Where to go, what to drink (From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)
There are, by inexact count, 75 wineries inside the semi-official boundaries of Sonoma Valley, although several don’t have public tasting rooms. Whether you’re a jaded local or a bedazzled visitor, you’re simply not going to visit them all. Not any time soon.
But hey, you can try.
So where to begin? We like to start you off at the geographical bottom and work north. That will put you on Highway 121, with the bay at your back and a Tuscan villa perched on a hilltop as you drop into the throat of the Sonoma Valley or, as the romantics among us like to say, the Valley of the Moon.
The winery on the hill is Viansa, founded by Sam and Vicki Sebastiani, now one marriage and at least two ownerships removed. Viansa is a perfect gateway stop, with views across the Sonoma wetlands Sam helped expand and preserve. It’s part of the Carneros appellation, where the floodwaters of Sonoma Creek provide winter refuge for all manner of waterfowl, in winter as many as 10,000 in a single day. The winery itself provides an Italian Marketplace to purchase gourmet foods, along with outstanding wines. Tasting tip: Try the 2006 Merlot, double gold metal winner in the 2009 West Coast Wine Competition.
A quarter mile up the road, and visible from the Viansa hilltop is a sustainable, wine-tasting two-fer—Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi Family Vineyard. Fred and Nancy Cline have created an organic oasis here, employing “Green String” farming techniques with no agricultural chemicals and seasonal sheep for weed control. The Cline estate, on the west side of the road, features a California mission museum with a complete set of model missions created for the 1939 World’s Fair. Tasting tip: For something different, and a touch of chocolate, try the 2008 ancient vines mourvèdre.
On the other side of the highway is Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, named for Fred’s maternal grandfather who invented the bathtub pump that changed our relationship with water. The 18,000 square foot winery is modeled after the ancestral home in Italy and is paired with The Olive Press, which makes and markets locally grown gourmet olive oil. Winetasting is free and the grounds are gorgeous, a perfect place for a picnic. Tasting tip: Try the 2007 pinot noir.
Next up is Gloria Ferrer, part of a Spanish sparkling wine dynasty, with an elegant visitor’s center up against the rolling hills that fall off the south flank of Sonoma Mountain. The winery was founded by the Ferrer family, owners of the Freixenet label, who started Sonoma Valley operations in the early 1980s. Tasting tip: Park yourself on their stunning veranda and drop a Grant for a bottle of the 1999, half-pinot Carneros Cuvee. Perfection in a bottle.
Directly across Highway 121 is the entrance to CornerStone, an indescribable amalgam of art, gardens, tasting rooms and intriguing stores. Cornerstone is host to Meadowcroft Family of Wines, Larson Family Wineries, an evolving variety of other labels and enough things to see and do to happily burn through an afternoon. Tasting tip: Try the 2009 Meadowcroft Mt. Veeder Cabernet, a Wine Enthusiast 94-point pick.
A half mile north, at the intersection of Highways 121 and 12, is the site of a combination gas station, towing service, repair shop, deli and wine bar. This is Bonneau’s, a multifaceted family enterprise where you can fill your gas tank, your tummy and your wineglass all with one stop. Tasting tip: Try the 2008, estate-grown, Los Carneros Chardonnay.
Just across Bonneau Road is Anaba Winery, named for the cooling winds that sweep across Carneros. Anaba’s first vintage won five awards—including two golds—at the 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine competition. Tasting tip: Try the winery’s signature 2007 Coriol Red.
Go a little further down Bonneau Road and you’ll find Schug Carneros Estate, a taste of Rhineland set in a sea of vines. Walter Schug brought his pinot dreams from Germany and is now a respected visionary who persisted with his pinot passion until the rest of America caught up. Tasting tip: The 2008 Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast won Best of Class in the 2010 SF Chronicle Wine Competition.
Five minutes north, on Bonness Road, is the Robledo Family Winery, a celebrated Mexican-American success story founded by an immigrant field worker named Reynaldo Robledo Sr., who this year dined with President Obama in the White House. Tastings by appointment. Call 707.939.6903. Tasting tip: The 2006 Los Carneros Pinot is a double gold medal winner.
Heading back to 121, you turn down bumpy little Millerick Road to Larson Family Winery, where Tom and Becky make great wine at a famous rodeo site on the edge of the Sonoma Slough. Three years ago they created the best red wine in the state. You can winetaste and spend the night in the Civil War-era Captain’s House, which sleeps nine. Tasting tip: the 2007 Carneros Pinot Noir won Best of Class Pinot in the 2009 Sonoma Valley Wine Competition.
