Northwest Of Napa, A Road Less Traveled

With its lush carpet of vineyards bracketed by soaring mountain ranges, Northern California's Napa Valley richly deserves its reputation for stunning beauty. But Napa isn't exactly undiscovered: On weekend days, traffic clogs roads and tour buses fill winery parking lots. Just 30 miles away, though, lies a grape-growing valley with fewer tourists and wines every bit as fine.

Spreading northwest from the town of Healds-burg, the Dry Creek Valley offers visitors lush, if less dramatic, scenery and a growing selection of high-caliber wineries. Best of all, its small scale and slower pace make it ideal for bicycle touring.

For a perfect day trip from San Francisco, hop in the car and head up U.S. Highway 101. About an hour and 15 minutes north of the city is Healdsburg, a booming agricultural town of 10,000. It has been upscaled in the past decade by wine wealth and creeping yuppiness, but is still largely free of cloying boutiques. In the town center is a lovely park rimmed by stores and restaurants. If you need to rent bikes or pump up tires, you'll find a bike shop called Spoke Folk just off the plaza on Central Street. Bikes of all sizes cost $25 a day, including helmet and day pack. On weekends, reservations are highly recommended (707 433-7171).

Before heading out, explore the plaza and throw together a picnic. Make the Downtown Bakery & Creamery on Central Street your first stop and stoke up on whole-wheat currant orange scones. The best coffee around is served one block north at the Flying Goat Coffee Roastery Cafe. For a good map, go to Toyon Books on the square's south side and pick up the Guide to Northern California Wineries ($3.95). Then head over to Oakville Grocery, a new outpost of the Napa Valley delicatessen, for cheeses, meats, breads, and salads. Grab some bottled water, too. It can get quite hot riding through vineyards.

Now that you're provisioned, cycle north on Healdsburg Avenue. Five minutes from the square, you'll come to Dry Creek Road. Turn left and ride under the Highway 101 overpass. From here on, you're in the countryside. Of the valley's two main roads, Dry Creek Road is the more heavily trafficked. But it also has wide shoulders and a smoother surface. A leisurely 45-minute ride will take you to Lambert Bridge Road. Turn left, and two minutes later you'll spot Dry Creek Winery. Set back from the road behind a lush copse, it has ivy-covered walls and a handsome tasting room. The winery is best known for fume blanc--another name for sauvignon blanc--but also produces pinot noir and zinfandel. The regular fume blanc has a fresh, flinty taste and costs $11.50 a bottle. Dry Creek also sells a pricier reserve fume that has undergone partial malolactic fermentation, the process that gives chardonnay its distinctive buttery quality. A tasting-room worker called it "a wine with an identity crisis," but its blend of grassy and butterscotch tones is enticing.

Between tastings, nibble on chunks of bread and browse the low-key gift shop. Dry Creek limits visitors to four free tastings, but the rule isn't strictly enforced. It also offers an unusual self-guided walking tour of its vineyards. If you visit in September, you'll see grapes just before the harvest. Unfortunately, you can't tour the winemaking operation. If you buy wine there or anywhere else en route, you can pick it up later in your car. Most wineries offer a 15% discount on full cases and can ship to 29 states.

BLIND CURVES. After a few minutes to clear your head, return to Lambert Bridge Road. A left turn will put you back on route, and after a three-minute ride, you'll come to West Dry Creek Road, the narrower and less-traveled thoroughfare. The meandering road is far more pleasant for cycling, but its blind curves demand alertness.

Turn right on West Dry Creek for two destinations in quick succession. The first is A. Rafanelli Winery, a small family-run outfit that makes cabernet sauvignon and zinfandel. Advance reservations are required for visits (707 433-1385), but it's worth a trip. A short driveway lined with roses and redwoods curves up to the tiny tasting room. There, you can sample Rafanelli's full-bore zinfandel ($21) and get a winery tour from the third-generation proprietor or one of his daughters. Next comes Quivira Vineyards, a new winery in a striking modern building. Quivira's Fig Tree Vineyard sauvignon blanc ($14) undergoes malolactic fermentation, giving it a creamy, vanilla quality. The fruity, jammy zinfandel ($20) is, in the words of a tasting-room clerk, a "drink-it-now zin" that you can enjoy without an accompanying slab of beef.

Continue north on West Dry Creek Road and start dreaming about a picnic lunch at Preston Vineyards--the sweetest spot in the valley. The five-mile ride through the vines should take about 45 minutes. An oasis surrounded by grapes, Preston features a simple tasting room, picnic tables under an arbor, two boccie courts, and a big vegetable garden. Owner Lou Preston, an affable man with wire-rim glasses and a beard, also has taken up bread-baking, though his production is intermittent. In perfect Northern California style, he keeps the schedule on his Palm Pilot.

Preston makes eight wines, including six varietals and two blends. Three are outstanding deals: a delicious marsanne ($11), a rose blend Vin Gris ($9), and a fine red blend called Faux ($11). After sampling the selection, grab a bottle of chilled Vin Gris, borrow some wine glasses from the tasting room, and settle in for a long picnic under the arbor.

On your ride back, consider a brief detour for sheer theater. Cross the valley on Yoakim Bridge Road, just south of Preston, and ride a few minutes north on Dry Creek Road. On your left is Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery--a little bit of Las Vegas. Famous for its chardonnay, the grandiose winery, built in the style of an Italian villa, has rows of cypress trees and gorgeous flowers. After your wine at lunch, you can probably skip the $2.50 tasting, but the gardens are worth a look.

Return to West Dry Creek Road over Yoakim Bridge and turn left for the 90-minute ride back to town. West Dry Creek runs into Westside Road; turn left, pass under Highway 101, and you'll soon be back at the plaza. If you're not totally exhausted, you can pass some time checking out Healdsburg's antique stores before grabbing an early dinner at a local restaurant. The amusingly named Bistro Ralph, right on the square, is Healdsburg's finest. You'll need to book a table (707 433-1380). For more down-home dining, you might want to fill up at Taqueria El Sombrero, next door to Spoke Folk. It's an authentic Mexican joint with sublime, ice-cold ceviche.

Before you hit the winery road, a few words of caution are in order. Wear a bike helmet and sunscreen. Be careful on West Dry Creek Road. And above all, ride sober. If the wine starts going to your head, take a break and enjoy the scenery. It's so dazzling that one bike trip through the valley may persuade you to take early retirement and devote the rest of your years to wine country living.

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