Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Wine Regions Of The World, Featuring Sonoma And Napa: What To Do, See, Drink

December 21, 2021 We talk with Karen Misuraca, an award-winning travel writer and author of Secret Sonoma. Season 1 Episode 47
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Wine Regions Of The World, Featuring Sonoma And Napa: What To Do, See, Drink
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

We start with memories of vineyards and wineries around the world , including in Europe, South America, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and the U.S. And then Lea and guest Karen Misuraca talk in more detail about Napa and Sonoma counties, wine regions in Northern California, outside San Francisco. 

We first discuss some differences, and then focus on what to see and do in Napa, the wines, and  some of the surprising things about Sonoma County.  

 We end with Karen's best memory of Sonoma County, which deals with some extinct animals you wouldn't expect in California.
Karen Misuraca is a travel writer, a member (as is Lea) of the Society of American Travel Writers, and author of Secret Sonoma.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter; PlacesIRememberLeaLane on Insta; on  Facebook, it's Places I Remember with Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.comPlease follow, rate and review this award-winning travel podcast!

And exciting news! Starting in  January 2022 -- we'll be dropping podcasts bi-weekly, on Tuesdays, and we'll be on YouTube every other week, starting mid- February, with travel tips/trips.

* Transcript edited for clarity.

Lea Lane  0:04  

Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world. 


Lea Lane  0:21  

A bit later in this episode, we'll be focusing on Sonoma and Napa in Northern California with our guest travel writer Karen Misuraca. But first, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember, and some of my most delightful travel memories or vineyards around the world. Yes, in my many years as a travel writer, I've not only been around the block, I've been around the vineyards, drinking in the beauty along with the wine. Let's start in Europe. One of my first wine region trips was to Burgundy France on my honeymoon many years ago. I remember driving a British Racing Green MGB roadster with a top down through gentle countryside covered in grapevines. But most of all I remember a six course meal in a historic town of Beaune, starting with a dozen garlicky, buttery earthy escargot and a glass of burgundy. I had never tasted a snail before. But since then, I usually order them wherever I see them on the menu. None have tasted as good to me without that setting and that great local wine. What's called in French wine-making terms terroir is derived from the Latin word terre meaning earth or land. It was originally coined by the French to express a wine's sense of place and there's no English equivalent. You just feel it when you're in a wine region and you don't easily forget it. 

Years later in France, I would travel to Provence where rosé is produced, and I drank it cool overlooking the Mediterranean and along the northwestern French coasts, visiting famed wineries such as Petrus and Chateau Margaux. I remember pasta and sipping wine alfresco among the hills of Tuscany. We talked about that area of Italy with Steve Perillo in Episode 13. And I've visited vineyards in northern Spain along the sea near the great foodie city of San Sebastian, and we talked about them in Episode 17. And then it was Austria with wine taverns near the Danube and along country roads, a chance to sign outside or a pine branch or wreath around a burning light to show that it's open. The Austrian name for wine tavern comes from the Austrian expression for this year's wine and came into existence by order of the emperor in 1784. Since then, much has changed but the local wine taverns maintain a cozy atmosphere, regional specialties and local wine.

And I remember vine clad slopes along the Moselle and Rhine as l glided by in a riverboat drinking German wine picked from those same vines only a few years before. And you know where else is really good red wine? Bulgaria. I visited some small wineries there about 15 years ago. In South Africa, the wine-growing area near Cape Town is exceptionally beautiful, with mountains framing the valleys. The most important South African wine regions are around the towns of Stellenbosch and Paarl. Wine ranges from stunning blockbuster reds to full bodied Chardonnay and crisp refreshing Sauvignon Blanc. The towns are like stage sets, and that's the pleasure of wine regions, the food the beauty and the arts and the charming towns. I remember the many wine dogs and their vineyard owners that I met in New Zealand in the Marlborough area where the great Sauvignon Blanc is produced. And I remember staying at a lodge on a vineyard outside of Melbourne, Australia. Through my window when I awakened, kangaroos were jumping around in the distance like giant rabbits.

