72 Hours in Sonoma: Day II
This article is a continuation of 72 Hours in Sonoma: Day I.
In Part I of this three-part series, I spoke about setting the tone of the weekend by tasting Central Sonoma, sipping craft beers amidst hop vines, and dining alfresco among fairy lights on some of the finest produce of the region. Today, we give in further to our memorable holiday with a mix of classic vineyard sampling and a contemporary twist of Californian examples of farm-to-table and artisan-on-premises experiences.
Generally, wine-tasting experiences are structured to maximize quantity rather than quality. More often than not, one books a tour bus for a tour of wineries in the region, buckling in for a madcap day of hasty visits. But after the second winery, the taste of the wines becomes all but indistinguishable. For a clearer experience of the glory of Sonoma wines, I recommend spending a luxurious amount of time visiting at most three wineries in a day, with at least a couple of hours between each. Also, I highly recommend visiting one of them during lunch, as many offer wonderful lunch and wine programs set against the picturesque beauty of their vineyards.
Day 2: The Old and New - Wineries, Nose to Tail Dining, Local Art
Sonoma’s viticultural regions are many and distinct. The biggest difference between Napa and Sonoma regions is that the heart of Sonoma today is still agrarian. Most of the wine here is produced by wine farmers who sell to wine makers. Today, 95 percent of the cultivation in the Sonoma region is grapes and nearly 70 percent of all vineyards are farmer owned. These framers grow the grapes and then sell them in bulk to wine makers, who typically have about 100 acres of grapes planted themselves, but produce more wine than can be made from their own vineyards.
I would rank the wine regions within Sonoma, from best to worst, as Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Sonoma Mountains. The most well-known names, like Robert Mondavi and the Jackson Family, produce regional blends. Estate wines are few and not typically available outside the vineyard, but you can enjoy any of these big names in comfort of your living room. What makes a wine trail in Sonoma memorable is finding the hidden gems and tasting not blend, but single-estate wines.
Your day would begin with a continuation of the Central Sonoma experience with tasting and lunch at Lynmar Estate. The vineyard, with vines over 40 years old, 15 clones of pinot noir, and 4 clones of chardonnay, has an array of canopy and rootstock combinations that yield exquisite fruit. While they produce a range of blended wines, the single estate, single grape blends are especially spectacular. Their offerings are best experienced in the cool glades of the garden with a clear view of the nearest vineyard a stone’s throw away. If you want to sip wine while sitting literally on top of a vineyard, this is the place for you.
The next region to hit is the Dry Creek Valley, the single most venerable terroir for American grapes. It is a really tiny viticultural region that produces some of the best wines in the country. Throw a stone in any direction and you will find yourself sipping some of the very best wine the region has to offer distilled conveniently into a long-stemmed, wide-bellied glass. My favorite winery here is the Mounts Family Winery, a micro operation that is primarily a grape farm, with a few bottles aged with passion. A third generation farmer, David came to the family business of wine growing and developed a passion for making wines. You can read my full review of the experience on Fork Spoon Knife.
Another small-scale winery in the region is Preston of Dry Creek, an organic farm and winery located near the historic farm town of Healdsburg, California. Founded in the 1970s by the eponymous Preston family, the nature of the business has changed over time from a conventional estate winery to a diversified farm, counting wine as one of many home-grown and hand-made food products.
Finally, as the day cools off with a setting sun, the place to explore is nearby Healdsburg. The small city is leading the conversion of warehouse areas into artistic hubs. Then, back to Sebastapol to The Barlow, located just outside the city limits, is a veritable craft marketplace akin to the Ferry Market in San Francisco, only a lot more sprawling and grandiose in concept. You can spend a few hours strolling about, shopping, and taking in some unique artistic creations — from a larger-than-life-size Buddha painting, inlayed with real gold, to a sculpture of red carts stacked and fused together at a wine bar.
The final lure for the evening is at one of the best restaurants in the country: a place that subtly salutes the farm-to-table — as well as nose-to-tail — dining experience. Chef Duskie Estes of Zazu Kitchen and Farm is the spirited, enthusiastic chef in pigtails you may recognize from the Iron Chef competitions. Under the bubbly exterior is a lady passionate about the way her pigs — the ones on your plate — are raised on her farm. This is as farm-to-table as it gets, with no detours! The food is spectacular, especially the bacon-wrapped dates, and well-complemented by cocktails made using locally distilled spirits. If you are in Sonoma for any period of time, this is one restaurant that must be on your list.