Racing Through Sonoma Wine Country in a McLaren GT Supercar
McLaren’s twin-turbocharged V8-powered missile smoked a Porsche 911 Turbo S on northern Cali’s twisting coastal roads.
A wave of calm descended as my first round of hyper-fresh briny oysters slid down. I was sitting at the Saltwater Oyster Bar in Inverness, a white clapboard ode to local ingredients with gastro-nautical chops, on a stretch of sleepy road in Marin County, California.
Across the mists of Tomales Bay, past the siren curves of the McLaren GT calling me from the carpark, were my next pit stops, the more famous Hog Island Oysters and The Marshall Store.
My Mission Impossible for the weekend? Escape from New York to indulge in an oenological expedition to Sonoma County, seeking out the finest wines known to humanity. All while piloting a grand tourer of the first order on the incomparable roads of the raggedy Marin coast, laying down a roadmap for eats, drives and drinks à la Sideways.
It was to be a blast from San Francisco up through Mill Valley, Stimpson Beach, Inverness, Marshall, and Nick’s Cove to Bodega Bay. Following Route 1 as it twisted and turned along misty bays and ocean whitecaps, past multimillion-dollar oceanfront shacks on stilts.
I’ve often driven the Pacific Coast Highway from L.A. to San Francisco. It can be glorious from Hearst Castle to Pebble Beach, but is often intractable unless attacked at the crack of dawn, or on a superbike capable of overtaking a snake of RVs with one flick of the wrist. The route up from San Francisco into Marin is just as beautiful, less populated, and more to the point, leads into wine country I had long been itching to attack.
Napa’s rendition of old world Bordeaux and its blends of cabernet sauvignon and merlot are more accessible and perhaps more broadly known and understood, appearing on every wine list in the country. But the wilds of Sonoma are home to the grapes that make true gems.
Thus with the ‘Rona mist lifting, the Roaring Twenties recommencing, and people turning out in droves to book tastings in California wine country, it was time to go see what this stuff was all about.
With the keys to a McLaren GT, the British supercar marque’s most gentlemanly—but no less Herculean—and elegant vehicle, this was set to be a high-octane tour to see if Sonoma could hold a candle to my favorite old-world wine region, Burgundy, the gold standard against which all others are measured.
So having had my fill of oysters, and beautiful bays along an otherworldly coast, when I reached Bodega Bay I turned inland towards the Russian River Valley, headed for Healdsburg, center of the action for the Sonoma wine industry. After a delightful visit to Bricoleur and Flowers wineries, warming up you might say, I went north to Cloverdale, where I discovered something truly singular at Peay Vineyards.
Deep in a custom-built concrete bunker under a state-of-the-art stainless-steel winemaking facility, I was transported to wine nirvana, experiencing the story of the juice in my hand and its transformation from grapes farmed in the fog of nearby Annapolis, to liquid velvet in a glass.
I had discovered the Sonoma equivalent of Gus Fring’s lab. Complete with its own version of Walter White’s sidekick Jesse Pinkman. And hot damn was the product in the glass the real deal. Nothing else would come close on this trip.
It wasn’t exactly white Burgundy made with chardonnay grapes in France, or red Burgundy made with pinot noir for that matter. But it had all the aromas, depth, nuance and complexity that a Burgundian annex in the valleys of California should have. No fruit-bombs falling flat after the onslaught of alcohol that I was expecting, just sensory delights.
The Peay family bought a farm on a fog-enshrouded hilltop above a river gorge four miles from the Pacific Ocean in the 1990s, and turned it into what is today. And I’d suggest you go take a peek, or ask for a spot on their list for a taste, before word fully gets out of what these guys are up to.
Obviously, I didn’t want to leave. And regretted the early hour, and the spittoon. But the beauteous, sleek missile of the McLaren GT was sitting outside, at the ready to catapult me back to SFO at a rate of knots more than sufficient to put other GTs to shame.
Equipped with a 4.0L twin-turbocharged V8 pumping out 612 hp and 465-lb.-ft. of torque, fed through a seven-speed dual-clutch transmission, it hits the 60 mph sprint in a shade over three seconds, and storms on to 203 mph (if you let it).
That isn’t where the magic lies, however; as so many things are fast as balls in a straight line these days, the drag-strip shtick can be boring. What is more fascinating is how all this performance translates on the road. Particularly twisty roads of the caliber I was on along the breathtaking coastal vistas of Marin.
The short answer is the GT is fantastic. Crisp. Tight. Responsive. Communicative. With enough slack in the lifesavers that you can have fun and convince yourself you can really drive.
So much so that on roads you have never driven before, chasing a local friend in his Porsche 911 Turbo S, you may find yourself chuckling, as no matter how hard he tries, and no matter how hard your foot stomps from right to left peddle with fierce, biting, directional changes in between, he knows he is fighting a losing battle; to the point where he finally pulls over and waves you through.
As I ragged across the country lanes of Marin, I pondered how to get more Peay in my life. The wines and the GT were both sublime. And everywhere I went the car raised wide grins, solicited requests for photos, received insider intelligence on who and where the local cops were—and in one case even fulfilled a karmic obligation by putting a smile on the face of a local 94-year-old naval aviator, whose family told me McLarens are his favorite cars of all time.
Of course I had to let him sit behind the wheel. But not for long.