Sonoma Winter WINEland Part 1

I’m not much of a Napa man. That doesn’t mean I’m not a fan of its most famous export Cabernet Sauvignon, and if you’d like to buy me a bottle of Dariush Napa Valley Cabernet as a Christmas gift (as my agent most kindly did a couple of years back), I will drink it and adore it and be extremely sad when the bottle is empty.

But the wines of neighboring Sonoma County are more my style. And to be specific, given that Sonoma is a large county with multiple AVAs of varying qualities, I am particularly partial to the Cabernet Sauvignons of Alexander Valley, the Zinfandels of Dry Creek Valley and almost anything to emerge from the Russian River Valley.

You can, then, imagine my delight when it turned out that my weekend off in San Francisco this January, staying with a Burner friend on the north side of the Bay, coincided with the Northern Sonoma County Wine Road’s “Winter Wineland 2013,” for which 136 wineries opened their doors for attendees to “meet winemakers, taste limited production wines, new releases or library wines,” and in many cases, to enjoy special food pairings too. The best thing about it, other than the almost comically cheap $45 two-day ticket? All the participating wineries lay within the borders of Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley – and all within a 90-minute drive from my host’s house. The only down side? We’d already put Sunday aside to go skiing at Lake Tahoe. (But that’s another story, and not one nearly as positive as that of Mammoth Powder.)

My host Steve, who barely drinks, offered to be designated driver (for which a $10 ticket allowed him unlimited soft drinks and food). We picked up a fellow Burner friend, Susie, who had attended my reading in San Francisco the previous evening and who, over a late evening Indian meal, successfully undertook some designating of her own – putting her English husband Mike onto child duties for the following day so she could join us in visiting the wine region she lives in the midst of. (He didn’t mind; he had a VJ gig that night.) On the drive up from her hometown of Petaluma, a printed Winter WINEland program in hand, we set about choosing our destinations to fit the 11am-4pm drinking window. Out went the largest, most corporate wineries, even those of significant quality (e.g. Simi and Francis Ford Coppola). Out went any winery that mentioned its food offering ahead of its wines, or mentioned the weekend’s 49ers playoff game ahead of its wines, or talked about ‘warming up’ with wine (not least because it was t-shirt weather that Saturday), or used the word “sexy” to describe its wines. The necessity of following a relatively straight line from two essential destinations – Dutton Goldfield in the south-west corner of Russian River Valley and Ridge on the eastern corner of Dry Creek Valley – eliminated dozens more.

This map of northern Sonoma, from the World Atlas of Wine, demonstrates the complexities of the various AVAs. Click on map to see full size.


Ultimately, we made it to six wineries that day – and one more of note 48 hours later, when I also got to visit the town of Sonoma itself, a bustling tourist destination with a large colonial style square surrounded on all four sides by literally dozens of wine shops, boutique tasting rooms and restaurants. The idea of staying in that town some time, eating and drinking well, and then renting a bicycle to visit the wineries, a concept that served me so well in the Finger Lakes last summer (eliminating the fear of driving under any influence) is now high on my to-do list.

Indeed, for all that one can become passionate about the wines of a certain region, even potentially an expert on them, there is ultimately no substitute for visiting that region to truly understand them. After all, the geography of almost any given wine region is confusing at best, and rarely more so than in northern California, where overlapping AVAs, often with frustratingly similar names, makes intricate knowledge of Napa and Sonoma an arduous task from afar. Driving through the region, however, clarifies not just that geography, but also its essential topography, along with the density and demographics of its people and vines alike, and the nature and variety of the wineries themselves. It’s all part of a larger concept of terroir, and it therefore stands to reason that the wines of a given area should come alive when the two-dimensional photographs from books, and the technical notes from bottle labels can be (re)viewed through the prism of a three-dimensional, real-world visual imprint.

This map renders it somewhat easier to understand. San Francisco lies to the south.


The Russian River Valley AVA is named for the river that winds its way east of the Pacific Ocean for ten miles or so before taking an abrupt turn north into the Alexander Valley; it’s sufficiently large and climatically varied (some 150 square miles of land, with 10,000 acres of vines planted) that it contains two additional sub-AVAs, Green Valley and Chalk Hill. From a viticultural perspective, the Russian River Valley is notable for the cooling factor of its fogs, which move in off the Pacific Ocean and settle over the river in the mornings, ensuring temperatures as much as ten or twenty degrees cooler in the summer than those further inland. In fact, writes Steven Kolpan in his award-winning book Exploring Wine, for many years “the cooler areas of the district were considered too cool to grow most of the varieties use in popularly priced blended jug wines.” That changed in the 1970s as California gave itself over to Chardonnay, for which the Russian River Valley is ideal; the region picked up additional momentum in more recent years with the increased interest in Pinot Noir. Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, even Zinfandel additionally thrive in this micro-climate, but none excel so much as the great grapes of Burgundy. Indeed, writes Kolpan, “this viticultural area produces the finest and most terroir-driven Pinot Noir wines in all of California.” Who would not look forward to tasting some at their point of origin?

(Winery notes to follow)

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