It’s A Winederful Life

If you have been a reader of this blog, you will have noticed the lack of posts for almost a year. I have no real excuse other than the fact that I had shifted my attention and writing efforts to my NY Wine Shopping Examiner column on

However, I feel that I have a voice that is not getting heard with that column. Accordingly, I am excited to announce the launch of my new website: It’s A Winederful Life. My Grape Matter posts will remain as is, but all new material will be posted to the new site. I hope you will follow me in my new online journey.

Sonoma Travelogue: Wining & Dining in Wine Country

As noted in a previous post, I went to Sonoma, CA for the Wine Bloggers Conference at the tail end of October. We flew into SFO airport, picked up our rental car and then headed downtown to cross the Golden Gate bridge, which is my second favorite bridge, (Brooklyn Bridge is my first favorite) on our way north.

We chose to take the scenic route, driving along Route 1, which meanders along the Pacific coast before heading inland through Point Reyes National Seashore and then back out to ocean views. On the way, we drove through some small towns including the quaint, beachfront village of Stinson Beach (Population ~400) and later the rural Tomales (Population ~50) before reaching Bodega Bay.

This seaside town is due west of Santa Rosa and provided a perfect place to stop for lunch. Given the myriad of signs for BBQ oysters (something we had never heard of), we made sure to order this local delicacy and were well rewarded. Oysters measuring nearly six inches in size had been grilled and then dressed with BBQ sauce. They were tender, meaty and above all, tasty.

Bellies full, we were now ready to begin our marathon of wine tastings planned for the long weekend. We tried to stop at Freestone, Joseph Phelps’ new Sonoma venture focusing on cool climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but they are only open Friday through Monday and it was Thursday. Our next stop was Lynmar where we selected their Estate tasting ($10.00/tasting), pairing two Chardonays and two Pinots Noirs which compares their Russian River Valley AVA blends with the Quail Hill Vineyard estate- grown fruit. A dramatic, modern tasting room is available, but as it was 95 degrees we decided to take advantage of the unseasonably warm weather and enjoy our tasting on the patio overlooking a lovely garden and the vineyards beyond.

We then headed to Hartford Family Winery to taste through a number of their wines. Of particular note, we tasted the Fog Dance (Green Valley AVA), Land’s Edge (Sonoma Coast AVA) and Velvet Sisters (Anderson Valley AVA) Pinot Noirs, all from the 2006 vintage. While all were California Pinots, they each had their own distinct characteristics, the first being the most floral and delicate, the latter, the most herbal and earthy and the middle one straddling the two with bright, ripe and juicy fruit. The tasting room is located in a beautiful stone building with large, wooden doors, recalling a European chateau.

With an eye toward saving our energy for dinner, we drove to Santa Rosa, which is centrally located within Sonoma, to check into our room at the Flamingo Hotel where the conference was being held. The 1950s vintage hotel features a neon flamingo atop its tower, which while more indicative of Vegas than wine country, serves as a beacon when returning to one’s hotel at night.

Our first dinner in Sonoma was booked at the Madrona Manor. Prepatory research indicated that the restaurant at this victorian mansion (which is also an inn) was among the top rated in the area and was chosen for its charming decor (the equally lauded Cyrus in Healdsburg seemed to have a more urban vibe) and Chef’s tasting menu. For $85.00, ($139 when paired with wines), diners are treated to a six-course tasting menu, along with an amuse-bouche and two apres-desserts. We sat in a beautifully   appointed room and were regaled with top-notch service. In fact, the maitre-d’ explained to us that the restaurant knows what the kitchen is capable of handling and thus, when booking private parties, which it had done that night, limits the number of reservations taken to be sure it doesn’t exceed its service capacity.

Friday morning  began with an appointment (which is required) at Siduri, a winery located within a corporate park in north Santa Rosa.  Owned by Adam and Dianne Lee, Siduri does not own any land, but rather, purchases all of its fruit from premium vineyards, producing an abundance of single-vineyard wines (all Pinot Noirs) from throughout California and Oregon. Sister Novy Family wines focuses on Syrah and Zinfandel and a handful of white wines. The tasting selection changes and included three of their 22 Pinot Noirs on the day of our visit. A brief visit to the behemoth Kendall-Jackson Wine Center precluded a visit to the tasting room and instead focused on its culinary and sensory gardens. We arrived a little too late for the gratis, guided tour, but were able to take a self-guided stroll through them, viewing different grape varieties and trellising systems and smelling various herbs and fruits planted to simulate the aromas found in wine.

