California Highway 128 — the wine road least traveled
A little over 25 years ago I came to live in Winters. Wandering on numbered country roads, I kept getting lost until my husband taught me to find my way home. “Find the sun,” he said. “Find the sun, then find west. You’ll be looking at Blue Ridge. Find the notch in Blue Ridge and go home.”
I soon learned that the road leading through the notch in the ridge was California Highway 128, the eastern portal to the Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino Wine Country, with a little western Yolo at the beginning.
California 128 starts in the middle of the overpass at the Winters exit on I-505. From there it runs west through the notch, officially the Berryessa Water Gap, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The whole route, which is a dramatic slice of California landscape, is lined with wineries, dozens and dozens of them, and dotted with other intriguing stops.
The trip begins on the western edge of Yolo County, starting in downtown Winters itself where you’ll find Rootstock, Turkovich Family Wines, and oft-quirky Main Street Cellars. Just west of town, on California 128 are Berryessa Gap Winery and Berryessa Brewing Co. The highway passes the outermost reaches of walnut and prune orchards to climb toward Lake Berryessa and the ridge that divides Yolo from Napa County. At Monticello Dam, the dramatic uplift of rock geologically illustrates two tectonic plates meeting, the Pacific Ocean floor sliding under the Great Valley sequence.
Fishing and swimming coves are tucked here and there amidst great views of the lake and the many boats at Markley Cove. Further on, the peaceful road is lined with oak trees draped with gray green Spanish moss. After Moskowite Corner and Capell Valley, the highway climbs out of oak savannah through bluish serpentine rock dotted with digger pines. One would be remiss to not stop at Turtle Rock Café, at the Knoxville Road, for fresh egg rolls (burrito size) and great atmosphere.
At the top of the grade, the beginning of Napa’s century old magnesite mining district, is Somerston Winery with jewel-like vineyards in both Elder Valley and Soda Valley, both farmsteads since the 1840s. A few miles on is Nichelini Winery, the oldest family-owned winery in Napa County. Its zinfandel has been well-known to Sacramento valley folk for many, many decades.
Dropping down several hundred feet out of Sage Canyon, the famed Napa Valley is spread before me, with its rolling hills and valley floor covered with vineyards, and a winery, it seems, every hundred yards or so, without ever leaving California 128. Across the valley and north through St. Helena, I might make a quick lunch stop at Tra Vigne’s Pizzetta or Gott’s Roadside, depending on the line, or simply Dean and DeLucca’s to load up provisions for a picnic.
On north past Calistoga, then, at the base of Mount St. Helena, Highway 128 climbs up the valley wall over the Mayacamas range, crosses the Sonoma county line and drops into Knights Valley. Knights Valley, protected from Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay influences, is the warmest valley in Sonoma County, with about 2,000 acres of vines, and is well-known for its Bordeaux variety grapes, especially Cabernet Sauvignon and Meritage blends.
Further on, California 128 passes through the tranquil Alexander Valley, home to dozens of wineries of grand repute. Grape cuttings from Fort Ross were first planted here in 1843. Now there are about 15,000 acres of grapes in the valley and 26 wineries, with about 18 of them immediately along California 128. The warm climate promotes full ripeness, so the wines from here are richly flavored, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonay.
If I’m feeling the need of a snack, I’ll stop at Jimtown Store for one of their oatmeal cookies and coffee before turning toward the Russian River. However, I have to remember that at Geyserville, just over the river, Diavola Restaurant lures me with its Beef Tripe alla Fiorantina, eclectic pizzas and a glass of wine to match.
Lunch aside now, from Geyserville, California 128 and 101 overlap for about 10 miles, running north through extensive vineyards alongside the Russian River until 128 exits west just past Cloverdale and now I’m heading straight for the ocean. From the floor of the Russian River Valley, Highway 128 twists and hairpins up quickly to a 1,200 foot summit that is the Mendocino County Line. This is the Yorkville Highlands, with about 500 acres of vines, mostly reds and predominantly Cabernet Sauvignon, grown at 1,000 to 2,200 feet on thin, gravelly soils. There are 11 wineries, all family-owned, to sample here before California 128 starts to descend into Anderson Valley to follow the Navarro River to its mouth.
I don’t always make it straight to the coast, however, stopping instead to spend the night at the Boonville Hotel and have the prix-fixe dinner and local wines at the hotel’s 128 Restaurant. It is also difficult to pass up Anderson Brewing Company. Or, I might stop a little further down the highway in Philo, to stay at The Apple Farm, in one of its six high-design cottages set amidst bucolic apple orchards.
From Boonville through Philo to Navarro there are about 26 wineries along the highway. The Anderson Valley climate is heavily influenced by the Pacific Ocean so it is a cold growing region, ideal for Pinot Noir, and for crisp sparkling and Alsatian wine. Scharffenberger and Roederer Estates make exemplary sparkling wines and the other tasting rooms will quickly acquaint you with the characteristic crispness.
The stretch of California 128 from Navarro to the coast is marked green on the roadmap, designated by Caltrans to be exceptionally scenic. I find that true. The road twists through heavy redwoods, thick ferns, and bubbling creeks for 10 miles, then the forest opens to a wide vista of the Navarro River meandering to the edge of the continent. The crashing Pacific Ocean is just minutes away.
California 128 ends in the west where it meets California 1, just short of the ocean. Now I turn north on Highway 1, drive up and across the cliffs and over the towering bridge at the Albion River to the Albion Inn, perched on the cliffs above the ocean and check into a room with a view. I sit, savoring the sea air and watching the birds whirl and swirl and the fishing boats coming into the harbor far below, before heading for a sunset dinner at the Inn’s restaurant overlooking the Pacific.
I’ll make more stops again on the way home but there are so many places to visit on California 128 that I can plan many trips and not duplicate myself. For me, it is a never-ending adventure, close to home, yet far away.
(Reprinted with permission from Edible Sacramento Magazine)