Way Out on the West Sonoma Coast | Wine Enthusiast
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Way Out on the West Sonoma Coast

To get to Coastlands Vineyard in Occidental, California, you must traverse a series of tiny, twisty roads through shrouded redwood groves and bumpy cattle grates. There’s simply no shortcut to a site that sits more than 1,000 feet above sea level four miles east of the Pacific Ocean. The Pinot Noir growing there, at one of the coolest vineyards in the state, wouldn’t have it any other way. Planted in 1989, this benchmark site of the West Sonoma Coast provides grapes to Cobb Wines and Williams Selyem.

Sometimes referred to as the “True Sonoma Coast,” West Sonoma Coast is a cradle of similar-styled wines and sites championed by vintners who seek to differentiate themselves from the larger, more unwieldy Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA). Within its 750 square miles, that AVA overlaps much of the Russian River Valley, parts of Sonoma Valley and Carneros.

“[The] West Sonoma Coast Vintners [trade association] is committed to farming grapes on the far western coastline of Sonoma County,” says Ted Lemon of Littorai. “We experience a cool, dry and long growing season that develops intense flavor and acidity in the grapes without high sugar.

Nothing about the trip is easy, but once through, the views of the coast are heart-stopping.

“This is cool-climate viticulture literally on the edge where grapes struggle to ripen on the margin of viability. It is this struggle that creates such dynamic tension in our wines.”

The West Sonoma Coast is under review for appellation status, tricky business at a time when appellations are discouraged from overlapping. So forget the official boundaries for now.

Think instead about the earthy, spicy, balanced wines, driven by the whims of the Pacific Ocean, sharing notions of terroir and taste. The majority of the vineyards lie five to eight miles from the ocean on a band of coastal ridges, within or just above the fog layer.

Let these be your guide for exploration. ­Beginning in Annapolis, meander along the white-knuckle patches of Highway 1 south to Fort Ross-Seaview. Continue along to Jenner, where the mouth of the Russian River meets the ocean, before heading slightly inland to the tiny towns of Occidental, Freestone and Sebastopol.

Russian River
Photo by Adam Decker

These are some of the most visually stunning roads to travel in the world, accented by redwood groves and the dramatic residue of seismic activity from the San Andreas Fault.

Going from north to south, the easiest place to start your journey is Annapolis. To get there, go west from Healdsburg, taking snaking Skaggs Springs Road to the coast. Nothing about the trip is easy. Bring ginger ale and pretzels if you get carsick, and take your time.

Once through, the views of the coast are heart-stopping. A visit to Peay Vineyards, if arranged ahead of time, is a worthy case study in extreme viticulture.

Sonoma Map
Illustration by Zoe O’Ferrall

Peay is the undertaking of brothers Andy and Nick Peay and Nick’s wife, Winemaker Vanessa Wong. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Syrah ripen slowly on their estate, an uplifted seabed that begrudgingly brings life to the grapes.

From Peay, it’s not far to Sea Ranch Lodge, a set of eco-architecturally sensitive coastal homes for rent, as well as a small lodge and restaurant. Another nearby lodging option is the newly reimagined Timber Cove Inn, which sits on 25 acres surrounded by redwood trees high above the ocean.

Leaving from either spot, head south on Highway 1 to Fort Ross-Seaview, where a few wineries exist amongst a Who’s Who of vineyards.

Hirsch Vineyards, west of Cazadero and open by appointment, is one of the most important on the coast. The pioneering vision of David Hirsch, who still farms it, it’s a belt of coastal rainforest—it averages 80 inches of rain a year and possesses a potpourri of soils, thanks to San Andreas’s shifts and shakes.

Hirsch produces a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay from this site. It sells grapes to an impressive roster of other producers (including Williams Selyem, Failla and Siduri) from 60 specific vineyard blocks.

South on Meyers Grade Road is Fort Ross Vineyard, with a tasting room that’s open daily and appointed with fireplace and ocean views. Its estate, first planted in 1994, grows Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage, a nod to the founders’ South African heritage. Jeff Pisoni makes the wines.

Nearby, Martinelli, Marcassin, Wayfarer, Red Car, Failla and Peter Michael all tend vineyards. Another early resident of the coast, Flowers ­Vineyards & Winery, keeps a low profile.

Red Car is a long-time proponent of the West Sonoma Coast that specializes in wines from
a number of extreme coastal sites.

From Fort Ross-Seaview, made an appellation in 2012, hug the ups and downs of Highway 1 to Jenner, where a pause at River’s End will be welcome.

