Sonoma County, California
On the spur of the moment I decided to go on a tasting tour of Sonoma County, California. It is the county directly west of Napa Valley. I figured Napa Valley is more crowded and more expensive. And I didn’t know much at all about Sonoma County. My goals were to learn about the wines of Sonoma County and find some gems. The really great gems were found on the last day. There are about a dozen AVA’s in the county, some of which are familiar and some of which are fairly arcane. I prepared for my trip by searching the internet for a few maps of where we were going, and figured that the local bookstore would have the best books. This has always been my strategy when traveling. Check out the local bookstore before you do anything.
The first day we would look at the southern half of the County. The second day we would do the northern AVA of Alexander Valley. The third day we would do the Russian River Valley near the middle of the county. And the last day I would figure out by the time it arrived.
I flew CHA-DFW-SMF, met a friend, and spent the night outside of Sacramento. The next morning we drove the remaining hour into Sonoma Valley. The southern part of the Valley is the Carneros region. The only California Pinot Noirs I have ever liked have come from this region. I must admit that most of my experience with California Pinot is cheap! When we first go into Sonoma from Napa, the first place you come to is Nicolson Ranch. It has a nice and expansive tasting room. However, the cost of tasting is also expansive to their bottom line. You had to spend $45. These guys are in the business of making money from tastings! We just left.
The second place, Ceja, was open according to google maps, but was only open on the weekend. Strike two! However, across the parking lot we saw a small place called Homewood Winery. It is a small place that we were looking for, where they view the tasting as a device to get you to buy wine instead of a profit center. We had six wines, and my favorite two were the Roussanne and the GSM (Grenache-Syrah-Moudevre) blend. The Roussanne was a new grape for me. It is a dry white with citrus notes and had a lot of tastes going on. This is an up an up and coming grape in Sonoma. The idea of a GSM blend was unknown to me by that name. But it was also made by a few wineries in Sonoma.
After that we checked out the Larson Family Winery. That appears to meet our criteria of being a small family owned winery that has a shot at being overlooked. You had to go down a dirt road to get to the place. But the main road is one of the main roads you might take to get from San Francisco to Napa. My favorite wines there were a sparkling Chardonnay and Pinot Noir Brut. It was dry with an apple finish that would hit the tongue and then dissipate quickly. The second was a Malbec that tastes like a typical large fruit California Cabernet only with a spice and pepper nose and taste. They had a few cabs, including the “Three Lab Cab” with a picture of their three dogs on the bottle. Trick names are never a good sign.
And with that we left Carneros. I didn’t see any of the Pinots we liked. We headed up to the town of Sonoma to The Wine Check to pick up wine luggage for the trip back. This luggage was a tip by TravelZork’s Michael and they work great. A twelve bottle case of wine weighs about 40 pounds. The bag weighs less than five pounds. So you can (airline) check a case with no heavy bag fee. Only get them from The Wine Check for $75 plus shipping instead of Amazon for $129 free shipping.
We drove north through the town of Sonoma. And even in mid-December there is a ton of traffic. The word “Sonoma” means “valley of the moon” in a Native American language. And on the eastern part of the Sonoma Valley AVA is the “Moon Mountain” AVA. What a great name! We stopped at Arrowood Winery that seemed like it should be in Moon Mountain. They had a list of Cabernets which were decent, and had a great view from the eastern part of Sonoma Valley.
After that we found the best place for the day, Deerfield Ranch Winery. Once we got there it was a bit confusing. There seemed to be construction of something, and the building was not equipped with a tasting room. Eventually someone pointed us to the underground wine cave, which was pretty neat. They had a great Pinot (Glass House Vineyard) that was spicy and not as fruit forward with a very unique taste. The nice Syrah had some licorice in there in addition to the requisite pepper taste. There was a great DRX Meritage with a funky cheese nose and raisins and darker spicier fruit. Very complex. But the huge winner was the 2009 Old Vine Zinfandel. It had a funky jammy chocolate nose. But it tasted like slightly sweet Milk Chocolate with a little spice. Very smooth. Very nice. Very complex. One of the best things we drank on the trip.
On the way out we saw what I thought was construction was a mobile bottling plant based in a semi-truck. Apparently many wineries use this service to bottle their wines in a day!
Now we were racing the clock as most tasting rooms open between 11am and 12pm and close between 4pm and 5pm. We stopped at Muscardini, which specialized in Italian varietals. The best wine there was the Rancho Salina Moon Mountain District. It was a Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend. The best thing there was the grappa. Bad grappa is horrible. Moderately priced grappa is usually horrible. Only really good grappa is really good. But there grappa was really good but not really expensive.
After a rather full day, from there we drove north to the town of Windsor to check into our hotel. Keep an eye out for part two within the next few days.