The rolling hills and the largely quiet country roads in and around Auburn make this area one of the most reliable for a great cycling experience.
Over the years while riding these roads, we kept noticing the appealing little wineries that have cropped up. Wouldn't it be nice if we could combine two of our favorite things bike riding and wine tasting?
In the Napa Valley, folks from around the world come to rent bikes, follow routes and hop from one great winery to the next. The Placer Wine Trail isn't on that scale yet, but there is a map and a website (www.placerwine.com) that promotes the local wines.
In this installment of "Great Rides," we're going to give the activity a try in this emerging wine region. I'm no exercise physiologist, but I know that a sip or two of wine won't interfere with a bike ride of moderate intensity. Wine has plenty of carbs for energy and tastes far better than Gatorade. And you don't have to dress in Lycra from head to toe in order to do this ride. Less conspicuous attire might be more suitable if you plan to stop in at the wineries.
We've mapped out a route of about 25 miles that leads you past four wineries, gives you a good workout, and tests your legs on plenty of gentle hills and one long, steep climb on Baxter Grade on the way to Auburn that is so tough you'll think you've stumbled upon a route suitable for the Tour de France.
If this hill isn't tough enough for you, there's a secret little hill thrown in as an option at the end of the ride. It's not that long, but it is incredibly steep. If you're not in tiptop shape, you may have to get off your bike and push it up the hill. More on that in a moment.
Of course, no one says you have to cover the entire route by bike. You can tackle some of it as a cyclist and some as a motorist. Or, if you're not into cycling, this route makes for an excellent sightseeing drive.
We begin at the park-and-ride at the Indian Hill exit in Newcastle just off Interstate 80. Head over the freeway toward Ridge Road, well known to many cyclists as a long, pleasant climb with a profile similar to a staircase. Except we're doing it in reverse, meaning it's a short, steep climb at the outset, followed by a long, lazy descent to Gold Hill.
But be careful. You never want to go too fast downhill on roads like this where there are plenty of driveways and several twists and turns. A car can pull out and, if you're traveling 30-40 mph, you won't have time to stop. Enjoy the descent, but pay attention and don't let the beautiful view of the sparsely populated countryside distract you.
We go a little out of the way for the first winery about seven miles into the ride Dono dal Cielo, which is open from noon to 5 p.m. every Friday through Sunday. The setting is quaint, with a flock of sheep grazing on the adjoining hillside.
This vineyard's wines can be found in several shops and restaurants, including the Chef's Table in Rocklin, Selland's Market Cafe in Sacramento, Alexander's Horseshoe Bar Grill in Loomis and Monkey Cat Restaurant in Auburn, where we recently enjoyed a nice bottle of the spicy and floral zinfandel with dinner.
We retrace our route for a time to get to the next winery by getting over one of the toughest climbs around Baxter Grade. Even in a car, your engine may cough and sputter as it heads ever upward. It's long and steep and lightly traveled, so no one will notice how slow and wobbly you might look as you crank those pedals toward the top.
Baxter Grade is a great hill and it's one you'll want to return to again and again. Last year, we included Baxter Grade in a route for those interested in improving their climbing in that case, there were more than a dozen climbs. Today's route is not so arduous, but if you're used to the flat roads of Sacramento, this one is going to shock those naïve quads of yours. You'll find it steepest at about 9 miles (from the start). But there really is no let-up.
When you get to the top, you'll see Mount Vernon we're on our way to Mount Vernon Winery. This large, attractive estate in a country setting is open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday through Sunday. The tasting room is actually a restored milk house. The winery is known for its popular wine cave dinners. In addition to zinfandel and several other varieties, Mount Vernon has a red called "Girly Man," a blend of petite syrah and syrah.
Leaving the winery, we turn right and hit another climb. This is a wine-sipping route not wine-guzzling. Too much zin and you'll be looking for the nearest bed and breakfast.
At about 17 miles, you'll see Maidu Market on the left. It's a good place to stop for a snack and a little breather. We then head for Shirland Tract, another road known to the area's cyclists. Within a mile of the market, you'll be treated to another great view that's Folsom Lake off in the distance.
We're headed for the smallest winery on the route, Lone Buffalo Vineyards, about 20 miles into the ride. It is open from noon to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday, but the winery suggests calling ahead to be sure someone is there. This 2-acre estate is run by Phil and Jill Maddux. Phil Maddux is a longtime local attorney who made wine at home for 30 years before creating a small commercial operation. The buffalo? The big, burly beast is his inspiration. The 2008 Sierra Foothills Where the Buffalo Roam was named "best of class" for Rhone-style wines hailing from the Sierra foothills. It was also Mike Dunne's "wine of the week" last fall.
By the time you leave Lone Buffalo, you're finished with our wine-tasting adventure, but the ride isn't over. We've got another five miles before getting back to the car. But if you're feeling really spritely, watch for Glenview Road on the right a mile or so before the park-and-ride. It is a tremendous climb with little to no traffic. The road features several switchbacks as you zigzag your way to the top. Though it is shorter than the epic climbs you would find in Tour de France route, this is the baby version and it is, in a twisted way, plenty of fun.
At the top, you hang a left on Indian Hill. It's all downhill to the parking lot. Ignore the inevitable vultures circling overhead if you keep moving and if you don't smell too funky, they'll keep their distance.