Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Weekend in Sonoma

This past weekend found myself, the wife and some good friends driving around Russian River, Santa Rosa, Sonoma Valley and the town of Sonoma. Research having been done, I can't say that we had any stops that disappointed, though some truly stood out and thanks to a colleagues recommendation, dinner was stellar.

We left the South Bay around 8am, leaving enough time to be at the first winery when they opened around 11. Always wanting to avoid the bridge trolls, we went north over the Golden Gate and hit surprisingly little City traffic on 19th. So instead of going straight to Inman Family Vineyards, which was our original intention, we flipped the order of things and started at Harvest Moon, which opened at 10. Arriving around 10:30, we were not the first to darken the doorstep. Being there when they open tends to make one feel like a bit of a drunkard.

Harvest Moon was one of the best of the wineries we tried this weekend. My friends had been there before, and had  chosen it as one of our stops. The style of winemaker Randy Pitts is fun and food friendly. He is a bit of a Gewürztraminer specialist, and does a bone dry sparkling Gewurtz, a dry version of the same grape, and an ice style Gewurtz dessert wine. Reds were Pinots and Zins in a distinct style, which was not typical of Sonoma's bigger Pinots, in general. His hallmark would certainly be low alcohol and food friendly. Both the Zinfandel and the Pinot Noir were translucent with clean fruit and a nice smoothness on the palate.

Our next stop was Inman Family. Truly a family affair. The winemaker is the lady of the establishment, Kathleen Inman and her daughter was pouring. We had a delightful chat with both, in spite of a slight disagreement about steel Chardonnays. I'm for them, Kathleen felt that some neutral oak was necessary to round out the wine. I was glad to find an excellent dry rosé, which is something I've got a passion for, and two bottles of the "Endless Crush" rosé followed me home. Kathleen also produces some fine Pinots, and a Chardonnay that did not offend.

Rochioli is certainly a venerable name in Sonoma Pinots and the grounds were lovely. Unfortunately, the tasting room, while attractive has a fairly small bar area which was rather crowded upon our arrival and the attention from the staff was minimal. They were only tasting 3 wines, but there was no tasting fee. My tasting notes fail me somewhat here, I remember a white (which did not make an impression one way or tother), a Pinot that was excellent, but maybe a bit pricey and a Valdeguié, which is also known as Napa Gamay, a great table wine for $20. I often enjoy when the bargain item is the thing that impresses the most. I have no objection to expensive wines, but finding a good deal is a delight.

Another well known Sonoma name, and only a hop, skip and jump from Rochioli is Hop Kiln. An historic building, which actually was a Hop Kiln at one time. Hops having been a major agricultural feature of Sonoma's distant past. It is a  fun and lively tasting room and I particularly enjoyed that they brought around little snackies (lox on toast). Another dry Rosé, though less dry than the previous one at Inman, and thus a bit less to my taste. Some very good Pinots and a house red, called Big Red Proprietary Blend. All dandy.

Another location that came originally via a suggestion from friend George, is Porter Creek. This was my second visit and Porter Creek is already a definite destination for moi. Another location where the winemaker has a distinctive style. The tasting room is little more than a shack, but the wines speak for themselves. Chardonnays in a style I rather like. Excellent Russian River Pinots. Zinfandel. And perhaps the most interesting thing is a Carignane, which I was extremely fond of.

The last stop of the day was Moshin. And a good thing it was. They feature a rather massive list of Pinots of which they tasted pretty much all of them. Paul, the mad Scot of Porter Creek had been off that day, but we were greeted by a somewhat less mad Sottish lass. All of the wine was well constructed and the tasting room was fun, though they could lighten up on all of the "moshin" puns, E-Moshin, Pro-Moshin, Loco… You get my drift.

Dinner was at Bistro 29 in Santa Rosa. Highly recommended!!! The mussels in tomato-wine-saffron broth were probably the best I've ever had (including in Brussels), and the all of the food was great. And our server was perfect.

Day 2 took us to Sonoma Valley, where the wineries are generally more "venerable" with bigger estates, older names and often bigger price tags. 

We began at Landmark, which was probably the most gorgeous estate I've ever been to. We were on the early side and had the tasting room to ourselves. The staff was great, very fun and informative. Landmark offers two flights, the regular one for $15 and the reserve for $25. The 3 of us who were tasting opted for a regular and two reserve, but in the end with our purchases and the fact that I had a Visa Signature card that offers a Sonoma promotion, the tasting fees were comped. Probably the best Pinot Noir I tasted on this trip, and the lad behind the bar set us each up with 3 glasses, so we could taste all of the offerings side by side. They also had a killer Syrah, which I ended up purchasing.

Another recommendation from George was Imagery. A project of Joe Benziger, one of the middle sons of the Benziger winery family. Imagery is specialized in unusual varietals and was one of the most fun tasting rooms we experienced. Jennifer M was our wine wench and she gave us 100% of her attention and let us taste a few things off menu including a Lagrein, which is new to my tasting list. She also kindly recommended our next two stops.

Eric Ross  in Glen Ellen. The owner, Eric, is an ex-SF Chron photographer and much of his work is featured on the walls of the tasting room, which is located a bit off the beaten track in the rustic town of Glen Ellen. The lady behind the bar was a dead ringer for Carol King and did an admirable job of managing a bustling tasting room, mostly on her own. Two whites were featured. A Marsanne-Roussanne, which was dry and crisp, an Albarino, Pinot, Syrah, Zin, and a Zin port fortified with St. George Distillery Zinfandel Brandy. St. George Spirits is a story for another day. I bought the Albarino, but the Port was tempting (though pricey at $50). Wines were all very good.

Finally we made our way to Westwood In the town of Sonoma. A small boutique winery with a private tasting room in a little courtyard off the square. It was a bit of an adventure finding it, since the address appeared to be between First and Broadway at 11 East Napa. What I failed to realize was that there is an East First and a West First that sandwich Broadway, so we were hunting on the wrong block. Add on that they are located down an alleyway, you can see why we got a bit confused. A call to the tasting room solved the problem as John Kelly, the winemaker/proprietor, guided us in to a safe landing. We were welcomed into a cozy room with office space in the back and invited to lounge on a comfy sofa while the winemaker gave us a private tasting. John spoke with great pride and enthusiasm about his wines, his winemaking methods and the science of winemaking. I learned a lot from him and it was probably the best experience of the whole weekend, which is saying a lot. Bigger, slightly more alcoholic Pinots than we had experienced elsewhere, but not overly extracted as some Sonoma Pinots can be.  John also does an excellent Rhone blend called RedFour, which he says is inspired by the style of Chateau Beaucastel, consisting of Mourvedre, Grenache, Syrah and Counoise, which lead to a discussion of Tablas Creek and their great winemaker Neil Collins.  Very highly recommended.

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