Just One Day: Wine Tasting in The Sonoma Valley
Last month at the conclusion of the Wine Blogger Conference, I added a quick two days so do some wine tasting and visit with an old friend that moved to the area. I was so lucky that Suzanne was available as I could not imagine wine tasting here without her.
Suzanne is a friend from my Chicago days. It has been 14 years since we last saw each other when Gary and I moved to the southeast coast. She too left Chicago and moved to the San Francisco Bay area a few years later and has made visiting wine country a monthly excursion. To plan out my short trip, a month beforehand, she asked that I buy a winery map to help me chose some destinations. As I looked at the map with over 400 wineries in the Sonoma Valley and over 500 in the Napa Valley, I concluded that I would follow her lead. This is overwhelming.
So our day one in Sonoma started at a tasting room on the square in the city of Sonoma, followed by brunch and then two winery stops in the afternoon. The next day in Napa was only slightly different. (That day will follow in a separate post.)
Not So Fast
Wine tasting in Sonoma and Napa is a different experience than in either of the two other regions I had previously visited. I had this preconceived idea of hitting winery after winery and jam-packing my one day in each county as full as I could. That is what I did when in touring California’s Central Coast and Australia’s Barossa Valley. But soon I learned, that is not how it is done here. You “could” do that if you stay in town centers where there are lots of tasting rooms but if you want wineries and vineyards, you have to venture out. And then there is the fact that tasting hours are from 10:00 am – 4:00 pm or 11:00 am – to 5:00 pm with a rare outlier open until 6:00 pm. And each tasting takes roughly an hour to ninety minutes, especially with someone as chatty as me.
The wineries themselves are beautiful, and you are encouraged to walk around. I, of course, had my camera and even though it rained most of the day, I was out and about making images for my portfolio.
One More Thing
You may note that the prices for these wines are in the $40 to $75 range. This is much higher than what we normally spend on a bottle of wine.
There are several reasons for the higher prices starting with real estate costs per acre of farmland in the area. But that is only the beginning, most of these wineries are making small-batch, handcrafted wines. What does that mean? Maybe only 150 cases of a single vineyard, vintage wine. As such, the laws of supply and demand alone raise the prices for these wines in such limited supply.
Additionally, making a handcrafted wine is very labor intensive including hand-picking the fruit at night. Then hand sorting every berry for optimum ripeness, native yeast fermentation, and oak barrel aging. Creating small batch, handcrafted wine is in many ways like a fine art sculptor creating a glorious statue. The work is painstakingly detailed and requires precision to make the best wine possible from the fruits of your labor both in farming and winemaking.
Tourism and Branding
Lastly, visiting the area is about tourism and brand recognition. The Northern California winemaking region creates highly sought after wines and that type of branding certainly affects the price. But it is also a wine lover’s amusement park and tourism destination. We, in Charleston, understand the impact that tourism has on a local economy. It is the fuel that runs our region. Sonoma and Napa are the same. So when you visit, be prepared to taste wine like you have never had and be prepared to spend some money.
This day began when Suzanne arrived at my hotel in Santa Rosa. We dropped off her things, grabbed a coffee and headed to the town of Sonoma. It was there we met two of her friends who were spending part of the day with us. The town of Sonoma is a historic 19th-century town including a town square lined with by shops, galleries, and tasting rooms. It is the heart of the Sonoma Valley Winemaking region.
A Tasting Room Experience – Walt Wines
Just off the square on 1st Street is the tasting room for Walt Wines. This was our first wine tasting stop of the day. Walt primarily makes Pinot Noir but also has one Chardonnay. We were here for the Pinot Noir, so we skipped the Chardonnay and dug into these highly desirable reds. Walt makes Pinot Noir from as far north as Oregon’s Willamette Valley to California estates in Mendocino, Napa, and Sonoma Counties and the Central Coast. If points matter to you, then know that Walt consistently makes wines that are awarded 90+ points from various wine magazines and critics.
The six different Pinot Noir wines I tasted were spectacular, and I would return to Walt in a heartbeat to check out new vintages as they become available.
Brunch at El Dorado Kitchen
Before we headed to our second wine tasting, we needed food in our stomachs. Our next stop was brunch in downtown Sonoma at El Dorado Kitchen.
It is the restaurant in the El Dorado Hotel, a cozy 27-room boutique hotel right on the town square.
