Escapes

Q:

Should we rent bikes or sign on with an outfitter to tour Sonoma's vineyards?

My husband and I would like to bike around the vineyards in Sonoma Valley this fall. Would it be easier to rent bikes and follow a map, or would it be worth it to pay extra for a tour package? Becky K. Bozeman, Montana

LA DOLCE VITA: Life is good on the NoCal wine route.     Photo: Corbis

LA DOLCE VITA: Life is good on the NoCal wine route.

A:You won't find a better time—or a more breathtaking way—to experience California wine country than in autumn by bike. Whether you're blazing your own trails or following the lead, you'll be accompanied all the way by an intensely beautiful change in seasons: a kaleidoscope of deep purples, burnt reds, and flaxen yellows explode from the vineyards and wine berries sit ripe for the picking. Harvest fairs and festivals throughout October offer a smattering of wines from all over the region. You can hop from bakeries to wineries that moonlight as art galleries and artisan cheese factories. And because Sonoma County is stockpiled with these types of watering holes, your biking routes and options are virtually endless, even if your energy isn't. When your quads cry out for mercy, finish off the day with a nightcap of port and dark chocolate in the comfort of a cozy bed and breakfast.

Sonoma, nicknamed "the poor man's Napa," celebrates a more laid-back lifestyle than its neighbor to the west, while staying just as serious about wine. Smooth pinot noirs, cabernets, chardonnays, and sauvignon blancs pour from casks at wineries not far from the center of town along country roads. These scenic, less-traveled paths make for a fantastic two-wheel tour du vin.

Hiring a guide will be more expensive than doing it yourself, but you'll spend less time poring over maps and making reservations—and more time swilling wine. Getaway Adventures' most popular one-day package, the Healdsburg Sip & Cycle, takes you on a 15- to 20-mile leisurely ride through Dry Creek Valley. You'll visit up to five wineries and sip snifters of spicy reds and crisp whites, without having to plan your next stop. After a few hours of whetting your appetite, Getaway serves a picnic lunch made with some of the region's best fruits and cheeses. Then it's back down the country roads for a close-up look at vines that tangle for miles along the rolling hills of the valley. Another option: the outfitter's Pedal & Paddle adventure, which visits three wineries by bike in the morning before clients trade pedals for paddles on an easy flatwater float down the Russian River. All tours include bike rental and safety gear, lunch, guide, and a shuttle to schlep your purchases (or you, if you've had one too many). Prices are $125 or $165 per person, respectively, for each of the above tours (1.800.499.2453; www.getawayadventures.com).

For the passionate (and well-funded) cyclist, DuVine Adventures offers a five-night, six-day tour along the Pacific Coast, through Dry Creek Valley and the region's towering redwood forests. With a longer tour, you'll have more time for wine tasting, mud baths, and hot-air ballooning. Reserving rooms at some of the area's most historic hotels and choosing top restaurants to cap off each day, the outfitter has plotted a course that taps into some of the best scenery, urban and otherwise, that northern California has to offer. Packages start at $2,995 per person and include all rentals, meals, and lodging (1.888.396.5383; www.duvine.com).

Creatures of curiosity that we are, guided tours won't slake a thirst to explore. More than 40 wineries sit clustered together in a 17-mile-long span around Sonoma, so renting a bike and doing it yourself might not be as hard as you think. It'll save you about $100, too, though you'll have to do some digging to find the best wineries. For starters, rent a bike for just $25 a day and pick up a bike map for $10.95 at the Sonoma Valley Cyclery (20093 Broadway; 707.935.3377), or buy a map online at www.bikesonoma.org.

Start your self-propelled oenophile voyage at the Sonoma Creek Inn, where rates start at a reasonable $129 per night (1.888.712.1289; www.sonomacreekinn.com). Begin the next morning with a leisurely bike to breakfast at the Basque Boulangerie Café in the Sonoma Plaza for muffins and coffee. Think ahead and pack one of the bistro's baguettes and organic green salads dressed with champagne vinaigrette, as you'll need plenty of palate cleansing as the day unfurls. The wine is fine just about anywhere in Sonoma County, so find vineyards that offer more than just a tasting room. The Imagery Winery has a collection of over 190 paintings of wine labels created just for the company (1.877.550.4278; www.imagerywinery.com). Bruce Cohn, manager of the Doobie Brothers, also owns his own spread. But step into his tasting room at the B.R. Cohn Winery and you'll discover it's a dipping room for olive oil as well—Bruce presses his own selection of oils from his grove of 130-year-old olive trees (1.800.330.4064; www.brcohn.com). There's also an abundance of gourmet restaurants, such as The Girl and The Fig (707.938.3634; www.thegirlandthefig.com), that offer fresh seafood and cheeses from the region. So go ahead and indulge. You can work it all off on the ride back.
– Amy Clark

Looking for a more ambitious Cali tour? Then follow Away.com on the ultimate road trip, from the Bay Area to Yosemite to Tahoe to Napa-Sonoma, and back.

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