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  When John Holmes reported on Sonoma for wine-pages last year he said "I'll be back," and he wasn't joking. Before leaving for the States, John Holmes worked in the wine sector for about 10 years with his business, Classic Wines. John and his wife Heather moved to the USA early in the millennium and are currently based in Texas, where John works in the oil industry. He still finds time to indulge in his passion for wines, and in this special update report for wine-pages, gives his own, personal views on wines tasted on a trip through the Sonoma region. Part II also includes his favourite wine finds of the trip.

Call of the West - Sonoma 2010

by John W N Holmes, 2010

Last year's report only scratched the surface of the Sonoma County Wines, so we came back to further explore the area as well as to visit a few of the stars from last year. Once again, we stayed in Healdsburg which is one of the main centres of Sonoma County being close to the Russian River and Alexander Valley. We decided to have one day in Calistoga as a variation on the Pinot/Zinfandel theme. It also gave us a chance to see how Napa had changed from our last visit. One notable restaurant this year was the Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg. Sumptuous food and a brilliant wine list at very reasonable prices.

Once again you will find in part II this article I have summarised the wines and given my view on the best reds, white and best value wines (link at bottom of page). The points are my relative markings. I welcome feedback and would love to hear your comments on the various wines and tasting rooms we visited.

part I - the wineries

Sebastiani

We first visited Sebastiani in 2007 and it's a great place to stop on the way north to Healdsburg. The tasting room is spacious and welcoming with a great array of wines on offer. If you twist their arm enough they may let you try the wonderful '06 Cherryblock Cabernet which was the star of the tasting for me.

loxton

Loxton Cellars

Australian Chris Loxton is the third generation in his family to produce wines. The previous two made Shiraz in Australia so it was only natural that Chris's passion lies around Syrah. The tasting room is laid out in the barrel store and gives real sense of where this wine is coming from. Although the Syrahs were very good, I found the 08 Chardonnay and the 07 Late Harvest to be the best on offer.

Mauritson

First thing Monday morning is always a 'testing' time. The tasting room at Mauritson however made it an easy start. In previous years I always felt I had been too harsh on the first few vineyards as we go into the swing of tasting this year however the hostess was knowledgeable and the wines offered were perfectly acceptable. Pick of the crop was the 07 Rockpile Ridge Zinfandel although the $17 Sauvignon Blanc gave it a good run for its money. All in all a good experience with wines all representing good value across the range.

nalle

Nalle

We were fortunate to meet Doug Nalle who showed us his range of wines. The tasting room is an amazing above ground cave almost like a bomb shelter covered in earth so that the temperature and humidity are constant throughout the year. Doug was a great host and the wines all scored above average marks. We all liked the 07 Pinot and at $35 a bottle it is good value. He also has a vertical available from 05, 06 and 07 and a French style chardonnay which is still young and we probably tasted it too soon. I think that will develop further.

Kokomo

A cheery smile and friendly face greets you when you enter Kokomo. The tasting room is on a small industrial unit along with three or four other producers and you are surrounded by the barrels of wine. I enjoyed the 07 Mounts Vineyard Zinfandel and also the 08 Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc. One added attraction is the very large but equally friendly dog which greets everyone. Overall good value wines and a pleasant tasting experience.

Unti

We had an appointment at Unti but it was difficult to understand why this was necessary. No-one seemed to really bother about the times or numbers. The wines were generally just OK and nothing special here to tickle the palate. The tasting room was one of the low points of the week and the host seemed to not be really bothered at all. All in all a poor experience and one of the low points of the week.

dutcher

Dutcher Crossing

I have always had this 'thing' against wineries who sell aromatic candles in tasting rooms, whereas I appreciate the commerciality it really does affect the ability to get the most from the wines. Dutcher Crossing had unfortunately fallen into that trap. We had planned to stay there for lunch but the smell in the tasting room put us off our wine so we moved on. Predictably the wines didn't score well and that was all down to candles !

Truett Hurst

An unplanned 'drop-in' recommended to us. Some recommendations fall flat but this one fully lived up to our expectations. The tasting room was well thought out, light, comfortable and spacious. The host and hostess were really friendly and knew their subject. We went through all their range (11 wines) and stayed in their lovely picnic area for lunch. We chose the 3 Vineyards Zinfandel for lunch, a $25 blockbuster wine, which went down really well with the cheese and pate. Full marks Truett Hurst.

Preston

First impressions say a lot about a vineyards and the feature we all remembered from this tasting was the vast amount of signs all saying "Don't do this" or "No xxx" or "xxx not allowed" Anyway back to the wines. We tasted the four wines on offer which all exhibited high tannins with a lower level of fruit than I would care to have. Nothing on offer here enticed us to purchase and although the tasting room was very comforatble, the wines failed to live up to expectations.

