To kick off summer break and celebrate our ten-year anniversary, Evan and Jackson and I headed west to gorgeous Sonoma County in Northern California. And now we know where—if someone were to drop a few million dollars in our laps—we’d move: the Russian River Valley where ocean and redwoods, wine and mountains meet.



Even during an unseasonably warm week (with temperatures above 100 degrees for a few days), the weather was my definition of paradise: you could easily go for a long walk any day of the year.



At one winery, we asked a few locals about Sonoma winters. They looked a bit somber, recalling the lows that occasionally dip into the 20s at night, and how 15 years ago there was once a bit of snow on the ground for a few hours.



Then in asking us about Wisconsin winters they seemed positively horrified that January could easily have a few days of negative 10 or 20, and not at all comforted when we reassured them mostly daytime highs of more like 15 or 20 degrees above 0. But January is a distant memory for everyone in Wisconsin now, and for a few months Milwaukee weather is nearly identical to Sonoma, even if most people are sipping local beers instead of wines.



But we had come for the wine and the romance—at least during nap-times—when my mother who graciously came along, could preside over Jackson’s slumber.



We’d slip off to sip the region’s Pinot Noirs and Chardonnay and find a shady spot to let the wine unwind our thoughts and spin them out as we took in the rolling hills covered with leafy June vines. We looked back on the year: the second year at the new school for Evan, of parenting, and home ownership.



We looked ahead to the wide-open summer, and a fall with a toddler, and imagining life if we’re blessed with a second baby. It was a sacred few hours spent in the fragrant dry grass under California oak trees.



For the rest of our days, it was a family vacation—trips to the beach and hilly hikes, rummy card games and strolling along the quaint streets of Healdsburg. Jackson was an excellent 18-month old traveler, but still an 18-month-old.



He cut a molar while we were there, and as is his custom, wasn’t particularly crabby about it, just didn’t want to eat hardly a thing. It wasn’t ideal, but it is fairly representative of our life right now: little pockets of time to do something outside of caring for a baby, and the ever-evolving challenges of keeping a tiny human fed and clothed, rested and run, cherished and guided.



My mom was so helpful to be another set of hands, and generously offered her timeshare points for our lovely accommodations in the little town of Windsor.  Watching Jackson, who is selective about letting people into his physical space, give Grandma kisses and sit in her lap for books, was a particularly wonderful bit our trip.




The most beautiful bits of our trip were probably the driving along highway 1 and the Sonoma Coast State Park, the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, and the view from Iron Horse Winery.




Salmon Creek Beach in the Sonoma Coast State Park had free parking, and 2 miles of sand, a warm and still little lagoon for wading, and during the week, not too many people for such a picturesque place. We also took advantage of Southwest’s generous baggage policy and took our sun-shelter with us.



Extravagant for sure, but it made our beach days amazing, and let my mother camp out after her recent foot surgery while we leisurely strolled the shore.



Twenty minutes inland, the redwoods were amazing, breathtaking, and hard to describe even though in words it is simple to say that they are the biggest trees on earth.



I’m slowly making my way through Wild Trees, and the more you know about these giants, the more amazing they are. And since my novel has a great deal to do with people living in tree houses in giant trees, it was especially cool to wander among the quiet fragrant forest.



We went back for a second day (armed with badger bug balm and the knowledge that you don’t have to pay to park outside the park and walk in) and it was just as awesome, particularly the forest amphitheater which I could imagine hosting the most spectacular weddings.



I also fell head over heels for the smell of Northern California in June: the bay trees, the gardenias, the grasses, the sages, the flowers, the eucalyptus trees, the lemony redwoods, and probably a host of plants I couldn’t identify but wanted to bottle and take home. California smelled so good, like tropical sunscreen, and a spice store, and summer, and my San Diego childhood all mixed into one.




Our favorite wines of the trip were tasted at Rodney Strong. We discovered that I love traditional Burgundy-style wines: really oak-y, buttery wines with lots of lactic acid that produces an almost creamy taste. Most of the wineries we toured were proud of their wines and were not dominated by oak or buttery-ness (instead going for zinfandels and syrahs that produce more complex tannins), so while I appreciated the seven different wineries we visited (out of 500 in the county), the buttery Rodney Strong Estate Vineyards 2014 Blue Wing Vineyard Chardonnay has my heart, and a decent price point.



