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A Blissful Road Trip Through California's Winelands

A Blissful Road Trip Through California's Winelands

Andrew Harper Editor-in-Chief
In this article:

Illustration by Melissa ColsonOver the years, I have enjoyed many happy times in California’s Napa and Sonoma wine regions, with their lengthy rosters of sophisticated hotels and restaurants. Recently, however, I decided that it was time to be a little more adventurous, so I mapped out a two- week wine journey that would stretch nearly the length of the state. Numerous hotels and inns seemed worthy of investigation, and lesser-known wine areas such as Paso Robles and the Carmel Valley appeared to be the subjects of increasingly favorable reviews.

WINE ROAD TRIP MAP

SANTA YNEZ INN

Three decades ago, when I first visited the wine country of Santa Barbara County — centered on the Santa Ynez and Santa Maria valleys — it was undeveloped, and I failed to find lodgings of distinction. Times have changed. Situated 30 miles northwest of Santa Barbara and surrounded by impeccably manicured grounds, the 20-room Santa Ynez Inn is a handsome Victorian building with clapboard siding and a bubbling fountain. Double doors admitted us into an interior with a richly patterned carpet, dark woodwork, high ceilings and a graceful staircase. There, we received an exceptionally friendly and cheerful greeting.

Our generous accommodations came with a king bed, antique furniture and a small sitting area adjacent to a gas fireplace. The bath was lined in honey-hued marble and was equipped with a walk-in shower and a whirlpool soaking tub. The heart of the inn is its bright dining room. This is a pleasant place to linger over breakfast, and, despite the best of intentions, I found myself succumbing to specialties such as the Italian eggs Benedict — two eggs with sausage on toasted baguette with pesto. Dinner is served in the lively Vineyard House Restaurant a few steps away. There, I opted for salmon, a thick fillet cooked rare and accompanied by a warm spinach salad served on a bed of crisp red potatoes and dressed with a citrusy beurre blanc. The commendable wine list contained 27 selections by the glass.

Amenities at the inn include a small spa, and massage is also available in the privacy of your room. The helpful and proficient concierge staff can assist in planning tours of the surrounding wine country, arrange golf excursions and recommend nearby restaurants. All in all, the Santa Ynez Inn was a very pleasant discovery and a delightful way to begin our journey.

Santa Ynez Inn Deluxe Room, $255; Premiere Room, $325. 3627 Sagunto Street, Santa Ynez. Tel. (805) 688-5588. 

JUST INN

Illustration by Melissa ColsonFrom Santa Ynez, we proceeded north on U.S. Route 101 for close to 100 miles. The highway divides the wine regions of Paso Robles. To the west, the landscape is hilly, offering growers a wide variety of terrain. In addition, the Pacific fog often lingers, making for cooler, moister conditions.

To the east, however, the land is flat, with full sun and easier planting conditions, which allow for increased production. In the hills a 25-minute drive from Paso Robles, JUSTIN is among the wineries that have helped to build the region’s reputation. Founded by Justin Baldwin in 1981, it is best known for its Bordeaux-style blends. The setting is idyllic, and adjacent to the tasting rooms and a meticulously designed English garden, Baldwin has constructed the charming four-room Just Inn. This has a cottage-like appearance, with a gray board-and-batten exterior, white trim and jaunty striped awnings.

The inn’s restaurant is under the supervision of talented chef Will Torres, who serves a four-course dinner nightly, with three choices per course. Standouts from our meal were a crisp frisée salad with house-smoked trout, embellished with slices of radish, apple and a tangy crème fraîche vinaigrette; and halibut with celery root, sunchokes and an aromatic black truffle purée. Given that the vineyard produces fine reds, I thought that the Colorado lamb loin would be a sensible choice for the meat course. Served with fennel, pickled mustard seeds and smoked tomato demi-glace, it proved outstanding. Knowledgeable staff offered appropriate wine pairings for each course.

