francisco, for a chamber of commerce-sponsored junket where I’d have to spend several days riding around sampling the area’s finest wines and haute cuisine with a bunch of foodies and wine snobs. Why me, Lord?
I didn’t get the best drive out of Orange County Sunday morning and I needed to stop for brunch in Solvang, so rather than blast up the backroads at ballistic speeds like I used to do on my way to SF, I ambled up the 101 at a reasonable 80-ish with the BMW’s ESA set to Soft. I must be getting old? But I needed to be there by six. By the time I got to Healdsburg it was nine hours later, about an hour past dark, and we’d covered 545 miles on not quite 13 gallons of premium, at a burn rate of almost 42 mpg. Nothing hurt at all, but maybe the seat could be a little more plush? Maybe one of those bead seat things would make it perfect? Anyway, there was no time to grieve; my host LeAn had me in the official tour van and seated in Mateo’s Cocina Latina downtown a half-hour later. It was time to get to work, starting with some clove-infused margaritas, and the pain was gone. Mateo, from the Yucatan, is all about the local sourcing, and David the Chicago Sun-Times food writer was going on about the Italian pigs with the band around the middle that you’re not supposed to be able to get in the U.S. that Mateo was serving us. Apparently they’re not very big, because mine was gone in about three bites. But not to worry, the tiny courses keep coming along with the adult beverages.
While the other tour people were off hiking and shopping the next morning, I hopped back on the BMW for a spin out toward the coast via a little ditty called Skaggs Springs Road. It started off nice enough on fresh, smooth, swoopy pavement, but once we’d left civilization behind, the road turned on me and became a badly assembled roller coaster through deep redwood forest, up and over the coastal range and down to Stewart’s Point, where there’s nothing but a store and a couple of gas pumps, one farm and Pacific Ocean. Once you’re north of San Francisco, there just aren’t many people. None that you can see anyway. It was about a 100-mile round trip out there through Hobbitland, about 70 of it superkinky and bumpy, and the other 30 just swervy, and I was again amazed at how well the BMW handled it all, set to Hard, after I lied to it that the saddlebags were packed so I could have a little more preload in back. It’s a great, slightly large and comfortable sportbike with the carrying capacity of a small car, really, and I finally decided I shift better than the Shift Assistant. I enjoy blipping the throttle to make sweet downshifts. It’s nice to know I can do one thing better than the BMW engineers. I’ll keep the heated grips and seat though; the bike’s thermometer said 42 degrees in some of the shady valleys. Later that day somebody asked me what was my favorite ride? Maybe the one this morning.
But playtime was over; I needed to get back to town and to work: A tour of Dry Creek Vineyard was next up on the gruelling schedule. Kim Wallace’s dad brought the family out from Boston in the ’70s, looked around for the right spot and found it right across the street from the Dry Creek Store. He tore out the prunes and planted Sauvignon Blanc vines. Judging from the sailing yachts motif on all the Dry Creek labels, there was pretty good financial backing, but there probably didn’t really need to be at that time. Back then, the cash crop was prunes, whose juice is not nearly so sexy, and nobody lived here yet. Wine drinking in the U.S. is a chicken and egg kind of a deal. In the last two decades, we drink 80-percent more wine than we used to. I thought it was just me? In any case, Kim’s dad was the first to plant wine grapes in the Dry Creek Valley since Prohibition. It was a smart move. Now there are more than 500 wineries within 50 miles of Healdsburg. I like wine but I’m not exactly a sophisticate. The last time I discussed wine was with Tom Roderick, when we debated bottle or box. I know I like Zinfandel, though, and happily enough Dry Creek is a hotbed of Zinfandel activity. Winemaking really is an art and a science, and the people who succeed at it are sharp operators; Kim’s dad was an MIT graduate. Different grapes like different terroirs, and the Zinfandel likes the hot days and chilly nights it gets in the Dry Creek Valley when the cold fog rolls in from the Pacific. Kim’s dad planted his first grapes in 1972. The latest planting involves a recently rediscovered batch of pre-Prohibition Zinfandel stock grafted onto new vines, which were planted on the bench land the variety likes best. “It’s like getting the best of your grandfather,” says Kim, “carrying him forward.”
What a nice image. Already a little emotional from a few sips of Sauvignon Blanc, we headed inside for the hard work of real wine critiquing.
The little fool will drink too much, the great fool none at all. It was a good day to leave the BMW back at the hotel and ride in LeAn’s Grand Caravan. The other Dry Creek vintages were nice, but the 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel greeted my cerebrum like my long-lost favorite aunt, pulling me up onto its lap for a deeply cleansing fireside chat. Fine cheeses and nice crackers were served. Why didn’t you come here and plant grapes in 1980, Aunt Mary asked, instead of joining the stupid Army? Not sure, auntie …
Dry Creek was my first winery, and I had grown too attached. But they tore me away in the minivan and we made our way back downtown to Bob Johnson’s Art Gallery, which was an excellent move. Bob recited quite a bit of nice poetry from memory while we drank up his stocks and rifled through his art and books, and I felt clever at the time for remembering the last two lines of The Ball Turret Gunner.
