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Tours with a Twist: Wine Country road trips with something decidedly different

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Is there nothing new to do in Wine Country?

Whether you are entertaining visitors for the harvest season or simply seeking a break after a long, boring summer, we have dug up a few offbeat options aimed at reinventing the staycation.

You can take a vegan wine-

tasting tour through Sonoma — who knew, right? — that stops to pet the animals at an animal sanctuary. The tours attract folks who are simply health-conscious, so you don’t actually have to be a card-carrying vegan.

Then there is a 14-person party bike in Healdsburg that wheels off on a historical and architectural journey as well as the more party-friendly wineries and bars. Unlike the Midwest party bikes, you can’t actually drink on this people-powered vehicle, but it still looks like a really good time.

Finally, for oyster, bread, cheese and seafood lovers, explore the wildlands and waters of West Marin and West Sonoma County with belly-busting bites and refreshing sips, plus insider access to some of the region’s most popular hot spots.

For lucky locals, the summer’s not ending ... it’s just begun. Don’t forget to pack your sunscreen!

La Belle Vie Vegan Wine Tour

Rachel Greif and Oscar Patino were eagerly looking forward to their trip to California. There would be stops in L.A., a drive up the coast through Big Sur on Highway 1, several days in San Francisco, a week in Yosemite and tasting in the world famous Napa/Sonoma Wine Country.

But Greif was close to despair after several days searching for vegan-friendly wine tasting.

When she finally ran across Michelle Rulmont’s La Belle Vie Vegan Wine Tour in Sonoma, she literally broke down.

“I cried,” said the 34-year-old banker, born in Uruguay and now living in Panama with Patino, a real estate agent.

“Not all wine or beer are vegan. People might not know that. I found this tour and it was perfect,” she said.

Greif was so excited she woke up a sleeping Patino with the news that she would be wine tasting in Sonoma after all.

On a recent Friday, the couple was happily being nuzzled by a friendly pig named Petunia at Charlie’s Acres, a Farm Animal Sanctuary in Sonoma, one stop on a day-long adventure through Sonoma from The Carneros up to Glen Ellen, escorted in Rulmont’s Mercedes Sprinter van.

The specialized tour was launched several months ago by Rulmont, whose La Belle Vie offers custom and private wine tasting tours. Rulmont gave up all meat products herself a year and a half ago after taking up the Veganuary challenge in January 2018.

But not all wine is vegan. Some winemakers use animal products in the filtering process. It can include blood and bone marrow; casein, a milk protein; chitin, a fiber from crustacean shells; egg albumen from egg whites; fish oil; gelatin, a protein from boiled fish parts; and isinglass, fish bladder membranes.

But some winemakers opt for more fining agents that don’t use animal projects, such as carbon, bentonite clay limestone, kaolin clay, plant casein, silica gel and vegetable plaques.

Rulmont said some wineries use plates and at least one winery in Napa Valley uses crystals for filtering. Some wines aren’t filtered at all.

Not all tasting rooms are even aware of what filtering processes are used, so those who are concerned, should ask, Rulmont said.

On this day she takes her two guests to Bouchaine Vineyards on the Napa side of The Carneros, where they feast on marinated tofu and falafel pita sandwiches with potato salad and a salad of kale and zucchini. Rulmont brings by bars of vegan dark chocolate to nibble while tasting.

“It’s really delicious,” Greif declares, while sipping a special wine not on the regular tasting menu made from grapes grown on the terraces above the winery. The guests will be taken up there for 360 degree views all the way to Mt. Diablo to the east and Mt. Tamalpais to the west.

Veganism is no longer considered an extreme diet followed only by radical animal rights advocates. Vegan cheeses and meats and other products are found at places like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods, and vegan options are showing up on the menus of better restaurants.

Greif said she tried it after suffering a mysterious immune disorder that resulted in a painful skin condition that doctors couldn’t figure out. Within a week of giving up animal products, she said the problem began to clear up.

“I met a winemaker at a pour, and he has his wine all over the country,” said Brian Allard, manager for Bouchaine. “He said, ‘I put a V on my wine, and it doubled in sales.’ So there’s a market out there for vegan wine and whether it’s being purchased by a vegan or not, doesn’t matter.”

