It takes a lot of great beer to make a good wine,” or so goes an old adage among winemakers.Fortunately, the craft beer movement is alive and well throughout Northern California, with many breweries, brew pubs and fine beer spots scattered across this wide area. Toss in excellent roads, gorgeous scenery, a cool car and my lovely wife Colleen, and I had the ingredients for a splendid mission – discover some of the best beer spots in wine country.
My quest also featured a test drive of a shiny, retro 2012 FIAT 500c convertible, in metallic Verde Chiaro (mint green) with Avorio (ivory) interior. It was so darn cute! This blast-from-the-past car is actually sexy little beast, full of Italian style and vigor. True, the 1.4 liter engine with 6 speed automatic transmission is small, but when you bang it the car responds attentively.
Beginning in San Francisco I pointed the little Italian beauty across the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge, over to Marin heading north, to Wine Country. First up, was the Marin Brewing Company in Larkspur Landing. A popular watering hole, this is a tried and true place to sample beers and grab some lunch. Their IPA is potent, tasty ale, with a very nice balance of bitterness, maltieness, and a fine mix of Cascades and Columbus Hops. Made for a good and proper start to the journey.
I soon headed west, back over the mountains and on toward the coast. Passing Muir Woods I snaked down to Muir Beach and the precious Pelican Inn. This place is a must visit, not only for beer but for the rustic architecture. You would think that somehow you’ve stumbled into the Cotswolds. With its quaint low timbers, thatched roof, cool and misty atmosphere, the Pelican Inn is a perfect place for a lunch, a pint or to stay overnight. I loved their Pelican Pale Ale made by the Lagunitas Brewing Company.
The scenic wilds of West Marin were ahead where I effortlessly pushed the FIAT along beaches, down steep ravines, up cliff sides, past bird sanctuaries, oyster farms and little hamlets. The stock 185/55/R15 tires were up to the task of hugging every curve without hesitation or chirp. I ended up at Nick’s Cove on Tomales Bay, a perfect place to spend the night. This quiet, dog friendly inn is right on the beach with elegant little cottages and a serious restaurant featuring barbecued oysters, seasonal dishes and fine California cuisine. Their quirky boatshack is a unique spot to enjoy a Lagunitas IPA on draft while watching the sun set over the bay.
After a late breakfast I left Nick’s Cove and drove north past little farms and coastal grasslands into Sonoma County. I then veered back east along Bodega Highway toward Sebastopol, (superb Pinot Noir country) and parked at the popular Hopmonk Tavern. (A couple heading in stopped by my FIAT and couldn’t get over how adorable it looked.)
Hopmonk is an excellent place for a quick bite, leisurely dinner or to listen to some serious music at night, but on this day I merely sampled their best seller, the Hopmonk Kellerbier. A fine crisp pilsner in its own right, this unfiltered beauty really hit the spot. Hopmonk carries a tremendous array of fresh beers on tap including: Deschutes Chainbreaker White IPA, Lagunitas LIL Sumpin’ Sumpin, Duchess de Bourgogne Flanders Red Ale or New Belgium Mothership Wit. Ah well, if only there was more time and less road. There is also a nearly identical Hopmonk Tavern in the town of Sonoma.
We were now listening to “Vegas Baby” a collection of 60’s era big band tunes with singers like Sammy, Dean, Louis Prima and Bobby Darin. I hope the trees enjoyed the music. North again on 101 to downtown Santa Rosa, to experience the incomparable Russian River Brewing Company – home to Pliny the Elder. This is a company fully committed to the idea of Belgian style beers; both double and triple hopped monsters. Russian River is also quite famous for their magnificent IPA’s, Pliny the Elder and Triple IPA Pliny the Younger. What a great beer bar with amazing beers to be sampled.
Later, I drove about another half hour further north, past numerous well known wineries to the now upscale town of Healdsburg. The Bear Republic Brewing Company is known as the best brewpub around; the beers are OK but the casual vibe is what keeps people coming back. Their Racer X English styled ale was my favorite. This brewery seems fascinated by the old animated TV show, Speed Racer.