Michel Schlumberger

The location of this winery created a good tasting area in a beautifully tranquil setting surrounded by wildlife. The wines on offer were mature wines and although the ambiance was good the wines didn't really compliment this at all. This was our last tasting for the day and perhaps our taste buds were getting fatigued but the wines came across as aggressively tannic. The best wine was the 06 Syrah which, at $32, was better value than the 04 Deux Terres at $75.

McPhail

Once again James MacPhail has produced the goods. MacPhail pays fantastic attention to quality and detail in preparing pinots which just take your breath away. James and Gabe's 2007 offerings were among the best we tasted this year, if not the best. The Vagon Lit was exceptional and the San Giacomo was not far behind. Medal Winners for sure. We were also given a hint of what is to come with a chardonnay ! James certainly has the midas touch and the whole operation is friendly and inviting. Anyone coming to Sonoma must put this on their list.

hop kiln

Hop Kiln

A somewhat commercial style wine tasting room, as you are aware I have an aversion to tasting rooms which have sell loads of goodies. In the case of Hop Kiln this included really hot mustards which would certainly kill the taste and smell senses. The wines were in the 'value' range with most $16-$25. A good drinking wine was the "Big Red' at $20

Rochioli

Rochioli set the stage last year with some great wines, and we joined their waiting list (only 7 years wait!) After this last showing I am not sure if the wait is worth it. The wines were satisfactory in their overall quality but fell in the 'nothing exceptional' band. It's a shame really as we have high hopes for this repeat visit. The tasting room is still spartan but does the job, best to sit on the terrace though.

Arista

Another repeat visit from last year as it made our top 10. The gardens here are superb and we also got to taste some of the new Mark David Wines which were really good, in particular the Sauvignon Blanc which was complex and had great melon and grapefruit undertones. They also produce a great Cabernet Franc which was full of blackcurrants and cedar.

Thomas George

Massive construction when we were there completing the new caves. My only hope is that the caves will improve the wines. The most expensive wine at $55 only rated a meagre 88 points and on the whole they struggled for aromas and were too subtle for my taste. The tasting room was large and very comfortable.

Moshin

On our previous visit Moshin was a firm favourite, sadly this year we came away thinking that this year's wines didn't really live up to expectation which is surprising given the excellent vintage. The best was definitely the 07 Carreras Vineyard which was a wild collection of raspberries and raisins. Tasting rooms are very spacious and convivial to tasting although some of the stories about mixing desert wines with vodka left me wondering why one would ruin a perfectly good desert wine!

Copain

Probably one of the most serene views in Sonoma, just the way to end a perfect day sitting watching the sun go down over the Copain view. In general they represent lighter French style wines but of exceptional quality. The favourite was Kiser 07 which had great black cherry flavours. "Tous Ensemble Pinot Noir" represented great value at $25 a bottle.

Williamson Wines

Located just off the Healdsburg main town square, Williamson Wines is a wine and food pairing experience which is well worth a visit. We went through 8 wines all mixed with small pieces of food to complement the wines. Top of the list was the 08 Inspire and also the 06 Shiraz, which as one would expect from Australian stock, was a full bodied wine with heaps of flavour. Dawn runs a great tasting room and it is very popular. Best to go early before the crowd get in though.

rodney strong

Rodney Strong

One of the larger wineries in Sonoma, Rodney Strong has always produced good quality wines which are available in most shops. We wanted to taste the reserve wines to see how these stacked up. In general the quality was good but not exceptional. They were however reasonably priced and could be classed as 'reliable' wines. Favourites were the Knotty Vines Zinfandel and the Gentleman's Ruby Port. The views from the tasting galleries showed the winery and it is set up for large groups of visitors.

Marimar

When we visited Marimar last year it was a disappointing experience however on reading the feedback from last year's report Marimar Torres wanted to improve the area and invited us to return to see the changes. I am pleased to say that the new tasting room is now a very pleasant experience. We were fortunate to get a guided tour of the area and get to taste the wines along with Marimar's personal recipes. Our favourite was the 05 Christina with its spicy dark cherry flavour.

Walter Hansel

Nothing extravagant about the Walter Hansel tasting experience but don't be fooled by the laid back approach. The vineyard was hard to find but I'm glad we did as the wines represented excellent value. The Sauvignon Black was a 90 point wine all for $16. Excellent.

Inman

By the time this is written the tasting rooms will have moved to their new location at the vineyard. Talking with Kathleen gave us an insight into the ethos of her wines and how important every little detail is. The wines were delicate and fine, dare I call them feminine wines without offending people. I really liked what Kathleen was doing and enjoyed the wine tasting experience.

