You’re engaged and thinking wedding. Marilyn Monroe and scenic beauty tug you toward the idea of nuptials amid a worthy backdrop close to home. You set your sights on Prospect Point in Niagara Falls State Park.
But when it comes to the honeymoon, you want something farther afield. Something that still smacks of romance but will give you a chance to savor that first week or two after the Big Day.
Here’s an idea: Sonoma County, the more relaxed, intimate side of California wine country.
You’ll also want to strongly consider making home base a place that has ties to both Niagara Falls and the 1950s: the Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa in Santa Rosa, Calif.
“Wine country’s the best part of the state,” said Dan Brown, a Falls native and director of sales and marketing at the Flamingo.
Brown cut his teeth in the hotel business at the Howard Johnson Hotel in Niagara Falls. From there, he went south, grabbing a hospitality and management degree and Florida International University. He trained five years in the Hyatt Hotel management program and landed in California in 1982, where he worked up and down the coast for two decades before he got to the Flamingo 10 years ago.
“It’s fun to work in a family resort,” he said.
The original owners stole the name from the more famous Flamingo hotel in Las Vegas, considered an iconic lodging in the late 1950s. Those owners also seem to have stolen the look from a 1950s Catskill Mountain resort. Its rooms and grounds have been modernized, but the pool, hot tub and décor continue to give it a retro feel that has drawn Jayne Mansfield, Cate Blanchett, Billy Bob Thornton and other Hollywood celebrities over the years.
I made contact with Brown by chance while preparing for my first trip to California with my girlfriend earlier this month. It included stops in San Francisco, Yosemite National Park and Sonoma and Napa valleys
I booked the Flamingo as a 3.5-star “Mystery Hotel” on Expedia.com and got a discount rate of $99 for two weeknights earlier this month. Rates generally run $119 to $149 weekdays and can top $200 on summer and fall weekends, Brown said. That’s still a relative bargain in the hotbed of the American wine industry.
Brown underlined the wisdom of staying in Santa Rosa, which is a half hour from many of the top winery clusters in California – Geyserville, Healdsburg, Forestville, Kenwood and Glen Ellen in Sonoma County, Calistoga and St. Helena in the Napa region – and less than an hour from Bodega Bay and the Pacific Ocean.
“You’ve got some pretty drives, too,” he said.
There’s also more to Santa Rosa than wine.
The city – which has a walkable downtown that looks like it was sliced in part from a Mexican piazza, in part from a many a western city’s hip commercial strips – plays home to two craft breweries: Third Street Ale Works and Russian River Brewing. Russian River’s offerings include Pliny the Elder double IPA, one of the popular brews in some of Buffalo’s new craft beer dispensaries.
Guy Fieri – who has traveled to Grover’s in Amherst, Sophia’s in Kenmore and Lake Effect Diner in Buffalo, among hundreds of other U.S. spots for his Food Network show “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” – owns two restaurants here, including Tex Wasabi’s, known for sushi.
“Peanuts” cartoon creator Charles M. Schulz lived in the community for many years. A museum that honors his work, and displays much of it, also is among tourist offerings.
We made pit stops at Russian River Brewing and Tex Wasabi’s, but we were here mostly for the wine.
As frequent visitors to Niagara County, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., and Finger Lakes wineries, we wanted to dive into what California had to offer.
Sonoma didn’t disappoint.
“The variety is wider here,” Brown said. “In Niagara-on-the-Lake you’ve got one climate, while you’ve got six different microclimates here in Sonoma. One in Russian River specializes in Zin and Pinot. Up here in Santa Rosa, closer to Napa, it’s warmer, so we do more Cabs.”
We focused on Kenwood, a community six miles south of Santa Rosa. A collection of a dozen wineries, and several more restaurants and tasting rooms, perch within a pair of miles of each other here.
We started with St. Francis Winery & Vineyards. Open Table travel site users rated this the No. 1 restaurant in America two years ago, even though it only does wine and food pairings. During our visit, executive chef Bryan Jones prepared three combinations matched with St. Francis wines: local goat cheese, lychee compote and lemon verbena with a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc; San Daniele Prosciutto, pickled local produce and house marinated olives with a 2012 Syrah; and blue cheese from France, walnuts, and cherries poached in a blend of Cabernet franc, Merlot and Cabernet sauvignon with a 2012 Zinfandel. A discount coupon provided by the Flamingo knocked $7 off the $35 tasting cost. (Don’t be afraid to ask for this and tasting coupons at wine country lodgings.)
From there, it was onto Kunde Family Winery, which offers wine and cheese tastings for $15 on an outdoor deck next to a man-made pond with several spray fountains. The Mayacamas Mountains backstop the 700-plus acres of vines that surround the tasting room. Native plants, grasses and trees complete the landscape.
Like many of the wineries in the region, the look and feel make a great setting for a wedding. Actor and filmmaker Seth Rogen married Lauren Miller at Kunde in 2011.
This is the oldest family-owned winery in Sonoma, said Sonaya Stevens, who poured our tasting. All 24 wines crafted here come from the Kunde vineyards, where 19 grape varieties are grown.
“It’s a very laid-back atmosphere,” she said. “Sonoma County is known for that.”
We enjoyed Kunde so much, we joined its wine club. Our $10 tasting fees were waived and we’ll be able to mix wine varieties in two cases we will order in the coming year, at discount rates.
We visited Napa the second day. Bill Mahoney, wine manager at Premier Wine & Spirits on Transit Road in Amherst, and Brown suggested a shortcut over the mountains near Kenwood to the Robert Mondavi Winery in Oakville. Trinity and Dry Creek roads meander. They are a bit unnerving in spots, but it saved us at least an hour in drive time than more traveled roads. The route spit us out in 20 minutes a short distance from Mondavi. I booked a tour on the winery website, robertmondaviwinery.com, several weeks in advance and the $30 tickets gave us a greater appreciation for how the mega-wineries operate in California. The experience was well worth the cost and the mountainous drive.
We wished we’d come right back to Sonoma after our tour. Two other wineries we visited on the Napa side were far more commercial, almost twice as expensive for tastings, and in one case, made us feel more like cattle being herded through a money-making, wine-tasting machine than providing us the chance to relax on a patio deck and drink in the scenery along with exceptional wines.
Construction wracked the St. Helena Highway (Route 29) – the main Napa thoroughfare – preventing us from daring to turn left into the famed Gott’s Roadside burger joint north of Mondavi. The miles-long traffic jam also made me look for the Silverado Trail, which Mahoney told me would be less traveled. Not so on the second Friday afternoon of this month.
“Sonoma has always been in the shadow of Napa,” Brown said. “Napa’s got international cult status that drives its business, kind of like Pebble Beach driving up the golf rates. All the international tourists have it on their bucket list – they’ve got to play Pebble and go to Napa.
“We always say Sonoma is the secret side of Northern California wine country. Sonoma is the size of Rhode Island. We’ve got the ocean as part of us, not the dessert. It’s usually 10 degrees hotter in Napa than Sonoma (80 degrees versus 90 degrees-plus during our visit). We get more ocean breeze.”
Our only wish is that we had had more time in Sonoma.
Honeymooners, and others, should take that to heart, Brown said.
“You could spend a month here in California your first time.”
Scott Scanlon is WNY Refresh Editor for The Buffalo News