One of the world's newest destinations for viticulture la ruta del vino is in the mostly rural center of Mexico and your San Miguel de Allende known for year round spring like weather and backdrops, Evergreen cacti and gorgeous haciendas. In South America, Chile and Argentina are known for exceptional red wine, along with gauchos on ranches and great slabs of beef to enjoy with a powerful wine. In the States. I've visited vineyards in Virginia and upstate New York or in the Finger Lakes with their excellent whites; in northern Michigan, and even North Florida where a winery produces blueberry wine. Rocky Ozark soil and long hot summers provide ideal grape growing conditions in Missouri. Locals call it Rhineland but the industry crumbled during Prohibition hampered by anti-German sentiment following the world wars. Over the past decades. It's returned with American varietals and local grapes taking center stage. Hermann, west of St. Louis is home to numerous wineries like Stone Hill, and the Herman Wine Trail one of 11 trails in Missouri features award winning wineries, restaurants, museums, and Bed and Breakfast Missouri native George Hussman helped put Napa California on the map for winemaking. The Missouri River Valley was capital of American wine long before Napa was a household name, which leads to our focus for this episode. Some of the greatest wines in the world are produced in Northern California, about an hour's drive from San Francisco in delightful, Napa and Sonoma counties. And you don't need to enjoy wine to make it a destination. Joining us now to discuss the area is Karen Misuraca. Her new book is Secret Sonoma, A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful and Obscure. Welcome, Karen, to Places I Remember.


Karen Misuraca  5:38  

Thank you, looking forward to it.


Lea Lane  5:40  

Well, I'm delighted that we're both going to be talking about Sonoma and Napa, which are neighboring counties. What do you think are the biggest differences between those two counties?


Karen Misuraca  5:50  

Well, some people say that Sonoma County is 30 years behind Napa County, which is kind of nice, because we're I live in the town of Sonoma, which has a Spanish era plaza and Victorian buildings all around, and adobes. It's a very small town, almost a village and wonderful, but it is it's more of a world-renowned, world famous destination. So it's very different and we are full of history full of quirky characters and oddball destinations. We are the home of the father of the California wine industry. However, he was a Hungarian count. He led a wagon train to California in 1849. He was in the State Assembly, he ran the San Francisco Mint and then he decided in 1857 to find a way to VISTA winery, which is the oldest commercial winery in the state. And the Buena Vista winery is probably the most romantic and historic of all the wine regions. Sonoma Valley still today, and the count in a Top Hat frock coat still walks around the plaza in Sonoma, spinning tales of the early days of the wine country. The author Jack London who is celebrated in Jack London State Park,  he did a lot of experimentation with wines and had a wine. And this time of the year in Jack London State Park and across the valley here, the miles of vineyards are vibrant, flaming red and gold. So it's really a great time to be here.


Lea Lane  7:37  

I walked that park, I didn't even have a car. One of the great things about the destination is it's so close to San Francisco, we just took an Uber and it dropped us off in Glen Ellen and we just stayed in one of those lovely bed and breakfasts and walked on the main street and walked over to the park and visited some of Jack London's haunts. And that was a terrific vacation without a car; you can walk through much of this area because the villages are so interesting themselves. And I think Sonoma is more laid back than that. But that's one of the qualities. It's much bigger. Tell us how far does it reach?


Karen Misuraca  8:12  

Well, as you probably know, we have a world famous rugged seacoast on the Pacific, the Russian River Valley. Yeah, and the Sonoma Valley. Santa Rosa is the main city. And then there are small towns all around. We bloomed when San Francisco, the city of San Francisco, was being built. That's when we started to grow here, also in the railroads brought people from San Francisco up here. And they established vacation cabins and it came up for the hot springs which still exist in Kenwood actually, where the Pomo Indians used to gather and then railroad passengers gathered in that Hot Springs Resort is still there and you float around in hot, hot water. Lots of history here, we have a whole gang of roadhouses from the Gold Rush era, each one and they're still you know, stomp it on Saturday night at the road houses and they all have their own story. One of my favorites is called the Washoe House, and it used to be a hangout of miners and gamblers and highway men and women of colorful repute. So they say, upset by Lincoln's assassination in the 1860s, militia men got on their horses and their wagons and headed out from Petaluma to Santa Rosa where they were going to set fire to the Santa Rosa Democrat newspaper which was favored during the Civil War. And after several hours of being on the road they stopped for libations at Washoe House, the roadhouse and still is. They settled in at the bar. And that's as far as they got. And so the papers called it Battle of Washoe House, that never happened; you can go there, and you can look up on this huge ceiling, and see all kinds of memorabilia and dollar bills and photos and all kinds of crazy memorabilia.


Lea Lane  10:21  

Well, this area has so much to it. And that's why everyone loves it. It's so popular. It's not just the wine. But I'm going to talk a little bit about the wine in Napa, because it's one of the greatest wine regions of the world. How many wineries would you visit in a day? What do you think is optimal?