Hawkes

Large spacious tasting room, full of light and pleasant decorations. The wines were 'crisp' if slightly too tannic for my taste but those people who enjoy ready to drink wines will love these offerings. The high end wines didn't represent good value in my opinion as at $60 a bottle they face stiff competition from gold medal winners at the same price.

Robert Young

Small intimate tasting room set in the grounds of a wonderful home. The wines were consistent and full of classic flavours whereby one could identify the wines easily by their flavours. The Scion was the favourite here and we walked out with some verticals of this great Cabernet. The host was most knowledgeable and friendly. One to visit.

Chalk Hill

Set in the middle of the countryside Chalk Hill caters also for larger coach parties. The wines were, in my opinion, overpriced with desert wine topping out at over $80. The Pinot Gris did nothing for me at $40. At least the sauvignon blanc was very drinkable but was not competitively priced at $33 compared to others like Hansel.

verite

Verite

It's not often one gets to meet an iconic winemaker. We were just enjoying the offerings at Verite when in walked Pierre Seillan, winemaker extraordinaire. This is the Frenchman who challenged his own countryman with his range of wines to compare with Petrus, Cheval Blanc and the other big guns. Oh yes and by the way he won! We were treated to a tasting the 97 La Joie which is a fantastic wine. My tasting notes started off "wow"! This is a classic Bordeaux Blend of 70% Cabernet and 30% merlot and it is a star. Robert Parker gave the 07 100 points and it's easy to see why! I ran out of superlatives for these wines so suggest you go and try them for yourselves. Not cheap but, then again, high quality never is.

Lancaster Estate

One of the most ultra modern tasting rooms we have ever seen. Initially there was a problem with the booking as there is a new tasting room being constructed. The wines were spread well across the price range from $24 to $100 although I feel the Nicoles Red Blend of Cab and Malbec ($100) didn't represent good value. I preferred the Sophia Hill at $48 but still this is among strong competition.

Davis Family Vineyards

I forget how I first heard of the Davis Family vineyard but I need to take note of their other recommendations. This was a great tasting experience. They have an exceptional range of wines right from a New Zealand style Sauvignon Blanc through genuine Riesling and ending up with a Russian River Syrah. One of the most impressive consistent ranges I have seen in Sonoma.

montelena

Chateau Montelena

Impressive building and gardens don't always reflect the quality of wines. In this case however they are a direct correlation. Good quality wines with a futures style marketing approach. An opportunity to purchase the wines at discounted prices in advance. The Montelena Cabernet was a 91 point wine and, if purchased in the futures style, was fairly priced.

WH Smith

The WH Smith shop located in Calistoga offers oenophiles a tasting and sensory experience which few have copied. The wines themselves represent excellent value and all were in the 90 point area while costing between $30 and $60. The Kaley 00 Zinfandel was interesting and is holding up well although needs to be drunk now.

Twomey

With lovely gardens you would expect to find some seating and opportunities to have food with some of their wines. Regrettably this is not the case. The wines were good standard Twomey quality and well balanced. The Sauvignon Blanc was the best of the bunch and was reasonably priced at $25. Tasting room was clean and spacious.

Summers Estate

Summers has a large tasting room which was quite empty when we arrived. Unfortunately, there was nothing on offer which really was worth writing home about. I think we found out why it was empty. The Muscadet desert wine was cheap and cheerful and good for summer day drinking, apart from that, the wines were lacklustre.

Storybook Mountain

Wonderful setting tucked onto the side of a mountain. The wine tasting experience in the cave was memorable but we could have done with a bit more light to write notes and look at the colours of the wine. The wines tasted good and our selection here was the 06 Anteus ($40).

del dotto

Del Dotto

One of the most difficult reviews to write. The word opulence doesn't even begin to describe the surroundings of the new Del Dotto wine tasting experience. This is barrel tasting like no other. Rob, the host was enthusiastic and knowledgeable and kept us entertained throughout the experience. I would thoroughly recommend it for the sheer novelty. As for the wines it was a good opportunity to experience the "same grapes - different barrel" story which seemed to go above most people's head. Go there with an open mind and enjoy the education offered. Although I am not certain I would remember which wines to buy I did take notes but it's pointless sharing them as each barrel is unique and sold once enough people buy the bottling.

Summary

Once again Sonoma County really delivered the goods. At the end of the week we all reflected what a great experience it was yet again. We debated whether we should go back again next year and the resounding answer was YES. There is so much more to see and so many more vineyards to visit. In general the smaller vineyards have the more interesting wines and greater variety but the larger more commercial vineyards have the safer more consistent wines.

Sincere thanks to the people who played their part in making this a great experience. Special thanks go out to Marimar Torres for her fantastic hospitality.

go to part II - Sonoma wine tastings and ratings


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