The Sweet Partner in Crime and I made our first trip to Sonoma County in 2005. Our first stop upon entering the county, before even checking in and unpacking, was at Iron Horse Winery, where we cobbled together a lovely picnic amongst rows of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. We hit a couple of other wineries before making it to our B&B, where we went to a happy hour down in their “speakeasy” of a tasting room. In just half a day, we had learned quickly that we were surrounded by so many good wines…zins, cabs, syrahs, merlots…and I wanted…no, I needed…to try them all. In three days. I saw the light. My mission was clear.
I went a little crazy.
|The Origin of Madness|
I had some recommendations from my more knowledgeable friends of several wineries to hit and we kept adding to the list as we tried new wines. We zoomed though the valleys, bouncing from tasting room to tasting room like a meth-addled census taker. I thought a dozen tasting rooms a day seemed perfectly logical, starting at the first one to open and running the gamut until they closed up shop. Sure, we covered a lot of ground, but needless to say, this isn’t the most relaxing way to spend a vacation.
To the great benefit of my palate, my liver, and the SPinC’s willingness to keep me around, my strategy has changed a bit in the ensuing years. I have no more illusions about trying to drain the contents of entire valleys. So, on our recent return to Sonoma, rather than trying to run down a bunch of wineries someone else thought would be good, we took matters into our own hands based on our own conversations and connections once we arrived. The Naked Vine Snowball Technique was born.
The Snowball’s central idea comes from a research method called snowball sampling -- a recruitment technique in which participants are asked to assist researchers in identifying other potential subjects. In short, after someone takes a survey, the researcher asks, “Do you know other folks who might be interested in participating?” Those referrals leads to other referrals, growing in number as the virtual snowball rolls down the hypothetical hill.
How does this work with tasting rooms? Start at the place where you’re staying. They live there. They know things. Say something like, “We’re looking for a good place to start. We want somewhere fun, laid back, and not overly pricey.” Replace those descriptors with whatever you want…expensive wines, pinot noir specialists, great gift shop -- whatever floats your cork. You’ll end up with at least a couple of recommendations. Pop in to one of them and do a tasting. Chat. Enjoy. If you feel like you make a connection, then repeat your question to the good folks behind the bar. They live there. They know things. They’ll mention a couple of other places. Those places will mention other places. Patterns form in the recommendations. You now have your guide. Go forth and enjoy.
We wanted a different experience this time around, so we parked it in the actual city of Sonoma, which is in the southern portion of Sonoma County. Our previous trips were to the northern end of the county near Healdsburg, and the surrounding valleys. Sonoma has 26 tasting rooms in and around its city square. (In the past, I might have tried to hit them all.) We found a distinct contrast with those tasting rooms. Most places we’d been, the tasting rooms were basically outlet stores for well-established wineries with very recognizable names. In Sonoma, however, the tasting rooms were generally run by smaller operations at which many didn’t own vineyards themselves. Many of these winemakers bought grapes from vineyards they liked that fit their needs, producing excellent wine. I like that notion. Egalitarian.
We got to town, dropped our bags at the Inn at Sonoma (highly recommended), made a couple of inquiries to get us started, and off we went. Did we hit all 26? Nope. Not even half of them, truth be told. We had a lovely, relaxing time and made some wonderful discoveries along the way. Heck, we barely had to move our car! Here are our top experiences from the trip:
Two Amigos Winery – We remarked that we’ve had good luck with “tastresses” when we’ve started our little treks. Our first trip to Sonoma was kicked off by a woman named Annalise. This time, Michelle was the one to get our trip off on the correct foot. She was there along with Bob, one of the aforementioned “amigos.” The other amigo is an actor named Squire Riddell, whom you’ll recognize if you watched any TV in the 80’s…
He also played Ronald McDonald after Willard Scott headed to the Today show, so plenty of McDonald’s and clown-themed memorabilia adorn the tasting room.
They had plenty of decent wines. Their 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon was fascinating for a wine that young. I’ll be curious how it develops. The other highlights were their Viognier, a port made from Syrah, and a Syrah from GlenLyon – which is Riddell’s other winemaking venture. Needless to say, McDonald’s must have been a pretty good gig. Michelle and Bob gave us the initial seed for the snowball, leading us to a couple of the following tasting rooms. (http://twoamigoswines.com/)
Bump Wine Cellars – We missed throwing our annual Derby Day party because of our Sonoma trip, but we felt right at home walking into Bump’s tasting room to find a beautiful horse-themed art exhibition by an artist named Tej Greenhill. Bump’s tasting room was far and away our favorite, with warm, contemporary décor and comfortable places to relax and sip. Sip we did. Bump was the best value we found in Sonoma. The winemaker, Geordie Carr, specializes in fermenting wines at cooler temperatures to preserve the aromatics. He sources his grapes from all over Sonoma County through friendly partnerships he’s developed in his travels. Their chardonnay was delicate and nuanced with just a kiss of oak. I don’t classify many zinfandels as “delicate,” but Carr’s technique of slightly early picking and cool fermentation yielded a beautifully aromatic wine that drinks like a good pinot – even at 15.2% alcohol. With nothing (currently) in their portfolio over $28, it’s a good time to stock up. (http://www.bumpwine.com/)
R2 Wine Company – Since we’re on a survey research kick, the SPinC, also sometimes known as the Queen of All Regressions, was so very excited to see a winery called R2. The r-square statistic, also known as the measure of “explained variance,” is a key measure of many of her multivariate analyses. While the name of the winery has nothing to do with statistics (it’s named after co-founders Richard and Roger Roessler), the notion of “Sonoma wine variance” shone through here. In tasting through the R2 portfolio, we noticed a distinct difference between wines made from Sonoma “mountain fruit” vs. “valley fruit.” The mountain fruit wines in general had earthier, deeper flavors with a mineral character, while the valley fruit wines had bigger fruit flavors and stronger tannins. We enjoyed their Black Pine pinot noir ($26), which was a delicious general California pinot noir. Their Hein Vineyard Pinot Noir ($48) was “smoketacular!” according to my notes. Their “1331” Cabernet ($54) was a quintessential example of a mountain fruit wine, and it was hedonistically complex. (http://www.r2winecompany.com/)
Bryter Estates – Oh, where to begin with Bryter? If you forced me to pick a favorite from this trip, the top prize would go to Bryter with its collection of nuanced, happy wines. Bryter is one of the few wineries we encountered with female winemakers. Terin Ignozzi, the winemaker and co-owner with her husband Bryan (“Bryter” is a fusion of their names), has crafted a portfolio with great range and exceptional quality. All of their wines -- red, white, and rosé – are exceptionally harmonious and clean. The Sweet Partner in Crime remarked, when we tried their rosé after getting back home, that it “tasted like what our walk in Yosemite felt like – sunshine and fresh air.”