From Bob’s gallery, it was off to dinner at Dry Creek Kitchen in the Hotel Healdsburg, also conveniently right downtown. Did Chef Valette greet us with some sort of cocktail? He must’ve, because I remember getting there and sitting down, but after that my tour guides must’ve fallen down on the job and allowed me to be overserved: I remember some sort of seafood morsel baked inside a very puffy pastry, and a few bites of duck, and that I was still hungry … and then my Aunt Mary wandered back in again and tucked me in and it was Tuesday morning, time for a ride to Armstrong State Park. Not far down the road, Guerneville was previously known as “Stumptown” when logging was one of Colonel James Armstrong’s (Union) business lines. His sawmill here put out five million board-feet a year in the 1870s. At some point around 1875, it occurred to the Colonel it would be a good idea to preserve some part of the old-growth forest that at one time had covered the region. That was the beginning of the 805-acre state reserve of Sequoia sempervirens, the coast redwood. You can ride through, but it’s nice to get off and walk for the full effect.
Refreshed and rejuvenated after a nice hike in the forest and a turkey/cranberry panini, it was once more into the breach: the Soda Creek Winery. Victoria Wilson’s dad made some money in real estate, had always wanted a ranch, and dragged his family to a plot outside Healdsburg. The way Victoria tells the story is that the parents lived in a trailer at first, and the three kids in a tent. Her dad bought an old D9 Caterpillar and hired a local named Juan Rodriguez to clear a plot of land and plant their first grapes. At first, they sold them to big growers like Rodney Strong. Then her mom started making a little wine. Now the Wilsons own eight wineries. Soda Rock’s tasting room is in an old building that looks like the Alamo, that once housed the town’s post office and general store. They just completed a small hotel on the property.
At this point, I have to admit I am digging the hell out of this wine-tasting biz. If I expected a bunch of effete one-percenters, what I’m getting instead are rags-to-riches tales of American dreamers populated by really likeable characters, all of their success based upon our God-given right to drink a lot. This story could not happen in Iraq or a red state. Victoria’s dream is to produce a high-end Pinot Noir from her own land. Mine has become to live long enough to roll back someday on the new 2035 BMW R1800RT to help drink it and be entertained by her again.
And yet, duty calls me away … Today I rode the BMW in order to keep myself on the straight and narrow; today it would be strictly catch and release. Next stop was not far down the road: Alexander Valley Vineyards. I guess we were getting special treatment, but Hank Wetzel, whose dad started the operation in 1962, was sitting on the porch with a glass of wine when we got there like any guy in socks and Crocs you’d start up a conversation with anywhere. Hank’s parents bought up a big chunk of Cyrus Alexander’s original farm in 1962, the man for whom the valley is named, and raised cattle and food to feed themselves. In ’63, they planted their first grapes. In ’69, Hank was one of two students to enroll in U.C. Davis’s first winemaking program. Today, AVV is a big player if not a major one, producing $50 million of wine a year, with ½-million gallons aging in oak barrels at any given time in its subterranean tunnels. We barely dented it that afternoon.
After a tour through the cellars and a convincing explanation by Harry and Hank that the only way you can sample wine all day is by tasting and spitting, though you never see either of them spit, we amble up the hillside past the oak-shaded spring-fed pool that continues to trickle despite the drought, to the restored original house Cyrus Alexander built, which was repaired and expanded after the 1906 San Francisco quake. Perfectly white and built by actual old-world craftsmen from old-world timbers, with a big porch that looks across a huge lawn and out upon the valley as the vines change into their fall colors and the fountain babbles in the brick courtyard, it’s basically the Christian vision of Heaven.
Out back of it is the adobe Cyrus Alexander lived in when he first received the land grant, built in 1842 and restored in ’68 – 1968, that is. Hank made the first wine in here, and he takes us in for a few samples.
It’s Paradise up in there, is what it is. I could personally do without most of the haute cuisine and the gnawing hunger that accompanies it, but I appreciate the fleecing-the-rich sentiment. And I can see the need for people who don’t ride motorcycles to have food to talk about for hours. The wineries we visited, though, were just plain Old West fun. Fifty years from now they’ll all be owned by Monsanto or Coca-Cola, but for now it’s a great moment in history to meet the first-generation kids whose nutty parents started them up, and the earth lovers who run them. That’s what we motorcycle people are, earth lovers, admit it. We love to roll around on it, smell its thousands of subtle terroirs just like they do, and drink it all in. I apologize for not exploring more of the roads around there, but yes, there are definitely many great ones, and once north of San Francisco, there are one-tenth as many cars and I saw zero motorhomes. There’s also Sears Point Raceway close by, whatever it’s called now. Maybe you’ve been craving a motorcycle tour through Europe? Save your money and get yourself to Healdsburg. Rent a bike in San Francisco. Go to a race at Sears Point. Hang out at the beautiful old downtown square; there’s a great bookstore and Bob Johnson. Rooms at the very nice Dry Creek Inn, where I stayed, start at about $150, but the nice woman who runs the place tells us their policy is to fill rooms. Which means show up and haggle a little. Or camp out. For me, it was all in a few day’s work. Next week they’re making me fly to Spain to ride the new R1200R. Somebody’s got to do it.