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Sip, Savor and Soar in Sonoma

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By Kathleen Sterling

Work. Stress. Heat.

We needed a getaway – but there’s never enough time.

Where could we go for a short trip? On short notice?

Pins in the map led up to the wine country. Close, cooler and easy.

Made even easier by using Avelo Air.

Avelo is the new low-cost airline flying out of Burbank Airport. They serve 10 destinations from the west coast – including Sonoma/Santa Rosa, Salt Lake City, Denver, Bend, Boise, Eugene, Eureka, Medford, Pasco and Redding.

The young crew flies the Boeing Next Gen 737’s with humor, even for the short flight to Northern California. They were cheery as we found our seats, and announced that the butterfly that got on in Burbank had deplaned and would not accompany us to the wine country.

Even though it was just a short haul, the plane was really comfortable. We were impressed with the ease of boarding and opted to check one bag, as the cost was reasonable.

Avelo runs weekly specials, and we were thrilled at the last minute booking and ticket purchase – and the price. Sign up for e-mails and you’ll get notifications of their deals… often from $29 each way.

The Avelo crew is so chill that when we landed at the small Santa Rosa airport the landing staff were sitting on lawn chairs on the tarmac to greet us.

Santa Rosa was our home base for our three-day jaunt. We stayed in the old courthouse turned hotel. The modern E-Hotel in its vintage building overlooked the charming town square and was walking distance to the small town’s cute shops and bistros.

From there it was a short 15-minute drive to Healdsburg and Sonoma and our weekend wine tour!

We relaxed Friday night under the giant sequoias on the patio of Simi Winery, sipping their 2019 Russian River Chardonnay and nibbling on their spicy homemade popcorn – a perfect pairing! 

We could feel the stress of the week fade away as we planned the rest of the weekend.

After a hearty breakfast Saturday morning at the family-owned Mac’s Deli, it was time to hit the wine trail in Alexander and Russian River Valleys.

Our first stop was the exquisite Jordan Winery. The building itself evokes the great French wineries, and their French-inspired wines were delightfully paired with a box of gourmet cheeses and nuts.

We toured the vineyard and enjoyed our tasting atop a hill overlooking their sustainably-farmed vines, which stretched out over the horizon. Walking the vineyard gives you a great understanding of the amazing terroir of the area, and as Jordan is known for their cabs, an appreciation of their deep bouquets with aromas of red cherries, dried herbs and hints of white pepper.

St. Francis Winery was the next stop on our whistle-stop tour. For over a half century they have continued their legacy of winemaking. Their wines range from some hearty old vine zinfandels and lovely reds, including cabernet, petite syrah, merlot and sangiovese – to buttery chardonnays and even a fresh rosé.

Since it was technically brunch hour when we arrived, we enjoyed the crisp, tropical fruit-tinged chard and a full bodied rosé. Sitting in a gazebo on the edge of the vineyard enjoying the breeze, we enjoyed the food pairing from Executive Chef Peter Janiak. The five- course dining experience highlights Sonoma’s diverse culinary traditions – the seasonable pairing draws from the local bounty of the Northern California region. 

Climbing aboard St. Francis’ pedal-powered trolley, we had a one-of-a-kind vineyard tour, learning about the winery’s history and viticulture while sipping another lovely glass of wine.

Totally relaxed – and not too buzzed – we ended the afternoon at Silver Oak. They’re a completely LEED-certified, powered by solar winery, using reclaimed water in the vineyard.  The iconic water tower still sits at the entrance to the winery as a testament to their sustainable practices.

Silver Oak, of course, is famous for their cabs, so for our tasting we tried the 2017 Alexander Valley, the 2017 Napa Valley cab and the 2012 Alexander Valley. We enjoyed the ruby red, warm and inviting wines while sitting in the modern-barn-inspired tasting room overlooking the 113-acre estate.

Deciding we’d ended our wine tour on a high note, we purchased a few bottles for later – and rested up at our hotel before venturing out for dinner.

The Stark Family of restaurants are renowned in Northern California, and we chose Bravas tapas bar for our repast. Well-sated with wine, the idea of tasting a variety of different bites was appealing.

Bravas is famous for their paella, served with Spanish rice and Sonoma flavors. While waiting for that to cook we enjoyed marinated olives, Marcona almonds and goat cheese toast with truffle honey. You can’t go wrong with Duncan’s mushrooms with toasted garlic and sherry, and the grilled sea scallops with romesco and leeks were a hit. The skirt steak with Valadon cheese butter and red onion was a beautiful steak tartare. We enjoyed all our bites with glasses of – what else? – some Alexander Valley chardonnays, though Bravas has a wide selection of Spanish reds and whites in addition to local wines.

While enjoying our meal we got to chatting with the neighboring table – who turned out to be publishers of the local papers! Even though we were on vacation from work, it was wonderful to talk newspapers, changes in production, friends in common and local news with the two of them.

Bravas was the perfect end to a perfect day. An early meal, a light offering of tapas and an early bedtime, as we had an adventure planned for the next day!

Up before daybreak, we headed out in the countryside to Sonoma Ballooning. We climbed into the basket (which held about eight people in four corner compartments) and watched as they filled the actual balloon. We rose into the sky to catch the sunrise over the rolling vineyards.

It was a bucket-list experience. Soaring quietly over the landscape we were all silent and in awe of the breaking dawn. 

I admit I stayed in the corner of the basket at first as we were pretty damn high up. But as we cruised just under the clouds I ventured to the edge to enjoy the incredible vista. 

After two hours we landed safely in the Kendall Jackson vineyard atop a hill. A balloonist tradition is to always carry a bottle of champagne in the cargo to share with wherever you land, because they might not be expecting you!  We all shared the bubbly and toasted our experience, agreeing it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

Having landed safely, we headed to the airport and took off to the skies again on Avelo, back home to L.A. Our three-day quickie vacation left us refreshed, replenished and replete with good food, good wine and great experiences. Getting up, up and especially away let us face Monday once again – but this time with smiles on our faces as we remembered how much we packed into our getaway weekend! 

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