With this installment of "Driving Sonoma," we’ll be packing up and heading south out of Geyserville, and back towards San Francisco. We’ve made a couple of great loops through the various American Viticultural Areas that fill most of Sonoma County, and today I’m planning on taking advantage of the richness of the region to sneak in a few more visits.
Because of its natural beauty and friendly outlook, Sonoma County is a great place to visit. The fact that it’s hard to move and not bump into a famous (or soon to be famous) winery makes it all the more appealing. One of the most well known and historically important properties in Sonoma is the Simi Winery.
Since 1876, Simi has been a fixture of the Alexander Valley. Located just off Highway 101, south of Geyserville at the northern edge of Healdsburg, it’s an easy visit to include in one’s travels, and well worth it. The old stone winery is a great, historic feature that remains a testament to the wealth and prosperity the region was enjoying during the late 19th century.
The region, and of course the wine industry, has had many ups and downs in the intervening years, but Simi has managed to remain at the top of its game. Bold moves like hiring Zelma Long (a pioneering female winemaker) as head winemaker in 1979, and adding Michel Rolland as consulting winemaker in 1985 -- 20 years before the film Mondovino made him famous -- are just some of the reasons Simi wines remain attuned to the modern palate.
If you’re lucky enough to be travelling during the summer (is it still with us?), you should also plan on stopping for lunch at Simi. Fridays (2pm-6pm) and Saturdays (11am-4pm) are the very limited hours for Simi’s Pizza Café, an al fresco dining experience that brings together brick oven pizza and fine wine. It's a great way to pass some time!
Leaving Simi and heading south once again on Healdsburg Avenue puts us on our way to our next visit: Matrix Winery. Just head down on Healdsburg Road until you get to the big intersection where Vine St. and Mill St. meet. Hang a right on Mill St., which becomes Westside Rd once it passes under Highway 101, and head down the road about three miles.
Matrix specializes in Pinot Noir, producing wines from Russian River Valley vineyards as well as a Sonoma Coast bottling. They are generally quite fruit-driven wines, polished and packed with flavor, but Pinot is not the only wine on offer. In addition to a fine Zinfandel and excellent Chardonnay from one of my favorite California vineyards, Stuhlmuller, there is also the Matrix Bordeaux Blend. This is a real value in California Meritage, and while it may be difficult to find it is a great reason to plan your visit to Matrix, using the Visa Sonoma Trip Planner, of course!
If we were in a hurry to continue south, we would turn around and get back to 101 as directly as possible, but heading south on Westside Road is a much more scenic, and pleasant alternative. And besides, it also leads us to another winery stop, and what is wrong with that?
Hop Kiln winery is about a mile south of Matrix, and it’s really easy to find with its iconic triple cupola roof. The name comes from its previous incarnation as a, yes, you guessed it – hop kiln. Founded just after the turn of the century as a hop farm that supplied many of the brewers of the Pacific Northwest, the Hop Kiln estate was reborn in 1975 as a premium Sonoma County winery.
While Hop Kiln built its earliest reputation on great wines from Petit Sirah, Zinfandel, Riesling, and Gewurztraminer (I know -- talk about bold!) they have really made a name for themselves with their propriety blends that are fresh, fruity, complex, and easy on the wallet, not to mention playfully named!
While Hop Kiln is proud of their Big Red, Rushin River Red, and Thousand Flowers White, their varietal wines continue to be stars of the show. There are two labels being produced at Hop Kiln today, the eponymous Hop Kiln as well as the winery exclusive HKG label that focuses on the estate’s expressions of Sonoma’s favorite grapes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. So make sure to plan a visit when you are in the area.
If you have the time, why not buy some bread, cheese, and meats at Hop Kiln -- ask to borrow some glasses, a cutting board and a knife -- and finish off your day with a grand picnic overlooking the winery's pond. That sounds like a great plan for the entire afternoon to me, especially on a fine late summer’s day.
After filling up at Hop Kiln, it’s time to continue south, and from here there really is only the scenic route to take. After heading south for a few miles Westside Rd. turns to the west, where it meets River Rd. We’ll want to take a right here and head over the river to continue our southbound progress. The easiest route is to remain on River Rd. until it takes you back to 101 South. Just a few miles further along is one of my wine country landmarks. You see, I don’t get out west very often and when I do I am usually very busy so I like to plan a special finale to my visits to the area.
Right off the highway in Rohnert Park, and in Petaluma, as well, one can find good, old reliable, In n Out Burger! Yes, it’s true; even I can’t resist the allure of this great American tradition. It may seem funny that one would want to cap a week of wine and dining amongst the riches of Sonoma with such a simple meal, but often times in life the simplest things are those that return the greatest satisfaction! Double-double, please!