By Margaret M. Johnson

Sebastiani Cherry Block with Mayacamas range in background
Sebastiani Cherry Block

My companions and I are gathered around a long table at the edge of a vineyard, feasting on beet salad garnished with bits of crisp chorizo and creamy horseradish sauce. Next comes ahi tuna burgers and -- as a wickedly delicious finale -- chocolate-filled crepes smothered in sweet cherry sauce.

Considering that this al fresco banquet (with its accompanying Truett-Hurst wines) is as copious as it is delectable, and considering that it is but one of many such gourmet meals that we'll be indulging in this week, we really ought to be concerned about the potential danger this caloric immoderation might present to our collective waistline, not to mention our arteries. But no one in our little group appears concerned about the dangers of overindulgence, as we tighten up the laces on our hiking boots, splash on a little more sunblock and head off from Truett-Hurst, through the vineyards to the next winery.

I am in northern California on a tour with Zephyr Adventures, an organization that has, for the past dozen years, been leading expeditions for people who want to stay active rather than sedentary while they travel. Zephyr offers a range of activities such as hiking, biking, and canoeing, in various destinations around the world -- trekking along the Inca trail in Peru, for example, or skating through the Netherlands. You don't even have to be Iron Man to enjoy the trips: when one of the other participants in my group showed up with a knee brace and a cane, arrangements were made for him to travel in the Zephyr van whenever he didn't feel up to the pace.

I've signed on with Zephyr for a wine-oriented hiking tour through Sonoma County. This is only day one, but I am already finding this adventure to be an extraordinarily fun and invigorating way to visit a wine region. One of the things I most appreciate about this Zephyr Adventure is the guarantee that we'll be taken way beyond the tasting room as we meet local grape growers, vintners and winery owners, and walk through vineyards we would not have had access to on our own. Earlier this morning, for example, we hiked through the gorgeous Michel-Schlumberger organic vineyards, accompanied by owner Jacques Schlumberger and winemaker Mike Brunson. From the sun splashed vineyards on Bradford Mountain we ambled down into the wild, sylvan Wine Creek Canyon, then up through the Schlumberger La Brume Vineyard to the crest of the hill where a table laden with glasses and bottles awaited. Sipping Chardonnay and Cabernet from the vineyards we'd just tromped through was to experience wine in a uniquely up-close-and-personal way.

The visit to Truett-Hurst offers us an exceptional opportunity to learn about a brand-new winery. "It's going to take five years before we're in full production," says Heath Dolan, one of the owners, "but our goal is to become Sonoma's premiere Biodynamic winery." By contrast to the nascent Truett-Hurst project, here we are on another day standing amidst 130-year-old vines at Sausal, an estate that was founded in 1901 but whose vines date back even further, to at least 1877. Surrounded by the gnarled and sculptural old vines, we are tasting zinfandel from this very site, feeling once again the evocative connection between the wine and its origins.

On a glorious spring morning we trek up the picture-perfect Alexander Valley, past fields filled with red clover, radiant yellow buttercups and purple lupine all nodding their heads in the gentle breeze. On this expedition a couple of local grape growers, who point out the qualities and quirks of different vineyards we pass through, guide us. At Silver Oak Vineyards we pause along the shores of a pond, where a collection of wines for our tasting pleasure has been set up on a table. Invigorated by this among its multitude of ingredients respite, we hit the trail again until midday, by which time we've worked up such formidable appetites that we pile eagerly into the van that ferries us up to the top of a mountain above the Rodney Strong Rockaway Vineyards.

At tables set up in the clearing beneath a stand of magnificent old oak trees, the group settles down to a savory picnic, but we discover soon enough that we aren't the only ones in the neighborhood with a lunch menu in the works. An eagle is heading toward us from the direction of the Russian River, and within moments he is soaring above us, so close that we can see the fish clutched in his talons. I am still thinking of this charmed moment after the last of the cheesecake and brownies have been lapped up, and I am heading over to test my skills on the bocce court. Up here in this wooded aerie, where the only sound is the muffled thwank of metal balls hitting the dirt, and where the landscape is dominated by the vine-etched Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys spread out like some kind of mythic kingdom below us, I can't help feeling that those old rogues Bacchus and Dionysius are working their ancient enchantments across this land.