By now it was lunch time and the conference was appropriately kicked-off with lunch at Kickranch Vineyards, owned by Dick Keenan & Kathy McNamara. Kickranch’s fruit, a mix of Sauvignon Blanc and Rhone varietals,  is highly prized by many wineries with long-term contracts, who produce vineyard-designated wines with it. Many of these wineries were present at the luncheon, including Renard, Rosenblum, Carica, Bedrock and Enkidu. I was particularly impressed with newcomer Bedrock, which is produced by Morgan Twain-Peterson, son of Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery. However, with his Master of Wine credential nearly complete, one certainly can’t say that Morgan is resting on his father’s laurels and, moreover, the wines speak for themselves.

Friday’s dinner was held at the hotel and featured wines from the Dry Creek Valley, including Dry Creek Vineyard, Quivira, Truett-Hurst, Michel-Schlumberger and Pedoncelli. Of note, many of the winegrowers in this area are practicing biodynamic viticulture.

Saturday morning found us on a vineyard hike with Mark Howser, vineyard manager for Alexander Valley Vineyards (AVV). Mark is extremely knowledgeable, having received his viticultural degree from Fresno State after leaving the military. Our two-mile walk began at Silver Oak’s Cabernet Sauvignon vines and meandered uphill for breathtaking views of the valley before heading down to AVV’s newly completed caves and culminating in a tasting paired with hors d’oeurves. The Alexander Valley AVA is highly prized for its Cabernet Sauvignon, which is much leaner and elegant in style compared to many of those produced in the Napa Valley, where the climate is warmer.

Dinner on Saturday night was held at Sebastiani, not too far from Sonoma Plaza. The historic property was a lovely setting for our meal with its antique vineyard and winery equipment. We were especially impressed with the Barbera. Sebastiani has recently sold off a significant portion of its holdings in an attempt to return to its roots as a small, family-run winery, now in its fourth generation.

At the conclusion of the conference, we met up with friends Peter and Nicole of San Francisco to continue our vineyard tour. We first went to Seghesio ($5.00/tasting), starting off with a white produced from the Italian varietal, Fiano. Primarily known for their Zinfandels, we had the opportunity to taste the Cortina, Rockpile and Home Ranch Zinfandels in addition to a Sangiovese.

Our next stop was Ridge, most famous for its Monte Bello, which took the top place among red wines in the 1976 Tasting of Paris. This Bordeaux-style blend is available for purchase, but not tasting, at least not at the Lytton Springs tasting room in the Dry Creek Valley (another tasting room is located on Monte Bello Road in Cupertino, CA). Rather, we enjoyed a tasting ($5.00/tasting) of several Zinfandels, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Petite Syrah. The adjacent vineyards boast old-vine Zinfandel and offer lovely vistas of Dry Creek.

We rounded out the day with a visit to Papapietro Perry, which specializes in single vineyard Pinot Noir. Given this prediliction, its Zinfandels are produced in a lighter, Pinot Noir-style, which while quite nice as wines, are not really indicative of Zinfandel wines. The tasting room, which features a copper-topped bar, is located up a hill off Dry Creek Valley Road, where several other tasting rooms are located, making it easy to visit several places in one shot.

We enjoyed a wonderful dinner at El Dorado Kitchen with our friends, where we indulged in local produce and local wine. The scent of their truffled french fries wafting from the open kitchen was heavenly. We then bid them goodbye before returning to the sanctuary of our room at the Vintner’s Inn (we had switched hotels post-conference), owned by Ferrari-Carano wines.

With the conference behind us and a full day ahead, we hit the ground running early Monday morning with a visit to Tony Coturri of Coturri Winery. The drive to Glen Ellen was exquisite as the sun tried earnestly to break through the morning mist and we began our ascent to the Coturri property. Tony greeted us warmly, along with his two dogs, and spent considerable time answering our many questions about organic and biodynamic farming and winemaking. He also graciously poured several wines for us to taste. He doesn’t have a tasting room, so we greatly appreciate his willingness to share his time and expertise with us.

Given our interest in biodynamics, Tony suggested we visit the nearby Benziger Family Winery, which we did.  We chose to forgo the vineyard tram tour ($15.00/person) and headed straight to the tasting room, passing an exhibit of antique winery and farm equipment found on the property. We selected their “Estate, Biodynamic & Single Vineyard Tasting” ($15.00/tasting), which is poured in a special room away from the main tasting bar ($10.00/tasting).  I was suitably impressed with the Demeter-certified biodynamic Tribute, a Bordeaux-style blend made from estate grown fruit, but at $80.00/bottle, not likely to end up in my cellar. Benziger also has a nice educational display out front where we spent some time adding to our viticultural knowledge.

