Driving around eating and wine tasting is a good way to feel loopy and bloated, even if the vineyard views take one’s breath away. But, throw in a robust walk in the morning and another walk in the afternoon, and suddenly leisurely stops for food and wine along the way look positively earned.
This is a concept long ago perfected in Europe, but in car-obsessed, once wine-averse America, not so much. Most visitors to Napa, Sonoma or Mendocino walk from their car to a tasting room, maybe stepping through a vineyard or participating in a short cellar tour on the way, and that’s about it. But thanks to a few savvy trekking companies, people can now combine a love of wine and food while getting their circulation flowing – and avoid the danger of driving from place to place after drinking.
Slowing the pace enhances the wine country experience
“We just think you see the world a different way when you walk it,” says Sheila Taylor, who, along with two partners, Greg and May Guerrazzi, started Wine Country Trekking a few years ago in the hamlet of Glen Ellen, Calif.
The Guerrazzis took their inspiration from inn-to-inn hiking holidays they had taken in England and New Zealand, crafting a similar experience for people interested in coming to Northern California wine country. The emphasis is on food and wine — no tour groups, no buses.
Instead, visitors get a self-guided itinerary with custom maps and trail notes; arrangements are then made for tramps through vineyards, along mountain trails and into picturesque towns with stops at private estate wineries for tastings. Reservations for only the finest restaurants are made ahead of time, and extremely luxurious overnight accommodations are provided. Even the luggage is privately chauffeured around.
They’ve also found that their four- and five-day excursions – the Sonoma Valley Wine Tasting Trek and Napa Valley Wine Tasting Trek – fit exactly into people’s decidedly un-European desire to take short vacations, say, over a longish weekend.
Each wine trek is carefully mapped out
Working within these regions can be a challenge; Napa doesn’t have a lot of open space, for example, so Wine Country Trekking negotiates with private landowners for permission to get access for hikers to walk through their properties.
And every itinerary includes a stop in for a taste or two. They’ve found that in many cases, people wanted less hiking, more wine.
Ideally, the roads and vineyards mapped out for the treks are otherwise inaccessible to the public, making for a very special peek into the Napa and Sonoma most folks don’t ever get to see. An average day covers six to eight miles and ranges in price from $1,050 per person in low season to $2,200 per person during the high season, depending upon which trek you book.
“We look at local, small family-owned wineries that we like and work with them to get them on our route,” Taylor explained.
The high season for the winery walks runs from May through October, with July and August being the peak. Although it can get hot in midsummer, those are the months most people end up taking their vacations.
Taylor and the Guerrazzis, who walk every inch of the routes they compose, sometimes opt to send trekkers along side streets with shade instead of vineyards exposed to full sun during the day, as long as the feel of the vineyard remains.
Trekkers from all walks of life
Most trekkers are from out of state, attracted to Napa and Sonoma’s tri-reputation for fine food, great wine and visceral outdoor beauty. Canadians and Europeans have also signed on.
Despite Taylor’s suspicion that eating, drinking and hiking would be of particular interest to baby boomers, a much wider range of people have taken her treks: She’s seen everything from 70-year-old couples to honeymooners to fathers and sons.
The highlights over the four days in Sonoma Valley include a hike on the Overlook Trail starting near the Sonoma Town Square with stops along the way to enjoy private wine and cheese pairings.
In Napa, the five days kick off in Yountville and Oakville, with special tastings at four different wineries known for their Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Transported to St. Helena for Day Three (walking along Highway 29 or the Silverado Trail would be too dangerous), a day of hiking among the redwoods of Bothe-Napa Valley State Park is bookended with tastings at a private mountaintop winery estate and a winery known for its sparkling wines.
Trekking then ends in Calistoga, with overnight accommodations at a downtown inn where a mud and mineral bath await.
Zephyr Wine Adventures is another company offering guided vineyard walking in between big meals and pours of wines. Their five-day itinerary in Sonoma is among its forays into California wine country. The company has heretofore planned adventures to vineyard regions around the world, from Chile and Argentina to Burgundy and South Africa.
Working with Sonoma County Vintners and the Sonoma Grapegrowers Assn., Zephyr’s Sonoma Vineyard Walks trip crisscrosses six of Sonoma County’s appellations, down to the Cherryblock vineyards of Sebastiani and through Jack London State Historic Park. Options vary from two to eight miles of hiking a day, with a group size typically numbering around 16.
No matter how you do it, having a travel company help arrange a vineyard trek is a great way to see Napa or Sonoma wine country for a much more intimate perspective, and work off all the food and wine you’ll enjoy along the way.
Zester Daily contributor Virginie Boone is a Sonoma Valley-based wine writer. She has reported on the Northern California wine scene for the Santa Rosa Press Democrat and its affiliate food and wine magazine, Savor, and is a contributing reviewer of California wines for Wine Enthusiast.