IF WOODINVILLE'S winery row seems a distant land, too far to reach by bicycle, rest assured: Woodinville's an attainable 14 miles from the U District on the smooth, sinewy Burke-Gilman/Sammamish River trails. (And if you'd rather limit your exertion and maximize the booze, cheating's easy: Just park at Marymoor Park in Redmond and ride the trail a few miles north.)
A most obvious benefit to boozing by bike is that you don't need a designated driver. Just find the trail and stay on it. Some preparation is a good thing: There are no winery-marking signs, and when biking from the north, the only indication you've made it to Liquor Country is the pointy top of the regal Redhook Ale Brewery poking through the trees across the Sammamish Slough.
Our pretrip homework consisted of a King County bicycle trail map (useful for finding trail-access points), a map of Woodinville wineries (there are at least 15; as first-timers, we limited our tour to the three nearest the trailand Redhook), and a quick call ahead to confirm tasting-room hours.
The trail is deceptively low-traffic before lunchtime. Start before 11 a.m. and you'll think nobody in Seattle recreates. It doesn't take long to develop a superiority complex, a slightly appalled disdain for the lazy blokes who aren't turning spoke alongside the slough. By the time we pedaled in to Redhook territory, we were full-fledged biker snobs. We got off the trail at the Northeast 145th Street access point, just a few farm-lined blocks east of the brewery. I suspect I rode into the near-empty bike rack corridor with my nose in the air, but this was less a bratty show than an attempt to keep my oversized helmet from falling in front of my eyes.
We dismounted and went inside just in time for a brewery tour ("This is what hops look like. This is what hops taste like. Bitter, aren't they? Our hops come from the Yakima Valley . . . "), a 25-minute excuse to enjoy a few generous samples of beer. An Alaskan cruise group, with khaki drawstring shorts and freshly sunburned faces, seemed to enjoy it thoroughly. As we made our way back out to the parking lot, the aroma of pub food wafting over from Redhook's Forecasters Public House was tempting. I made a mental note to stop in and refuel on the way home.
We pedaled and winced the 300-or-so yards next door to Columbia Winery. (Most of the interwinery biking is done across parking lotsthe larger the winery, the more extravagant the lot. Columbia's is an expansive, landscaped affair.) The tasting room was abuzz with wine tourists, most of whom, from the look of the vacant bike rack outside, had arrived by less strenuous means. Wimps. If you've never been to a tasting room, you might be surprised at the accessibilitythe wine really is free and virtually bottomless. Just nod to the pourer and she'll keep your glass wet. The only thing keeping tasters from getting loaded is tact (some have more of this than others). A 1999 semillon and a 2000 syrah later, we remounted and narrowly escaped the purported arrival of the Spirit of Washington dinner train, which makes a regular stop at Columbia. We were bike people, after all, and we figured train people could be nothing but bothersomelazy, bike-hating bothers.
The half-mile ride to Silver Lake Winery was uphill and curbside on another country road, but a little booze in the blood made itand the growing pain of biker's butta nonissue. By this time, the morning clouds had burned off and the sun gleamed off our helmets. We looked like miners.
The best wine stop on our tour (if only for its generous pours), Silver Lake offered ciders, dessert wines, even champagne with strawberries and truffles. I wanted to stock up on some tasty Spire Mountain pear cider but, without a backpack, I was forced to leave the fruity six-packs behind. (Don't make my mistake.) The tasting atmosphere was refreshingly low-key, and it seemed to have fallen under the radar of the cruise groups. The decor was simple, with the emphasis on wine rather than on the gift shop fare pushed by larger tasting rooms (alder salmon-smoking planks, huckleberry jam, trendy cookbooks).
It was a short, downhill street ride to Chateau Ste. Michelle, but that was just to the front gate. The long, straight, vine-lined driveway through the winery grounds felt, in our current condition, like a Tour de France. The bike racks outside the Chateau were, to our contented amazement, bursting with bikes. To passing airplanes or Homeland Security satellites, the columns of racks, with dozens of bikes jutting out perpendicularly, must have looked like a family of centipedes. Invigorated by the presence of like souls, we parked and walked across the grassy, parklike lawn, past the pond and the blankets of merry picnickers and straight to the tasting room.
It was midafternoon and sunny when we circled back to Redhook's Forecasters Pub, where we chained up alongside no fewer than 41 bicycles (daddy-size to the banana-seated, little-sister-size), one bike trailer, a Harley, and one lone pair of Rollerblades. We took stools at the bar, but neither of us could stomach another sip of anything fermented. We both ordered Cokes. Forecasters has all kinds of healthy California-style menu items with avocado, hummus, and the like, but who are you kidding? You've been fueling up on red wine and chocolate all daya cheeseburger isn't going to kill you now.
Sated, we crossed the slough and entered the trail at the same point we'd exited that morning. The trail population density had increased dramatically and the trip home was spent dodging Rollerbladers, walkers, and baby strollers. But it may have been a record ride: Perhaps Powerade should screw that "electrolytes" b.s. and start experimenting with wine varietals.