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Taste of Travel: Sonoma : Almost Like a Day in Provence : Eating, drinking, pedaling in Northern California. Or is it France?

November 13, 1994|HEIDI HAUGHY CUSICK | Cusick is a free-lance food writer who lives in Mendocino. and

HEALDSBURG — The day begins with croissant and coffee. We sit on a bench in the village plaza surrounded by cafes and bakeries, and eat while the cool morning air warms to the sun. Our bikes lean against a tree. A baguette pokes out of my husband's backpack and I rearrange the fruit tart in my pack. We pedal to the Saturday morning market a block away and pick up a couple of apples and a few figs. Olive oil, mushrooms, baby lettuces fill the stalls. We linger over the produce, look at each other with wistful sighs and laugh.

The moment is strikingly similar to another day, another time, another place. We were in a village in Provence, where we lived for a short time. We were 10 years younger, with small children, no money and no cares. Instead, we are less than two hours from our Mendocino home, astride our bikes in Healdsburg, a vineyard-fringed market town in Sonoma County. The resemblance to Provence begins in town and rushes past us, carrying with it nostalgia with every push of the pedal, as we head west to Dry Creek Valley and through our 20-mile day trip biking through the vineyards.

There are differences. Here the moist morning sea air travels up the Russian River, not the Rhone. Fitch Mountain is no less a landmark than Mt. Ventoux near Avignon, though a fraction of the size. Buildings here are redwood, not limestone. But we don't have to worry about the exchange rate. The signs are in English. We don't need passports. Nor did we spend thousands on airplane tickets.

Otherwise, the similarities are enough to make us smile. Valley and tiered hillside vineyards are woven with orchards, wildflowers, vegetable gardens and farm animals, as in the Luberon region. Oak and olive trees, poppies and wild herbs edge the narrow winding lanes, reminding us of routes between Bonnieux and Apt and Avignon, in Provence. The main thoroughfare--Dry Creek Road--is a wide two-laner with a deli and a market along the way. Just past the market a major fruit drying company smells like a famous candied fruit factory near Apt. Family-owned vineyards and wineries are easy cycling distances apart. From across the valley one of Gallo's wineries, with its red-roofed buildings, resembles the "cave cooperative," a large community winery that handles grapes from a number of appellations in the middle of the Provencal valley.

Then there is the light. Anyone who has been to Provence knows about the magic of that region's radiance, as it changes from the morning's misty gray to a clearer steeliness; from the high noon glow to a purple-pink dusk. All the shades are muted, prompting you to open your eyes wider or squint them into slits to coax definition from colors and shapes that run into each other. The tree leaves spin into the grassy hillsides the way Van Gogh saw them. Pastel produce fills roadside fruit stands like a Cezanne still-life. Although comparatively more vibrant, perhaps because we are so far from Provence, when viewed from the closeness of a bicycle the scenery has for us similar appeal.

Our first stop out of Healdsburg is the Dry Creek Store, about 3 1/2 miles from the bakeries in town. Here we pack a picnic to eat at wineries along the way. Wheels of domestic Brie, chunks of Sonoma chevre and slices of Virginia ham are measured off and wrapped for our packs.

Stepping into the adjacent bar--dark and old, but not as old as the one we frequented at the restaurant de routiers near Lacoste--we split a beer served in a frosty glass as the noontime sun begins releasing its full force.

Mounting our bikes again, we ride a mile or so up the road to Timber Crest Farms, home of Sonoma's famous dried fruit. Today, the last of the season's tomatoes scent the air as they are sorted, sliced and readied for an initial 20 hours in the propane-fueled dryers before being finished in the natural air. We go inside to sample the excellent dried fruit. A bag of trail mix, some dried pears and dried tomatoes are added to our packs.

We decide to bike the next five miles to Lake Sonoma Winery at the top of the valley. Although this road is relatively wide and has a bike lane along the way, we appreciate the moderate speed of American drivers in sharp contrast with harrowing rides we've shared with France's latent race-car drivers.

Lake Sonoma Winery can't be seen from the road, but you know it's close when you see the spillway from the dam at Lake Sonoma.

A road sign indicates the next sharp right is the winery. Strong legs propel us to the top . . . even if it means pushing the bike on foot for a bit. But the view from the porch of the tasting room is worth the effort.

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