Karen Misuraca  10:37  

Number one, what I would do, especially in Napa Valley, is make appointments; you don't have to be anybody special to have an appointment at a winery, it really, really helps. And you get a lot fewer people and kind of a higher quality of winery. So I would say, oh, boy, if you're gonna spend some time there to do a tour or short tour and enjoy them, because they're so beautiful, three or four is a lot you know, with lunch in between.


Lea Lane  11:05  

And you want to enjoy it, you want to not rush. This is one of the things that makes it so special. It's that slow travel we talked about. And if you want to swallow it, rather than spit it out -- there are ways now: you get a designated driver or you get an Uber, and it's wonderful. You drink it, you don't have to spit it anymore. So let's start a little bit about Napa. And then we'll come back to Sonoma at the end with some of the more interesting, quirky things that you've discovered about it. So the Napa Valley is one of the great regions of the world. It has over 400 physical wineries, over 800 different wine brands, and 95% of them are family owned. It has Michelin restaurants, spas, and all those good things. What is now called the Judgment of Paris was when a California wine, Chateau Montelena, Chardonnay and Stag's Leap Wine Cellar’s Cabernet Sauvignon, were put to a blind test where they completely dominated over world renowned French wines. And that's the moment California wines got themselves on the map, and were taken really seriously as the best of the best. According to a study in 2014, from the International Wine and Food society, Napa Valley is responsible for over 50 billion towards the American economy and over 300,000 jobs. So its rise to fame from the  Judgment of Paris has shot it through the roof for a small winery area. And also, it's beautiful. It has beautiful vineyards at different elevations anywhere from sea level to 2600 feet. And the most prominent grape is the Cabernet Sauvignon. There are others as well. But 40% are cabs. So what can you do in Napa besides drinking wine? Well, it's much smaller than Sonoma, but there's still lots to do. You can play bocce. That's a very popular thing to do. In some of the towns, you can fly in a hot air balloon. You can take the Napa Valley Wine train, you can go to the Rosa Center for Contemporary Art. And there are five main towns, the American Canyon is the first that you come out of from San Francisco and that's very good for affordable housing. And very close to family fun. There are lots of kid friendly attractions nearby. The town of Napa is the biggest, it's about 80,000 people. You can walk around downtown there, you can paddle in Napa River. In Yountville, there are some fabulous luxury accommodations and some great Michelin restaurants including the French Laundry. You can wander across the street to the culinary gardens of French Laundry if you don't go in to eat there. And there's also an artsy side to it with lots of art walks and so forth. St. Helena, well that has a beautiful Main Street, you have Beringer and Charles Cruise Winery. And you can just enjoy the CIA, the Culinary Institute there, for demonstrations in a really interesting old 19th century building. And Calistoga, well, that's a town with a lot of vineyards. And as you mentioned in Sonoma, there are some geothermal Hot Springs, there are lots of spas, and it's just a lovely place to go and walk around. So that's kind of Napa. Tell us a little bit about Sonoma in terms of the interesting things that you feel we wouldn't otherwise know, you have 84 things in your book, for me strange, so give us give us a couple.


Karen Misuraca  14:24  

Well, one of the very lesser known surprises in Sonoma County is the largest privately owned Museum of Star Wars memorabilia in the world, in Petaluma of all places.


Lea Lane  14:36  

Was that because George ....


Karen Misuraca  14:39  

A former employee of the whole Star Wars world over many years collected incredible memorabilia from original costumes and movie props and movies and collectibles, mostly from the late 70s through mid-80s to a very popular place if you know about it; you will not see it. You have to call and make an appointment and then they tell you where they are. So that's a real surprising outcome. And I would say another undiscovered attraction was undiscovered to me and I'm from here, up above Sugarloaf State Park, beautiful place in Sonoma Valley is the largest reflector telescope in the Western US. And it's a whole observatory, and they have wonderful stars on beautiful clear nights. And people go up there and look through the big telescope, astronomers are lined up with their telescopes, and it's something very unique to do that. 


Lea Lane  15:40  

I can only imagine if you've been drinking wine all day, on the mountain, you'll probably see all kinds of things.


Karen Misuraca  15:46  

Lots and lots of things for kids to do. 


Lea Lane  15:49  

I heard it that goes someplace supposedly with ghosts. Oh, yes.


