With easy access to attractive scenery and first-class wineries in Northern California’s wine country, we sometimes forget that the back roads on the edges of the Napa and Sonoma valleys and in Lake County offer great drives for their own enjoyment. And, of course, some of the best spa resorts and restaurants in the world can be found along these roads.
Mercedes-Benz USA representatives were well aware of that when they scheduled their recent introduction of the 2012 CLS550 four-door coupes to stateside automotive journalists.
Although we have lived within a few hours’ drive of many of these locations for the past 30 years, the manufacturer’s scouts managed to chart a route along some enjoyable roads we had never driven. And despite the unseasonably heavy rain that marked one of our three days in the region, the new CLS550 we tested provided a sure-footed and luxuriously pleasant way to travel.
Our base of operations for the event was the Bardessono Hotel, Restaurant and Spa (www.bardessono.com), which manages to maintain a rural atmosphere while set in picturesque downtown Yountville. The Bardessono is distinctive for its use of rustic textures and materials as the basis for its interior and exterior design.
It boasts a comfortable bar and lounge, first-rate restaurant and in-room spa services for guests.
The new CLS550, combining sleek modern lines with traditional styling cues, looked great in that setting.
We weren’t there just for the amenities, as nice as they are – we were there to drive. Following are the back roads and stops we enjoyed in the CLS550 – not a turn-by-turn tour guide, but rather the key points, each worthy of exploring for its own merits, even if you don’t drive the 150 miles as we did.
The Bardessono is situated between the two major Napa Valley routes, the St. Helena Highway (Highway 29) and the more picturesque Silverado Trail. North of Napa and Yountville, these two roads intersect Highway 128, one of California’s great driving roads, which winds westward from St. Helena to meet Route 1 just south of Mendocino.
But the Mercedes GPS system sent us the opposite way on Highway 128, east along the south edge of Lake Hennessey to connect with Pope Valley Road. This route winds north through Las Posadas State Forest in the hills east of Napa Valley, eventually turning into Butts Canyon Road in Guenoc Valley. The lovely Guenoc Valley, a relatively new regional wine appellation, is also known as “Hidden Valley” for a reason.
It was raining hard during our morning drive, but the CLS550 was more than up to the task, confident on the wet and curvy pavement.
Our first refreshment stop was Langtry Estate & Vineyards (2100 Butts Canyon Road, www.langtryfarms.com), the centerpiece of the Guenoc Valley appellation, with vineyards dating back to 1854. The winery is named for famed British actress, socialite and paramour to royalty Lillie Langtry. She owned the property from 1888 to 1908, and her house is still there and open to visitors.
The winery is located in an unassuming building with an attractive tasting room adjoined by a terrace overlooking the valley. Although we weren’t drinking alcohol (Lillie claimed her wine was the “greatest claret in the country”), the view and refreshments were intoxicating enough. A Langtry Petit Sirah was served at dinner that evening.
From the Langtry Winery, we drove north and west to Lakeport, our objective the Hopland Grade (State Highway 175). Originally constructed in the early 1920s, it is one of the steepest and most difficult to drive of any California state highway. Our route organizer said it’s simple to find a good drive in California – all you need to do is look for a road that has “Grade” in its name. By this time, the sun had come out and we could enjoy the scenery as much as we enjoyed the feel of the powerful and agile CLS550.
The Hopland Grade climbs up and west out of the Clear Lake valley and connects with Hopland on Highway 101. Going south on 101 takes you back into the heart of Sonoma wine country. We left 101 just south of Cloverdale on Dutcher Creek Road, which connects with Dry Creek Road, a winery area west of Healdsburg that preserves its rustic charm. One can easily spend days in this area, exploring the wineries and scenery on Dry Creek, Westside, Lytton Springs and River roads between 101 and the coast.
Our lunch stop was the nearly secluded De La Montanya Winery and Vineyards on Westside Road at Foreman Lane (www.dlmwine.com). In the winery, built to look like an aging barn, they offered tastings of some wonderful old-vine Zins, Pinots and their latest pride, a Gewürtztraminer. The lovely rose garden and picnic area next to the winery were as pleasant as their hospitality.
From Westside Road it’s an easy transit into Healdsburg, and from there any number of routes can take you back to Yountville if you want to make a complete loop. Otherwise, River Road along the Russian River out to the coast offers more hours and miles of driving pleasure. Or you can head south on Highway 101 and be home in a few hours.
Whichever route you choose, if you’ve got a car that’s pleasant to drive, take a day, a weekend or even a week to visit the back roads of wine country. The driving and scenery are as world-class as the wine.
Longtime Los Altos residents Gary and Genie Anderson are co-owners of Enthusiast Publications LLC, which edits several car club magazines and contributes articles and columns to automotive magazines and online services.