Sonoma Wine Country Weekend: A Rich Collection of Flavors and Experiences

This annual celebration of Sonoma wine and food offers the best of one of America's great culinary and enological destinations
At the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend.

The problem with the Taste of Sonoma walk-around wine extravaganza — part of the annual Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, the 20th anniversary observance of which took place from August 31 through September 2 — is like the problem with the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre: There’s just too much good stuff to digest, even in a couple of days. (Full disclosure: was a media sponsor of this splendid event.)

That didn’t stop us from trying to drink in and devour as much as possible, though. We wandered for hours and then more hours around the gorgeous MacMurray Ranch (see photos, page 2 and 3) in Healdsburg, on whose sprawling property at least 200 wineries — from gigantic and ubiquitous to tiny and obscure, from centenarians to new kids on the block — along with about 35 Sonoma County restaurants, caterers, and winery chefs, were generously dispensing samples of their finest wares. Add to that a miscellany of local food producers and processors, a series of Wine Talk seminars, sommelier-guided tours through selected winery stands, cooking demonstrations, and various other special programs — I did an informal “Meet and Greet” around the food and sparkling wine pairings offered by Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyards in an outdoor “Bubble Lounge” with Eva Bertran, who describes herself as Ferrer’s “chief wine-drinker,” but is actually the winery’s executive vice-president — and you had an extremely rich and liver-challenging couple of days. Oh, and did I mention the perfect weather, warm and dry and blue-skied?

The Taste of Sonoma sessions were only part of the weekend. On Friday, a series of winemaker lunches were held at properties around the county, with a Sonoma Starlight Supper Club at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville, in the Alexander Valley. This was the old Château Souverain property, but Coppola — the filmmaker got started in the wine business in 1975, when he bought the old Gustave Niebaum estate in the Napa Valley — has tarted it up with a cinematic flair, reopening it to the public as a kind of vineyard-living theme park in 2010. Among the amenities — besides bocce courts, two restaurants, a bar, and a combination mini-museum (Marlon Brando's desk from "The Godfather," a spiffily restored 1948 Tucker) and maxi-shop (lots and lots of wine, glasses, coasters, books, scarves, doodads, doohickeys, and thingamajigs) — are several swimming pools at which visitors may rent lounge chairs and even cabanas for the day. Around the pools, for the Supper Club, about 20 vintners poured their wares (there was a lifeguard on duty, just in case things got too interesting) and there were food stations serving juicy meat carved off whole baby pigs in two irresistible, rustic forms — simply roasted and as porchetta (boned out and stuffed with sausage and herbs) — as well as grilled chicken, sausage with green beans, zucchini and ricotta tart, and other summery Italianate fare so good it was hard to stop eating. 

Bookending the weekend was the Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction at Chateau St. Jean, an all-afternoon affair with proceeds going to a number of local non-profits. The event included an outdoor reception, a five-course sit-down lunch at winery-sponsored tables inside the auction tent (prepared by chefs from five local restaurants; the standout dish was spiced braised lamb with black beluga lentils, pea shoot and radish salad, and vadouvan curry vinaigrette from Josh Silvers of Petite Syrah restaurant in Santa Rosa), and of course the auction itself. The theme this year, for some reason, was Bollywood; the event was officially dubbed Sonoma Shambala — presumably a reference to the mythical Tibetan Buddhist kingdom of Shambhala, and not to the B. W. Stevenson or Beastie Boys songs or the Tanzanian language of the same name. This meant lots of wine-related locals vamping in saris and rajah coats, Indian (and Tibetan) accents in the food served, and an elaborately choreographed Indian-themed stage show.

The main business of the day was conducted with sometimes intimidating verve by auctioneer David Reynolds, Chateau St. Jean's former publicity maven. The 35 lots ranged from a tasting of old and new vintages from the legendary Hanzell Vineyards plus a dinner cooked by Gary Danko to an insider's visit to Paris Fashion Week in Fall 2013 to a collection of about 150 Sonoma County wines with subscriptions to Cigar Aficionado and Wine Spectator and two tickets to the latter publication's Annual Feast in New York City this October. I and were part of Lot Number 15, "Bring Your Bindi to Barcelona." This promised a weeklong culinary tour of the Catalan capital led by Eva Bertran; a winemaker dinner at the Freixenet winery, Gloria Ferrer's parent enterprise; two three-liter bottles of Gloria Ferrer sparkling wine; and a hands-on cooking class and tapas party at Gloiria Ferrer, conducted by Bertran and myself. The lot went for $14,000, not that we're bragging. (photo courtesy of MacMurray Ranch)

But back to the Taste of Sonoma. The county is known above all for its elegant Pinot Noirs and full-bodied, oak-soaked Chardonnays. Because these wines are so prominent in the marketplace, and because I couldn't possibly have tasted everything on offer, I decided to be a bit contrarian and avoid these two varietals for the most part. I also avoided most of the biggest and/or best-known names — Kendall-Jackson, Chateau St. Jean, Buena Vista, Rodney Strong, Gallo Signature, Clos du Bois, Geyser Peak, and so on, not because there's anything wrong with them but because they, too, are already familiar to us.