Rulmont said she was surprised to learn her first vegan wine tasting tour group wasn’t even vegan.

They said they were health conscious and were attracted to the prospect of visiting Charlie’s Acres, a bucolic farm animal sanctuary where each animal has a name and a personality.

Greif and Patino got to visit residents like Martha, a broad breasted white turkey who was rescued from Thanksgiving dinner in 2011, and a disabled goat who, because of a neurological disorder, can’t walk. On this day he is testing out a new set of training wheels.

The tour will end at Schermeister Winery in Glen Ellen, where winemaker Robert Schermeister is passionate about his process, which also includes fermenting the fruit using only yeasts that are already in the vineyard.

“I do want people to feel like anyone could come on the tour. It’s not just for vegans,” Rulmont said. “The hard part of my job is to get people to leave Charlie’s.”

Meg McConahey

Bike Healdsburg

The latest and greatest way to go wine tasting in Healdsburg is aboard a 14-person party bike.

The bike belongs to a 1-year-old tour company appropriately named Bike Healdsburg — a family-owned operation with deep ties to the community. Currently, the company offers eight tours daily, and four different options in all.

There’s a morning exercise tour, a daily history and architecture immersion, a wine- tasting and nibbles excursion and a bar crawl.

The one thing all tours have in common: They require guests to pedal (at least a little).

Though party bikes are popular in other cities across the country, this is the first party bike in Healdsburg. According to co-owner Jessica Pilling, the experience is unique because it fosters a group dynamic and enables visitors to experience the town together — whether they know each other beforehand or not.

“People are going to come to Healdsburg and do these kinds of tours anyway, so they might as well just do them on a bike,” says Pilling, who uses the title Chief Fun Officer. “You’re facing each other so it’s really conducive to talking as you go.”

All tours begin in the City Hall parking lot. Pricing ranges between $20 and $99 per person.

Without question, the two most popular tours are the wine-tasting and nibbles excursion and the bar crawl. The wine tour stops at three wineries around town. On most days, the three are Grapeseed inside the Paul Mahder Gallery downtown, Sapphire Hill and Spicy Vines. Winemakers handle tastings personally at all three stops, and guests receive charcuterie, brownie bites and other delicious nibbles as they sample the wines.

The bar crawl, on the other hand, hits up four places in just over two hours; John & Zeke’s and Duke’s are givens, and the Bear Republic Brewing Company usually makes the list, too. This tour frequently concludes at the Young & Yonder spirits tasting room across from the City Hall parking lot.

The other two tours are designed for guests with a taste for the outdoors, history and culture. The exercise tour is an hour-long pedal session that rides from the heart of town across the Healdsburg Memorial Bridge and back; the history and architecture tour winds around town and ends at the Healdsburg Museum so guests can get a closer look at some local artifacts.

“A bike of this size is a great way to learn about the city,” says Pilling, who married co-owner Chris Pilling this month. “You can see everything!”

While wine and food are included in the price of the wine-tasting tour, guests must buy drinks separately on the bar crawl. You can’t drink onboard the bike (the City of Healdsburg doesn’t allow for guests to drink or smoke on the bike in between stops) — a real bummer since the bike looks like a bar on wheels.

With all these options to imbibe, it’s always reassuring to know the bike has a motor for when guests get overheated — or just plain drunk — and that the average speed of the bike rarely exceeds 5 mph (with motor, it sometimes gets up to 8 mph).

Matt Villano

Food & Farm Tours’ Flavors of West Marin

Food & Farm Tours owner Alex Fox and tour guide Kate Quilici — both natives of Marin County with deep knowledge of its people and history — lead a small group through a five-hour Flavors of West Marin tour, delivering lots of delicious bites and hugs to friends along the way.

The tour starts off in mid-morning at Cowgirl Creamery in Point Reyes Station with a sampling of five pastries from nearby Bovine Bakery, followed by a flight of eight artisan cheeses made by the famous cowgirls, Sue Connolly and Peggy Smith.