An inn, restaurant and popular bar, River’s End is a locals’ hangout, respected for its cocktails and locally inspired wine list of coveted half bottles. Fresh-caught king salmon and Dungeness crab figure prominently on the menu. It’s also a prime spot to watch the sun set.

From Jenner, two roads diverge, one inland, one farther south down the coast. Both are worth taking. The inland route, Highway 116, travels briskly along the Russian River to the popular outpost of Guerneville.

Nimble & Finn’s ice cream and Chile Pies Baking Co. pies are available at the landmark Beaux Arts Guerneville Bank Club, which also houses an art gallery and the Russian River Historical Society.

Continue along 116 to Forestville and make two stops. The first, Backyard, is a winemaker favorite, offering delicious food that’s focused around a host of Sonoma County farms and purveyors. Across the street is the must-visit Nightingale Breads, an old-school baker of sourdough and other wood-fired breads.

Guerneville Bank Club
Photo by Edyta Szyszlo Photography

Continue south on 116 to tiny Graton and visit Underwood, an oft-crowded lunch, dinner and cocktail stop with an outdoor patio and bocce court. In addition to having a late-night menu on Friday and Saturday, it’s not unusual to drink wine here next to the winemaker who made it.

Outside of Graton, Red Car is a longtime proponent of the West Sonoma Coast that specializes in wines from a number of extreme coastal sites. Open daily, don’t miss the producer’s rosé of Pinot Noir, Grenache or Vivio Roussanne, in addition to its estate Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah.

On Gold Ridge Road is Littorai, a vineyard and farm devoted to biodynamic principles.

West Sonoma Map
Illustration by Zoe O’Ferrall

A little farther south on 116 is Sebastopol, what qualifies as a metropolis in these parts and home to several urbanized tasting rooms. Claypool Cellars is housed in what’s called the Fancy Booze Caboose, an actual caboose with an impressive model train collection. Open by reservation, Claypool is owned by Les Claypool, bassist and lead vocalist of Primus. Ross Cobb and Katy Wilson make the wines, which include several Pinots, a Rhône-style red blend and a rosé.

Wilson also hosts a nearby tasting room for her LaRue Wines, named for her great-grandmother who lived to be 97 years old. Open by appointment, it’s a chance to taste her interpretations of key vineyard sites, including a Coastlands Vineyard Pinot Noir and a Heintz Vineyard Chardonnay, which has been owned and farmed by the Heintz family since 1912.

Downtown Sebastopol is also home to Screamin’ Mimi’s, a local institution that makes its own ice cream and sorbet. Mimi’s Mud is a must.

A short jaunt out of town south along 116 is Baker Lane Vineyards, a cool-climate estate devoted to Syrah, Viognier and Pinot Noir that also produces olive oil, honey and vinegar. It’s open to the public on select dates.

Screemin' Mimi's
Screamin’ Mimi’s. Photo by Alanna Hale / Image Brief

Return to the intersection of Highways 116 and 12 and head west back to the coast along the Bodega Highway. Along the way, on Gold Ridge Road, is Littorai, a vineyard and farm devoted to biodynamic principles. Make an appointment for a single-vineyard tasting or Gold Ridge Estate tour, the latter is intriguing for its up-close look at the estate’s gardens.

Illustration by Zoe O’Ferrall

Continue west to the charming town of Freestone. Wild Flour Bread sits at the intersection of Bodega Highway and Bohemian Highway. Open Friday through Monday, you can find brick oven-baked sourdough, scones and cinnamon rolls bigger than your head. At the end of the road’s curve, Freestone Artisan Cheese offers a selection of cheeses and other picnic supplies. The staff will also make savory and sweet crepes while you wait.

Joseph Phelps Freestone is also here, a rare tasting room open to the public along the highway. The Napa Valley winery focuses its attention on West Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from its Pastorale and Quarter Moon vineyards nearby. On the second Sunday afternoon each month, it pairs its wines with local fare, from oysters and crab cakes to lamb lollipops.

Satiated, continue to Highway 1 through the single-track town of Bodega, where Hitchcock filmed his 1963 classic, The Birds, and to the coastal outpost of Bodega Bay. The Bodega Bay Lodge offers ocean-view rooms an easy walk from gentle Doran Beach, where dogs and horses are welcome. The onsite Duck Club Restaurant cellars well-chosen local wines.

Another great place for dinner is Terrapin Creek, a Michelin-starred spot that focuses on seafood and sports a respectable wine list. As you settle in, take a moment for a deep breath of fresh sea air. This is the West Sonoma Coast.

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