Sunday, April 15, 2007

The "Sonoma Story"

This post continues with my long-winded wine tasting resume that I feel compelled to lay out before I can get into the guts of what I want this blog to be, namely my journey towards a deeper understanding and appreciation of wine, and my continual quest for enjoyable "everyday wines" (i.e., those that can be consumed on a nightly basis without going broke in the process!).

So as I described yesterday, Napa was great when I was a grad student and could visit during the week. Once the real world crept in via a 9-5 job (more like 8-6, being a consultant), wine tasting trips were relegated to the weekends, and Napa become a distinctly less-fun place to be. Enter Sonoma County - take a different bridge , add on 30 minutes or so to your drive time from the East Bay, and voila: you're in a totally different wine world! Just compare the map of Sonoma County wineries to the map of Napa wineries: I think you'll notice a distinct "linearity" to Napa with the majority of wineries sprouting directly off of Hwy 29 or Silverado Trail, while Sonoma appears more like a braided river channel (to me anyway, but I'm an enviro-geek... perhaps "spiderweb" might be a better general descriptor) with a couple major roads (notably the 101) weaving through it. This makes Sonoma a little more challenging to successfully navigate between the wineries and string together a pleasant day's tasting. It's this challenge that keeps some of the masses away, and makes for a much more pleasing experience.

Anyway, my Sonoma tasting experiences are at least six years old at this point, so the memory is a bit dim. And keep in mind that while I was definitely enjoying the wine tastings at this point, it was on a purely "gut-reaction" level - I'd either like something or I wouldn't, I couldn't really describe what it was about a wine that made me like or dislike it, and I had very little intellectual background as a reference to understand how one type of wine differed from another.

With that as the caveat, here's what I can recall from my Sonoma experience. First off, Sonoma County is divided into several American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) although I wasn't aware of this at time. The wineries that I visited during my several tasting trips were located in the Carneros, Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek, Green Valley, Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley. I think I'll cover the first half of these in one post, and continue with the Green Valley, Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley tomorrow. So, here's the scoop on the first half:

Carneros is the southern-most region of Sonoma, and the first one you hit coming up from the Bay Area. It's a pretty small AVA, with only a handful of wineries.
  • Gloria Ferrer: Gloria Ferrer "Champagne Caves" (thus labeled, much to the vexation of the French I'm sure) specialize in sparkling wines, but also offer a variety of still wines. (If you're new to wine-speak, "still wine" just means "normal" wine - wine without any bubbles like sparkling Champagne-like wines). Anyway, Gloria Ferrer offers a tour of their "Champagne Caves" (which in reality is a glorified basement used to keep the wine cool while aging in the barrels - that said, it *is* pretty interesting to tour, but I think "cave" is a bit of a stretch), and describes how the process of creating sparkling wine differs from other wines. My wife and I brought her parents here on one of their visits to the Bay Area, and ended up being their favorite stop of the trip! Gloria Ferrer produces some great sparklers, which can be found just about anywhere across the U.S. I recall our favorite being the Royal Cuvée.
  • Other Carneros wineries visited included Cline, Schug and Roche. Although I can comment on some of their wines I've had more recently, looking back on it none of these wineries left much of an impression on me.
Sonoma Valley
The Sonoma Valley region is the next stop up from Carneros. This region is home to several big-name producers, many of which I visited upon multiple occasions. The stops I remember:
  • Gundlach Bundschu: Lovingly known as "GunBun" (likely to prevent the non-Germanic inclined from slaughtering their name), this unpretentious winery even sells (sold) Hawaiian shirts with their logo on the back. In keeping with the theme of taking the "stuffiness" out of wine, the GunBun folks pulled a "train heist" of the Napa wine train, holding up the train on horseback and serving Sonoma wine on the *Napa* wine train! Quel horreur! I love any winery that challenges the notion that wine has to be serious to be appreciated - wine can be enjoyed on many levels, but at least one of those levels should be "fun"!
  • Ravenswood: As I mentioned in my previous post, Ravenswood probably ended up becoming my favorite Sonoma winery. Absolutely obsessed with Zinfandel, they make break-out-of-the-bottle big, juicy wines. Although they make a couple non-Zins, they joke that they just love that grape so much that everything sort of ends up tasting like Zin anyway. Nullum Vinum Flaccidum - No Wimpy Wines here! They definitely live up to their mantra. And what's great about touring the winery is they take this "No Wimpy" concept to a hilarious extreme: almost *everything* in the winery is labeled as no wimpy this, no wimpy that. Examples: No Wimpy Restrooms, No Wimpy Water Fountain, No Wimpy Pen... you get the picture. Basically, the only thing serious about Ravenswood is their wines. They have crafted three categories of wines, from the everyday Vintners Blend to the moderate-production County Series and the select Vineyard Designates wine. One thing I find interesting about Ravenswood is that they use native vineyard yeasts for fermenting their wine - slightly unusual for such a large producer, whom you may think would be more concerned about consistency over the possibility of added complexity (as well as possibility of a ruined batch).
  • Kenwood: Kenwood made its biggest impression on me with their Jack London Series of wines. Even if you haven't heard of them before, you'd probably recognize them - the "labels" are rather stunning, with a a large wolf's head and all text etched directly onto the bottle. I recall the Jack London Cabernet Sauvignon to be particularly delicious.
  • Other Sonoma Valley wineries that I know I visited but don't have anything memorable to report include Arrowood, Benziger**, Chateau St. Jean, Kunde** and Wellington.
** Quick note: While going to these websites to snatch their URL for the blog, I noticed that both Benziger and Kunde have really well developed sustainable vineyard / organic and/or biodynamic farming practices in place (so does Grgich Hills, from my Napa post). Getting "sustainability" into all aspects of grape growing and wine production is a major interest of mine - this is the perfect intersection between my "real job" as an environmental professional and my passion for wine. I plan to do a full-blown posting on this in the future, but for now here are links to Benziger's, Grgich Hills, and Kunde's sustainable winery initiatives.

Dry Creek
Dry Creek Vineyards was the only winery I believed I visited within the Dry Creek region of Sonoma County. To be totally honest, I think I visited them mainly because I love their labels - all sailing-inspired paintings. That was more than enough of a reason for a sailing wino like me to drive up and check them up! Sadly, all I can recall from that single trip was that their gorgeous grounds made for an excellent picnic.

I'm getting paranoid about how long these initial posts keep getting - long, and totally visually un-interesting since these trips were well before digital cameras were the norm, and I'm not even sure I could find old pics to scan even if I wanted to. So I apologize for that - it'll get more interesting soon! I'll finish up with Sonoma County tomorrow, then head down to Santa Cruz and Monterey later this week. Santa Ynez and Paso Robles will come next, hopefully moving in to my current location of Maryland and my experiences thus far with Virginia wine country. After that, we can put the past behind us and move gloriously on with the present - I've got a lot I'd like to cover!

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