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A Fistful Of Dollars Part I - Sonoma

by John W N Holmes, 2009

Last year I reported on the Napa Valley and how it was one of the "more beautiful parts of California with its rolling hills, glorious weather and of course its vast selection of vineyards". Watching Oz Clark and James May on their DVD I couldn't help but take in the comments from Oz about Napa being self congratulatory and well manicured, so this trip to Sonoma was going to be a good benchmark and comparison of the two areas.

I have to say that Sonoma delivered! The location is even more picturesque and the area is altogether less commercial but more 'user friendly'. The majority of the vineyards we visited were very accommodating and really keen to talk about their wines and share their knowledge. In many cases you actually got to meet the winemaker as opposed to the front of house. That made the experience even more special and just showed the difference in my opinion. There was less sense of commercialism and more a sense of enthusiasm. That aside, I still favour the more traditional style tasting rooms with limited "goodies" for sale as in my experience these often detract from the wines with strange smells and unwelcome attention. Who wants to smell cinnamon candles while tasting fine Pinot?
  

We stayed in Healdsburg which is one of the main centres of Sonoma being close to the Russian River and Alexander Valley. There are plenty of excellent hotels in the area, we chose the newly refurbished Best Western, which at under $100 a night provided good clean accommodation. Restaurants in Sonoma are plentiful and excellent quality, be sure to stop in at Willis Seafood and Raw Bar, Zin and Bistro Ralph. Personal favourite was Zin.

Once again we pre-planned the visits with a designated driver on each of the five days. Each driver was also allowed one 'drop-in' - a wild card secret pick for the day. One of the main differences between Napa and Sonoma was that Napa nearly always relied on bookings whereas Sonoma was a more relaxed approach, out of the 34 vineyards only four required reservations. The advice for Napa equally applies:

As with my previous articles, I have summarised the wines and given my view on the best reds, white and best value wines. This will appear in part II of this feature, and please note that my scores don't represent any "Parkeresque" system, but are my relative markings.

The vineyards

Silver Oak

It may seem rather strange to start a trip to the Russian River with a visit to a traditional Cabernet Sauvignon producer; there was a method in my madness. I know and love Silver Oak and their wines have something for everyone. I wanted to start the trip with a success and also to make sure we could concentrate on Pinots and Zinfandels from then on. The tasting rooms at Silver Oak were impeccable, the staff friendly under the guidance of Darla and very knowledgeable. We arrived in the pouring rain and walked into room with an open warm fire and some great wine. We started with the '04 Alexander Valley, a US style 100% Cabernet Sauvignon which gave lashings of black fruit with a deep red colour. In contrast
  
the '04 Napa Valley was more French in style, a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. In fact Silver Oak was so friendly that we returned on the last day to buy some more!

Geyser Peak

The bulk of Geyser Peak's wines are for the mass commercial market but hidden from view are some fine single vineyard productions. I was pleasantly surprised with the '07 "Block Chardonnay" and the '08 Sauvignon Blanc. They have a 'Reserve Tasting Room' upstairs and it affords views of their cellars and storage areas. Just as we were leaving the hostess asked us we would like to try one of their Tawny Ports and I'm glad she did. Butterscotch, milk chocolate and roasted hazelnuts produced from barrel aged zinfandel. All for $21, delightful!

Sbragia

Ed Sbragia was originally at Beringer and decided to branch out and make his own wines. Good decision! The tasting room and terrace offer great views of the vineyards and surrounding valleys. All his Zinfandels are named after family members; the '05 "Ginos" (Gino was the winemakers father) is the pick of the bunch. Classic peppery overtones in cherries and dark fruit are the dominant flavours. The only issue here was the multiple aromas in the tasting room created by candles and other such paraphernalia.

Teldeschi

When you first find Teldeschi sitting on the top of a hill in a metal framed building it doesn't look that appetising. Just goes to show how appearances can be deceptive and I suppose it's rather akin to buying wine because of the label. Dan Teldeschi, the winemaker, is an genial host who went out of his way to tell us all about the wines and how he makes them. A great lesson indeed. He produces some great wines all at reasonable prices although some might say his choice of cap seals is eclectic!
  