Karen Misuraca  15:52  

In fact, the ghosts, well, we have tons of ghosts. But there's a hidden hillside of ghosts at Buena Vista winery in Sonoma. And you're walking into this gorgeous forest in order to approach the winery, and up on the hill you see these sort of misty figures and they're all maybe 15 figures up there, including father of Mission San Francisco is up there and the count. The old Luther Burbank horticulturist, all the historic figures of Sonoma County are on this ghostly hillside as you walk into Punta Vista but lots of history here of our main attractions is the Charles Schultz museum where Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang were born and are still here. All Peanuts characters, huge museum movies, displays of all the cartoons the Peanuts characters: Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Schroeder all the gang are all over the county. And in my new book, Secret Sonoma, you'll find the locations and learn to see them. They're out at the airport greeting you as you arrive in Santa Rosa. And there are shopping centers. They're of course all over the county and it's really fun. Your larger than life size figures.


Lea Lane  17:19  

Well, you mentioned in your book, some unusual wildlife besides Charlie Brown figures, what would that be?


Karen Misuraca  17:26  

We have so many microclimates here, and we're near the coast and we have mountains and valleys. We have a lot of different wildlife. Of course, we have whales that migrate off the coast. But we have such things as a wastewater plant or outflows completely treated into an incredible bird sanctuary where you can walk all through and watch the migrating birds. It's the most beautiful place to see the wastewater plant over there. 


Lea Lane  17:53  

That's happening all over the country. By the way, wastewater plants have become refuges. I know in Delray Beach, Florida near where I live, it is a magnificent, you know, repository of all kinds of wildlife, including alligators and birds. And it's just become the thing to do to go to the wastewater plant. Wonderful idea.


Karen Misuraca  18:13  

And well, actually a world famous place here. Speaking of wildlife, just about in the north end of the Napa Valley. It's called Safari West and it is laid out on kind of plains and foothills that look just like Africa --  hundreds of gorgeous African plains animals just wandering out there and you go into a safari vehicle and you drive all through that, tropical birds and snakes and it's like being in an African zoo, basically. And it's a once in a lifetime activity.


Lea Lane  18:49  

Well, you mentioned in your book, something about the Little Shop of Horrors, the flesh eating plants, yes. of wildlife. 


Karen Misuraca  18:56  

Yes, I did mention that and it used to be until I wrote the book, popular destination during the pandemic they closed permanently and you can only go online and order carnivorous plants that will, you don't want to put your finger into them. And that was a charming place.


Lea Lane  19:13  

Maybe soon. You also mentioned about beer lovers that flocked to Sonoma County. Why is that? 


Karen Misuraca  19:21  

Well, the Russian River Brewery in Sonoma County is, I would say, world famous for it. It's when do you the Elder and Pliny, the younger brews which it comes out with once a year, very limited. People come from all over the world literally. And they stand in long lines, thousands of people in order to get, you know, one bottle or one six pack or whatever, have it. Pliny the Elder are plenty of the younger wonderful, very unique brews, that cult, you know, cult brewery fans, they literally come from around the country.


Lea Lane  19:57  

Well, sounds like Sonoma candy or beer. 


Karen Misuraca  20:01  

Oh, yeah, many, many breweries here, for sure.


Lea Lane  20:04  

Well, it sounds very much like Sonoma is a great place to visit whether or not you drink wine. But if you drink wine, it's even better. So Karen, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. Can you give us your best memory of Northern California area that you live in? Or maybe your favorite secret of Sonoma County?


Karen Misuraca  20:23  

My favorite secret I would say, oh, one of my favorite secrets is out on the coast at Goat Rock, a pile of rock with a beach and everything, very beautiful. If you know where to look, you will see long scratches in the stone above the beach. And what they are is Ice Age mammoths, woolly mammoths with their tusks used to scrape along they used to scratch their back in their chest, right along the Goat Rock Beach in the ice. So that's something that you fall into, without the book Secret Sonoma, I'll never find that.


Lea Lane  21:01  

I would never. I've been there and I don't think I noticed that. I'm going to go back. Good excuse. Right. Well, thank you very much, Karen Misuraca, author of Secret Sonoma, for sharing memories of these wonderful regions. I raise a glass to you. Cheers. Oh, thank you. Very fun. Bye bye. Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.


Intro -- Lea's memories of vineyards and wineries around the world
Napa and Sonoma, some differences
Napa, what to see and do
Sonoma, what to see and do
Karen's best memory