Golf In The Wine Country

By R.J. Smiley





Not the familiar beeping of my alarm clock… the wake-up call was an exotic, but not totally unfamiliar, barking sound. My eyes fluttered open darting around the room searching… searching for something familiar. The dark wooden ceiling? The pre-dawn, fog-shrouded light filtering through a gigantic picture window? What? Where? Ah! A point of reference, my sleeping wife’s face looking content and honeymoonish.

Like the skunk said when the wind changed, “It all comes back to me now.” That barking sound, itʼs those sea lions we saw yesterday competing with the seals for a meal of spawning salmon. The empty wine glasses on the small table beside the comfy overstuffed leather snuggle-chair. The huge picture window, it was our portal to the world. Because – there is no cell phone reception or television sets at the Riverʼs End in Jenner, CA.

Alas, it was our last morning in the wine country! Lying there, toasty warm with a bit of wine fuzz in my head, the television in my mind did an instant replay of our eight-day whirlwind trip. Four distinctly different lodging venues. Four golf courses each as noteworthy as a point of the compass. Three grape growing valleys as diverse as the wines that make them famous. Stir in a hot air balloon ride, a tram ride to a mountaintop vineyard, a mud bath, a potpourri of great food and a 107-room castle. Yes, the wine country offers a heterogeneous vacation smorgasbord.

My thoughts drift back through the trip planning: Medical conference for my wife, Bev, at the Fairmont, Sonoma Mission Inn in Sonoma, CA, the heart of the wine country. Then, my golf buddy and wine salesman friend, Tom, suggested that he might join us. We could expand the trip to include a few days of golf and some very special wine tastings opportunities that only he could arrange. Another golf buddy, Joe, an obvious lover of great food and good wine, got wind of our mid-winter plans and suggested that he and his wife, Sharon, could make it a foursome on the days that Bev was in class. They would drive up from their winter home in Tucson. We could spend evenings and days on both sides of the conference site seeing and wine tasting.

I still can’t believe the trip came together! My eyes smiled as I remembered Tomʼs quick wit entertained Bev and I as I navigated the rental-car through San Francisco. We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge toward the Napa Valley for our planed rendezvous with Joe and Sharon at the Sutter Home Winery. Tom had arranged lodging in the 1890ʼs vintage farmhouse style Sutter Home bed and breakfast. It was a perfect introduction to the wine country’s historic flavor. After a few bottles of fine Sutter Home wine (I loved the Zinfandel produced from the 100 year old vine grapes grown at one of their Home Ranch properties) and some munchies, we headed off to dinner.

Mustardʼs restaurant, reported to be a Napa Valley treasure, proved to be exactly that! The BMW atmosphere was Northern California perfect: upscale casual, designer jeans and starched shirts with Polo logos – socks optional. The wait staff was friendly, but all presented a cocky/slightly sarcastic attitude. They are definitely part of the show. The new-each-day menu was artfully created on the wall-sized chalkboard above the bar. Not wanting to take time away from beautiful-people watching, I let our sassy and very pregnant waitress explain the nuances of each entrée. At Miss Sassyʼs directive, we all ordered a different fare (to be shared liberally) as Tom navigated the extensive list of local wines, served by the glass. He did an exceptional job of pairing each succulent entry with a perfect wine. I recall the artfully prepared desserts with a satisfied smile.

The aroma of great coffee filled the air, like an old Folgers Coffee commercial, as day two began. The strong dark coffee was a prelude to the hearty country breakfast buffet. Thank you Sutter Home.

I remembered thinking that castles are not my thing (but the majority rules). As we approached Daryl Sattuiʼs Castello di Amorosa, Ken Fallottʼs Pillars Of The Earth came to mind as we were swallowed into the mammoth, 120,000 square foot, hand-cut stone creation.

“The walls have ears in a castle,” our guide had told us. Then he proved it by whispering next to the wall of the arched-stone ceiling storage room, only to be heard clearly by us standing against the opposite wall some 25 feet away. Even for a non-castle lover, it was a great experience, authentic in every detail.

Fast forward… Gail, the wine educator assigned to our group (at Tomʼs request) spent three hours giving us the full tour and history of the Trinchero Family and the Trinchero Winery (owners of Sutter Home).

Our little band of wine country gypsies raced across the Napa River that divides the valley to Silverado.

