Northern California Wine Country

Text: Robert Smith • Photography: Robert Smith

It's a happy coincidence: the same undulating topography that makes Northern California's hill country so perfect for growing grapes has also challenged transportation engineers to create some classic motorcycling roads. So what better way to find a bit of heaven on earth than to sample the hills and valleys during the day, and a bit of the Cabernet Sauvignon when the day is done?!

Between Desert and Deep Blue Sea

At Stewarts Point General Store, south of Point Arena on California's Highway 1, Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road ricochets into the coastal hills, as I begin my journey into wine country. In places little more than a tarmac goat path, heaved and broken by tree roots, the road cavorts up the steep grades, leaving behind the chill ocean mist that drapes the coast most of the year.

Under the dense woodland canopy, the road continues to climb before emerging from the trees, along the brim of a broad valley of rocky outcrops, boulders, and rubble. Around mile 30, the rustic trail suddenly and inexplicably opens into a broad and smooth blacktop ribbon that swings and rolls over and around the baked, brown hills, while soaring to a summit overlooking Lake Sonoma. Under blue skies, the lake is a turquoise mirror surrounded by rolling hills of golden grass spotted with jade green trees.

The Sonoma, Napa, Alexander, and Russian River Valleys, each with their voluptuous grapes and the rich, heady wines they produce - where better to spend a two-day tour than cruising on a BMW R 1200 GS throughout northern California's wine country?

Williams and West

Destination Highways: Northern California, a book and companion website by Brian Bosworth and Michael Sanders, is well worth the review for some great road recommendations. I spend an hour or so in my room at the Motel 6 in Williams, discovering that some of the best riding occurs between Williams and Clear Lake, south from Clear Lake to Calistoga, then south again to Capay Valley, and west from Winters to Napa.

Williams would be a peaceful farming town in the Sacramento Valley, but for the constant background roar of Interstate 5, and the chain restaurants and motels sprouting like giant beanstalks along its edge. Downtown, the general store has become Il Mercado, and most of the stores are run by, or cater to, the Mexican farm workers and their families. Based on the storefront signs, one would do well to polish up on his Spanish before arriving.
I cruise out of town and pick up Highway 20, which spears straight toward a range of hazy mountains in the west. June sunshine glares off the scrubby rangeland that spreads to the horizon on either side, but before long I'm climbing into brown hills lined with brush and twisted, desiccated oak trees. The broad highway rolls over and around the gentle slopes, skirting creeks and gullies, while adding passing lanes for me to sweep past the trucks crawling their way uphill toward the northern valleys and the coast.

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For the complete touring article, including facts & information, map(s), and GPS files, please purchase the March/April 2010 back issue.