[By Richard Sheppard in Healdsburg, California] When I’m out on the road, my bike is an extension of myself. If it isn’t running well, I don’t feel well either. Over the holidays I needed some time off but now it’s time to fix my bike’s flat and get back on the road. Riding allows me to get the exercise I need while out sketching.
Rotating the tire, I easily find the culprit that I noticed before, a blackberry thorn. Removing the tire from the bike, I pull the inner tube out. Memory is a funny thing. I haven’t fixed a bike flat since I was a kid, but muscle memory is long, I think, as I scrape the tube with sandpaper, squeeze glue around the puncture. Thirty minutes later, the patch is in place, and a quick spin around the block assures a solid mount.
Riding across Memorial Bridge on Healdsburg’s south side, I stop mid-span to rest against the safety rail, gazing down at the Russian River. In winter months, Steelhead salmon migrate up this river to spawn. To increase their numbers, the water agency built a fish ladder to assist the heroic efforts of these fish to reproduce.
My wife and I live on the north side of Healdsburg. Even so, I’ve been known to exit the freeway early to drive this old truss bridge. During a deluge several years ago, flooding was predicted, and once there was a break in the storm, we joined a car caravan of curiosity seekers. Driving across, we gaped at the swirling waters just a few feet below. We still laugh when we remember our wide-eyed expressions and the way we held our breath.
Today, I coast to the bridge’s far side on Healdsburg Avenue until a left turn finds me on Limerick Lane. At the railroad tracks, a towering fan above Foppiano’s Sauvignon Blanc vineyard catches my eye, and I pull off the road and park under a row of eucalyptus trees to sketch. Dense morning fog has held in yesterday’s warmth, and now the sun breaks the mist, exposing the distant coastal mountains to the west.
Healdsburg averages over forty inches of rain annually, and so far this year we’re slightly above average. But on the days without clouds and the rains that accompany them, nights get extra cold and frost dusts the landscape in a blanket of powdery white. Although beautiful in the early morning, the frost doesn’t bode well for plants, especially early-budding grape vines. To protect the delicate buds from frostbite, many farmers use fans like Foppiano’s to capture the warmer air hovering over the cold. While popular with vineyard managers charged with protecting shoots from frost, fans aren’t a hit with neighbors as their motors sound similar to an airplane taking off. This is one reason why, closer into town, traditional water sprinklers are more often used.
Continuing on, my bike and I crest a steep hill to find Christopher Creek Winery. Looking west, a head-pruned vineyard slopes toward the Russian River Valley floor, the leafless vines create a chaotic thicket of canes amongst newly sprouted yellow mustard. Farmhouses, oak trees, and vineyards blanket the valley until the coastal range on the far side pushes skyward. There’s so much to see in Sonoma County, I wonder if I’ll ever experience it all.
After sketching Christopher Creek’s tiny tasting room, I head inside where Jerry and Carry greet me. They’ve got three Zinfandels, a Cabernet, and a Petite Sirah lined up across the bar. With my wine group’s next annual Zinfandel tasting just around the corner, I’ve come to the right place to prime my palate and possibly choose a wine for the event.
But even though Zinfandel is my focus, I can’t resist starting off with Catie’s Corner Viognier. The grapes for this wine are grown in this valley, Carry tells me. The wine’s crisp pear, lemon, and floral aromas remind me of a warm spring day.
Then I ask to taste the Zinfandels and Jerry sets down a second glass for a side-by-side tasting, one from the Dry Creek Valley and the other from the Russian River Valley. With a simple swirl of wine in the glass, the differences between the two are obvious. Jerry points to the importance of terroir as the factor differentiating the wines. The Dry Creek Zin tastes of raspberry jam, tobacco, vanilla, and black pepper. The Russian River wine reveals darker blackberry and plum fruits, and higher acidity, which would make a good food wine. Since I’m interested in cocktail wines that will stand alone, I choose to purchase the Dry Creek Zin.
I pack my wine purchases into my backpack and step out into the cool afternoon. With the sun now inching toward the horizon, I hop on bike, wine in tow, then coast downhill toward home.