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California Wine Country With or Without the Wine

We’re in California’s famous Wine Country—shopping for frying pans.

That’s right. We’re tooling around Healdsburg, California, the small picturesque town in the heart of Sonoma County, taking in the tasting rooms, restaurants, and antique shops scattered around the Plaza Park Square. My 23-year-old daughter, Reggie, is excited because she scores a cast-iron frying pan for $15. I’m excited because it is a perfect sunny day and I’m spending it with my husband and daughter.

We’re staying in San Francisco near Union Square at the recently renovated Parc 55. It’s a great location, but we opt to head out of the city to Sonoma County, about an hour from San Francisco, which is home to some 1,800 growers and 450 wineries. Sonoma County, just 30 miles north of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, is closer to the city than Napa and much bigger—more than 1,500 square miles—roughly the size of Rhode Island. {{{SmarterBuddy|align=left}}}If you think Wine Country—especially Sonoma County—is just for grown-ups (at least those over 21) think again. There are plenty of places to bike, hike, and kayak on the Russian River.

There are many kid-friendly wineries too, complete with toy chests, picnic grounds, and more, suggests Liza Graves, mom to 11-year-old twins and founder of Sonoma-based Beautiful Places. Beautiful Places rents villas here and in Napa, and can also arrange special activities for your gang. Treasure hunt in a vineyard perhaps?

At the Benziger winery you can take a tram tour of the organic farm or sip wine while the kids get a lesson at the Insectary where “good” bugs (ladybugs, praying mantis) are raised to eat all the bad bugs.

Roche Winery offers horseback rides and the Larson Family Winery has lots of animals.
Graves notes that farms in the area invite families to watch as cheese or honey is made, and even give guests the opportunity to try their hand at milking a cow, digging for potatoes, or picking fruit. You’ll find farmer’s markets each day in at least one of the towns. “We love the Sonoma farmer’s market on Tuesday nights in summer in the square,” Graves says. “Families bring a picnic dinner and listen to live music. There are two playground areas in the park too.”

Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, home to the Robert Fergus Observatory, is a good place to hike. For a more exotic kind of fun, head to Safari West, an African-inspired wildlife preserve where you can see animals in their natural habitat. Take teens to learn about racecar driving at the Jim Russell Racing School. If your gang loves the comic strip “Peanuts,” You won’t want to miss the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa. For younger kids, Sonoma Train Town Railroad has a steam railroad, a Ferris wheel, and a carousel.

Some wine tasting will likely be on the agenda, too. We start our tasting at La Crema Tasting Room. Do we like the Los Carneros Chardonnay (with its orange aromas) or the Russian River Chardonnay (with hints of butterscotch and honeysuckle)? We taste a Pinot Noir (aromas of blueberry) and a Sonoma County Syrah (hints of black licorice). I love them all but my daughter warns me to pace myself; it is, after all, just 11 a.m.!

We head around the corner to Murphy-Goode Tasting Room where I love the Claret. I think it would be good with Thanksgiving turkey. I’m learning to just take one sip.

Next we stop in at Powell’s Sweet Shoppe where we find every variety of candy (Mexican dinner gummies, sour grape “pucker powder,” Nerds, Sweet Tarts), old-fashioned toys (juggle balls, a Mr. Bill doll), and scrumptious gelato (dark chocolate, peanut butter, pistachio).

Lunchtime already? We head to a local landmark Jimtown Store where we eat lunch in a grape arbor feasting on just-made curry chicken salad and the best bean salad I’ve ever eaten. We indulge in a ginger cookie for dessert. A group of cyclists is eating lunch too, which makes me feel guilty that we’re touring in a car rather than getting some much-needed exercise.

Just down the road is Stonestreet Winery, which is owned by Jess Jackson who also owns Kendall-Jackson Winery, one of California’s largest wineries. An attorney, Jackson began growing grapes on land he’d purchased in 1974. Eight years later, he produced his first wine, which ultimately won kudos and awards.

Our “wine educator,” Jonathan Tyer, is so passionate about wine that he plans to enroll in graduate school next fall at UC Davis. Tyer is already an accomplished and prize-winning home vintner whose enthusiasm is infectious, as he explains how all of these wines are grown on the hillsides. Sipping our wine, we get a rare behind-the-scenes peak at the operation—the oak barrels where the juice is pressed out of the grapes and the lab where the science of winemaking is conducted to test sugar composition.

Too soon we have to head back to the city to meet some friends for a last-night-in-San Francisco dinner. We opt for a new hip spot we think the twentysomethings in the gang will like—Starbelly, located in the Castro area and known for its beers and house-cured meats. We feast on mini corndogs, Starbelly salumi, mortadella, salami, squash, and goat cheese pizza. Not only is the food delicious, but it’s also affordable. Did I mention dessert? Warm pear crumble, caramel pot de creme, or chocolate spice doughnut with peanut butter curry ice cream.
The twentysomethings love the place, just as my daughter loved our day in Sonoma—and her new frying pan.

It’s nice to see you can still take the kids—even when they are over 21.

Have you ever visited Wine Country? What are your favorite spots? Share your thoughts, experiences, and advice by submitting a comment below!

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