As I wandered the four packed tents — one each devoted to the Alexander, Russian River, Dry Creek, and Sonoma valleys (these being the four largest of the county's 13 AVAs or American Viticultural Areas) — with slowly decreasing stability, here, in alphabetical order, are a few of the excellent wines I tasted:

• Bartholomew Park Winery 2008 Estate Sonoma County Zinfandel, rich and dark with a faint sweetness and the kind of herbal complexity you'd find in (don't laugh) really good root beer.

• Cartograph 2011 Russian River Valley Floodgate Vineyard Gewürztraminer, a low-key approximation of the Alsatian style, a little richer than the dependable Navarro Gewürztraminer from Mendocino County (more or less the standard for the grape in California), nicely perfumed but not cloying, with peach and plum flavors and crisp acidity keeping the fruit in line.

• Dutcher Crossing 2011 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc, vivid and lively with a fresh tropical-fruit lusciousness; the same winery's 2009 Maple Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, the kind of wine that made me fall in love with Zinfandel many years ago, peppery and intensely fruity, deftly balanced, soft but not flabby; and again the same winery's 2009 Dry Creek Valley Proprietor's Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, one of the rare Sonoma Cabernets that I think could stand up to some of its best Napa cousins, dark and intense, with plenty of grape-and-cherry fruit, a hint of licorice, and just enough oak to add structure. (Dutcher Crossing, which was new to me, was probably my most satisfying winery "find" of the weekend; I sure haven't drunk the last of them.) (Photo by Chad Keig)

• Hamel Family 2011 Sonoma County Estate Rosé, pale bronze-orange in color like some Provençal rosé, lean, with a nice acidic edge, and some tasty strawberry fruit; and the same winery's 2010 Sonoma Valley Estate Zinfandel, juicy and spicy, with a right-down-the-middle balance of acidity, oak, and fruit.

• Medlock Ames 2010 Estate Alexander Valley Bell Mountain Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, sunny, lemony, acidic, a little green-tasting — like one of the better Sauvignon Blancs (not the low-priced ones) from New Zealand's Marlborough region.

• Selby 2008 Sonoma County Old Vine Zinfandel, toasty on the nose with a distinct but now overpowering blackberry-jam intensity.

• Taft Street 2011 Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc, a textbook example of what can be done with this utilitarian grape in California, bright and clean, with a citrus bite and hint of minerals and a long finish; and the same winery's 2011 Russian River Valley Pinot Gris, luscious and fruity but with a steely backbone.

• Trione 2010 Russian River Valley River Road Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, lemony and a little grassy, with sharp Sancerre-like definition. (photo courtesy of Bartholomew Park Winery)

Of course, I didn't — couldn't — ignore Pinot Noir and Chardonnay altogether. My breakfast wine, in fact, was a flagon of the host property MacMurray Ranch's 2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, always an agreeable wine, with a pure varietal aroma and a flavor that reminds be a little of cherries and a little of beets and leaves a lovely winey glow on the palate.

I was also happy to discover the Thomas George Estates 2009 Russian River Valley Cresta Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, almost Zinfandel-dark, silky and spicy, with lots of fruit and a long finish. (I'm tempted to call this a Pinot Noir for people who don't like Pinot Noir — though there's no mistaking what the grape is.)

Among the Chardonnays I tried, I had to love the GlenLyon 2010 Sonoma Coast Parmelee Hill Vineyard Hog Wilde Reserve Chardonnay, and not only for the name and the colorful packaging. (The winery is owned by a longtime commercial actor named Squire Fridell — he was the on-screen spokesman for Toyota for decades and also played Ronald McDonald for about ten years — and he has plenty of fun with his labels and promotional material. One of his flyers advises "Sniff...Sip...Giggle," and his other wines include a rosé called Blush o' the Boar and a Cabernet-Syrah blend called Tirare il Dito, "pull the finger," an Italian jokester's exhortation.) The wine appealed to me because it really tasted more like Chardonnay than it did like California — I thought of a good Mâcon Blanc — and used oak sparingly enough to let the delicious fruit shine through.

I also found two completely unoaked Chardonnays, a real rarity in these parts: the Avant 2011 Sonoma County Chardonnay, an offering from, yes, Kendall-Jackson, was very pleasant, with lots of varietal flavor and good body. The Idell Family 2009 Sonoma Coast Michael Mara Vineyard Estate Chardonnay was in another class, a really elegant wine, developing nicely in the bottle, with rich fruit and real complexity. I'd love to taste what other Sonoma County vintners could do with their excellent Chardonnay grapes if they fell out of love a little with the tired cliché of heavy oak. But I'll be back in Sonoma at next year's Wine Country Weekend even if they don't. (photo courtesy of MacMurray Ranch)

If you don't want to wait another year to sample some of Sonoma County's best, by the way, the Sonoma County Vintners & Growers Alliance is sponsoring a Sonoma Valley Reserve weekend, Octobrer 20 and 21, including private winery access, tastings, hands-on vineyard experience, and more. Tickets are available at

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