In July, Randy and I went to Sonoma for the first time. We had a great time, and were quite impressed by the quality of wine. For each day, I will post the wineries we went to, along with notes.
Should you be interested in visiting, I cross-referenced all these wineries–they appeared as the best among several major publications. Additionally, they’re a good value–none of the places had a tasting fee higher than $15. But I know planning an intinerary is half the fun, so I encourage you to look into it on your own.
Before we began our second day of tasting, I had to stop at this sculpture, in the middle of an isolated sculpture park off the highway in the Alexander Valley. I loved it, with its weird house head and Nickelodeon childlike charm.
Dry Creek Vineyards
We started our day in the Dry Creek appelation, and what better place to start than the eponymous winery. I was immediately struck by the lush plant life surrounding us–flowers filled every corner of the outdoor space. This winery, like Clos du Bois, supported an army of solar panels on its rooftops, enough to power the energy needs of its operation. I later found out that it is certified sustainable through the California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance.
The wines were solid through and through, which tends to happen with more established wineries. Less surprises, but more quality over the long run. The standout for us was the zin–it’s to be expected, since Dry Creek is one of the best areas in California for zinfandel. I found out from the pourer that zin is easy to grow, so it’s a grape that succumbs to quantity over quality, which is maybe why so many of us are familiar with the jammy, overblown style…easy to extract “flavor” with less concentrated grapes by excess ripening. However, this one was effortless with nothing to prove, a quality we would come across again and again for zins in Sonoma.
We also got an opportunity to try a sauv. blanc made from the Musqué clone, an unusual clone with a character of greasy spoon Chinese food and funky earth. Though I only tried it twice on our trip, I would say it has a little bit of a rounder and “wetter” quality than standard sauv. blanc.
We finished our visit in the sustainable gardens outside, a floral splendor. Part of the garden is an insectary–it works to attract beneficial insects. I am hopeful about the rapidly depleting bee population, and happy to see anything supporting them.
This quiet little winery is antithetical to the energetic power of its wines. We were happy with our first couple of pours, a rosé and a sauv. blanc, which the pourer suggested we take to the biodynamic garden.
They didn’t play around with their garden–tomatoes, herbs, bee-friendly flowers, and other vegetables abounded from every corner. I don’t know much about homesteading, but I’m guessing this garden could support a few families–it was that large. If you don’t know what biodynamic gardening is, it’s a way of growing food that incorporates organics, soil care, and biorhythms in nature (such as moon cycles), to produce a richer, brighter, more chi-influenced food. The philosophy is based on the writings of Rudolf Steiner, a turn-of-the-century spiritual philosopher (also responsible for the Waldorf schools).
Upon returning to the bar, I asked if their wines were also biodynamic–the pourer proudly pointed to the Demeter-certified label on the back of the bottle we were drinking. Most wines we tried were certified; only one was 50% biodynamic.
I did not take the best tasting notes here, suffice it to say the pours were generous. However, we ended up taking home two bottles–a zinfandel and a roussane, and it ended up being perhaps our favorite winery on the whole trip. That’s what sincere biodynamic practices can do to wine.
The first thing you notice about Sonoma-Cutrer is the aesthetic–it is a deceptively wealthy-looking tasting room. The floors are naked stained wood, the ceilings are high, and outdoors is a perfectly manicured croquet lawn. However, I could tell that much like an Eames chair or Prada shoe, the focus was on aesthetics rather than status.
S-C focuses on chardonnay and pinot noir, since their vineyards are located in the cool Sonoma Coast AVA–in fact, they are pioneers of this lesser-known region. The Sonoma Coast is a more specific appelation than the general Sonoma one. It is a strip of land located, yes, along the coast of the Pacific Ocean. According to their website, the coast has cool, foggy days and a long growing season, which should result in pinots and chards with good acid and complexity. S-C also produces wine from Russian River Valley, where the tasting room is located.
The wines were all quality examples of the varietals, though our palates were getting a little tired. My best tasting note was for the 2013 Russian River Ranchers Chardonnay, a steel-oak hybrid:
rich and soft body, something crisp (probably finish, I took lousy notes), sawdust, lemon drops and mandarin.
Joseph Swan Vineyards
Upon arriving at Joseph Swan, we were immediately struck by the down-to-earth atmosphere, as evidenced by this sign announcing a tasting fee, just in case you want to turn around! Since pretty well all the good wineries have tasting fees in Sonoma, we were not deterred.
The winery and vineyards are located in the Russian River Valley, an area known for pinot noir. The tasting room was a simple bar in the middle of a barn converted to a storage cellar. Crowds milled about in the end-of-the-tasting-day stupor, while a young tasting room associate poured from this or that bottle with a devil-may-care attitude.
Joseph Swan does not fine or filter its wines, and also uses native yeasts for reds. While we had some very good wines, I have not yet found a natural winery that I love, this one included. I seem to go for the tricks and gimmicks used by more conventional winemakers. However, these wines had some interesting flavor characteristics, such as brown butter on a syrah, and wet sand on a pinot noir. I gave all the wines scores in the upper 80s.
And that was the end of day two. Stay tuned for the rest!