After picking up a loaf of wood-fired, sourdough bread from Brickmaiden Breads and cleansing palates with iced chai from Bovine Bakery, Fox and Quilici ferry the group to Hog Island Oyster Co. where everyone can tear off chunks of bread to dunk into the chipotle- butter barbecued oysters and oysters on the half shell with Hogwash.

But those bites are just a warm-up to the family- style lunch — fish tacos, smoked salmon plates with fromage blanc and fresh seabass sandwiches with fries — that gets enjoyed outdoors at The Marshall Store, a stone’s throw from Tomales Bay.

“People get stressed out about not getting enough fries,” Fox said. “But trust me, you won’t even need to eat dinner.”

Of course, anyone can arrange to go on this moveable feast on their own, but in the tight-knit community of West Marin, having locals lead you around and share the inside scoop — including history, geography, politics, agriculture and mariculture lessons — gives you deeper insight about how the region has managed to incubate a wide array of successful food businesses.

Along, the way, the tours provide the lay of the land for outsiders while opening conversations with locals. They also offer easy access into popular spots that might be off-limits otherwise. At Hog Island Oyster, for example, reservations at both the Boat Oyster Bar and Shuck-your-Own Picnic Area need to be booked three or four weeks in advance for a Friday through Sunday, Fox said.

After lunch, the West Marin tour stops by the Heidrun Meadery tasting room for refreshing sips of some unique, sparkling meads — made just like champagne, only with honey instead of grapes — and a peek at the production barn, where founder/mead maker Gordon Hull bottles up his latest quaff, the Oregon MeadowFoam Blossom Sparkling Mead.

A former brewer for Lost Coast Brewery in Eureka, Hull initially wanted to start his own brewery, but after experimenting with the natural flavors of honey fermentation, he decided to pursue mead instead.

“Because of the extraordinary flavor of the honey — it’s the nectar of the flower — I thought there was enough interest in honeys to explore and reveal that,” Hull said. “With the garden here, why not show the entire, ecological cycle of what we do? You can drink our mead and watch a bee sucking nectar from flowers.”

The tour concludes in mid-afternoon at Little Wing Farm, a small vegetable and flower farm in the shadow of Black Mountain that is owned and operated by New York City native Molly Myerson.

“We sell 99% of what we grow here at our farmstand,” Myerson said of the honor-system stand on Point Reyes-Petaluma Road. “Last year, I was surprised at the demand for flowers, and I had a hard time keeping up with demand. This year, I planted a half acre of flowers.”

After getting a tour of the farm — and tasting some sweet, SunGold cherry tomatoes — the group returns to Point Reyes Station in the company’s spacious Ford cargo van. The West Marin adventure would continue for at least two of the participants.

“We’re here for a week, and I wanted to see what’s around the town,” said Andrew Merskin of Palm Springs, who was staying in Point Reyes Station with a friend. “We wanted to do this first to spot all the places to go to.”

One of the big “finds” of the tour — shhhh, it’s still on the q.t. — is that after 19 years, Brickmaiden Breads founder Celine Underwood has opened a retail storefront next to the bakery. So in addition to the “Bovine Loop,” weekend bicyclists can now make the “Brickmaiden Loop” for fresh loaves of sourdough.

“Food & Farm Tours was launched in 2012. Fox, a resident of Sebastopol with an MBA in Sustainable Enterprise, joined the business as a partner in 2016. Now the sole owner, she has been enjoying expanding the business further into Sonoma County and will be adding more producers and tours regularly.

The company started off with three options: Flavors of West Marin, Cheese Lover’s and Oyster Lover’s tours. Since then, Fox has added a Sonoma County Distillery Tour and a Farm to Table Cooking Class, held at various venues.

She also gives custom tours in west Sonoma County, making stops at hot spots such as Wild Flour Bakery in Freestone, Monte-Bellaria di Californi (a lavender, olive and bee ranch) in Sebastopol and McEvoy Ranch in Petaluma, with lunch at Coastal Kitchen at the Dillon Beach Resort.

“People are craving a connection with the outdoors, and people are craving a connection with nature,” she said. “We hope to inspire people to make different food choices.”

Diane Peterson

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