With the onset of late spring and midsummer heat, coastal fog beckons, and what better way to enjoy a short getaway than to head north? If you haven’t yet (or recently) navigated this gorgeous two-lane highway, you must give Highway 128 a go. Traversing the back roads from Yolo to Mendocino, the road passes through small towns and tiny hamlets such as Winters, Rutherford, Geyserville, Cloverdale, Boonville and Philo, while bisecting larger wine regions of Napa Valley, Alexander Valley and Anderson Valley. Large and small wineries, shops, cafes and stunning vistas are ready to be discovered. Further west, the road cuts through magnificent old growth Redwood Groves that dwarf everything in sight. Ultimately, Highway 128 ends in Mendocino on the craggy Northern California coast. Like a slice of New England, Mendocino and surrounding small towns are foggy, rugged and hauntingly beautiful, with great mom and pop seafood restaurants and charming small hotels and B& B's.
Ideally driven in a sleek sports car, fast luxury vehicle or by motorcycle, I was lucky enough to demo a shiny Lexus GS 350 FSPORT, painted a sleek Matador Red Mica.
The killer of a luxury sedan is in some ways like a powerful BMW, only sexier, more reliable and affordable. The F SPORT was wearing Bridgestone Potenza 235/40/R19’s supported by beautiful 5 spoke alloy wheels. The 3.5-liter, fuel injected V6 six seemed sluggish at first, (I was driving the automatic version) but it soon found its rhythm and together we made a precise, fast, road handling team.
I began my journey in the tiny Yolo County town of Winters. I popped into one of my all time favorites, Chicago’s very first CD, and cranked up the Lexus’ 17-speaker, 835-watt surround sound Audio system. It sounded brilliant and the car was rocking.
Winters, a happening little town (population around 7,000) lies in the middle of agricultural territory, growing walnuts, almonds and alfalfa, and plenty of vineyards. This little slice of Americana has blossomed to include trendy restaurants, wine tasting rooms and shops. The most popular restaurant in town is the superb Buckhorn BBQ & Steakhouse (awesome steaks); Ficelle and the Putah Creek Café, and the Preserve Public House & Market, which is generating a buzz. The Turkovich Winery tasting room is the best winery in town—try their excellent red blend called “The Boss.” Or check out Berryessa Brewing, an enjoyable brewpub. For some shuteye, try the Inn at Park Winters, a very nice Inn just outside of town.
Into Napa County
Heading west, you’ll pass the currently full Lake Berryessa, and then on to the back roads of Napa County. Unlike the Napa Valley itself, it’s mostly a rugged, sparsely populated area. 128 pops into Napa Valley at Silverado Trail near Rutherford. If you’re hungry, the Rutherford Grill is an ideal stop, reasonably priced and known for their rare “No Corkage” policy. Back on the Silverado Trail, if you can swing it, stay at the Calistoga Ranch (an Auberge property) which offers a luxurious place to “rough it” for the night. The Calistoga Ranch’s accommodations are dramatic examples of indoor/outdoor living, set in a bucolic pine forest. I particularly enjoyed the private outdoor shower. With its wine caves, serene setting, Lakehouse private dining restaurant and attentive service, Calistoga Ranch is an amazing property with few, if any peers.
Meandering Through Sonoma County
Next up, Highway 128 runs through Calistoga, and then continues northwest through Sonoma’s beautiful Knights and Alexander Valleys. The navigation system worked well and the voice command (I called her Sheila) got most, though not all of the directions correct. This part of Sonoma County conjures up a serpentine path passing stunning green meadows with sweet, strong scents of honeysuckle and pine. Alexander Valley is Sonoma’s Big Cab country. Try one of the many wineries such as Soda Rock Winery or Hawkes. Alexander Valley Vineyards presents a fascinating tour, and samples of many good wines (Their “Cyrus” is a standout). Trendy Healdsburg awaits just a few miles west is a huge array of excellent restaurants to sample. Vallette is a favorite and The Chalkboard is another fine place to dine. In Geyserville, another fun little town, Diavola is a great lunch stop producing fabulous pizzas. Time permitting; try the over-the-top Francis Ford Coppola Winery, complete with memorabilia and a swimming pool.
Boonville and Philo
After joining up with Highway 101 for a few miles, 128 juts off at Cloverdale and heads to the coast. In the heart of Anderson Valley wine country, arrive at Boonville, home to many fine wineries, and also the Anderson Valley Brewing Company. Their cavernous tasting room is sort of weird actually, like an airplane hanger—but the beers themselves are the draw. Boont Amber is classic ale and I also enjoyed Hop Ottin’ IPA. Incidentally, this is also serious Frisbee golf country, and specially labeled Frisbee golf disks are sold at the brewery. Boonville has its own underground language called Boontling, which goes back some hundred and thirty years. “Tons of people still speak it,” said Scott Fraser of nearby Handley Cellars. A few locals nodded their heads silently. For a lovely place to settle in for the night, the quaint Boonville Hotel answers nicely—every room has a hammock on the balcony and its Highway 128 restaurant is outstanding.
Just a few miles and you’ll hit the tiny town of Philo. Chock full of tasting rooms, I suggest visiting both Witching Stick (Ask for Van) and Toulouse Winery for some outstanding Pinot Noirs. Others worthy wineries in the area include Benicia-owned Bink Wines, with a local tasting room, and Goldeneye, Lula Cellars and Handley. Back in the Lexus, it was time to hit the coast. Listening to Peter Gabriel, I hit the gas as giant redwoods closed around me. I stopped to gape at these Tolkein-esque behemoths, some taller than three hundred feet and over two thousand years old. This truly is a stunning drive. Finally arriving at the Mendocino coast, the topography changes radically to Monterey cypress, oaks and coastal pines mixed with beach grasses. The road winds around the Navarro River with the majestic Pacific stretching infinitely west.
Arriving in Mendocino & Fort Bragg
Mendocino’s a somewhat counter-culture haven; the shops, cafes, galleries and old Victorian houses clinging to the cliff. Good restaurants include the MacCallum House Restaurant, Café Beaujolais, with The Little River Inn and Wild Fish, offering tasty meals up the road in Little River. For a humbler good time, try Patterson’s Pub—the place to go in Mendocino for beer, conversation and decent pub grub. An exceptional place to stay in the area is The Brewery Gulch Inn, set back on a bluff overlooking the ocean. What a view! And superlative breakfasts too.
Ft. Bragg is the largest town in the area. It’s a hardy place with a cool coastal vibe and the residents, used to coastal hardships and plenty of fog, wind and rain, are very friendly. Restaurant choices include Point Noyo Restaurant, Django’s and Mayan Fusion, all producing cuisine using fresh local ingredients. And don’t miss the North Coast Brewing Company of Red Seal Ale fame. It offers a hopping, family dining and beer tasting atmosphere.
Back in the GS 350, I headed back the way I came. After sampling the coolness of the coast, giant redwoods, meeting people and generally enjoying Highway 128’s largesse, I rolled into my driveway and shut down the Lexus. What a ride, what a tour.