Since my stay, the JUST Inn has undergone a major refurbishment program. In addition to more space for tastings, a barbecue area and a patio for wine and cheese pairings have been constructed. The restaurant has been extended, and the inn itself has been refreshed with new furnishings. Reservations are being accepted from August 1, and I very much look forward to a return visit.

JUST Inn, Rating 93 Suite, $375. 11680 Chimney Rock Road, Paso Robles. Tel. (805) 238-6932.  

HOTEL CHEVAL

The town of Paso Robles brings to mind the Healdsburg of 30 years ago, when I made my first visit to Sonoma. At the center of a charming tree- shaded square stands a handsome library donated by Andrew Carnegie. With the growing success of the wine business, the town is evolving into a place of stylish boutiques and sophisticated restaurants. But it retains the down-to-earth air of an agricultural center, and you invariably see pickup trucks and sunburned men in cowboy hats and boots.

The Hotel Cheval stands in the shelter of a large tree that slightly obscures its striking and pleasingly proportioned façade of stucco and cut stone. As the name suggests, the property has a dash of French flair, first revealed in an inviting lounge where reception staff greet you at a lovely Provençal desk. Our dramatic suite was situated in a tower and came with a two-story bedroom. While the furnishings were a little spare — another easy chair might have been nice — we felt comfortable and enjoyed relaxing beside the gas fireplace. The bath provided a large walk-in shower and spacious vanity with a vessel sink.

The hotel’s other 15 rooms may not be as architecturally striking, but many offer compensatory balconies and patios. A large courtyard paved with fieldstone forms the heart of the hotel. There, you will find inviting nooks with fireplaces, which make for agreeable spots to end the day with a glass of wine. Alternatively, you can repair to the Pony Club Bar, with its dark-wood paneling and horseshoe-shaped zinc counter. The hotel does not have a restaurant, but a substantial continental breakfast is offered, and numerous restaurants are within walking distance. Although the Cheval’s amenities are limited, it is a delightful small hotel that I greatly enjoyed and to which I would happily return.

The Hotel Cheval, Rating 90 Deluxe Room, $380; Luxury Room, $430. 1021 Pine Street, Paso Robles. Tel. (805) 226-9995.

STONEPINE ESTATE

A 120-mile drive northwest of Paso Robles, Carmel-by-the-Sea lures me back time after time. On this occasion, I made a reservation at Stonepine Estate. The property is within easy driving distance of Carmel itself—about 25 minutes—and close to Carmel Valley Village.

Surrounded by 330 private acres, Stonepine was formerly a retreat for the noted Crocker San Francisco banking family. Since 1983, it has been owned by Gordon and Noel Hentschel. The centerpiece of the estate is the lovely Chateau Noel, the original Crocker manor house, surrounded by 12 acres of Mediterranean gardens. Besides eight handsome suites in the château itself, several other appealing options are available to guests.

We had opted to stay in Paddock House, a dark-green clapboard structure, unsurprisingly situated next to the equestrian center. The Russell Suite is the largest of its four accommodations and is decorated in a comforting country house aesthetic with antiques, old prints and floral-motif curtains. A full kitchen—where our breakfast was served every morning—and a library-living room are shared among the suites, an ideal arrangement for families or couples traveling together.

Other accommodations include Hermes House, a single-story two-bedroom home. Next to the estate’s four-furlong racetrack, it even provides a private paddock! Two-bedroom Briar Rose Cottage overlooks a rose garden and fruit orchard and is done in English country style. Finally, the Spanish-style Gate House, once owned by Joan Baez, offers five bedrooms and six baths, a large terrace and fire pit, a private tennis court and a sizeable swimming pool.

Carmel Valley Village and Carmel have an extensive array of restaurants, and you may have meals delivered. However, we chose to dine in the exquisite paneled dining room of Chateau Noel. The food proved delicious: A butternut squash soup came seasoned with the classic Chinese five spices; and a superb fillet of sole was crusted in cornmeal and served with sautéed spinach. Throughout the meal, the service could not have been more charming and attentive.