Papapietro

One not to avoid we were told but in all truthfulness it wasn't that brilliant. It is a small boutique style tasting area, very dark and full of T-Shirts and goodies to buy. The wines were of good quality but I felt that they generally lacked the intense fruit favours which Sonoma is so famous for. Best of the bunch was the Peters Vineyard which was the more classic of the wines.

Toad Hollow

In the middle of Healdsburg on the main street is the beautifully themed Toad Hollow retail outlet. Their wines are very reasonably priced and very suitable for everyday drinking. Their top of the range Rods Pride is an award winning wine and won't break the bank at $40. Was put off by the vegetal smell associated with the McDowell Merlot but was assured it was 'normal'!! Wines are widely available across the states.

Souverain

Another city centre outlet off the main square in Healdsburg, I was impressed with their Viognier and Desert Syrah. We were fortunate to catch the last of the "Chateau Labelled" wines which were being sold off at half price but even so at $22 for a good viognier it still represented good value. At $11 it was a steal! The tasting room is comfortable and spacious with plenty of light, it made tasting a pleasure.

La Crema

This was probably the most disappointing winetasting experience of the whole trip. I was expecting great things of La Crema having liked their 'Standard Pinot' at $20. The shop however was a disappointment, the hostess was more interested in telling everyone about cookery rather than wines and the single vineyard wines just didn't make the grade given the higher cost. The 2007 Anderson was the best but at $50 there are better wines available for the same money. My advice is to stick to the $20 Pinot and save your money for better wines.

Adrian Fog

In Stewart Dorman we found a really enthusiastic and skilled Pinot winemaker. The location was a bit hard to find but I'm glad we persevered as it was well worth the trip. Why Adrian Fog, well apparently it is named for Strength and the style of weather needed for great Pinot. Stewart assures me that the wines are best drunk "as close to a full moon as possible", who were we to argue! Undoubtedly the best wine was the Two Sisters 2006 which had great depth and finish. We even got to barrel taste some of the Pinot clones which was a great experience. Adrian Fog is truly great product from a modest and enthusiastic Pinot winemaker.
  

Limerick Lane

Having visited Adrian Fog and come away on a high from the previous day we didn't think we could follow that. Limerick Lane was an unscheduled drop in and, boy, were we glad we did. 4 wines of great style and quality mainly Zinfandel and Syrah varietals. Ross Battersby, the winemaker, was a perfect host who was keen to show us around and even tried to persuade us to swim in the bottle shaped swimming pool in February. We may also be British Ross but not that stupid ! The star of the show was without doubt the "Furmint". When I first tasted this it was so obviously Tokaji and wonderfully made. As an indication we bought every one of the Limerick Lane range including the Furmint.

Taft Street

This was a smaller tasting room off the main road with a great range of wines. The host was very knowledgeable and keen to show off all the wines. All-in-all a good experience. Nothing stood out as exceptional although perhaps that is a bit unfair as they were all very drinkable. They also had one of the largest cats I have seen for a long time!!
  

Iron Horse

Served at the Whitehouse is their claim to fame and you can see why! The champagnes style wines gave a broad range of flavours enough to satisfy most pallets from the sweeter US favoured styles to the older yeasty French dominated styles. The flooding on the road meant we had a considerable detour to get to the tasting room but it was well worth it. The host Damon was great, knew a lot about the wines and wine making in general. The tasting area gave great views over the nearby valley and added to the rustic setting and tasting experience. Their still wines (chardonnay and Pinot) were also very good quality and the star surprise for me was the T-T BDX 3 (strange name, good taste)

Dutton

A retail style tasting room with loads of goodies for sale, thankfully this didn't detract from the wine tasting. The wines were very aromatic in general with distinctive flavours associated with each one. It was easy to identify the grape varieties and they represented good solid wines. With pricing ranging from $20 to $50 they won't break the bank but the higher priced wines faced serious competition on quality from similar priced wines.

Marimar

Disappointing wine tasting area as it resembles a cloakroom attendant's counter. I got the impression that the whole tasting experience was scripted and was recited parrot fashion as there appeared little interest in selling us wines or even extolling their virtues. Over-rated wines which make great claims about the wine making being a female dominated operation, almost overpoweringly so. I really didn't get the point here, even the restrooms continually reminded of the gender specific bias. I found the whole experience unnecessary and probably clouded my enjoyment of the wines. The wines didn't represent good value and nothing noteworthy was presented.

