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Weekend Escape: Sonoma

Into the Drink : The Russian River ride: What to do if you can't canoe?

May 11, 1997|BARRY ZWICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER; Zwick is a Times assistant news editor

WINDSOR, Calif. — Soon after our Southwest jet soared over the purple mountain majesties of Burbank, bound for Oakland, I dropped what I thought was a romantic surprise on my wife: For tomorrow, on the Russian River, I had reserved a kayak built for two.

"You what?" she said. "You think I'm going to get on a boat with you and capsize and ruin my hair?"

Had a cloud descended on our weekend? We had to wait an hour for our rental car at Oakland's jammed airport. And it took us three hours to get to Windsor through dense weekend traffic.

When we spotted two palm trees on a knoll overlooking Old Redwood Highway, we turned into the driveway of our bed-and-breakfast, Country Meadow Inn. We knocked on the door of the big, brown-shuttered Queen Anne farmhouse, and owner Susan Hardesty showed us to our room, a bargain at $85. Then, as we checked out the bed, the mattress and box spring crashed down loudly onto the ancient wood floor.

Red-faced, we paraded past our fellow guests and drove two miles north to Healdsburg for dinner. First, though, we wandered through Healdsburg Plaza, a tree-shaded square with a bandstand, surrounded by restaurants, a bakery, a gourmet food store, a brew pub, two bars, a Kendall-Jackson tasting room and a book shop. The air was filled with good smells, from sourdough to cilantro. As the sun set, senior citizens flipped up their clip-on sunglasses, teenage girls hooted catcalls at boys on skateboards and young men wearing cowboy boots flocked into John & Zeke's Bar. We followed them in. John & Zeke's had a long bar, two pool tables, a jukebox and all the earmarks of a redneck bar. But this was Sonoma County. A list of 11 wines, mostly local, was posted next to the bar. We asked the tough-guy bartender if Toad Hollow was any good.

"An excellent Chardonnay," he said.

We walked around the corner to Ravenous, a seven-table restaurant recommended to us by Tim Fish, one of the authors of "The Napa and Sonoma Book" (Berkshire House Publishers).

Unfortunately, Ravenous had lost our reservation.

We waited outside with our tongues hanging out. Ravenous looked like food heaven. Light reflecting off salmon walls shone through gleaming crystal wine goblets in a palette of pale yellows, rubies and violets. Fragile-looking women ripped and tore at great, glazed chunks of steaming reddish-brown lamb and portobello mushrooms.

Much later, our waiter--the only waiter--seated us. The wine list was long and the food list was short, changed every day. Our waiter suggested Mueller Chardonnay, made around the corner, only 200 cases a year. The menu listed it at $22, but he'd give it to us for $19. Sold.

We started with the house salad of olives, arugula, tomatillo and sweet onions in a vinaigrette dressing with hints of India. We ordered lamb stew braised in white wine sauce and sage, with polenta; and Canadian halibut with corn-lime salsa, braised fennel and a piquant lemon rice.

*

In the morning, we went down to breakfast in Country Meadow's formal dining room, eager but apprehensive. During previous B&B stays, we had been surrounded at breakfast by superathletes who made us look like a couple of wimps. Sure enough, we found ourselves facing a family of four from Monrovia--mother, father, mid-20s daughter and son-in-law, who climbed mountains and rocks together and rescued rubes like us from white water. The father flew a biplane, and the daughter and son-in-law bungee-jumped.

Good thing we were going kayaking.

My wife and I drove down to California Rivers to pick up our kayak. Their back lot was swarming with customers who were picking over a crop of beat-up canoes. I asked the gruff manager for ours.

"I'm not doing rentals today," he said. "I'm selling."

We weren't going to waste any more time. We drove back to Healdsburg, picked up picnic makings at the Plaza Street Market, and drove for 20 minutes through acre after acre of red, purple, green and yellow grapevines to Hop Kiln Winery, a landmark in the Russian River wine country.

Tastings at Hop Kiln were free, and the bar was packed. There was a $2 fee for tasting the top-of-the-line Primitivo Zinfandel, but the two pourers were too swamped to collect. We bought a bottle of Big Red, a $9.50 blend of zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Valdiguie.

Out in back, we joined a merry band of picnickers under white umbrellas beside a duck pond. We sliced Teleme jack onto baguettes spread with tapenade and drank our bottle of Big Red. The sun came out.

Our next stop was Rabbit Ridge, opened for tasting just last year. Rabbit Ridge charged a $2 fee for tasting, unless you bought something, and attracted a more serious crowd than Hop Kiln. Of the eight wines we drank, we liked the reds the best, and bought a merlot and a zinfandel.

We pressed on to the Piper Sonoma/Rodney Strong superwinery on Old Redwood Highway, a concrete and wood-beam complex surrounded by fountains, gardens and a moat with water lilies.

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