A wide range of activities can be arranged, including hiking, golf and horseback riding, while those with an interest in gardening will enjoy the beautiful plantings beside the château, which include the magnificent Italian pines that inspired the estate’s name. Once an also-ran among California wine regions, the Carmel Valley has recently proven hospitable to the creation of distinguished Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots and, on the basis of my recent trip, excellent Pinot Noirs. I also admire some of its Chardonnays — Talbott’s Logan is a particular favorite — and I came away impressed by the Heller Chenin Blanc, which, to my mind, is undeservedly overlooked.

Stonepine Estate, Rating 88 Paddock House Room, $300-$450; Briar Rose Cottage, $750 (one bedroom); $1,000 (two bedrooms). 150 East Carmel Valley Road, Carmel Valley. Tel. (831) 659-2245. 

KENWOOD INN AND SPA

From Carmel, we headed north, crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and, after a drive of about 175 miles, came to Kenwood, midway between Sonoma and Santa Rosa. There, tucked away off state Route 12, the Kenwood Inn and Spa provides a fine base for exploring southern Sonoma and the adjacent Carneros region. Wineries in this area produce impressive reds, notably the Pinot Noir from Saintsbury, Cabernets from larger winemakers north of the town of Sonoma such as St. Francis and Chateau St. Jean, and Zinfandels from Ravenswood.

For many years, in my haste to get to Napa or to the northern reaches of Sonoma County, I have bypassed the Kenwood Inn. Even on this occasion, it felt strange to be just 20 miles west of favorites such as Auberge du Soleil and Meadowood. However, the inn is extremely attractive and tranquil, encapsulating the charm of a Mediterranean villa with stucco walls and stone pediments.

After check-in, we passed into the central courtyard, a sequestered world with tall palms, a multi-tiered fountain and clusters of tables and chairs beneath protective umbrellas. Many of the inn’s 29 rooms and suites are set around the courtyard. Our spacious “le Stanze del Re” contained a sitting area fronting a stone fireplace, a large desk and a bath with a whirlpool tub and a separate shower. The cream-colored walls, wine-red curtains, dark-wood accents and ornate chandelier indeed made it easy to imagine ourselves in the vineyards of Spain. During the day, sunlight flooded the room through double doors and floor-to-ceiling windows.

The principal amenity at the Kenwood Inn is its spa, which is considered one of the best in the area, if not the country. Treatments include vinotherapy wraps and scrubs, as well as grape-based therapies from the French company Caudalie. In-room treatments are available.

During the winter, the inn’s highly regarded restaurant is closed off from the adjacent courtyard and heated by a fireplace. At warmer times of the year, service extends outside. Soothed by the trickle of the fountain, we found it an enchanting place to spend an evening. Chef Steven Snook has worked in several Michelin-starred kitchens in Europe. His menu takes its inspiration from Italy and relies on the wealth of regional ingredients, as well as on fresh herbs from the inn’s own gardens. I especially enjoyed a wonderful dish of grilled asparagus topped with morels, a fried egg, red wine-smoked bacon and watercress. This was followed by pork tenderloin wrapped in house-made pancetta with shallot purée, baby carrots, fresh tarragon and smoked polenta.

The wine list captured much of my pre-dinner attention, owing to its many local bottlings, plus 25 “by the stem” selections. In the end, I opted for a 2010 Lasseter Family Sonoma County Rosé, the 2010 HKG Estate Unfiltered Pinot Noir, and the non- vintage Merryvale “Antigua” Muscat de Frontignan, a delightful indulgence with dessert.

Kenwood Inn and Spa, Rating 92 Le Stanze del Re Room, $550; Tuscany Suite, $650. 10400 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood. Tel. (707) 833-1293.

FARMHOUSE INN

I have long believed that one of the most enjoyable wine drives in the United States follows West Dry Creek Road in northern Sonoma. Staying at the Farmhouse Inn puts you in the perfect location to explore this memorable route, as well as the many wonderful wineries in the Russian River Valley. Located in Forestville, 10 miles south of Healdsburg and 23 miles west of Kenwood, the inn evolved from an 1873 farmhouse. Butter-yellow clapboard siding, shuttered windows and a front veranda make it look country simple at first glance, but it is also wonderfully sophisticated, seamlessly merging the rural and the contemporary.