This brunch was perfect. The room is bright with large windows facing the square. The room is calm and frenetic all at the same time. Our server Charles was “on it.” He was pleasant and funny, yet informative and thorough. He was always there when we needed him but never hovering or too chatty. We started with a bottle of Red Car Rosé of Pinot Noir 2016 made in Sebastapol here in the valley. Rosé is a perfect brunch wine because it is low alcohol. This wine is coming in at 12.9%. It is crisp with notes of citrus and bing cherry.
Food Glorious Food
Our starters included a fruit smoothie for Phil and fresh oysters shared by Suzanne and Shelley. I went for the Ceviche of Rock Cod with cucumber, jalapeno peppers, cherry tomatoes, radish, avocado, cilantro, and tortilla chips. It was massive in size and absolutely delicious.
The entrées followed, and our table fell to a hush as we each dove into our meals. Everyone ordered something different, and they all looked amazing and tasted even better. I think it was Phil who ordered the Brioche French Toast with apple compote, maple syrup, and Hobb’s bacon. Shelley had the Beer Battered Fish Tacos. They were served with avocado mousse, cole slaw, spicy crema, pico de gallo, and a jalapeno vinaigrette. Suzanne ordered Chilaquiles with salsa roja, crispy tortillas, eggs, crema, avocado, cotija. I had never seen that before, and it looked so good. I ordered the Eggs Benedict with smoked salmon, English muffin, braised spinach, poached eggs, hollandaise sauce, potatoes, and mixed lettuces.
Phil and Shelly needed to head back to the city after brunch. Suzanne and I had enough time for two more wine tastings, but we had to keep moving.
Wine Tasting – Ravenswood Winery
We went to Ravenswood Winery because I wanted to experience the difference between a winery owned by an international conglomerate (Constellation Brands) versus the smaller family-run wineries. Suzanne had never been there, so it was a win-win as she likes to experience at least one new winery on each of her visits.
The look and feel of the experience are the same. The winery and surrounding estate are beautiful. The tasting fee is in the same range, and our server was knowledgeable, friendly and attentive. They have a wine club with a VIP section for those guests. It is all quite lovely.
It had stopped raining, so we chose to taste outside overlooking vineyards.
We started with 2016 Congresso, a Sonoma County white blend of 57% Sémillon, 43% Sauvignon Blanc. This was my favorite wine from the tasting. Really nice body and mouthfeel that is also bright and crisp.
We then started with three of their four signature Single Vineyard Zinfandel wines, a Barbera, and lastly the 2013 Rancho Salinas Blend. Unfortunately, these wines did not match my palate preferences, but that means nothing unless we share the same tastes in wine. If you are a fan of Ravenswood, you may want to add this stop to your itinerary. I am glad we did even though the wines were not to my liking. Of all of the wineries on both days, these wines were the lowest price ranging from $24 to $30 for their white wines and $40 to $50 for the reds.
Last Stop of the Day – B.R. Cohn Winery
Our last stop of the day was to B. R. Cohn Winery. Suzanne is a member of their club which got us a free tasting. I ended up buying wine so that would have zeroed out the tasting fee anyway, but what the hey. This winery is founded by Bruce Cohn, the longtime manager of the Rock and Roll legends, the Doobie Brothers. In 1974 and continuing for the next ten years, Bruce farmed the existing vineyards on his estate with his mentor, Chuck Wagner of Caymus Vineyards fame. During this time he sold his fruit to other winemakers and watched them achieve recognition and awards for wines made exclusively with his grapes. In 1984 he began producing his own wines to great fanfare. In 1990 he also began bottling estate grown olive oil from the trees on the estate.
We had a lot of fun at B.R. Cohn. Our wine concierge was entertaining in the way that he shared his knowledge of the wines we were tasting. Unlike the other two wineries, we visited today B.R. Cohn offered five different varietals to give you a sense of the breadth of their portfolio. These wines are intense and complex, and one was as good as the next. I left with four bottles in my possession, but my favorite of all was the Cabernet Franc which was also offered to us from off the menu. These wines will be paired with a hearty dinner, and I can not wait to enjoy them this winter and perhaps beyond if I can keep my hands off for a while.
Lastly, B.R. Cohn also sells wine nationally and is widely available on the top shelf at grocery stores and in restaurants all over the Charleston area. Next time I am in a restaurant, I will confidently order a bottle of B.R. Cohn.
Writing this post recalls great memories from this day. I imagine the same will hold true when I drink and cherish these wines.
That is all for now.