Back in March, when everyone else was deep in the throes of madness over the NCAA basketball tournament, I was experiencing some serious spring fever…spring fever that I cured by thinking about the time I knew I would be spending in Sonoma and Napa counties this summer.
I poured over books, websites, and articles about the areas and the wineries located there. I dreamed of all the wonderful wines I would be experiencing, many that are not distributed outside of the tasting rooms in wine country. I begrudgingly chose eight that I put at the top of my list to visit. Eight tasting rooms which I couldn’t wait to see, all the time knowing that it just wasn’t fair to choose only a measly eight. But I tried.
And I’ve tried my hardest to visit and enjoy (which wasn't difficult) each and every one. Here is my progress so far.
The grape growing and winemaking duo of Steve Dutton and Dan Goldfield is known for making fabulous pinot noirs. This warm and inviting tasting room is easily located near the town of Graton, though it is considered Sebastopol. I looked forward to the wonderful pinots others had recommended to me, and the wines did not disappoint. However, I found some special and somewhat unusual jewels there in addition to the fabulous pinot noirs. In fact, Dutton-Goldfield shows one of the reasons I enjoy Sonoma County tasting rooms and winemakers so much: quality wines made from other than the usual suspects grape varieties of just cabernet and chardonnay.
Don’t miss: 2013 Chileno Valley Vineyard Riesling—wonderfully dry and refreshing, this has the minerality, pear, and apple associated with traditional Rieslings, without the sugar to mask the wine’s complexity. Think German…with a slight California flare shown through both nose and palate.
Don’t miss: 2014 Green Valley Vineyard Gewürztraminer—also wonderfully dry while being beautifully aromatic, this wine is filled with citrus fruit and florals. This Gewurtz was too good to not purchase. It would be great sipping alone or with light fare. Though all the wines were fantastic, I chose these whites as don’t miss wines because of the almost-rarity of finding these bottled varietals.
|Dutton-Goldfield's tasting room with unique varietals waiting to sip.
Though I would have loved to visit Ridge’s original vineyard near Santa Cruz—Monte Bello—I happened to be in the Alexander Valley neighborhood, home to Ridge’s Lytton Springs’ location. Overlooking 115 year old zinfandel vines, I enjoyed the special Monte Bello tasting, a quick trip through three vintages of the flagship Ridge wine: 1988, 2000, and 2011.
Don’t miss: Monte Bello tasting—if you are a wine geek of any degree, the fifty dollar fee is worth every single penny. Every one! Seeing how this amazing wine ages is a treat, in and of itself. The ’88 was beautifully fig brown with muted fruit, dry earth, and white pepper. The 2000 was showing its youth after 15 years. It still has much life left. And the 2011, wow! Silky and smooth today, yet ready to age for decades, this wine is an investment waiting to be made.
Don’t miss: sit on the outdoor patio for a tasting, if possible, or a glass of wine. The old vines in front of the tasting room are fantastically tangled and gnarled. The vineyard is actually a traditional field blend from the time the Italian immigrants settled Sonoma wine country. Get as close as you can and take lots of pictures. I did.
|Ridge's Monte Bello and gnarly vines--reasons to stop at either location.
Patz & Hall
Known for creating single vineyard chardonnays and pinot noirs, the Patz & Hall team recently (in 2014) opened their new Sonoma House outside of the town of Sonoma. An absolutely stunning facility, this comfortable and upscale tasting “room” sits overlooking the newly-planted and first-ever Patz & Hall estate fruit. Though just baby buds now, in the years to come, these vines will provide the perfect picturesque backdrop in which to taste wine.
Don’t miss: the back yard patio is like hanging out at your coolest friend’s house…if that coolest friend had a beautiful home with all the best wine. Call to make a tasting appointment and to plan time to relax on this amazing space. A very educational tasting that teaches not only about Patz & Hall wines, but about Sonoma vineyards as well.
Don’t miss: if you are a pinot noir fan like me, come to taste here! All three of the noirs on the tasting menu were special wines. Good luck choosing just one bottle to purchase. So go ahead, buy all three: 2013 Brown Ranch, 2012 Chenoweth Ranch, and 2013 Burnside Vineyard. In the glass, they each reflect the area where grown.
|Patz & Hall--great pinots and chardonnays in the swankiest environment.
Copain’s wine maker, Wells Guthrie, makes wines in the style my palate prefers—delicate and complex with a hands-off style of winemaking that starts in the vineyard. The facility is located on East Side Road in my favorite Sonoma location, the Russian River Valley. The view over the valley and across to the other side (and also impressive Williams Selyem) begins a wonderfully intimate tasting. By appointment only and paired with small bites made in the Copain kitchen, the wines are showcased marvelously as wine educators tell all the intricate details of each wine from vineyard to bottle to glass.
Don’t miss: 2011 Laureles Grade Chardonnay—a rich, smooth, and soft chardonnay, this wine shows Guthrie’s propensity to make wines in an old-world style. If you want a big California butter-bomb chardonnay, this is not for you. Its time in neutral oak leads to the citrus fruit and minerality one would expect in a Burgundian white; however, from grapes grown in Monterey, there is something very bold about it.
Don’t miss: 2012 Kiser “En Haut” Pinot Noir—meaning “the high” En Haut is sourced from vineyards several hundred feet higher in elevation than its sister wine “En Bas.” Both are spectacular examples of pinot noir, and if I tasted tomorrow, I might flip my favorite. But on this particular day, “En Haut” won because of its mint and eucalyptus characteristics, two of my preferred traits in a pinot.
|Copain's intimate tasting experience in one of my favorite places--the RRV!
Choosing only eight (I actually chose nine…just because) elite wineries on my to-visit list for a long wine vacation was nearly impossible. Really. Think Sophie’s Choice and then you know my difficulties. (Okay, maybe not quite that dramatic, but you get my point.) However, none of the four I have visited thus far have disappointed. All have lived up to the recommendations and research. I purchased wine at all; multiple bottles in fact.
I haven’t been able to visit them all yet; and unfortunately, I think at least one will not happen. Hirsch Vineyards has very limited access by the public, with only certain days and times available for visitors. These limited dates book quickly, and I waited too long. I think this one of my elite will stay on my to-visit list. (Silent tear is seriously rolling down my wine-loving cheek right now.)
None the less, I will continue on my journey to visit the other four wineries on my wish list. One very remote spot is on my schedule for next week.
Red Cap Vineyards, you’re up!