Porter Creek

If ever there was a more rustic setting then I would be amazed. This for me was a great experience, no pretentiousness and good solid down to earth wine making based on fully organic growing. The '06 Zinfandel was the star wine and at $34 was good value and should mature beautifully as it has good balance. The wine tasting table was on old bowling alley lane!! Well worth a visit.
  

Twomey

In contrast to the last vineyard the Twomey tasting room was completely the opposite, both however excelled in what they sought to achieve. The Twomey range has always been synonymous with quality, being associated with Silver Oak. The host was perfect, knew her wines and was keen to talk and share her knowledge. I was lucky to pick up one of the last 2005 Pinots which have been stored away for a rainy day. Great quality and a reasonable price. The '99 Merlot was definitely the best wine, and even for a non merlot drinker I was secretly impressed. (Please don't tell anyone!)
  

Rochioli

Another vineyard which has links to "The Whitehouse" . You have to say that these people up there in Washington do have impeccable taste. We loved the '07 pinot and managed to get hold of 6 bottles each. When we asked about joining the 'A list' we were told it was about a 7 year waiting list. Oh well let's hope it comes down to 6 with the recession. They also showed a very solid Sauvignon Blanc which was crisp and elegant with great balance.

"J" Vineyards

We stopped at J Vineyard by accident as the nearby Rodney Strong was suffering a water failure. So it was an unknown quantity. It proved to be a revelation. The carefully branded and stylish design was appealing and the wines gave us a glimpse of how good Pinot can be when treated well. We loved the Robert Thomas Pinot and the tasting flight was well structured and demonstrated by a knowledgeable host who made us feel most welcome.
  

Arista

Arista has one of the most tranquil settings for wine drinking you could imagine. The Japanese gardens to the rear of the property just make the whole experience almost surreal. We sat and ate lunch there with one of their great wines and the time just flew by while we gazed over the distant mountains covered in snow framed by Japanese trees. The Arista wines traditionally score well in blind tastings and the '06 Russian River Valley was noteworthy in its great finish. Friendly staff and a friendly setting - what a perfect combination.
  

MacPhail

I heard about MacPhail from a tasting in Wine Enthusiast where it scored highly. These wines were definitely in our top 10. Just great Pinot made by enthusiastic people which a good eye for quality. We tasted 4 Pinots all of which I would be most willing to serve at a dinner party (and most definitely will!) The MacPhail vineyard is just starting to get well known and should be a real force in Sonoma if they keep producing wines of this quality. I suggest you get on their mailing list as soon as possible. James MacPhail and Gabriel Rickets have really got their act together and will be up there challenging the best producers in no time whatsoever. The tasting bar was delightfully unique, being a pewter, riveted construction!

Merry Edwards

Already a star in Sonoma, Merry Edwards provided a perfect setting for the breakfast tasting. It's always hard to start off first thing in the morning but this vineyard made our job a lot easier. Individual tasting room and a perfect host meant that we were soon appreciating the finer points of the wine. Their '07 Sauvignon Blanc stole the show for me, a great combination of pineapples, pears and minerals with a great oily finish. With a $27 price tag this was one of our top ten value wines.

Lynmar

Fantastic setting with comfortable seating area looking out over the vines and hills at Quail Hill. The wines were excellent although pricey ($70 Chardonnay and $100 5 Sisters Pinot). I found the 5 Sisters and the Quail Hill to be dominated by oak which really detracted from the underlying fruit. It will be interesting to see if these stand up to cellaring and the tannins mellow.
  

Siduri

Siduri is run by Texas winemakers with an obvious love of the Dallas Cowboys, all the vats are named after their stars! My guess is that the wine was designed around the Texas style of wine which is a brasher taste and mixes really well with the barbeque flavoured foods in the Lone Star State. The wines exhibited higher tannins than I would have expected and on most occasions these overpowered the fruit. The Clos Pepe '06 was the flagship of the range but at $53 would not be my first choice.

Martin Ray

What an amazing place, steeped in history and still maintaining its traditional roots. I recommend going if only for the tour itself, it has that family, homely feel to it and the wines are excellent value. Pick of the crop was the '06 Napa chardonnay which just shouted pineapple chunks! The whole place came across as great family affair and we had a very enjoyable time climbing in and out of the old wine vats.

