Monday, August 1, 2011

Serenity in Sonoma

Say the words “Glen Ellen,” and many Americans will think of those dependably low-priced wines that are sold from coast to coast:

There is obviously a winery with that name. However, Glen Ellen is actually a tiny country town (population 784) that is home to a number of remarkable wineries. Its street corners are spangled with signs pointing out which ones lie in which directions:

Located in California’s Sonoma Valley, Glen Ellen sits at the base of Sonoma Mountain and is considered part of the Sonoma Mountain American Viticultural Area. In plain English, that means it is part of a distinct area that is characterized by its geography and resulting microclimates, and is known to produce outstanding specimens of certain grape species.

The area around town is beautiful and its temperatures are pleasant. Oak forests grace much of the terrain, but there are redwood forests here as well, and the natural beauty inspired adventure writer Jack London to move here in the early twentieth century. Both the town and the valley are mentioned in several of his stories.

Beneath some redwoods he built a mansion that came to be known as Wolf House. Sadly, it was destroyed by fire the night before he and his wife were going to move into it, and he died three years later of kidney disease. Today, a visit to Jack London State Historic Park allows you to hike to the home’s ruins and to the moss-covered boulder under which the Londons are buried:

Glen Ellen’s most celebrated merchant, Benziger Family Winery, is located only a minute from the park and on the same road. Complete with handsome architecture and hillsides planted with vines, it is everything a winery should be. Visit the tasting room and you can try six of their selections for $10. Or you can take a tram tour of the property for $15. Or you can take a behind-the-scenes tour for $40. No matter what you do, you will get your money’s worth.

Valley of the Moon Winery, which borrows the name the Miwok Indians gave to Sonoma Valley, is less famous but offers an equally rewarding experience. Established in 1863, long before California became known for winemaking, it ranks as the longest-standing winery in the Glen Ellen area. Here is one of its vineyards that I photographed when we visited:

With harvest season coming up in September and October, now is the perfect time to plan a trip to this idyllic town. And if it is too late to make it this year, you might as well go ahead and make plans for 2012.

Go here if you want to stay in a creekside cottage or here if you want to rent a full house. Or if you prefer a more conventional inn, check out this place.

You do not have to be a wine lover to enjoy Glen Ellen. If you like walking around in the outdoors, there are opportunities to do so not only at Jack London State Historic Park but also at Quarryhill Botanical Garden. And if you are a foodie, you will be interested to know that Glen Ellen agriculture is renowned for olives as well as grapes. There are several high quality olive oil merchants here, including The Olive Press and B.R. Cohn (which is also known for its wine).

You will not regret visiting this simple and scenic spot on the map.

Note: The final picture was taken from B.R. Cohn’s Facebook page, and shows its Gourmet Shop where free olive oil and balsamic tastings are offered.