Walkabout in Wine Country
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Towns Correspondent
Eight years ago, Glen Ellen residents Greg and Mary Guerrazzi took an adventurous trek in the Dolomites, a mountainous region of Italy.
“My wife and I are avid hikers,” Greg said. “We thought it was great to walk from village to village, enjoying food and lodging as we went, having our baggage waiting for us at the next night’s lodging.”
They liked the experience so much that the very next year they took another European trek, this time hiking Engadine Valley in the Swiss Alps. They were enchanted by the villages with ancient buildings known for their “sgraffito,” traditional designs carved into stucco over doors and windows (the word graffiti comes from this term).
One afternoon they were enjoying a picnic in the mountains high above St. Moritz when Greg had an inspiration involving Mary’s work in Sonoma Valley. Since 2001 she has owned Wine Country Excursions, a company that puts together itineraries for independent travelers to Sonoma and Napa. He thought maybe she could create European-style inn-to-inn treks for hikers.
Recalls Mary, “Greg looked at me and said, ‘You really should do this in Sonoma.’ And that was that.”
They returned home and shared the idea with family. Mary’s sister, Sheila Taylor, agreed to investigate the potential market for the treks. Armed with a finance MBA and recently retired from her job as marketing vice president and head of information technology for Chevron, Taylor was well equipped for market analysis.
“When I did the consumer competitive research,” she said, “I found that we would have the market to ourselves, because at that time there were no competitors in the U.S. We were the first to offer self-guided inn-to-inn hikes. I told Mary and Greg that I didn’t want to consult with them, I wanted to be a partner.”
And soon the three co-partners set about making it all work.
Putting the treks together wasn’t as easy as it might seem. In Europe, trekkers going from one village to another follow paths carved into the land over centuries. But the U.S. developed at a much later time and in a different manner. Dirt paths originally used by pedestrians, horses and wagons were quickly paved over after the invention of the automobile.
The treks the trio was developing needed to be on beautiful trails. When public driving roads must be used, they should be little-traveled. If trails necessitated crossing vineyards or other private property, negotiations with the owners were required.
And since the treks were intended for a luxury market, they had to wind betwixt high-end inns and restaurants. Complicating matters, inns had to be placed at a comfortable distance from one another (far enough for a good hike, but not so far that trekkers were immobilized at day’s end) and within walking distance of great restaurants.
But it all came together. In 2007, one year after idly musing atop a Swiss mountain, Wine Country Trekking launched with four treks, including the signature 10-day hike that takes trekkers on foot from San Francisco to Sonoma.
“Most of our hikes are for two to four days,” Mary said, “but the 10-day hike remains popular. It’s a life-changing hike.”
Today there are nine treks, three that take place completely within Sonoma Valley:
*The popular three-night “Sonoma Valley Wine Tasting” involves luxury stays in Sonoma and Glen Ellen, along with plenty of hiking, wine tastings and dining out at a local restaurant of their choice.
*The three-night “Kenwood Luxury Getaway” includes a challenging 8-mile hike in Mount Hood Regional Park and ultra-luxury inn accommodations.
*The four-night “Sonoma Valley Runner’s Trek” is for runners who want to experience everything from running in Jack London State Historic Park to climbing to the top of 2,700-foot Hood Mountain.
Two other treks include stays in Glen Ellen: “San Francisco to the Wine Country” and “Mount Tamalpais to the Wine Country.”
Greg says the marketing demographic is “active independents who want to enjoy the outdoors but also want a fine bed and a nice meal. They don’t want to be part of a tour or be told what time to get up in the morning.”
Adds Taylor, “The age demographic is really wide. We get honeymooners in their 20s and 75-year-olds. We get a lot of special occasions — anniversaries, birthdays.”
“Our self-guided trek price starts when you arrive at your first hotel before beginning to hike (and goes) to the last night’s lodging,” Greg said. “It doesn’t include dinners, though. Trekkers pay for that themselves. But we cover everything else, including luggage transfers and transport to the airport.”
When someone books a trek, they receive a planning guide with everything they need to prepare for the trip, including equipment lists, weather patterns, local customs and a lot more.
“Later, we provide a waterproof trail guide with custom maps created for us by a cartographer, along with GPS data and detailed trail notes,” Greg said. “Nobody has ever gotten lost with our guide.”
Wine Country Trekking has been profitable since the first year, Greg noted, adding: “It’s still a cottage industry for us. Mary continues running Wine Country Excursions. I’m a real estate consultant to people in the telecommunications industry. The greatest return for us is the 80 percent positive feedback we get, with people saying it was the best vacation they’ve ever had.”
So where do these walkabout experts hike in Sonoma Valley?
Greg cites Mount Hood as the best hike for a climb, from the valley floor up 2,400 feet through zones of scrub oaks, pine and redwoods to Gunsight Rock, “with a view of the whole area.”
Mary, without knowing what Greg had said, also claimed Mount Hood as her favorite.
Said Sheila, “Probably Jack London State Park. I’m a redwood forest girl.”