David Homewood’s Homewood Winery is pretty close to a one-man operation, making small batches of delectable reds and whites a little more than a mile from the Larsons, on Burndale Road. The Redder the Better Lounge and adjoining picnic table is open daily or by appointment. Tasting tip: Try the 2007 Bells Echo Vineyard Petite Verdot.
From Homewood, you’ll want to backtrack to Eighth Street East and enter into the heart of warehouse winemaking, where corrugated metal roofing defines the architecture and some astoundingly good boutique wines are made, many of them as part of the Eighth Street Wineries collective. That includes Tin Barn Vineyards, Enkidu, Ty Caton, Kamen Estate, MacRostie, Three Sticks, Stone Edge Farm, Parmelee-Hill and Talisman. We’ll visit some of these wineries at their tasting rooms elsewhere, but for those exclusive to Eighth Street the following will be of value: Tin Barn Winery makes a spectacular zinfandel. Tasting tip: Try the double gold-winning, 2007 Zinfandel Russian River Valley, Glisson Vineyard. If you’ve read The Epic of Gilgamesh you know all about Enkidu. If you haven’t, don’t worry about it. Just buy a bottle of the 2008, Diener Ranch, Lake County zin. It’s awesome.Steve MacRostie is one of the wizards of California winemaking and helped pioneer the production of Carneros fruit and wine. His tasting room is open Saturdays on Eighth Street. Tasting tip: MacRostie 2007 Wildcat Mountain chardonnay is a classic. Talisman is linked to winemaker Scott Rich’s native American mother. The symbol denotes some important traditional symbolism and some very good wine. Tasting tip: Try the 2006 Red Dog Vineyard Sonoma Mountain pinot noir. Parmelee Hill Vineyards is one of Sonoma Valley’s premier vineyard properties and winemaker/vineyard manager Steve Hill is one of the legends of the Valley and created the acclaimed Durell Ranch vineyard. Tasting tip: The 2007 Parmelee-Hill “Block B” syrah is perfection. Stone Edge Farm is hard up against Sonoma Mountain, produces a supurb cabernet and some wonderfully rich and reasonably priced Bordeaux blends called Surround. Tasting tip: Try the 2006 Surround cabernet that won Best In Class for cabs priced $30-$45 at the 2010 Sonoma Valley Wine Competition Spring Tastes. There are two important tings to know about Three Sticks: Durell Vineyards and winemaker Don Van Staaveren. They’re both legends and they produce the wine for proprietor and Durell-owner Bill Price. Tasting tip: It’s all hard to get but there may still be some of the 2006 Durell pinot that got 90 points from Wine Spectator. Kamen Estate Wines are the product of screenwriter Robert Kamen who used his Karate Kid income to buy 280 acres of rocks on the side of the Mayacamas Mountains. With organic guru Phil Coturri leading the way, Kamen created a chemical-free, nationally recognized cabernet vineyard. Tasting tip: The 2006 cabernet is stunning.
Don’t even try saying Gundlach Bundschu. Just say Gun Bun and everyone knows what you mean. It’s the oldest family-owned winery in California, famous for history, highjinx and really good wine. Toward the south end of Denmark Street. Tasting tip: The 2006 Vintage Reserve, estate vineyard cab is killer.
Go on down Denmark to Napa Road, take a left and continue to the winery on the hill to your left. That’s Nicholson Ranch, a place of many attractions, including a lovely lake, the Overlook Gallery where local artists display their work, and a lot of award-winning wine. Tasting tip: The 2007 estate pinot noir won double gold and Best of Show at the National Women’s Wine Competition.
Buena Vista Carneros is next, the overall oldest winery in California and located, naturally, on Old Winery Road. Founded by Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy, it’s the birthplace of the California wine industry, and although it’s been through numerous changes, today’s Buena Vista Carneros is making phenomenal wines, including this Tasting tip: The 2007 Ramal Vineyard pinot noir, Swan Selection.
Bartholomew Park, founded by famed journalist and UPI president Frank Bartholomew on the site of Agoston Haraszthy’s original vineyard. Another Phil Coturri-managed organic vineyard with hiking trails and picnic grounds. Tasting tip: The 2006 estate syrah.