On the last day of the tour, we find ourselves winding our way along the Sonoma Overlook Trailhead, pausing every now and then to photograph or simply gaze in awe at the spectacular panorama fanning out around us in every direction. Our guide this morning is Mark Cuneo, a fourth generation member of California's eminent Sebastiani wine family. Energetic and athletic, Cuneo steers us suddenly off the official trail toward another path so faint that only he can make it out. A passionate advocate for the countryside in which he has spent the thirty-something years of his life, Cuneo seems to have developed an intimate relationship with every bird, bush and bee we pass. We follow in a line behind him like the Pied Piper's disciples, heading first down a steep slope and ultimately across a broad green, grassy meadow. When we finally emerge from the wilderness we discover that we're at the backside of Sebastiani's historic Cherryblock Estate Vineyard, located just north of the winery at the edge of the town of Sonoma. (The vineyard takes its name from the cherry orchard that was planted here in 1919 by winery founder Samuele Sebastiani; in 1962 his son, August, replaced the orchard with 11 acres of Sauvignon grapes.) Within moments we are inside the winery digging into an informal lunch of salads and sandwiches, and sipping Cherryblock Cabernet.

We've covered a fair amount of territory each day this week, visiting a diverse selection of estates among Sonoma County's 350 wineries. Sonoma lies less than 30 miles north of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, and extends over 1,575 square miles, including more than 50 miles of beautiful, craggy coastline. At its eastern edge, Sonoma is separated by the Mayacamas Mountains from the more famous (and more glitzy) Napa Valley. Toward the western rim of the county, vines give way to rugged mountains, where the languid Russian River meanders past ridges topped with regal redwoods. Sonoma boasts a bevy of charming coastal villages such as Bodega Bay, Fort Ross, Gualala, and Jenner, and a scattering of small river towns, including Monte Rio, Rio Nido, Cazadero, Forestville, Guerneville and Geyserville. We've been lodged at the recently restored, family-owned Geyserville Inn, whose spacious guest rooms may not reek of upper-crust luxury, but have plenty of appealing amenities, such as fireplaces, feather beds, Frette bathrobes, and bucolic views of surrounding vineyards.

We've dined in a number of agreeable local restaurants, including Santi, located in Geyserville just down the road from the inn. Styled after an Italian taverna, Santi specializes in delicious house-cured meats such as sopressata, salumi and sausages. Another eatery we all thoroughly enjoyed is Mosaic. The wild-west saloon-like exterior belies Mosaic's sophisticated interior, and gives little hint of the classy fare dished up by chef-owner Tai Olesky, a Sonoma native who focuses on locally raised foods. Olesky's crostini of Brie-topped sauteed wild mushrooms proved a flavorful and earthy match for the assortment of local wines we'd ordered up. Pan seared sea scallops dusted with fennel pollen was toothsome indeed, and Mosaic's flagship coffee-crusted filet mignon -- which includes among its multitude of ingredients blue cheese and Cabernet demi-glace as well as finely ground coffee beans -- was one of several weirdly successful dishes. Homey desserts such as panna cotta and fruit crisps hit just the right note here.

Back home now, all that good dining and all that fine wine are on my mind as I prepare, warily, to weigh myself. Normally during the course of a gastronomically oriented trip I put on enough superfluous flab to necessitate several days worth of extra hours at the gym and smaller portions on the dinner plate. But now, with the surprising evidence before me that I haven't gained a single ounce this time, I resolve herein to let others count calories, trudge on the treadmill and log on to liposuction -- as for me, I'll sign up for another Zephyr Adventure so that I can have my cake and walk it off too.


-- Geyserville Inn, 21714 Geyserville Avenue, Geyserville, Calif. 707 857-4343,

Mosaic, 665 Front Street, Forestville, 707 887-7503,

Santi, 21047 Geuserville Avenue, Geyserville, 707 857-1790,

Zephyr Adventures, P.O. Box 16, Red Lodge, MT. 59068, 1 888 758-8687,, info(at)

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© Margaret M. Johnson

Travel | Sonoma California with Wine Glass and Hiking Boots