Author: Daniel, Bert


Autumn is a great time of year here in Sonoma County. Downtown Healdsburg (and I mean "downtown" in the small town sense) is pretty quiet. The summer tourist crowds are long gone. But the major thoroughfares actually get even more crowded with the beginning of school in September. Not long after that the backroads start to hum with activity. I can hear the rumble of trucks outside my window, on our usually quiet road, every morning starting in the wee hours, well into October.

It's harvest time, crush as the locals call it. Everyone is in a hurry to get their precious grapes pressed into wine, once that perfect moment has come to gather the fruit and ferment their natural sugars into the cash crop on which the local economy largely depends.

Come on, I'll give you a tour! Bring your bike and an instrument. We'll go for a ride and pick some later. Hey, nice bike. Really, I mean that. Honestly, a thirty year old Schwinn will be fine for today's ride. Even if it looks like it hasn't been ridden for ten years and you haven't ridden for five. Those high tech carbon fiber/titanium bikes the locals ride would be overkill for the ride we're doing today. On the other hand, the instrument you brought is truly impressive. At least you have your priorities right.

Okay, tires are pumped. Let's go. The first part's downhill as we freewheel into the Dry Creek Valley. There's a layer of fog and it gets thicker as we descend. We're glad we have our jackets on. Hang a left at the Dry Creek Store onto Lambert Bridge Road. We've passed a couple of wineries already but none of them are open for tasting yet. They're busy trying to get a product made for the coming year. Come ten o'clock they'll probably hope nobody shows up at the tasting room to sample last year's product. They have enough to do now.

We keep pedaling over gently rolling terrain. Heading south on West Dry Creek Road we see a string of fellow bicyclists heading out from Madrona Manor. They're part of a tour group and they pay big bucks to come out here on their vacations to enjoy the cycling. We're warmed up and we pass them all easily, but not before chatting with them a bit and getting a lift from their excitement at being here. I'm sure Ohio is nice too.

It's all fields and vineyards now. A truck rattles by at a good clip. The driver's got empty bins and is hurrying back for another load to take to the crusher. Later a similar truck passes by very slowly, without a rattle. That one's full of grapes and the driver is trying very hard not to damage any of the precious load.

You have to be careful going for a bike ride during crush. It's certainly not for the squeamish. But it's worth it. You're not in a hurry. Whenever a truck approaches, just pull off the road if you feel the need for extra safety. And keep your eyes open. The weather is glorious this time of year, and by October, some of the grape leaves are starting to change color. You can see the same colors in the leaves that you'll see in the wine when you pop the cork next year.

It's interesting to look at the vines themselves as you ride along. They use all sorts of varieties of grapes in the wine industry here: Zinfandel, Cabernet, Pinot Noir,, Merlot, Sangiovese, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, just to name a few. Zinfandel seems to be king in the Dry Creek Valley. You see the old vines that look like small gnarled trees wherever you go. It's as if a bonsai master had spent his spare time roaming through the vineyards at night, just to make the fields look their most aesthetic.

The Cabernet vines are thinner and usually carefully pruned so that they grow along trellises which can be harvested efficiently. During crush you can see anything from huge combines sawing through the fields to skilled Mexicans with curved knives deftly moving through a vineyard filling crate after crate with wine grapes the company hopes to make into its next gold medal winner.

Hey, what's that resistance I feel on my tires all of a sudden? I hope I don't have a flat. You hear a sticking sound as you ride along. You look down and you see a dark stain on the road. It's grape juice, leaked out by truck after truck that has passed along before. Inevitably some of the juice squeezes out from each load just from pressure on the ripe grapes at the bottom. You might go for miles through such a juice road stain during the peak of the crush in Sonoma County. And when you ride by fields where the remains of crushed grapes have been deposited, you are overpowered by the smell of grape juice.

We turn onto my road and wheel up into my driveway. What a great ride! I fell so lucky to be living here. I can go on that same ride those Ohio tourists planned their vacation around any day I want to, right from my own driveway. Glad you could join me. Now it's time to pick a few tunes. What should we play?

(Well, I hate to disappoint you but you'll have to wait until tomorrow to find out). You see, this month has a third Monday which follows a second Sunday. That means I have to write columns on consecutive days. I'm not complaining. I love writing these columns. But you can bet I'm going to milk this idea for all it's worth! See you tomorrow. Hope you're not sore from our bike ride.
Posted:  10/14/2012

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