Exploring Sonoma County in 2 Days
Sonoma. How do you describe Sonoma?
Well, I guess the best word to describe it is foggy.
I wanted to think it was just the time of the year I visited (January) that might have made it more common, but it turns out fog is a huge reason the Russian River Valley, one of Sonoma's most prestigious sub-appellations, is such a successful wine growing region.
The way the valley is set-up, it has the ocean on the west and the hills on the east, the fog creeps in through the Petaluma gap. I managed to drive right through it on my journey up the 101, and the density of this fog was so great you couldn’t see much more than 100 yards ahead.
The fog provides benefits; it protects the vines from what can be brutal day time heat by creating almost a blanket-like effect over the vines. This also gives the grapes a bit of UV protection which keeps the skins of the grapes thin, creating a softer texture when making wine.
2 Days to See it All: Day One
My trip was a quick one. 2 full days of tastings and nearly 20 hours of driving, the experience was well worth it.
I managed to make it to Healdsburg around 12pm after a 7 ½ hour drive for my first stop at Quivira in the sub-appellation of Dry Creek Valley. The sun was out and warm and I don’t think I could put into words the calm that I felt sitting on their beautiful patio enjoying a glass of one of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs Quivira Fig Tree Sauvignon Blanc and just looking out onto their vineyards and beautiful garden. It was just what the doctor ordered after the crazy holiday season.
I mention the garden because one of Quivira’s main goals is to farm and produce biodynamicly as well as creating a biodiversity on the property. They have an actual farm, with cows and chickens and other animals!
With a beautiful array of cheeses and a salad prepared straight from their garden on the property, we sat down for lunch and dug into some truly beautiful Zinfandels. The Quivira Black Boar Zinfandel was by far the hit of Zinfandel line-up It was soft with a hint of sage on the finish but still had the classic Zinfandel spice to it.
Next stop was to drop by and visit with the wonderful team at Arnot-Roberts where I got to explore a bit more of the region through single varietals which is the winery's main focus. All of their wines are very terroir-driven and they seek to show exactly where each wine came from.
Two of my favorites were the Arnot Roberts Gamay Noir, El Dorado County and the Arnot Roberts Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. The Gamay has a spiciness on the nose and palate that jumps right out of the glass. This wine sees a touch of carbonic maceration for about a week and has a powerful grip and structure, but finishes with a light zippiness and freshness of fruit.
The Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir comes from a vineyard just 3 miles from the ocean, and the wine has lots of classic Sonoma bright red cherry and hints of the Sonoma spice and tannic structure focusing the wine down the palate. This wine was the most intriguing of my visit; I kept finding myself going back for more, and just in the 20 minutes in my glass it took me on an adventure.
Last stop of the day and a wonderful experience was with the team over at Mauritson. The Mauritson Family has been farming the Dry Creek Valley for over 140 years.
Clay Mauritson, head winemaker and owner of the facility, tried his best to get out of the wine business, but after college realized it is where he belongsed and we are sure glad he decided to make his way back. Clay is the 6th generation in a family of grape growers, and in 1998 he produced his first bottling of Dry Creek Zinfandel under the Mauritson Label.
There is a distinct sense of family at this winery; from the minute I walked into the tasting room I could feel it. As Clay walked me around the facility and introduced me to his team, you could feel it; the passion and the unity really shows in the wine. My eyes were growing heavy and my body began to slump over, but then they brought out the LOAM line of wines. I could only get my hands on one of the wines here for the store, but this line is a focus on a single variety and clone of Cabernet Sauvignon, focusing on the soils they are grown in.
I could only get my hands on the wine that is actually the blend of these wines which is the Mauritson LOAM Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County, which still gives a great representation of Cabernet, clean and precise with a beautiful finish. It was a wonderful way to end the first day of tastings.
Well, after a very good night’s rest I wasn’t foggy in the slightest, but I can’t say the same for my first stop of the day.
I made my way to Gary Farrell Winery through the thick morning fog that settles into the Russian River Valley. There is something to be said about the first stop of the day on a wine trip, there is a calmness about it and serene feeling, a quietness that falls over you. Then again, it could have been that I was the only person at the winery at 10 a.m., but who knows?
They poured me a glass of (what is sadly only available at the winery) a beautiful mineral-driven, clean, crisp Sauvignon Blanc which was not the worst as far as breakfast wines go. I will also say this is the only bottle of wine I brought back from this trip (might be worth picking up a bottle or two).
We walked the winery, and I learned about the rich and important history that Gary Farrell has played in the elevation of Russian River Wines. It all started with a handshake agreement and the famous Rochioli vineyard and other pioneer growers that are still in effect to this day. The biggest difference now is the winemaker; in 2012 Theresa Heredia left her doctoral degree on hold to persue her passion for winemaking and has producing wine ever since.
After the tour we sat down to taste through what I could get my hands on as far as distribution goes. There wasn’t a flop in the bunch; I enjoyed everything.
The Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Chardonnay has a beautiful body and structure with minerality and a bright acidity that sees 100% malolactic fermentation which helps balance out the acidity of the wine, giving it a creamy enjoyable texture. The Gary Farrell Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir is deep in color and fruit purity with a mouth-coating roundness that is enjoyable with every sip. There is a bit of a spice character on the finish that gives the wine a bit more depth than the Gary Farrell Russian River Selection Pinot Noir (also delicious), but the depth of the vineyard-specific wine comes uniquely from the soils and microclimate of the Hallberg vineyard.
Of course, I had to make a stop at Ridge Vineyards to experience the bigger and bolder side of the valley. There are beautiful old Zinfandel vineyards just outside the tasting room that are truly picturesque, going on as far as the eye can see.
Ridge Lytton Springs Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mataro is easy drinking and a great blend. It has all of the spice and complexity of a blend, with a surprising lightness and vibrancy. Ridge was a bit of a power tasting experience followed by an interesting drive to find Joseph Swan vineyards, with wines of a far different character.
Joseph Swan’s “Cuvee de Trois” Chardonnay was by far the stand-out for me. The fruit on this wine really shines bright, almost as brightly as the acidity it accompanies. A slight touch of oak and 40 months that it sits on its lees gives this wine immense depth and structure. It is a hard wine to describe. There was something about it that reminded me of the base wine of a Champagne, perhaps it was a leesy note. Soft and luscious with a pop of acidity that brings a lift and balance.
Of course, I can’t leave out my final stop on the tour Anthill Farms. The standout was by far their non-vintage Anthill Farms North Coast Pinot Noir. Finding GOOD Pinot Noir from California for you guys under $30 is a mission I set for myself when I took over this department, and I think this wine at $22.99 really delivers. It is clean, balanced, possessing great fruit with waves of savory goodness throughout it. There is a wonderful youthful vibrancy in the wine that really makes it pop.
Summing It All Up
Nearly 20 hours of driving, 55 wines, and an exploration of Sonoma County, I can say with certainty this trip was worth it, yet I know I've only scratched the surface of this incredible land. Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast--I can go on and on about what I have yet to explore, but this first introduction was mighty impressive.
This time of year, the Sonoma area might be on the cold side, but it was quiet in January and actually an awesome time to go for a visit. I can’t wait to go back and experience more of the area and find new and exciting wines for the store.