On a Treasure Hunt in Northern California for its Bounty and Beauty

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Nick Antonaccio
Nick Antonaccio

Last year, and again this spring, my wife and I embarked on a treasure hunt in northern California. We had been on these excursions in previous years. In fact, this was our 13th immersion into the idyllic lifestyle and wondrous landscape of one of the most beautiful locales in the world.

Our treasure hunt was two-fold.

We came seeking out artisanal wines produced in the backwater farmlands dotting the California coastline and inland slopes of gentle mountains. The number of passionate winemakers has grown exponentially over the past 25 years, fueled by technological advances and evolving techniques that have made it possible for winemakers to pursue their dreams within their financial means.

However, finding these unheralded treasures requires a pilgrimage to the source. As my wife and I roamed the countryside, from the valley floors to the steep slopes of the mountains surrounding Napa Valley and the undulating terrain of Sonoma County, we visited a number of tasting rooms, sampling – and purchasing – a number of well-crafted and palate-pleasing wines.

And thus, my wife and I found ourselves immersed in the allure of the countryside, marveling at the natural beauty and bounty of the region.

On the valley floor, along the two main arteries running up and down the valley, it was easy to lose sight of the broader landscape and beauty of the Napa region. It was not until we climbed the hillsides that border the east and west of the valley that our perspective changed. Looking across the wide expanse of the valley we understood the unique terroir that has elevated Napa Valley to the heights of enological prestige.

In the mornings the fog hovers like a warm blanket, coddling the vines and protecting them from cool nights. As the sun burns away this layer, the vineyards radiate from the intense sunlight and heat. The waning afternoon sun casts a glow on the valley floor that bursts with shades of red and orange, rivaling any artist’s canvas brushstrokes.

As we drove west from Napa Valley, up and down the slopes and turns of the Mayacamas mountains, we headed toward the coast. Our destination: the isolated Sonoma Coast wine region and the Fort Ross Vineyards. In less than an hour we were cruising north along the Pacific Coast Highway. We have taken in the raw beauty of the scenic segment south of Monterey several times, but this was only our second time venturing along the stretch north of San Francisco.

Driving past the natural beauty of Point Reyes Station, with its dense population of soaring eagles, snowy egrets and 490 other species, we continued to our destination in Fort Ross. As we came upon Bodega Bay, the wide expanse of raw Pacific Ocean surf and wind, perfect for the multitude of hikers and surfers, was a radical change from the genteel greenery of Napa Valley.

Finally, we came to the turn-off for the Fort Ross Vineyard. We were not prepared for this encounter with nature. From the turn onto the road winding up the mountainside to the winery, we felt the temperature dropping and the wind picking up. We counted 17 switchbacks and hairpin turns along the harrowing, narrow two-lane road, rising 1,500 feet above the ocean below us.

The treacherous ride rewarded us all the way to the top. With each switchback we were treated to a unique view of the surrounding forests of tall, lush pines. With each hairpin turn we witnessed long vistas north and south along the coast. The views and thrills were as exhilarating as those we encountered on the Pacific Coast Highway expanse along Big Sur to the far south.

We arrived at the winery by driving deep into the woods along a dirt trail until we came upon the modern tasting room and a new, mesmerizing vista. More on these wines and scenery next week.

Nick Antonaccio is a 40-year Pleasantville resident. For over 20 years he has conducted wine tastings and lectures. Nick is a member of the Wine Media Guild of wine writers. He also offers personalized wine tastings and wine travel services. Nick’s credo: continuous experimenting results in instinctive behavior. You can reach him at or on Twitter @sharingwine.


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