He’s been called the godfather of zin and even though Ravenswood founder Joel Peterson has sold the keys to the winery he still guards the door, making sure no wimpy wines get in. His single vineyard varietals continue to be benchmark wines, including this Tasting tip: The 2007 Old Hill Zinfandel is what zinfandel is all about.
Even though Sebastiani Vineyards and Winery has been purchased by the Foley Group, it continues to symbolize the City of Sonoma like no other label. The hand-carved barrels in the tasting room are alone worth a visit, the picnic area is lush and lovely, and the wines are remain alluring. Tasting tip: Cherry Block is the winery’s iconic vineyard and the 2006 Cherry Block cabernet is stunning.
Bill Brinton is one of two Sonoma Valley winemakers related to tractor entrepreneur John Deere. His Charles Creek Winery has a tasting room on the Sonoma Plaza and makes consistently superb wines. Tasting tip: The 2008 Las Patolitas chardonnay won gold and got 94 points at the 2010 California State Fair.
Eric K James (and the Growers Collective Tasting Room) is the inevitable result of what happens when skilled vineyard managers get the itch to make wine. Jim Walker and Eric K. Glunt run the Napa-Sonoma Vineyard Group, managing custom vintages for small premium growers, and now have their own Carneros vineyard with a tasting room in The Mercado, just off the Sonoma Plaza. Tasting tip: Try the 2005 Daniela Block pinot noir at $20. Also available in the tasting room are award-winning wines from Fichtenberg Vineyards and Fieldsa Vineyards.
Roche Carneros Winery has moved from its hilltop near Infineon Raceway, is awaiting construction of a new facility across the highway and meanwhile has an ideally located tasting room just off the Plaza at 122 West Spain Street. Tasting tip: The 2007 Carneros Chardonnay—American Oak received a double gold metal.
Roessler Cellars, a partnership between Roger and Richard Roessler, winemaker Scott Shipley and partner Kevin McNeely, has racked up an enviable list of awards since it’s 2000 launch, with a focus on pinot noir and syrah. Tasting tip: 2007 Blue Jay Anderson Valley Pinot Noir was listed in the San Francisco Chronicle’s “Top Wines of 2009.”
Highway 12 wines reflect the skills of winemaker Michael Sebastiani and the superior fruit purchased from Serres Ranch, Sangiacomo vineyards and Ned Hill’s La Prenda Vineyard. Tasting tip: Pick up a $7.25 bottle of the Old Sonoma Red, Mission Hardware “everyday” wine, and then spring for the 2006 XII cabernet reserve for $38. That’s a value-priced two-fer.
Madrone Ridge releases less than 250 cases each of a single-vineyard zin and a Bordeaux blend. The wines are lush, affordable and can be tasted inside Enoteca on the Plaza.
Westwood Winery is producing some outstanding pinot noir under the guidance of veteran winemaker John Kelly, with an exceptional vineyard on the Annadel Estate and a Plaza tasting room offering samples by appointment. Tasting tip: Try the peppery 2006 red/FOUR “Beaucastel” blend.
Moving up the Valley of the Moon, the next stop is near the top of Cavedale Road at the profoundly Italian Petroni Vineyards where San Francisco restaurateur Lorenzo Petroni has a mountainside vineyard and villa that produces an incomparable Italian hybrid, Brunello di Sonoma. The cabernet and syrah are also outstanding. Tasting tip (by appointment): You’ve got to try the Brunello.
Of course there must be a Valley of the Moon Winery, and it’s nestled in a scenic vineyard along the banks of Sonoma Creek on the south side of Glen Ellen. The facility goes back to 1863, has since been rebuilt and the wine is collecting more and more ribbons. Tasting tip: The 2006 Cuvée De La Luna is a Bordeaux-like blend that won a bronze in the 2009 San Francisco International Wine Competition.
Glowing with history, heaped with honors, Hanzell Vineyards occupies a special place in the pantheon of pioneering winemaking. Founded by Ambassador James D. Zellerbach in 1948, Hanzell became an innovative vintner and to this day produces many of the Valley’s finest wines. Tasting tip: If you can afford it, the 2007 Hanzell Vineyards pinot noir is worth every dime.
Audelssa Winery touts itself as extreme—it covers 1,200 vertical feet—but it’s a fit description because the wine produced there is also extreme, as in good. Remarkable cabernet and syrah. A new Glen Ellen tasting room opens in October.
