Grape escape: Sonoma’s wine, golf make splendid pairing

Northwood Golf Club, a historic nine-hole layout in Sonoma County, roughly 90 minutes north of San Francisco.

Northwood Golf Club, a historic nine-hole layout in Sonoma County, roughly 90 minutes north of San Francisco.

SONOMA, Calif. -- Spend enough time in wine country, popping corks and playing courses, and you come to learn this difference between grapes and golfers: the former like to struggle, the latter don’t.

Just ask Ehren Jordan, an acclaimed winemaker who carries a 10 index and produces, among other prestigious labels, some of California’s finest pinot noir.

When he’s in the field, Jordan favors vines that battle for survival; their fight in stingy soil gives rise to complex fruit. But on the links, he sees no point in suffering, even when his game is rusty, as it was on a recent autumn afternoon.

“Golf is never a hardship for me,” Jordan said, having just flubbed his chip shot on a short par 3. “No matter how the round goes, I’m just thrilled to be on the course.”

The day was hot and still, as it often is in the middle of crush season, and sunlight speckled the grounds of Northwood Golf Club, a historic nine-hole layout in Sonoma County, roughly 90 minutes north of San Francisco but five minutes from two vineyards where Jordan harvests grapes for Failla Wines, the winery he runs with his wife, Anne-Marie.

In his short drive to the first tee, Jordan had gone from a sea of low-slung vines to a land of towering redwoods, which create narrow corridors on almost every Northwood hole. Surveying his approach on a snug par 4, Jordan marveled at the drama of the setting, the fairways skewed at quirky angles, the sight lines framed by outsized trees.

“It’s amazing when you think how they built this course, without any modern machinery,” he said. “We’re not talking bulldozers and dynamite. We’re talking guys with shovels and mule-drawn plows.”

A native of Pittsburgh whose grandfather belonged to Oakmont Country Club, Jordan, 45, acquired a taste for classic courses long before he honed a palate for fine wines. No wonder he likes Northwood, which has roots dating to 1928. That was the year Jack Neville, a member of the high-society Bohemian Club, pushed forward the idea of a nine-hole course on club-owned land amid the redwood groves.

An accomplished player (he was a five-time California Amateur champion and a member of the 1923 Walker Cup team), Neville also was the co-architect of Pebble Beach Golf Links. At Northwood, though, he left the heavy lifting to Robert Hunter and Alister MacKenzie, whose imprint is apparent in deceptive fairway mounding and the compelling contours of the tiny greens.

Though Northwood was born as a private retreat, today it is public – very public – with green fees starting at $23. Its clientele, a distinctive blend of denim-clad duffers and gentlemen farmers in starched, collared shirts, reflect the hybrid character of a region that often blurs the line between rustic and refined.

“When you play golf in Sonoma, you never know who you’re going to be paired with,” Jordan said. “The guy standing next to you might be a disheveled-looking guy in a tank top and tattered jeans, but he also might just be a multimillionaire.”

In a county that wears its money easily, great wine often is poured in tumble-down farmhouses, and great golf often comes without the frills. From Northwood, for instance, it’s a 20-minute drive, inland from the redwoods into vineyard-covered flatlands, to sleepy, understated Windsor Golf Club, a short but subtle layout that served in the ’90s as a regular stop on the Nationwide Tour. And from Windsor, in turn, a detour west takes you through a quiltwork of vines and pastures, over rises in the road, then down toward the water and misty, atmospheric Bodega Bay, the seaside town that Alfred Hitchcock used as a backdrop for “The Birds.”

The Links at Bodega Harbour, the Robert Trent Jones Jr. layout that sits on the bluffs here and boasts commanding coastal views, is not a links by the strictest definition. But its wildly buckled fairways and woolly native grasses, combined with flagstick-bending breezes, give the place a raw and rugged British feel. Seagulls tilt and whirl along the shoreline, but this isn’t the movies. The greatest danger lies in the coastal wetlands, which you play around and over on a stirring, three-hole closing stretch.

Bodega Harbour opened in 1973, a good year for golf in Sonoma County, but nothing like the vintage of 1928. Way back then, even as MacKenzie was busy at Northwood, The Olympic Club designer, Willie Watson, was wrapping up a nearby project that Sam Snead later would call his favorite course.

Among the traits that Snead fell for was the tranquility of Sonoma Golf Club, which sweeps across the shadow of the Mayacamas Mountains, in a setting that could stand in as a wine country brochure. The ancient oak that guards the left side of the first fairway, transforming a par 4 into a natural dogleg, is a fitting introduction to a layout that presents its challenges without gimmicky deceptions. Here, on a layout flanked by vineyards, it’s just you against the unscathed land.

Over the years, the club, formerly the site of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship, has been run as a public and private operation. Nowadays, it straddles the line between the two.

Tee times are allotted to guests of the nearby Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa, but preferred slots go to the roughly 400 members, among them winery owner Vance Sharp, who took to the first tee one recent morning, just as the sun was chasing off the dew.

A former Air Force officer who ran car dealerships in Germany for 17 years, Sharp settled in Sonoma in 1997, attracted to the region’s reds and whites but even more so to its greens.

His first move was to join Sonoma Golf Club. A year later, he founded Sharp Cellars, an aficionado’s darling, celebrated for its work with four varietals: zinfandel, pinot gris, pinot blanc and pinot noir.

That the qualities attributed to his best releases – subtle, nuanced, balanced, refined – would never be ascribed to Sharp’s golf game is of no concern to the man himself, who, at 62, approaches his rounds with

a boyish excitement that makes you think he might not be of drinking age.

“How can you not love this?” he asked, after putting out for bogey on the second. “People talk about chateau, and tasting rooms and whatnot. But this right here is the wine country dream.”

Back at tree-lined Northwood, Ehren Jordan agreed. Though wine-making and golf are his two primary passions, he came to wine in his early 20s. Golf, by contrast, is his lifelong love. An avid pilot and owner of a twin-engine Cessna, he flies several times a year to Bandon Dunes to indulge his appetite for links golf. He’s also a member of Mayacama, an exclusive private club in the Sonoma foothills where a Jack Nicklaus layout spills across land once owned by Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz.

But this was harvest season, Jordan’s busiest stretch, and so, in recent weeks, he’d stashed his sticks and turned his attention to his vineyards. His swing, as a consequence, had gone to seed.

“I’ve been playing long enough where I know, in theory, what adjustments I should make to get the results I want,” he said. “Problem is, that’s a lot harder to do in golf than it is with wine.”

He had arrived at the ninth hole, an artful par 5 that eased uphill then turned left, through the trees, toward the turtle-back green. Jordan waggled, swung and smiled as his drive sailed right into the trees.

“Game’s a little off,” he said, “but that’s probably a good thing. If my index ever gets down into single digits, I know I should probably get back to work.”

– Josh Sens is a freelance writer from Oakland, Calif.

• • •

If you go . . .

The Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa

fairmont.com/sonoma; 707-938-9000

The Links at Bodega Harbour

bodegaharbourgolf.com; 707-875-3538

Northwood Golf Club

northwoodgolf.com; 707-865-1116

Sonoma Golf Club

sonomagolfclub.com; 707-939-4100

Windsor Golf Club

windsorgolf.com; 707-838-7888

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