We heard in at least three different tasting rooms that we needed to try Bryter “for their bubbles.” No lie. The “Le Stelle” brut sparkler ($38) is excellent, with a nutty, green apple flavor and a creamy mouthfeel. That would have been worth the stop alone, but as we went down the line, we found more surprises. The “Vivant” sauvignon blanc ($34) is crisp and melony – pleasant, pleasant!. Their “Jubilee” rosé of pinot noir ($32) gets a double plus for the lingering fruit and the touch of oak beneath the clean flavor. Our favorite was their “Cadeau” Pinot Noir ($50). “Cadeau” translates as “gift” and was, simply, the best bottle we had on our trip. My note says, “So subtle, so beautiful.” This wine edged its way in with my faves among the Oregon pinots. A must-not-miss. (http://www.bryter.com/)
Walt Wines – Walt sources grapes from all over the west coast, and they do an interesting array of wines. The highlight of our visit with Liz and Terry, our pourers, was their “850 Mile Road Trip” where they showed pinots from the Shea Vineyard in Willamette Valley, Oregon, “The Corners” in Anderson Valley in Mendocino, and Rita’s Crown Vineyard in Santa Rita Hills. (All $65) The pinot flavors ranged “from brambles to boom!” across these three wines, and the tasting was a wonderful exploration of terroir. They also release a wine each year called “Pinpoint Extreme,” which is an anagram for “pinot experiment.” Last year, they added roasted stems to the fermentation. This year, they flash-heated some of the grapes until they exploded. Fun to try new stuff. (http://www.waltwines.com/)
Hawkes Wine – Memorable wine-wise for a really fantastic licorice-and-dark fruit flavored merlot ($35) sourced from vines planted on a seam of clay in one of the vineyards where nothing else would grow; some very well-balanced cabernets; and an estate-pressed extra-virgin olive oil (proceeds to a local kids charity) that blew us away. Before we went to Hawkes, though, I realized that I hadn’t packed very well, and I needed another t-shirt. Hawkes has a neat logo, so I picked one up to wear on our flight home. On the way to the Sacramento airport from Yosemite -- which followed Sonoma on our itinerary -- we stopped for lunch at a restaurant in Lodi called the Dancing Fox. The waitstaff was mostly male and powerfully metrosexual. At least three of them stopped by my table to ask, “Is that Hawkes Winery?” Lodi is about two hours from their tasting room, so I guess it’s the winery of choice for expensive-yet-casually dressed men. (http://www.hawkeswine.com)
Kamen Estate Wines – Kamen is the child of Robert Kamen, whose name you might not recognize, but you’d know his work. He’s the screenwriter for “Taps,” "The Karate Kid," “The Fifth Element,” “The Transporter,” “A Walk in the Clouds,” “Taken,” and various other films. He bought a property in the mountains with the paycheck from his first screenplay, not realizing that he was sitting on a goldmine. His wines were some of the best we tried on the trip, and they’re certainly not inexpensive. His top-of-the-line, “Kashmir,” runs $100+ per bottle. The Syrah ($75) and Cabernet ($80) are also top notch with layer upon layer of flavor. “Opulent” is as good a descriptor as any. “Darned awesome” would also fit. It’s worth a swing through their tasting room – both to try these wines and to hear Robert’s story, which stands in contrast, and made a very interesting bookend, to that of Two Amigos’ Squire Ridell. Needless to say, a commercial actor and a screenwriter have very different views on how wine should be made and how life lands you in various circumstances. While we were there, we were lucky enough to meet Robert himself, who popped into the tasting room briefly. He struck me as an affably sarcastic M.O.T. -- much the same way I hope people think of me. His "Sin while you can -- otherwise Jesus died for nothing" shirt will live forever in my memory. (http://kamenwines.com/)
In addition to all of the wines that you can sample, the town of Sonoma is home to any number of fabulous restaurants, and we worked our way through several. Try the Red Grape for lunch. La Salette is a Portuguese restaurant with fabulous variety and flavor. The Girl and the Fig is a local favorite – contemporary French. The El Dorado Kitchen does some neat takes on American classic cuisine. One of our favorite dining experiences, however, was the Tuesday night we were there – which coincided with the first Sonoma community farmer’s market of the year. The farmer’s market turns into a big community picnic, so we joined right in with a bottle of Bump rosé. Once things started winding down, many locals head over to Murphy’s Irish Pub for an oyster roast and multiple beers. After a few days of wine tasting, beer made for a great way to close a wonderful stretch of vacation.