Little Vineyards is small but mighty, offering a family-friendly, musically-enhanced winetasting experience, sometimes featuring a tasting room jam session with Rich Little playing his Chapman stick. There’s a recording studio in back where some really good music is made (CDs are available), and some really good, award-winning wine is served in front to go with the music. Tasting tip: The Band Blend Track 4 won a gold, Best of Region medal at the California State Fair.
Bruce Cohn is part of any conversation about music and wine. The Doobie Brothers manager is proprietor of B.R. Cohn Winery, located on Olive Hill beside Highway 12 where estate olive oil is also produced. The Indian summer charity concerts are a blast, but the real attraction is the award-winning wine. Tasting tip: Bruce is a car fanatic and his Panel Wagon Pinot won a gold at the 2010 L.A. International Wine & Spirits Competition.
Arrowood Winery is home base for iconic, winemaking pioneer Richard Arrowood, who has been making great wine for more than 40 years. The name on the label almost guarantees a good bottle. Tasting tip: The 2006 Côte de Lune Rouge from the organic Lasseter Vineyards is a must buy.
Imagery Estate wines are worth buying for the labels alone—all of them stunning, original art. There’s a gallery in the tasting room with the original works on display and some very good, very different wine for sale. They include Muscato de Canelli, Cinsault, Lagrein, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo and numerous other varietals rarely bottled in America. Tasting tip: The 2009 Wow Oui is a sauvignon blanc “with a kiss of Muscat” that will make you say wow.
Eric Ross Winery in Glen Ellen is easy to spot by virtue of the big red rooster outside. Inside, photographer/winemaker Eric Luce has some lovely wines, sourced mainly from Saralee’s Vineyard in the Russian River valley. Tasting tip: The 2006 Rockin Rooster port has rich port flavor with a little less sweetness.
Benziger Family Winery—which also owns Imagery—is a unique family, winemaking enterprise, the state’s first certified biodynamic vineyard, a pioneer in sustainability and producer of spectacular wines. Tasting tip: Try the 2006 Tribute, a Bordeaux blend with 93 points from Wine & Spirits.
Mayo Family Winery has taken tasting to a new level. In their Kenwood tasting room CIA-trained chef Max Elliott-Porter leads you through a seven-course wine-food pairing experience with the winery’s single-vineyard wines. It’s a $35 bargain. There’s also a tasting room in Glen Ellen and at The Lodge in Sonoma. Tasting tip: The 2006 brut sparkling wine will pair with anything you eat.
Wellington Vineyards makes no nonsense good wine. Founded by John and Peter Wellington (father and son), the Dunbar Road winery is more functional than fancy. Wellington is green certified, solar powered, partially dry-farmed and the wines are exceptional. Tasting tip: The 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon, Karren Vineyard, Sonoma Mountain won gold in the 2009 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Deerfield Ranch winemaker Robert Rex isn’t awed by single vineyard wines; he’s into the art of blending, he’s been doing it for more than 30 years, and he likens it to cooking fine food. The Deerfield facility in Kenwood has its tasting room in a cave and an eclectic variety of blended wines to sample. Tasting tip: The 2006 Buchignani Old Vine Reserve zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley) got 95 points from Wine Enthusiast.
Kunde Family Estate is a powerhouse among family operations. With 700 acres planted to grapes, the Kundes have vineyards going back more than 100 years. There are wine caves to visit, eco-tours of the property, and a lavishly appointed visitor center/tasting room. Tasting tip: The 2007 Red Dirt Red is a field blend of four varietals and perfect for grilled lamb.
The Family Wineries Tasting Room in Kenwood (with another in Healdsburg) is an amalgam of boutique wineries from all over producing low volume, premium quality wine offered under one roof. The selections include: Cass Winery, a Paso Robles-area estate winery with eight varietals and four creative blends; Collier Falls Vineyards, a Healdsburg/Dry Creek Valley winery producing excellent zinfandel and cabernet; Macrae Family Winery produces pinot and chardonnay from Russian River grapes, and merlot and cabernet from Napa Valley grapes; SL Cellars (for Simon Levi) produces three labels with a mixture of sparkling wines, pinot, syrah and chardonnay; Tres Hermanas is a Santa Maria family-run winery; Wine Tree Farm is an Amador County winery producing a syrah and two Rhone blends; which leads us to David Noyes Winery. Noyes is a true Sonoma Valley winemaker worthy of some additional mention. He makes his wine at Wellington Vineyards and sources grapes from Crane Vineyard, Pagani Vineyard, Dry Creek Valley, the Russian River Valley and elsewhere. He produces small lots of pinot, zin, chardonnay and tocai friulano and many of his wines are noteworthy. Tasting tip: The 2005 Dutton Ranch pinot noir is great.
