Tuesday, June 10, 2008

The Russian River

As part of my continued journey down memory lane, Alex and I went to the Russian River, another site of happy reminiscences. My great uncle and aunt, who put up with me for long stretches every summer, owned a cabin not far from Guerneville. My holidays with them fell into a predictable pattern of staying in the city during the week and then, on Friday, driving 90 minutes north on Highway 101. On the way, Hank and I would stop off at an ice cream parlor in Santa Rosa. Always I would deliberate carefully, but inevitably I would order rum raisin, my very favorite. I suspect the dash of rum seemed the height of sophistication to my thirteen-year-old palate.

Our long weekends consisted of lazing around the cabin and reading; looking at the stars through Hank's telescope, one of his few indulgences; and floating down the river in inner tubes. Temperatures easily run fifteen degrees higher than in the city, a fact I forgot one summer. I ended up with a sunburn so bad that I ran a high fever and nearly ended up in an ER. This excruciating experience made me swear off tanning subsequently and taught me to cover my fair skin, no small feat for an adolescent growing up in Southern California. From that summer onward, I was resigned to life as a pasty-faced person.

Overall, I was struck by the relative lack of development in the area, something entirely unexpected. While the proliferation of ugly, largely frangible, tract homes and malls have ruined the Peninsula and blighted former farm land in what is now Silicon Valley, the same has not happened north of the city. On Saturday when we hiked through Muir Woods and then lunched in Sausalito, I was startled to see that Marin County looked unchanged. The same is true for areas further north, as one drives up 101 through Tiburon, Petaluma, and Santa Rosa. Huge swaths of land remain untouched, and farms (many quite neglected) dot the landscape. As for the Russian River itself, the most notable change is the profusion of wineries and vineyards everywhere; if anything, cultivation has beautified the area.

If Healdsburg is any indication, the small, sleepy towns that once typified the Russian River have grown nicely. I remember in my youth being hard pressed to find a decent restaurant. Occasionally we went into Occidental to eat at a family-style restaurant where the Italian-American waiters plunked down heaping bowls of pasta on picnic-style tables. The food was hearty and plentiful but hardly gourmet. With the influx of wineries and vino-tourism, that has, of course, all changed. Excellent brasseries and cafes are everywhere. We had lunch at Bistro Ralph, one of the places recommended to us, and we were not disappointed. Our good-natured waiter, a friendly bear of a guy, gave us excellent service, and food came piping hot out of the kitchen. Alex had a very good salad; I had a superb pasta with smoked chicken, sun-dried tomatoes, and a fennel cream sauce. Our waiter suggested we try the strawberry shortcake for dessert. I hesitated since I do a pretty mean shortcake myself, but caved at his urging. I grudgingly admit this shortcake trumps what I make at home, something that happens too rarely (and one of the reasons I rarely order dessert in restaurants--frankly, I usually do better).

Invigorated by the lunch, Alex and I spent the rest of the afternoon, map in hand, driving to various wineries. We only got through five and there must be at least fifty now in the area. By far, Rosenblum was our favorite. A brilliant winery, they do fabulous reds and whites, in addition to extraordinary dessert wines. I put together a case and arranged for shipping to some friends in Virginia since we're not allowed to receive wine across state lines in Maryland, a barbaric law. Among my finds at Rosenblum is a dessert wine that smacks of chocolate and coconut: it's like drinking an exquisite version of an Almond Joy bar. Unfortunately, none of the other wineries we visited came close to Rosenblum. Several produced wines that left a funny metallic taste on the tongue, something Alex noticed as well. We liked the sparkling wines at J Winery--the rose is especially nice--but I wasn't sufficiently convinced as to order another case. 

I've noticed that people working in wineries are, without exception, delightful. This appears to be a universal phenomenon, if my experiences in France, Italy, and South Africa are any indication. I suspect the lifestyle is largely responsible. Good wines flourish in beautiful surroundings and great climates, so one gets to live in paradise and pour wine for happy, eager customers. True to form, we met some lovely folks on our little tour. The man who helped us at Rosenblum had a superb palate, and I ended up purchasing nearly everything he poured for us. The woman who assisted us at J Wineries turned out to be a graduate from AU. She was so delighted to encounter an AU professor that she poured us samples well beyond the requisite four wines covered by our tasting fee.

At the end of the day, sated and tired, we drove back into the city. As we approached my hotel, I became teary at the prospect of parting from my adored and adorable son (who was the consummate host and gentleman throughout my stay). We had a tearful parting and, crying lightly, I went into the hotel only to be dragooned by a group of Aussies who were dismayed at my discomfiture. I have to say there's nothing like drinking with a bunch of blokes from down under to cheer one up.

No comments: