Guerneville: A River Runs Through It. And Sometimes Over It.
Words by Jules Older. Photos by Effin Older.
Guerneville, California. It floods. And floods, and floods, and floods. Even now, it’s still replanting, rebuilding, re-opening from its most recent flood which, in February 2019, poured four feet of water over Main Street.
While it’s indisputably true that floods cause heartache and destruction, they also have an upside; when the water recedes, it leaves behind a layer of minerals and soil that enriches fields and vineyards. And both Guerneville and the surrounding Russian River Valley in northern California’s Sonoma County have a wealth of fields and vineyards.
Guerneville has also experienced another kind of flood, and that, too, has left layer after layer of enrichment in its wake. This flood’s cultural, not aquatic.
First, the region was home to the Pomo Indians, creators of reed baskets, unparalleled for their elegant beauty. Then came the farmers who grew apples, plums, and dozens of fruit tree varieties inspired by Luther Burbank. With them came the loggers who cut down the valley’s mighty redwood forests. Next, vacationers who took the now-long-gone train up from San Francisco for a rural respite from the cool, gray city. Then the hippies, then the gays, and today, the vintners and harvesters, coopers and tasting-room pourers — the wine people.
You can see the layers left by each of these waves in Guerneville today. They’ve all left the place more fertile and vastly more interesting.
Let’s start with the local tribe, the Pomo. To learn about them in the most interesting way possible, drive west from Guerneville to tiny Jenner, where the Russian River flows into the Pacific Ocean. You’re taking the morning kayak tour with Suki Waters, proprietor of WaterTreks EcoTours.
In addition to being an expert on water safety and kayaking, and a protector of nature, Suki is a member of the Kashaya Pomo tribe. She takes you to her family’s long-abandoned family farm on an island in the estuary, then guides you paddling past harbor seals, sea lions, otters and other aquatic mammals sunning themselves on nearby beaches. It’s an unforgettable day. Here’s Suki, the Kayak Queen.
After your kayak morning, treat yourself to lunch at Café Aquatica, a shack overlooking the river’s mouth that serves the tastiest sandwiches, freshest clam chowder and richest cup of coffee on the northern California coast. Enjoy the view and savor the flavor.
While grapevines have replaced carrots and apples on many farms, the Russian River Valley still grows much of the produce served in high-end San Francisco restaurants. As for the loggers, for an immersion into what greater Guerneville was like before they came, visit Armstrong Redwoods State Park and walk among the tallest trees on Earth, the towering coast redwoods. It’s a lesson in ecology served up with a feeling of peace. And a sense of history; coast redwoods live for close to 2,000 years.
Family vacations? The River Road, which runs through the heart of Guerneville, features everything from campgrounds to the highest-end accommodations. An example of the latter is the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. Its restaurant sports a Michelin star, raises its own hens, harvests many of its vegetables, irons its Michelin-worthy tablecloths. A very nice room will set you back somewhere between a bit under $600 and something over $1600 a night. Sleep tight.
For hippies, gays and other tribes, stroll down Main Street.
Visit the art shops, the vintage clothing store, Boon and Big Bottom Market restaurants, the Rainbow Cattle Company (particularly on Giveback Tuesdays). You’ll see hippie/gay/bohemian/outrageous culture firsthand. And maybe share a hippie/gay/bohemian/outrageous drink or meal.
At Boon, order the Moroccan carrots; at Big Bottom, the signature biscuits. Your stomach will thank your mouth. And while there’s nothing wrong with their desserts, give them a pass and stroll down the block to Nimble & Finn’s Homemade Ice Cream and Pies for enticing, exotic meal enders. Both the ice cream and the pie are homemade by Leandra and Jazmin, the sisters who created the tastes.
Which brings us to wine. While the 180+ wineries in the Russian River Valley’s 18 appellations produce more than 60 varietals, the combination of soil and fog and ocean breeze favor two above all the rest. The top two?
Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
As you sip your way through the tasting rooms, your palate will fine-tune; in a surprisingly short time, you’ll hear yourself talking about acidity and appellations, austerity vs. fruit-forward, big nose and French oak.
Must you be a connoisseur to enjoy Russian River wine tasting? Hardly. For a naif’s experience, check out The Vineyard In Your Glass.
Jules Older’s ebook of travel disasters is DEATH BY TARTAR SAUCE: A Travel Writer Encounters Gargantuan Gators, Irksome Offspring, Murderous Mayonnaise & True Love