There is a fine art to wine and food pairing — the notes and tones of the right wine will bring out the flavors of a dish, and the balance of sensations in a dish will affect the taste of the wine. There is a similar art to pairing the right outdoor activity with the right drink. A cold can of beer is the perfect end to a hot day of climbing (In my opinion, the cheaper the beer the better). A heartier microbrew is best enjoyed from a beach campsite mid-rafting trip on the Trinity. I personally find wine to be a cyclist's drink of choice. There is something very elegant about sipping from a stemmed glass while wearing padded shorts, surrounded by grape arbors.
Napa and Sonoma have built an entire industry out of pairing cycling and wine tasting. Companies in the area deploy fleets of tourists, equipped with laminated winery maps. The last time I was in Healdsburg, I took my brother and father on a self-guided bike tour of the wineries there. We spent a full day tasting and riding through rolling hills and along the Russian River. As we finished up, riding through the Armstrong Redwoods, I thought, "There's got to be a way to do a winery tour in Humboldt on bikes."
It turns out this idea was a little complicated. The wineries in Northern Humboldt are tucked into picturesque locations, but none are close enough to be strung together for a day of cycling. So I picked up a Humboldt Wine Association map and realized that Southern Humboldt has four wineries stretched between Myers Flat and Shelter Cove. After checking the mileage, I decided to visit the two westernmost wineries, Whitethorn and Briceland vineyards, and round out the trip with a stop at the tasting room at Persimmons Garden Gallery in Redway.
My friend Sergio Herrera, who is a serious biker and wine drinker (the man dropped words like "umami" and "notes" during our trip), came along with me. Sergio is the wine curator for the Humboldt Bay Tourism Center, and he put me in touch with the owners of the wineries (disclosure: The center is affiliated with the North Coast Journal). The owners were incredibly gracious about hosting us on a Friday afternoon. My husband (and Sergio's co-worker), Jon O'Connor, agreed to drive shuttle. He dropped us off at our first winery and met up with us at each tasting.
Sergio started our tour in a small tasting room hidden in the back of the Whitethorn Construction lumberyard. Winemakers Tasha McCorkle McKee and her son Galen Doherty guided us through barrel tasting and then a tasting of their luscious pinot noirs. Whitethorn sources its grapes from Anderson Valley, Carneros and the Sonoma Coast. McKee works full-time for the Sanctuary Forest in Whitethorn, a community land trust that manages 10,000 acres. As we tasted the pinots, she showed us the 2013 guided hike schedule. Sergio and I took notes on future hikes, had our last sips and nibbles of cheese and bread, and loaded up (a few bottles heavier).
The first 2.7 miles of the ride are exposed and uphill. The incline isn't punishing, but it's a steady, hot push up Shelter Cove Road and onto Briceland Thorn Road. The hill doesn't let up until the Ettersburg junction. There we turned right toward Redway and coasted downhill for a few miles. Briceland Thorn Road is the main road between Shelter Cove and Highway 101 and there is often no shoulder, so if you bike it, expect to share the road. On our trip, the drivers who passed us were exceedingly polite, even on the tight turns.
The remaining three miles were rolling hills — short, wind-sprint climbs followed by fun descents. We coasted into the town of Briceland and turned left off the main road, half a mile past the Briceland sign and up a short, steep gravel road to Briceland Winery.
Sergio and I were shocked to discover it had only taken us 35 minutes to ride from Whitethorn. Since we were ahead of schedule, we were able to linger on Briceland Vineyard's grounds. Winemaker Andrew Morris greeted us at his gate with a tray of cheese, crackers and homemade paté. We guzzled water while we bragged about our record time, which Andrew indulged good-naturedly.
We relaxed in the dappled sunlight, tasting chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah. Briceland Vineyard specializes in producing wines from locally grown grapes, and its wines are mainly distributed from Benbow to Trinidad. Andrew learned the art and science of wine-making from his stepfather, Joe Collins. The vineyard is home to Andrew and his family, who also grow organic vegetables and raise chickens and pigs on the land.
Sergio and I paced ourselves with our tasting, knowing we still had several miles and more wine ahead. Andrew suggested we stop for a swim at Redway Beach, midway to our next tasting. This was not a tough sell.
We turned left out of Briceland Vineyards back onto Briceland Thorn Road and rode five miles along more rolling hills. The road turns through Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and we had the exquisite experience of cycling beneath the redwood canopy. This stretch of ride was beautiful, cooler and easy. Just past a stop sign on the left side of the road, we turned left onto Oakridge Drive. We rode about a half mile toward the beach, passing the historic summer homes of the Eureka elite. Redway Beach is a gorgeous pebble beach along the Eel River, and it was the perfect mid-ride swimming hole.
From the beach, we coasted the last mile into the town of Redway. We rode Briceland Thorn until it ended, and then turned left onto Redwood Drive. Three blocks later we turned into the oasis that is Persimmons Garden Gallery. Persimmons is a café, gift shop, music venue and tasting room in Redway. When we arrived a Latin jazz band was setting up on the outdoor stage for the evening show. Persimmons serves light fare (salads, crêpes, dessert) and a selection from Whitethorn, Briceland and Elk Prairie wineries. The outdoor seating area is beautifully landscaped, and we lingered over more Briceland wine and a delicious dessert crêpe. Just as twilight set in, we got back on the road.
While we had considered driving back to Eureka, as the sun set we weren't ready for our adventure to end. Fortunately, the Benbow Inn had rooms available. Sergio got back on his bike for the final 5.4 mile descent to the hotel. I was too beat to cycle anymore, so I rode shotgun in the truck. We all met up at the Benbow Inn bar, where we had one last drink and snack and congratulated ourselves on a job well-done. That evening we watched the river flow from the terrace, appreciating the afterglow of our winery cycling adventure.
Our Whitethorn-Benbow route was 18.6 miles long one-way, with significant elevation gains and losses. It is possible to do the route as an out-and-back, or you can get a buddy to run shuttle for you like we did.
• Whitethorn Winery: Tasting by appointment only. Call 986-1658 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Plan to book an appointment one week in advance.
• Briceland Vineyards: Tasting room open on Friday or by appointment. Call 923-2429 or email email@example.com. Plan to book an appointment one or two days in advance.
• Persimmons Garden Gallery: Open Wednesday-Friday, 4-11 p.m. Call 923-2748.
• Benbow Inn: The hotel has rooms, suites, cottages, RV and tent sites. You can request a tent site on the river, which is bike friendly and only $35 a night.
• Humboldt Underground Bicycle Repair: Is available for emergency roadside assistance if you break a chain or get a flat. Call 923-1000. Open Tuesday through Saturday from 10-4 p.m.