There are more than 400 wineries in Sonoma Valley, from internationally recognized to small and family run. While I would love to spend the rest of my days drinking wine and gazing over picturesque rows of pinot, eventually visiting them all, that’s not possible (yet). But even if you only have a few days in Sonoma, you can fit in more tasting than you think. I recently spent three days in Healdsburg, and had the opportunity to visit a range of vineyards from biodynamic to world renowned to the only Italian producer in the area. Here are the highlights:
Wilson Winery – Sonoma’s climate is ideal for zinfandels, and winemaker Diane Wilson makes one of the best in the area. Her hand-grown, single vineyard zinfandels have won almost 100 gold medals and dozens of 90+ scores. While they were indeed delicious, I fell for the 2011 Molly’s Petite Syrah, with lush fruit at the forefront and a bold, almost spicy finish. Each of the vineyards is named after a Wilson family member, and Molly happens to be the border collie. The family emphasis shines through during tours of the winery too, led by the Wilson daughters who share funny anecdotes and praise their mother’s winemaking skills. The winery was started in 1993 and is housed in a renovated tin barn that is one of the oldest structures in Dry Creek Valley. Located just a few minutes from Healdsburg, it’s a great first stop.
J Vineyards & Winery – J’s goal is to make sparkling wine that rivals champagne, which is enough to draw me in. That, and its incredible cheese and charcuterie pairings from Executive Chef Erik Johnson. The winery’s Russian River Valley collection includes pinot grigio, pinot noir, and six to eight sparkling varieties at any given time, among others. J’s estate pinot grigio vineyard, the Cooper Vineyard, allows the winery to produce 85,000 cases of pinot grigio each year, making them one of the leading producers in California. Stop in for a guided tour or a seated tasting on the terrace or in the beautiful Bubble Room or Legacy Reserve Lounge. A wine flight is $30, or $50 with a cheese pairing. For your wine, you can choose from a varietal flight, a sparkling flight, or a pinot noir only flight. I highly recommend the cheese pairings and accompaniments, which are specifically crafted to match each wine (one cheese pairing can easily be shared between two people). On my visit, I tasted Belweather sheep milk ricotta with local blackberry honey steeped in Meyer lemon, a pecorino-style cheese with dried cherries and rose petal, a NY camembert with pomegranate puree, a Nick’s Yard bleu cheese with quince, and a soft-ripened Spanish goat cheese with hazelnut and vanilla. Reservations recommended.
Quivera Vineyards and Winery -Quivira was the first vineyard in Dry Creek to be certified as biodynamic, meaning it has built a self-sustaining eco-system. Quivira is even required to produce its own natural fertilizers, which it makes from plants in its on-site garden. Biodynamic vineyards produce unique wines that express whatever is happening in the soil at the time, so consistency can vary slightly from year to year. While larger vineyards use commercial yeast, Quivira and other biodynamic vineyards use wild yeast fermentation, which is slower and forces winemakers to pay closer attention to the process. Quivira, like many vineyards in the area, is known for its zinfandel, though their other wines should not be ignored. I especially enjoyed the summery rosé with its fresh strawberry and watermelon notes. Rosé is often an afterthought at wineries, made with grapes already grown for reds, but Quivira grows Grenache specifically for this purpose, adding Syrah, Mourvédre, and Counoise to complete the blend. There is no bad time of year to visit the vineyard (seriously, it’s sunny and stunning year-round), but when you do visit you might want to schedule at least a couple of hours to relax with a picnic lunch in the gardens.
DaVero – Another biodynamic vineyard, Da Vero also strays from the norm by specializing in everything Italian. About 93 percent of grapes grown in California are French varietals, but DaVero uses California’s Mediterranean-like climate to its advantage and grows Italian grapes like Vermentino and Dolcetto. Of course, as readers know I’m biased toward Italian wines, so I was in heaven here, but anyone would be. The farm is beautiful and it’s clear that everyone involved cares deeply about the process. At DaVero, the vineyards are wild, the yeast is natural, and the barrels are old and neutral. “There’s no word for winemaker in French or Italian,” says Andrew Hock, telling me about DaVero’s approach. “There is only a term for ‘tender of the vines,’ because after the vines, the winemaking is done.” This approach to winemaking, one of harvesting by flavor and not analysis, and relying on wild yeast, is old world, but one that is working well for the vineyard. The best part? Wine tastings come with olive oil pairings made from olives grown on the farm. The lipids in the oil trick you’re brain into thinking you’re eating, opening new flavor palettes, so dry reds become more rounded, for example. The olive oils alone are worth the tasting, especially the Meyer lemon emulsion oil.
Dry Creek Vineyard – Founded in 1972 by David Stare, Dry Creek Vineyard was the first winery in Dry Creek Valley after prohibition, and can be credited with bringing Sauvignon Blanc to the region and enabling the rebirth of winemaking in the area. The vineyard has been a pioneer in its field since 1972, and since then has won dozens of awards around the country. When Stare purchased the old prune orchard with hopes of turning it into a vineyard, he did so with fond memories of the Loire Valley in the back of his mind, hence the decision to bring in Sauvignon Blanc even against the advice of many vineyard specialists. Today, you can taste the 2014 Dry Chenin Blanc, an homage to this Loire inspiration. “It’s a wine sommeliers really nerd out about,” says Bill Smart, Director of Marketing for Dry Creek, and also my guide through seven beautiful wines. A favorite was the Fumé Blanc, the wine that started the vineyard and that makes up most of their distribution today. Best of all, at only $14 the retail price is incredible. Stare’s mantra was “I believe in providing a wine that over delivers for its price,” and current winemaker Tim Bell holds true to that. “He’s a humble guy, and the wines are humble by extension,” says Smart. The wine I went most crazy for though was The Mariner, a premier bordeaux blend of 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 41% Merlot, and the rest Malbec, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot. This wine is part of the Meritage classification, which is by definition“an American expression of excellence for wines blended in the Bordeaux tradition,” or in Smart’s words, “the merit of the grape and the heritage of the wine.” Stop in for a tasting to try this immaculate wine for yourself.
Simi Winery – Simi Winery is the oldest continually producing winery in Sonoma Valley, staying afloat even during prohibition thanks to the business savvy of Isabel Simi, the owner’s daughter who took over when she was only 18-years-old. Giuseppe Simi and his brother moved from Tuscany to California hoping to strike it rich during the gold rush, but ended up making wine instead, producing their first wine under the Simi label in 1876. When they both died suddenly in 1904, Isabel took over, and when prohibition began she sold all of the vineyard holdings to keep possession of her cellars. She was anticipating a quick repeal of the act, and when her prediction came true she was waiting with 500,000 cases of cellared wines, while other wineries had to start over with the growing process. Simi had the first tasting room in all of California, held in a 25,000 gallon cask tank. Today’s tasting rooms are much more elegant, but the history is evident in everything the winery does. The majority of people working in the cellar are women, and Director of Winemaking Susan Lueker is one of the most respected winemakers in the area. Tour the historic cellars and take in the charming gardens with a tasting.