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(Re)visiting the Far Sonoma Coast


I first went to the far Sonoma Coast more than 20 years ago while I was researching my first book for University of California Press, A Wine Journey along the Russian River.

The premise of my book was based on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (or, if you like, the film Apocalypse Now): a journey along a river, leading to a climax. So it only made sense to explore the remote, far western reaches of Sonoma County, where the Russian River meets the Pacific, at Jenner, in a fury of tidal Götterdämmerung.

The Far Sonoma Coast was then building up a reputation for fine wine, especially cool-climate varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and I wanted to understand more. This is an out-of-the-way part of Northern California, far from freeways and population centers. It’s also, if you’ve never been, a land of preternatural beauty. Physically, it resembles Big Sur, with mountains immediately inland of the narrow, winding coast road, great jagged cliffs to the west and, below, hundreds of feet down, pristine beaches limned by thundering surf, where sea lions bask in the fog. Up on the mountains are dense forests of Redwood. A few farmers make a living in the clearings, running sheep, goats or cattle. Twenty years ago, vineyards were just beginning to appear, as growers realized the potential for making great wine, but over the last two decades, the pace has picked up considerably—along with the price of land.

I thought it would be nice to share some pictures of this wildly beautiful land. Here are two I took early one morning while walking Gus, at Timber Cove. A fierce winter storm had roared through overnight, but now it was gone, leaving high surf and clean, alpine air. In the first picture, the sun was just rising. I took the second about 20 minutes later.


The area where it’s safe to walk ends abruptly. On this day, the ground was muddy and soggy from rain, so I had to make sure neither Gus nor I fell to an untimely end!

Gus enjoyed sniffing in the weeds and grass.

We headed south down Highway 1, the coast road, around mid-morning, but we didn’t get very far before we had to stop for a while! This is their turf, not ours!

Above Fort Ross, the vista really opens up.

Fort Ross (“Rossiya”) was where the Russians built a fortress, around 1813, when they owned the area. They had been trying to build up a colonial empire in North America, just as the Spanish and British had. But the climate was so cold and wet, the winter gales so powerful, the land so inhospitable for crops, that they eventually gave up and retreated back north to Alaska, which, of course, they later sold to America.

This is another view from Fort Ross.

One of my main goals in visiting the region was to find the spot where the freshwater Russian River meets the salty Pacific Ocean, near Jenner. Here it is.

You can see the narrow little opening in the coastal sand where the river squeezes through (or, at high tide, where the ocean flows through).

I highly recommend a visit to this part of the Sonoma Coast. Winter is my preferred time, because there aren’t many tourists. You can stay in Jenner, or, further to the south, Bodega Bay, where there’s a greater choice of accommodations. The Timber Cove Resort is also nice, although it’s pretty expensive. The wineries and tasting rooms are a longish, tortured drive up into the coastal mountains, mostly along narrow, twisting and sometimes harrowing roads that are little more than fire trails. Believe me, some of the best Pinots and Chards in California are coming from these parts!

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