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Hit the Road

Hiking, wine-tasting and lunch in Sonoma

A morning hike, wine-tasting and lunch on a slightly rainy day in Sonoma – it doesn’t get much better than that.

Some people might disagree with the rainy part, but these days, rain is a welcomed event, as long as it doesn’t impede our day’s plans. And today it doesn’t.

The trail is a bit damp in Bartholomew Memorial Park, but completely passable. The park, a little known treasure, is just a few minutes northeast of Sonoma’s town square. Although I’ve been to Sonoma several times, this is the first I’ve explored the 400 richly wooded acres that offer almost three miles of hiking trails (described by one critic as “invigorating but not excruciating”) and lots of flora and fauna. Plus, the park encompasses at least three ecosystems: chaparral, riparian and evergreen forest.

Our docent, Janis, a retired teacher who lives in Sonoma and leads hiking groups in other areas of the county, apologizes for not being that familiar with “Bart Park,” as the locals call it, but she answers almost every question we have. She also is quick to spot critters scurrying among the wet leaves and mushrooms – a newt here, a salamander there – and to identify the generous flora. Janis points out the sunshine-yellow Diogenes lantern; giant Manzanita bushes; sticky monkey flowers; and the Indian potato flower, so-called because of its bulbous roots.

When the air is not heavy with moisture like it is today, we are told that you can see all the way to San Francisco.

For now, though, we’re content to enjoy the quiet, damp environment that nurtures oak groves, fern grottos, curious molds clinging to tree trunks, and the madrone trees with their satiny trunks. We stop briefly at Benicia Lake, a fairy-tale-like pond where I expect elves to emerge any minute.

When the hike ends, we head to the nearby (doggie-friendly) tasting room at Bartholomew Park Winery. The building was a hospital until 1955, but you’d never guess it. The cool interior invites sampling and that we do.  Behind the bar is Courtney Miller, who educates us on the winery’s history, viticulture (Bart Park’s 27-acre estate vineyard was certified organic in 2005), and the process of producing its slightly-less-than-5,000 cases a year. All of the grapes that go into Bart Park wines are grown on the estate except the Chardonnay.

We tried a half-dozen wines, and all were impressive, but our friend, Jim, found the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (10 percent syrah and 1 percent petite verdot) to be excellent, which it must be because it is currently sold out. Fortunately, though, you can still get the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon, which is nearly the same, but with 5 percent petite verdot.

I found the 2013 rose to be delightfully refreshing. A once abandoned variety because it was considered too sweet and not serious enough, rose is once again winning favor among oenophiles. The reasons, say experts, are the significantly improved quality, the easy pairing with food and the reasonable price.

“It’s the perfect summer wine,” Miller says, perhaps because “the Syrah grape is happy here.”

I’ll drink to that.

A weekend day’s itinerary could include a bottle of Bart Park wine, a picnic lunch at one of nearby tables, and a tour of the villa, a replica of the one built originally by Agoston Haraszthy. A Hungarian nobleman, chemist and entrepreneur, he is often referred to as the Father of Modern Winemaking. (The San Diego connection: Haraszthy was the city’s first marshal and the county’s first sheriff, and he built San Diego’s first jail.) After a colorful few years in San Francisco, Haraszthy purchased land in Sonoma and planted 25 acres of grapes. He eventually brought 100,000 cuttings of 350 varieties of grape vines from Europe to California. He disappeared in 1869, perhaps drowning while crossing a river; some believe he was eaten by an alligator.

Haraszthy’s villa, which burned in the late 1800s, was rebuilt in 1989 by the Bartholomew family.

The museum in the villa is open on weekends from noon to 3 pm.

Tours of the winery also are held on weekends, and the wine museum in the tasting room is always open and free.