Returning to the hotel to change (the sun had indeed made its appearance), we headed to J Vineyards, which was established by Judy Jordan, daughter of the proprietors of Jordan wine. The winery is well known for its sparkling wines, although still wines are equally produced. We had planned to do a food and wine pairing in lieu of lunch, but we did not have a reservation for their Bubble Room, and we determined that it was still too cool to sit on the terrace to enjoy the oyster and sparkler pairing. We did stay to taste a few wines and were given the opportunity to sample their Pinotage, which was quite a surprise as our first encounter with a non-South African Pinotage. We were advised that there are only 15 acres of Pinotage in the US, with J owning three of them. Our kind host recommended Bear Republic Brewery in Healdsburg for a casual lunch, which was a nice respite before it was back to wine.

Getting an insider’s tip from a colleague, we checked out the wines at C. Donatiello, an up-and-coming Russian River Valley Chardonnay and Pinot Noir winery. From the parking lot, a set of landscaped stairs lead you to their beautiful patio, where signs note that picnics are welcome, before you walk into the tasting room. The Christie Vineyard Chardonnay 2007 was the most Burgundian in style and really nice at $38.00/bottle while the Sauvignon Blanc 2007 was interesting for its full body, depth and structure ($24.00/bottle).

Next on the agenda (yes, I really did have a formal, typed agenda for the trip) was Rochioli Winery. There was no fee for tasting, but only their estate wines are available. We tasted the 2007 Estate Chardonny and 2007 Special Cuvee Pinot Noir. While both wines were well made and quite lovely, the visit didn’t provide an appreciation for why the single vineyard Rochioli wines are so highly allocated, with as much as a five year wait to get on the coveted mailing list.

Mustering up some final energy, we visited Martinelli Winery, highly regarded for its wines produced by consultant winemaker, Helen Turley. I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Ms. Turley was a fellow Cornell alumna. Here we tasted through four different Chardonnays, followed by two Pinot Noirs and two Syrahs. All were very good wines and I was stunned to note that the Vigneto di Evo Zinfandel 2006 was well balanced despite its staggering 17.2% abv; surely one would be staggering after more than one glass of this wine. By this point, we were ready to rest up before dinner and probably should have selected a more locally situated restaurant in Santa Rosa, but instead chose to return to Sonoma Plaza to dine at The Girl and the Fig. The wine list is restricted to Rhone varietals, but not only to those from France. The restaurant’s Plat du Jour 3-course menu changes every Thursday and is a steal at $32.00/person. We then chose to pair the menu with a flight of three wines for an additional $8.00/person. The food was delicious and kept us warm on the 30+ minute ride back to our hotel.

Our final morning in Sonoma found us at Dutton-Goldfield’s tasting room, which it shares with Balletto. We had been connected to Dutton through a fellow wineblogger whose son is assistant winemaker there. Their Marketing Manager, Valerie Watham gave us a guided tasting and provided a history of the label. The “marriage” of vineyard manager Steve Dutton (of Dutton Ranch fame) and winemaker Dan Goldfield (formerly with La Crema and Hartford), Dutton-Goldfield focuses on cool climate grape growing, producing a range of single-vineyard wines, mostly from the Russian River Valley.

The last stop on our Sonoma tour was Iron Horse Vineyards, which had special meaning for us as we had read Joy Sterling’s beautiful pictorial book during our initial forray into the world of wine. Joy and I had corresponded prior to our trip as she was registered for the conference as well. Unfortunately, we did not connect with one another, but we were still pleased to make it to the winery to taste through a number of their spectacular sparkling wines. The tasting room is located outside with a wooden bar and a mountain top view with few, if any, rivals.

We stopped for a quick lunch at the nearby Underwood Bar & Bistro, at Valerie’s recommendation, known to be frequented by the local wine industry. The meal was nice, but rushed (my fault, not the restaurant’s) as I was anxious to get on the road and drive to the airport for our afternoon flight. We sidetracked the downtown traffic by taking the Bay Bridge instead this time and made it to the airport on time.

Taking stock, it was truly a terrific first visit to Sonoma and we know we will be back in the future. With 100s of wineries in the region, our visit to 17 leaves many more still to visit. Overall, I highly recommend a trip to Sonoma and would suggest the following tips when visiting such a long list of tasting rooms: Share tasting flights; Spit, don’t swallow; and Remember to eat.