We loved the family run atmosphere and education of Harvest Moon Winery, getting to chat with the winemaker about his toddler son and a life spent among the vines. Every winery we went to taught us a little something new about the process of growing and harvesting the grapes, the region’s allure and character, and the ancient and layered art and science of wine making.



Some were slick and glamorous like Sonoma-Cutrer full of bachelorette parties and croquet games, while some were famous, like Ridge whose award-winning wine helped put California on the map of world wines (a tale depicted in the film Bottle Shock).



The most beautiful winery, by far, was Iron Horse Vineyards. Spend-y but gorgeous (far more than my pictures captured) and delicious, it was high up on a hill with a breath-taking view of the area.




I also met a woman there who wanted to know about my hair gel, and made her own bone broth with turmeric. Sometimes when I’d see a particularly beautiful lady wearing no makeup, or chat with someone about Paleo, I thought: yep these are my people. Sign me up for a Sonoma villa with a bay tree in the backyard, and a CSA of all things local and organic, and a glass of Chardonnay.




The most tourist-y things we did were to visit the lovely Korbel Winery (which makes a lot of the champagne and brandy Americans drink), the impressive and graceful Golden Gate bridge, and Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco, which is lively and smells strongly of fish.




The first two, I’d highly recommend, and I could have skipped fisherman’s wharf although the sea lions were memorable, if difficult to photograph, and the espresso in nearby Little Italy excellent. We also made the great Paleo pilgrimage over to Berkeley to visit Mission Heirloom for the truly wondrous experience of being able to order anything, anything at all, off the menu.



I had a beet chicken salad on a plantain waffle, Evan had a shepherd’s pie, and we tried to tempt Jackson into eating something besides baby pouches with a dragon-fruit chia coconut pudding, but he still wasn’t interested.  Like I said, these are my people, if only it were like 75% less expensive to live there and maybe a little easier to find a church.



We got to cap off our trip by visiting a few friends in San Francisco: a high school friend of mine who was only days away from having her first baby and Evan’s best-friend’s wife’s parents who graciously let us camp out at their Cupertino home for our one day playing tourist in San Francisco and Berkeley, enduring not a small amount of traffic in between.



I hadn’t been to northern California since I was Jackson’s age, and Evan since he was in middle school, but we’re hoping to take our friends up on their generous offer to let us stay with them the next time we’re in the area, which 48 hours after getting home, we are itching to do already.



Have you been to California Wine Country? Or where would you move if money were no object?


5 Responses to Wine Country: An Anniversary Trip

  1. Anne Hays says:

    Amy, I always enjoy your blogs. Jackson has really grown since I last saw a photo! A big celebration of your tenth wedding anniversary was really a good idea and it is wonderful that you had such a good time.
    I know the answer to the first question: Yes, I have been to the California wine country. The answer to the second question is harder – perhaps a waterfront house on Chesapeake Bay!
    Love, Grandma

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      Thanks Grandma Anne! Jackson really is getting so big, and we had such a good time with him in California! I think a waterfront house on the Chesapeake Bay would be so beautiful. We recently found this little stretch of houses that remind me a little of waterfront houses on the Bay. It’s about 45 minutes north of us along lake Michigan: Cedar Beach Rd in Belgium WI. I’m sure a lot of the year it would be rather cold, but whenever it’s nice enough that we are walking the beach on the park (Harrington Beach Park) that’s adjacent to these houses it looks just perfect!

  2. Jane McSweeney says:

    What a beautiful place and a wonderful time for you! Jack Armstrong is suerly a ‘thin’ place. You would not need to look much farther than Sonoma County for a dream home!

    • Amy Rogers Hays says:

      For sure, those Armstrong Redwoods really were like a cathedral! I can see why Santa Rosa was such a great place for your parents!!

  3. A number of years ago, I went with two friends for what was mostly a San Francisco trip, but we spent a couple of days in Napa County, and it was really nice. There’s a couple things I would do differently if I were to do it again, but overall I enjoyed my time there.

    If I could somehow magically have my type of librarian job in Maine, I’d live on the Maine coast.

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