Just when you think you have had plenty of experience and that you really appreciate it, you are struck again by the caliber of people, accommodations, and restaurants that fill wine regions around the world. Sonoma personifies this — there is such a concentration of cultured individuals whose hospitality and knowledge ensure that this valley is a destination in its own right as opposed to an afterthought to a trip to Napa.
A road trip to the valley from San Francisco takes an hour. The civilized approach is to explore a little of Marin county on the way, so I took a slight detour to Muir Beach for lunch at the renowned (to locals at least) Pelican Inn. It is a complete anachronism — a British country inn, in the truest sense, on the California coastline. It is so special to sit on manicured lawns alongside a Tudor cottage sampling cask ales and bangers and mash as you approach one of the finest wine regions in the world.
I like this part of the world — I haven’t even arrived in wine country yet and it’s already a memorable trip. The allure of Sonoma is that it provides something for every wine lover.
The valley comprises of three AVA’s (designated wine-grape growing regions), each with its own distinct topography and grape varietals. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay star in Russian River, Dry Creek Valley is renowned for Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, and Cabernet and Merlot flourish in Alexander Valley to the north.
Second, there are three distinct categories of wineries to visit, from state of the art corporate entities to midrange family owned operations and finally artisanal producers. The experience truly is about balance as you are able to taste a broad range of varietals in an assortment of settings. For me, though, just as much as I appreciate the technology, the scale, and the financial muscle that a banner name winery experience can provide, the personable one-on-one visit that an artisanal winery provides is hard to replicate.
And that is the thrust of Sonoma. It is a region where ego takes a back seat and grape farmers are at the fore. It is a triumph of humility over flamboyance and of hands-on experience over the hiring of winemaking consultants.
The first region you encounter heading north from San Francisco is the Russian River Valley, home to (arguably) the country’s finest Pinot Noir producers. Centrally located among these, and an ideal base from which to explore, is the cottage at Vine Hill Vineyards.
Dan O’Connell produces an eponymous wine and runs a tranquil guest cottage atop a knoll with sweeping views across the region. The sandy ridge on which it sits is 5 miles long, 2 miles wide, and plays host to such revered names as Merry Edwards, Dehlinger, Sonoma Cutrer, Paul Hobbs, Dutton Goldfield, and Kistler among others. According to Dan, this gem of a topography generates an estimated $100 million of wine production each year, most of it Pinot Noir.
My abiding memory of tasting wine here is a meeting with Ted Elliot, proprietor and winemaker at TR Elliot Family Vineyards. In his barrel room I tasted the wine of each of the individual Pinot Noir clones that form the blend of his sought after Cuvée, Three Plumes — before blending. And subsequently a tasting of his latest vintage, prior to it being released to the marketplace.
A thirty minute trip north brings me to the Alexander Valley. Along with neighboring Chalk Hill, it is one of the most diverse grape growing regions in all of the United States, thanks to a variety of microclimates and soil types. The region is true to its farming roots when prunes and walnuts held sway as the value crops before the arrival of majestic properties like Jordan whose French style château is as mesmerizing as it is authentic.
Want to taste wines with family producers in their barns? Check. Purchase supplies from timeless general stores for a picnic in a scenic meadow? Check. The town of Healdsburg is the heartbeat of the region and has a vibrant town square which can best be described as a scene from the movie Footloose meets best in show farm-to-fork dining experiences.
This region merits two days of exploration (in addition to the two days spent arriving from San Francisco and tasting in the Russian River Valley) considering the banner names of the region - Peter Michael, Chalk Hill, Silver Oak — and the scenery which evokes images of so many different countries as you make your way through.
Visually it could be Switzerland, The Great American Plains, or France. The days vary too, morning fog yields to warm afternoon sunshine. I used the lodgings at Jordan as a base to explore the area, but regrettably they are mostly not available to the general public. Nearby Healdsburg has a handful of excellent boutique hotels — from the Hotel Healdsburg to Madrona Manor.
The beauty of touring Sonoma’s wine region is the sheer number of hidden gems you find among wineries operating below the radar....Kosta Browne, Marimar Torres, Freeman, Fisher...the list is easily augmented.
It is with a sigh that I leave Sonoma for Napa. Time spent tasting sensual Pinot Noir, sense-of-place Chardonnay, and mountain-style Cabernet Sauvignon is special indeed. Up and over the Mayacama’s and into Napa Valley, and what a stark contrast.........
Favorite Wine: Merry Edwards Pinot Noir, Coopersmith Vineyard
Favorite Restaurant: The Pelican, Muir beach
Favorite Accommodation: Jordan Winery (regrettably, private)
Most Memorable Moment: Barrel tasting the clones, before blending of the cuvée, for TR Elliott’s Three Plumes Pinot Noir