Muscardini Cellars is also in Kenwood and is clearly on a roll. Judged best red wine in the state in the Micro Winery category at the 2009 California State Fair, for its Dry Creek Valley Sangiovese, Muscardini is partial to Italian varietals but also makes memorable zins and syrahs. And the 2007 Barbera won Best in Class at the 2009 West Coast Wine Competition. Tasting tip: The 2008 Tesoro, a proprietary red blend, is stunning.
Ty Caton Vineyards shares the Kenwood tasting room with Muscardini Cellars, and produces exclusively estate grown grapes planted, picked pressed and patiently prepared by Ty Caton himself. He makes a variety of very good wines, but the syrahs and cabernets are especially noteworthy and you more or less have to try the TyTanium, a cab, syrah, petite syrah, merlot blend. Tasting tip: The 2006 TyTanium scored multiple golds, costs a fortune and is worth it.
VJB Vineyards & Cellars is a true Italian family operation, named for Victor Joseph Belmonte whose parents created Caffe Portofino in Santa Rosa and honored the son who died too young by naming their wine after him. Focusing on Italian varietals, but with some excellent cabernet and syrahs, VJB has an impressive list of awards. All wines are sold primarily through their Kenwood tasting room. Tasting tip: The 2006 Sonoma Valley Primitivo is a bargain.
Paradise Ridge winery of Santa Rosa, home to an exceptional private sculpture garden, also has a tasting room in Kenwood where guests can partake of some outstanding whites and reds. Tasting tips: The 2008 Russian River Valley estate sauvignon blanc won gold and Best of Class in the 2009 L.A. International Wine Competition, and the 2007 Russian River Valley pinot noir won double gold and Sweepstakes Red in the 2009 West Coast Wine Competition.
Kenwood Vineyards is a venerable Valley institution, dating back to the founding of Pagani Brothers Winery in 1906. The original buildings are still in use, updated and restored, and the wines keep getting better. Tasting tip: The 2006 Jack London cabernet, sourced from the writer’s original Sonoma Mountain vineyards, won gold at the 2009 Sonoma County Harvest Fair.
Blackstone Winery lays claim to the title, America’s favorite merlot, and they sell a ton of it. While the winemaker’s select California merlot is an approachable, if not memorable, everyday wine, Blackstone makes some excellent reserve and limited release wines worth asking for at the Kenwood tasting room. Tasting tip: The 2007 Limited Release Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel is a great buy.
Chateau St. Jean, one of the Sonoma Valley’s most elegant estates, is still making great wine and winemaker Margo Van Staaveren is widely, and rightly, celebrated. The tasting rooms are elegant, the staff authoritative and friendly. Tasting tip: Chardonnay put Chateau St. Jean on the map and they still know how to make it. Try the 2008 Durell Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Valley.
Landmark Vineyards is the other valley winery with Midwest roots and tractor connections, owned by another John Deere descendent, Michael Deere Colhoun and his wife, Mary, have created outstanding whites, including their annual Overlook Chardonnay. They also have gorgeous gardens, a sunlit patio, and a bocce ball court. Tasting tip: Robert Parker loved the 2008 Grand Detour pinot noir and gave it 90 points. Others have rated it a 92.
Tucked away behind Landmark is what Richard Kasmier claims is the smallest Valley winery with a tasting room selling to the public. It’s called Kaz, after its craftily crazy founder, and Kaz is big on big organic reds. Tasting tip: The 2006, 100 percent estate syrah, that Kaz calls Say “Rah,” is simply big, bold and yummy.
Closest to the top of the Valley is the unavoidably visible, and impressively, grand castle known as Ledson Winery & Vineyards, the cornerstone of millionaire builder, philanthropist and winemaker Steve Ledson. It’s the grandest structure in the Valley and it houses more than a few of the Valley’s grandest wines, some of which are sold to support Ledson’s children’s charity. Tasting tip: The 2006 Russian River Valley Old Vine zinfandel got 92 points and a “cellar selection” from Wine Enthusiast.
St. Francis Winery combines a stunning mission-style tasting center with a gourmet kitchen complete with chef and an elaborate program of food and wine pairing. Tasting tip: The Wild Oak Cabernet goes with anything.
(From the Fall 2010 issue of SONOMA)