Fifty miles north of San Francisco, straddling U.S. Highway 101, sits Santa Rosa, former home of Charles M. Schulz and the gang from "Peanuts." From the highway, as you boom past at 70 mph, Santa Rosa appears to be just another somewhere on the way to somewhere else. But a short detour east into downtown or west into the wine country quickly proves otherwise. The tab: We spent $163 for a night at the Hotel La Rose, dinner for two at Willi's Wine Bar was $84, including wine, and a lavish picnic from Whole Foods Market came to $43. Gas and incidentals added $100 to the tab. Wine at Bella and Iron Horse vineyards, of course, was extra.
The 47-room Hotel La Rose (308 Wilson St., Santa Rosa;  579-3200), in the Railroad Square Historic District, has been welcoming visitors to Santa Rosa for more than 100 years. Guests can choose the European appeal of the main building (the hotel was built by Italian stonemasons in 1907 from locally quarried stone) or the charm of the much newer Carriage House next door. My wife and I, suckers for period ambience, selected the main building where the antique-filled lobby proved to be the perfect place to sip an evening glass of wine. Our junior suite was charming, quiet and had a lovely view of Railroad Square. This delightful hotel is the only one in the region listed with the Historic Hotels of America under the auspices of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Despite an unassuming name and its inauspicious roadhouse exterior, Willi's Wine Bar (4404 Old Redwood Highway, Santa Rosa;  526-3096) offers an eclectic list of local and European wines by the bottle, flight or glass and a mouthwatering small-plate menu featuring selections from Earth, surf and turf. We started with the warm spinach salad with goat cheese, dates and cracked almonds ($9), moved on to curried crab tacos with apple, cucumber and mint ($13), and crispy pork riblets with pomegranate barbecue, Thai basil and pine nuts ($12.50), then finished the feast with chocolate chunk and banana croissant bread pudding ($8). A flight of Sonoma County wines, including a Chardonnay, Pinot and Cab, provided an excellent accompaniment.
Our trips to the Bay Area usually lead to explorations of the Napa, Sonoma and Alexander valleys. This time, however, we ventured west of the 101 to investigate the Dry Creek, Russian River and Green Valley wine-making regions. Although the list of notable wineries in this area is long, we focused on smaller names that were unknown to us. Two that made the top of the list: Bella Vineyards (9711 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg;  473-9171) and Iron Horse Vineyards (9786 Ross Station Road, Sebastopol;  887-1507). Bella is home to a magical wine cave that houses its tasting room and barrel storage. The friendly staff offers food pairings with some of its selections, and Bella's 2011 Late Harvest Zinfandel is a real treat when served with a dark chocolate and peanut butter truffle. Iron Horse, meanwhile, has a casual vibe (its tasting room is outdoors) and features several enchanting sparkling wines, including a tasty 2008 Wedding Cuvée. Not far away is an arbor overlooking its rolling vineyards, which makes an excellent spot for a picnic lunch on a sunny day.
The lesson learned
Santa Rosa is more than just the former home of Schulz and the current home of the "Peanuts" museum. It's the center of a wheel with spokes branching out to the Napa, Sonoma, Chalk Hill, Alexander, Dry Creek, Russian River and Green valleys. It is dotted with good restaurants, has a decent variety of places to stay and is an ideal base of operations for a thorough exploration of the Northern California wine country.