NorCal day 2: Sonoma

Woke up at the hotel bright and early..OK, maybe not THAT early, and went to the hotel courtyard for a “continental breakfast” of cereal, fresh pastries & coffee. I tried to get down a “bug juice” of sorts that was simply awful. Another cup of coffee (and I normally don’t drink coffee) and I was on my way.

I stayed in a northern part of Napa known as Calistoga and made my way North West to Sonoma county. I ended up in Healdsburg in the Russian River and started at a winery called Sausal winery. I tried a Sangiovese, an Italian varietal that is not that common in NorCal and was the only one I tasted on this trip. Sangiovese is often a lighter red with greater acidity. This was one such Sangiovese, wherein I detected some cherry & earth and a nice acidity. Zinfandel is a very common varietal in Sonoma county and I tried 2 Zins at Sausal; the 2004 Family Zinfandel & the 2005 Private reserve Zin. The alcohol was under 15% on both, a relatively low # for Zin. The family Zin is priced very reasonably at under $20 and is a nice, sweet jammy zin. The private reserve Zin is also priced pretty well and I think by far the better of the two. At a suggested retail price of $23 this Zinfandel aged for 19 months in 100% french oak showed fresh red & blue fruit that turned to riper black fruit, was not overly jammy and had some nice layers to it. Well integrated tannins with a medium-long finish this is a very nice Zin for $23.

The prior day in Napa was a lot of fun but I have friends and other contacts there whom I really wanted to see so my day was very much set. I know nobody in Sonoma so I figured the day would take me where it took me. The gentleman at Sausal recommended a winery up the road (in Geyserville) called Stryker Sonoma, so I gave it a shot. Sadly the gentleman in the tasting room at SS was not the friendliest guy around. Maybe he simply lacked personality. Not sure, but it made the visit much less pleasant than it could have been. Suddenly I was missing having friends at all the wineries. It was also the ONLY winery on my trip that charged me for a tasting. Granted it was only $5 and I did try 7 wines, but still – all the other places extended a very friendly courtesy to the Wine Tasting Guy and this guy did not. That said the wines were nice. I started with a white blend of 50% Semillon & 50% chardonnay that I really enjoyed. And I think I detected a wine adjective I had not previously understood – “oily”. “Oily” is used to describe the texture or body of a wine and is commonly associated with Semillon – which may be why I used that descriptor (another benefit to blind tasting). The wine had a nice citrus nose & a creamy citrus palate with nice acidity and a medium+ finish. There was also a Merlot, Cab, and then 4 zinfandels. Amazingly enough of the 4 I liked the one that I htink was the cheapest (I did not get the price for one of them). I’m not sure if I was bitter given the lack of warmth, but 3 of the wines seemed a little bitter and overly acidic to me – wines that were simply out of balance. It was actually the 2004 “old vine” Estate Alexander Valley Zin that I liked most. Made from 98 year old vines and retailing for $26 this wine did not have the out of balance acidity and was not overly jammy. I found it to be lightly jammy with nice fruit a soft & nice mouth feel and a medium to long finish. Oh yeah, did I mention how beautiful the tasting room was. And with huge glass windows that had a marvelous view of the mountains and vineyards.

From Stryker I headed West on Alexander Valley Road and stopped at a winery I have heard of, Jordan Winery. Set on a beautiful estate my first impression was how pretentious this place was. I did not make a reservation and was told one needs to schedule an appointment to taste there. Preparing to leave the girl at the reception area invited us to go in and look around. A different woman informed us that she had time for us and that we could in fact taste the wine. I was with a friend and she asked if we wanted one tasting or two. At $20 I asked her if we could share one and we were informed that they do not do that. Serious pretension. I was ready to write a nasty review of this place. But sure enough while brousing the goods in the tasting room we were waved over by the woman who sort of whispered “come on, its OK”. Turns out she was a pretty sweet lady and I was thrilled to have stayed because the wines were quite good.

There were only 2 wines, a Chardonnay and a bordeaux blend. The 2006 Chardonnay spends 3 months “Sue Lie” (on its lees or mixture of yeast cells, grape pulp, etc), gets filtered, and then goes back into the French oak barrels for another 7-8 months. The wine had a nice subtle toastiness and melon aromas. On the palate it showed some lemon zest, subtle oak and was crisp with a silky mouth feel and a nice long finish.

Their 2004 cabernet which is actually a Bordeaux blend of 76% Cabernet, 18% merlot, 4% Petit Verdot & 2% cab franc. Interestingly enough this wine spends 3 months in large 1000 liter oak tanks while going through it malolactic (secondary) fermentation before being blended and then moved to a mixture of French & American oak barrels for one year. The wine is then kept in the winery cellar for 18 months before being released. This is a very important step (that most wineries can not afford to do) allowing the wine to show its best upon release. The wine had a clear ruby color, with a somewhat typical Napa/Sonoma bouquet of blue/black berry. What made this wine great were its very soft & well integrated tannins and it velvety mouth feel. There was no spitoon here but I was OK with that as this wine deserved to be swallowed. Upon swallowing this wine showed a nice long finish. At $50 for the Cab & $30 for the Chard it is actually not ridiculously priced either. Great stuff!