Martinelli

Situated on the main road the Martinelli tasting room was cluttered with the wine tasting almost being a second thought. I got the impression the host was bored and not interested and the wines reflected that attitude. A disappointing selection with nothing really standing out as exceptional. They were all priced in the $45 area. Better wines are to be found for these prices.

Alderbrook

Alderbrook has a stylish tasting room with a dedicated bar style area for tasting. The shop contains a full selection of previous vintages. The '05 Wagon Wheel Zinfandel and '03 Zinfandel Port shone as the best of the wines put forward. The hostess was friendly and keen to show us the complete range as well as discuss the wines on offer.

Hartford

Impressive building set back off the side road in Sonoma. The tasting room was a dedicated are with ample space for two or three groups. We tasted a complete range of wines around the $50 mark and were impressed with the '06 Velvet Sisters. The 2006 Malolactic Chardonnay also impressed and should last well in the cellar.
  

Moshin

In the middle of the countryside lies Moshin, distinguishable by its 8 foot hummingbird art sculpture made out of golf clubs and other pieces of scrap metal. The wines were very well balanced on the whole and demonstrated good quality control and 'clean' wines. The '06 Russian River Pinot and the Late Harvest, made from the rarer Malvasia Bianca attracted our high scores and the rest scored comfortably in the high 80's with the Pinots getting the highest marks.
  

Korbel

I really don't know why we went here, this was the ultimate commercially run operation, the wines were lower end of the market fizzy wines and did nothing to impress or excite our taste buds. That said it is one of the leading sparkling wine producers on the West Coast but I can only assume the price point is the attraction at about $20. I've just remembered the Korbel refinery was on the way to the magnificent Redwood forest, now that WAS worth a visit.

Thumbprint

A city centre tasting area with some bizarre names for wine labels such as 4Play, 3-Some blend and '05 Climax. I'm sure there is some psychological reason why these names were selected but I just didn't get the message. The wines themselves were generally good although I do have a concern that blending 6 major varietals into the '05 Climax was something of a late night "let's try this" kind of wine, which on reflection wasn't such a good idea. Still with nothing over $50 it won't break the bank but I can't imagine sitting family or guests down to a bottle of 4-play!

Gary Farrell

Opulent tasting rooms on the top of a mountain. Spectacular views of the redwood forests layered with mist in the early morning. Art sale in the tasting room, expensive glasses, fantastic views......oh yes and what about the wines? Well this is where the plot ends, it would appear that the name Gary Farrell has been bought by new producers and they have omitted to retain the winemaker or quality control. Higher priced wines but nothing really impressive. The best was ironically from grapes grown in the Roccioli vineyard. Now I ask myself, would Roccioli send his best grapes to a competitor? I think you have the answer.
  

Dutton Goldfield

In the middle of nowhere really, with a shared rustic tasting room. It was deceptive from the outside and quite pleasant inside. Ranged from $35 to $58 with a high point being their '06 Rued Chardonnay. They provide grapes for some of the top end producers and their range is satisfactory if not that impressive.

Woodenhead

Woodenhead's winemaker was previously at Williams-Selyem and the quality shines though in these delightful wines. The tasting room is really comfortable with simple settings and a real knowledgeable host in Zina. The wines all exhibit delicate flavours and complex noses which just test your nose and palette to the extreme, was that rose petals I got just then? Mint, surely not and so it goes on. What Woodenhead have achieved here was to set out their stall in what is a unique brand of aromatic wines which are in contract to the fruit forward nature of the traditional Napa Sonoma blockbusters. It works. Highlight for me was the 2006 Russian river Pinot where I found the roses!

Summary

Sonoma offered so much more variety than Napa that it made us true fans of the area. I don't want to detract from the fantastic wines in Napa, but the Sonoma experience was a step above our previous Napa trip. A sincere thanks to the fantastic hosts who played their part in making this a great experience. In the words of the State Governor "I'll be back"!

go to part II - Sonoma wine tastings and ratings


  Before leaving for the States, John Holmes had worked in the wine retailing sector for about 10 years with his part-time 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 some 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, naming his top visits and, in part II, favourite wine finds of the trip.


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