How the West Was Wined

Sonoma County, CA

VINE AND DINE: A private party at the Healdsburg Hotel's carriage house     Photo: Cesar Rubio/Hotel Healdsburg

SONOMA COUNTY: Vintage Chill
Savoring seclusion around Napa's offbeat sibling
WHAT'S WRONG WITH THIS PICTURE? I'm lounging on my back in a hot tub, my fiancé, Steve, reclining next to me. Every so often our personal bath attendant arrives to blot our steamy foreheads with cool washcloths and offer us ice water through a straw.

What's so wrong? Let me tell you. We are entombed in two tons of soggy, steamy sawdust. And we are naked.

We've come to Osmosis, a homey little day spa in rural western Sonoma County, to sample their cedar-enzyme bath, an ancient Japanese healing treatment. The premise: Submerge yourself in cedar and fir pulp, and the wood will beautify your skin, reduce tension, and infuse you with feelings of "elation."

Right now, immobilized by 120-degree sawdust, I'm fixated on these thoughts, in this order: Did they make us sign a waiver? No. Then surely it can't be dangerous. How often do they change the chips? And, with regret: I should have worn my bathing suit. Once I work through this panic loop, I find myself oddly, calmly accepting: This is the Zen moment I've been waiting for. But when the attendant informs us, "The heat of the bath comes from fermentation" (yup, we're sprawled out in rotting wood), I can't get out fast enough.

Later, after we've scrubbed off every last wood chip, we're tucked into narrow cots upstairs, with herbal pillows placed over our eyes and Meta music piped in through headphones. I trance out for the best spa treatment of my life. When the crashing of ocean waves stops and I open my eyes, Steve is gone. I find him in the meditation garden out back, contemplating a bed of gravel raked into perfect, impermanent swirls.

Such are the unexpected pleasures of Sonoma, a laid-back valley just over the gnarled Mayacamas Mountains from Napa's glossy wine empire. With more than 70 wineries in the 22-mile-long Valley of the Moon and another 180 in the surrounding county, Sonoma is consistently among the top five wine-grape-producing regions in North America and second only to Napa in wine-tourism revenue. But where Napa is sleek and chic, Sonoma is farmy and friendly; ask a local for a recommendation in the wine aisle at the market and he'll chat you up about the valley's renowned cabs and the Russian River's rich pinot noirs.

For a week over Thanksgiving, we went in search of the wilder side of Sonoma. Our first stop was Healdsburg, a stylish town of about 11,000 in northern Sonoma County. The place to stay is the Hotel Healdsburg, a stately three-story inn on the plaza. Inside, blocky concrete columns, sea-green glass tiles, and bare pecan floors are warmed by leather couches, double-wide slipcovered chairs, and king-size beds.

Biking may not be the most original way to tour wine country, but thanks to an abundance of quiet farm roads looping past picturesque vineyards, it's arguably the best. So we embraced cliché and set out late in the day on a 25-mile loop through Dry Creek Valley, just north of Healdsburg. Leaving town, we raced daylight up West Dry Creek Road, past rust-red vines, small bungalows, old wooden barns, and a 1950s Mercedes with a bumper sticker that read I VEG TO DIFFER. With ten minutes until sunset and 12 miles still to ride, we debated whether there was time for a detour to the boutique Bella winery, then wheeled up to its tasting cave for a flight of fruity zinfandels. On the fast, wine-fueled ride home, we zinged past the darkening blur of a rowdy Mexican fiesta and a self-serve stand selling $1 persimmons.

Speed workouts are best followed by giddy self-indulgence: Ours entailed an hourlong massage in the spa, dinner next door at the popular, if a little stuffy, Dry Creek Kitchen, and finally the soundest sleep I can remember. We hadn't exactly found the untamed heart of Sonoma, but we weren't complaining.

The next morning we redoubled our efforts with a ten-mile canoe trip on the Russian River, a tranquil run through redwoods that gave us a glimpse of a woodsier, wilder Sonoma. Manager Ted Schroeder and co-owner Linda Burke of Burke's Canoe Trips, a second-generation outfit that's been renting canoes on this flatwater stretch from Forestville to Guerneville for more than 50 years, accompanied us downstream. The river was shady and cool and, except for the odd heron, utterly still.

Back in the Valley of the Moon, we chanced upon Kaz, one of the smallest tasting rooms in the valley. Rick "Kaz" Kasmier produces 1,000 cases of organic wine a year inside a clapboard barn. He welcomed us with tastings of tawny port, and his wife invited us to help her cut wine labels. We left with a signed bottle of 2003 Sangiofranc.

Which brings us back to the cedar-enzyme bath. Well wined and dined, a little bit achy from our exploits, we found this sawdusty haven and, at least for a little while, true elation.

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