Heading further West & a little North we ended up at the Ridge (Lytton Springs) winery. Ridge is a well known Zinfandel producer & upon arrival we were WARMLY greeted by a very nice woman. Although Ridge is known for their Zins they do make other very fine wines and we were started off with a Chardonnay and finished with a Cab/Merlot blend and finally a Petit Syrah. But I was there for the Zins, and we tasted 3 of them. The Ponzo vineyard, Oltrani & famous Geyserville Zinfandel. Although the Geyserville sells for $35 while the others go for $28 it was the Ponzo that I enjoyed most. It had the lowest Alcohol (at 14.4% ABV as opposed to 14.6 for the Geyserville & 15.1 for oltrani) and was the least “jammy” of the 3. Now Zins are often jammy and there is nothing wrong with that if you like it, but I felt like I had lots of one dimensional jammy zins. By no means were the other zins one dimensional. The Geyserville showed nice tabacco, cigar box & mocha coffee while the Oltrtani had ripe fruit & a great mouth feel. But the 2006 Ponzo vineyard Zin showed ripe cherry on the nose and fresh cherry & berry flavors on the palate. It was lush, fruity, had well integrated tannins & a nice long finish. Ahhhh…..

From Ridge we drove just up Lytton Springs Rd to Mazzocco Sonoma where we met a fun & edgy guy who called himself Demitrus (although we later found out he was kidding and his real name is something else – he asked not to be mentioned by name). We tried a chardonnay, 3 zins & 2 cabs at Mazzocco. Their 2005 “Home” Zinfandel, blended with 3% Petit Sirah, had a very pleasant minty menthol thing going on that went very nicely with the ripe fruit. It had a great mouth feel and a medium + finish. The 2003 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet reserve was also a favorite with its unusual nose and nice body. I felt the nose showed more blue or purple fruit than black fruit & was not yet another Norcal cab. Nice showing all around.

From Mazzocco we headed north on Dry Creek Road and decided to stop at Dutcher Crossing, a winery I had visited a year earlier. One of the reasons I went back was because of a very warm and gracious tasting room person the first time I was there. This time I had to wait a while before anyone paid attention to me and even longer before they finished with the other people and decided to get started with us. YES PEOPLE, CUSTOMER SERVICE MATTERS. The woman ended up being nice enough, but I really got started on the wrong foot. We tried a nice Sauvignon Blanc and two Chardonnays that another gentleman in the tasting room really seemed to like. I found them both to be a bit tart for my liking but I suppose different strokes for different folks. We tried a Mapple Vineyard Zin which we were told came from the “twisted Oak block” which is a dry farmed section. It was nice, as was the Proprietors Cab which was blended with 24% Syrah. But our favorite of the tasting was a very interestingly blended Port made of 59% Petit Sirah, 36% Zin & 5% Syrah. It had an alcohol level of 19% (not that much higher than some zins) and apparently spent 24 months in French oak. It was full of sweet, nutty, fruity aromas and flavors and was thoroughly enjoyed…and swallowed!


It was getting late and I really wanted to get to one more winery so we ran next door to Ferrari-Carano, a very large, fancy & beautiful estate. The scenery from the multi-level tasting room was quite spectacular. Sadly we were told that the only human to actually walk the ground is the groundskeeper – strict look but do not walk policy. Seemed kind of sad – almost like fine China that stays in a cabinet and never gets used. back the wines though, they were all very nice. They have a fancy “limited release” room downstairs which closes 30 minutes prior to the “classic wines” tasting room so we started there. We tried a very nice Chardonnay (the 2006 Emelia’s Cuvee) that I struggled with a little as I could not grasp the nose from the traditional Burgundy glass. On the palate however it was full, soft, luscious, slightly creamy, crisp & had some zestiness, all brought together by a nice long finish. Their 2006 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir had that artificial candy fruit nose that I do not care for but on the palate it was quite complex showing some smoked meat, full fruit, cherry, red berry, red licorice…the only thing missing was some good earthiness. Not my favorite, but nice. We then tried the 2004 Sonoma county “tre’sor”, a bordeaux blend containing all 5 varietals, 63% Cab, 16% Malbec, 11% Petit Verdot, 6% Cab Franc & 4% Merlot. This wine had big black fruit, subtle oak, some black pepper & what I thought was a hint of charcoal. It was a full bodied wine with a smooth mouth feel (and a touch of heat) that had well integrated tannins and a medium to long finish. The last wine was the “Prevail – West Face” which is a blend of 70% Cab & 30% Syrah. I really enjoyed the nose on this one as it had a lot going on. I thought I detected a bit of brett but it was mild and somewhat masked by black fruit, spice, smokiness, and some earthy foresty aromas. This wine was big & had huge tannins that would go fabulously with a juicy steak. Yum, I’m hungry!

Finding ourselves all the way up North it is a good thing I spit most of the day as we had a nice long drive down to the Southern most part of Sonoma County, downtown Sonoma. There we had dinner at The Girl & the Fig. I’m admittedly no food critic, but I had a pan roasted arctic Char, a fish a lot like salmon that I was not previously familiar with. Sadly I felt my own pan seared salmon comes out better but my friend had a really delicious vegetarian dish called the chickpea panisse cake. We had a very nice server, drank a lot of wine, and it was a great ending to a fabulous trip.

Not sure when I next get back to Sonoma so if you’re going any time soon please say hi for me.

Happy Sonoma wine tasting!


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