The property’s Heritage Rooms are found in the Main House and nearby farmworkers’ cottages. I was most interested in the new Barn Rooms, however, which are located in a wooded area at the rear of the property. These more spacious accommodations extend onto outdoor decks and have been designed to blur the boundaries between indoors and outdoors. Done in a subtle palette of gray and white, our room was awash with light from a wall of windows, and came with elegant Shaker-like furniture and a stone fireplace. The lavish marble bath provided radiant heating, a whirlpool tub set by windows overlooking the deck, and a large walk-in shower.

Adding greatly to our contentment was the restaurant, a Michelin-starred favorite in the area. Chef Steven Litke meticulously sources local produce and changes his menu constantly. We especially enjoyed local burrata cheese with a black trumpet mushroom vinaigrette, mushroom chips and artichokes; grilled octopus with a chickpea salad and a chermoula sauce; and petrale sole with rock shrimp and green garlic risotto, preserved Meyer lemon and asparagus. The chocolate soufflé, made with Valrhona and served with a bourbon crème anglaise, was perfection.

The man responsible for the cellar, Geoff Kruth, is one of just 200 people in the world to hold the title Master Sommelier. His extensive wine list came with an impressive number of half-bottles. (I wish more restaurants would do the same, enabling diners to experiment with different wines.) Following his sage advice, we tried the 2009 Pride Mountain Viognier, followed by the 2010 Hirsch Vineyards San Andreas Pinot Noir. The Farmhouse Inn offers a small but attractive spa in the Carriage House, with a private patio cabana overlooking the pool and gardens. The hotel’s terrific concierge staff will help you craft itineraries to local wineries, arrange tastings, and point you to nearby restaurants (though I found it impossible to tear myself away from the inn’s own exceptional dining room).

Farmhouse Inn, Rating 94 Barn Deluxe Room, $795; Barn Luxury Room, $895. 7871 River Road, Forestville. Tel. (707) 887-3300.  

MACCALLUM HOUSE INN

Leaving northern Sonoma, we drove north into the Anderson Valley. Low-key and less traveled than the more prominent wine regions to the south, the area feels like the Napa of days gone by. The uncrowded roads meander between hills that produce superb Pinot Noirs, my own favorites being those from Goldeneye (the Pinot Noir sibling of Duckhorn), Esterlina and the delightful, down-to-earth Toulouse. This is also home to the Roederer Estate, the American venture allied with the venerable French Champagne house, which produces the finest sparkling wines in the United States. Continuing through the Navarro Valley, we finally reached Mendocino after a 95-mile trip.

The Maccallum House Inn enjoys a central location in this picturesque seaside enclave. A fine Victorian structure painted a creamy yellow with gingerbread trim, it has a delightful front porch that is a favorite spot for early-evening drinks. Accommodations are in the Main House, in outlying cottages and barns, and in the MacCallum Suites, which are two blocks away in a newer structure. We opted for one of the latter, which came with a spacious sitting area, a gas fireplace, a kitchenette and a deck with a terrific view of the town and ocean beyond. The bath was appointed with a whirlpool tub and shower. Although we were comfortable in our suite, I would urge you to inquire about the rooms in The Barn, many of which have fireplaces.

The Main House contains a convivial bar and two dining rooms. The food is simple but beautifully prepared. I could not resist the Pacific Rim oysters, with an accompaniment of a grapefruit and black pepper granita. And an outstanding grilled Niman Ranch filet mignon was served with wonderful mashed potatoes made with crème fraîche and horseradish, black peppercorns and glazed shallots.

The MacCallum House is certainly not in the stratosphere of luxury, but it is a fine inn with excellent food and an abundance of charm.

Maccallum House Inn, The Barn Room, $230; The Barn Suite, $405. 45020 Albion Street, Mendocino. Tel. (707) 937-0289. 

Illustrations ©Melissa Colson

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