Johnny Miller and his investor group had recently purchased Silverado Golf Resort & Spa, with history that dates back to the 1870ʼs. The golf savvy group has big plans to bring the 1,200-acre property back to the glory days when Silverado annually hosted a PGA TOUR event and celebrity sightings were an everyday experience. God did the majority of the earth moving work on Silverado’s parkland courses and Rembrandt painted the mountain backdrop. Designer, Robert Trent Jones, Jr. added the finishing touches with large creative greens that were extremely fast and challenging.

Next our nomadic caravan maneuvered the switchbacks over the Sonoma Mountains past Mayacama Golf Club (a Jack Nicklaus signature course that allows some public access, which we did not play, but is reported to be one of the wine country’s best). Our destination was historic Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn. Our foursome spent two days playing Sonoma Golf Club, recently the venue for the PGA TOUR Champions season-ending Charles Schwab Cup. Research proved that the only way to gain access to the “very private” Sonoma Golf Club, is to become a member… or spend a night or two at the Sonoma Mission Inn.

I learned that Sam Whiting designed the classy old course in 1928. He worked under the guidance of the original owners of Sonoma Mission Inn. (Whiting is the architect of San Franciscoʼs prestigious Olympic Club Lake Course.) As we toured this exotic course we enjoyed the same panoramic views that distracted hickory-shaft golfers 80 years ago – Maya Camas Mountains to the east, Sonoma Mountains to the west.

Early the next morning we left for The Links at Bodega Harbor, aka “The Poor Manʼs Pebble Beach.” We drove west following the river toward the coast through beautiful valleys and quaint villages. About an hour later we arrived. I could feel the mist in the air from the eerie white fog that covered the golf course at Bodega Harbor, overlooking the Pacific Ocean west of Santa Rosa.

My perceptions of a Poor Manʼs PB were affirmed when we discovered that there is no driving range. The small putting green did not improve my mental image. When the starter, who proved to be very knowledgeable, suggested that we play the 5,900 tees, I thought, “Why did we drive an hour to play a goat ranch?” He told us that the course plays 400 to 500 yards longer than measured. As I lay there, I recalled my mind changing to complete respect when I needed a 3-wood for my second shot on the 395-yard, uphill first hole! As our round progressed, I remember thinking, how can each of these dramatic holes play into the wind and uphill? None of our golf gypsies group got a “true picture” of Bodega Harbor on the cell phones. The food in the grill was great, but the stories of whale watching and great white shark attacks on seals were even better.

Yes! Bodega Harbor is on the list of play-again-courses. Next time I hope to see a whale! With the conference over and Tom, Joe and Sharon headed home; Bev and I spent our last full day exploring the lower Russian River Valley west of Santa Rosa. Suddenly the flat screen in my brain took us back to the giant Sequoias that created a dark and mossy, winding tunnel with Highway 116 on the bottom. Our stop for gas and a snack in Monte Rio placed us in a time warp. The old river resort town, filled with hippies (before the days of legal weed), watched us with a suspicious eye as we explored the days-gone-by relics.

Curiosity made me pull into Northwoods Golf Course. The first thing I noticed was a big sign stating, “Northwoods is ranked as one of the best 9 hole courses in the U.S.”

The friendly staff informed me that in 1928 Alister MacKinzie (that’s right “THE” Alister MacKinzie who designed Augusta, Cypress Point and The Old Course) designed Northwoods. The golf course is routed through the giant sequoias along the Russian River. The course was created so the rich republicans, who make up the Bavarian Club, would have a place to play during their two weeks retreat each summer.

During our round at Northwoods we were dwarfed by the trees, enchanted by the history and amazed by the beautiful bunkering. I may never play it again, but this rare treat will never be forgotten.

Still snuggled in the warm bed, experiencing the dawn of a new day, I had recalled the past eight days. Now we were in Jenner, the century old, coastal, lumber and railroad town (population 107) that is the home of the Riverʼs End, the main reason people go to Jenner these days. Riverʼs End is a throwback to a time when people cared.

It is a family owned restaurant and old, but newly remodeled, cabins hanging on a cliff overlooking the sometimes angry mating of the Russian River and the vast Pacific Ocean. Our six-course crab dinner had been expertly paired with a variety of fine Russian River wines. Delicious! But not as good as the service from the attentive and experienced staff. Stuffed, we still enjoyed the finale – rich chocolate cake with molten fudge center and a glass of raspberry liquor.

Today, after a warm shower and long walk on the beach exploring the wildlife and watching surfers, we will travel the breathtaking Highway 101 back to San Francisco and home.

River's End in Jenner, CA