Though once upon a time extremely low key and rural, today, Healdsburg is considered a chi-chi town full of cute shops, wineries and wine tasting rooms, plenty of scintillating restaurants and upscale stores. That evening, the lodging destination was the uber swanky Hotel Les Mars, a Relais & Chateaux property, a sumptuous space to stay. We chose Willi’s Seafood & Raw Bar for dinner right around the corner, and was pleased with the fresh oysters yet again, small plates and wine list. (Hey, I’d had plenty of beer and needed a break.)
The next morning dawned bright and clear. It was Mendo Day, time to enter Mendocino County and do some driving. As we headed up 101 for a bit before turning northwest on Highway 128 (one of my favorites drives) the FIAT was purring so we rolled down the ragtop again.
About forty minutes later I arrived at Boonville, smack dab in the heart of Anderson Valley wine country, home to many fine wineries, and also the resident home to the superb Anderson Valley Brewing Company. Their cavernous tasting room is sort of weird actually, like an airplane hanger – but the beers themselves are the draw. Boont Amber is a classic ale, and even better at the source. I also tasted Brother David’s Triple Abbey Style Ale 10 percent ABV, a finely crafted, creamy Belgian balanced with elegant hoppiness. Incidentally, this is also serious Frisbee golf country, and they sell specially labeled Frisbee golf disks at the brewery.
I then took Highway 253, also called the Boonville-Ukiah road or Mountain House Road. Whichever name you prefer, the road ahead is still the same – a serpentine, mountainous path that stretches past stunning green meadows offering up sweet scents of honeysuckle and pine. We went by various tucked away vineyards and the occasional cow perusing life. The FIAT did fine through all the twists and turns as a Five for Fighting CD blasted, its power ballads cranking out of the car’s ample speakers.
I soon arrived at the important Mendocino Brewing Company’s Ale House in the little town of Ukiah. This was one of the very first craft breweries to operate in Northern California and is still going strong. Visitors enjoy many fresh brews like Blue Heron Pale Ale, the customary Red Tail and Eye of the Hawk Select Ale, a tasty, full bodied, dry ale that’s my absolute favorite. Peregrine Pilsner is a brand new fresh, clean pilsner – and one of the best pilsners around.
Turning south on 101, I merged on to Highway 128 on a diagonal south east track through Sonoma and then on to Napa County. Mostly a two lane highway, this wonderful road winds its way past the scenic farms and vineyards of Alexander Valley, then Knights Valley and ultimately to Calistoga. The little FIAT did great, zigging this way and that, sure footed all the way. About an hour and twenty minutes later we were in Calistoga and pulled up at the Calistoga Inn. Its outdoor beer garden/restaurant was busy, yet we were quickly able to find a seat. Calistoga Inn’s best is their dark red ale, a serious, heavy, malty brew. Lots of Napa winemakers hang out here.
About seven miles down Highway 29 is where I stopped at the Silverado Brewing Company, technically located in Napa Valley town of St. Helena. This brewery sits inside the site of the old stone building from 1895. The outside tables, although right on Highway 29 are an ideal place to meet friends, grab a bite and sample beers. Their hoppy Pale Ale is my favorite, with a nod to the Maibock, a Munich styled amber lager. We then headed for Goose & Gander, one of the most impressive new restaurants in Wine Country, inside the old Martini House space. All is very good at Goose & Gander particularly the irrepressible watermelon and rock shrimp salad. Also, ask for Fergus.
Soon we departed, across the valley this time, to the incredible Calistoga Ranch - a must visit if you can afford it. (And my little FIAT was a hit with the valets.) This hotel‘s accommodations are dramatic examples of indoor/outdoor living. Set in a bucolic pine forest, this is significant “bungalow” pampering for adults. Each and every design detail fits and works perfectly. I particularly enjoyed the private outdoor shower. With its wine caves, serene setting, Lakehouse private dining restaurant and attentive service, Calistoga Ranch is a Wine Country property with few, if any peers.
Admittedly I missed a few important Northern California Breweries, notably the Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma, Moylan Brewing Company in Novato, the North Coast Brewing Company in Ft. Bragg and Napa Smith in Napa. But that gives me (and you, gentle reader) a reason to go back for another round. So much beer and so little time.
— Bob Ecker
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