If you think California wine is synonymous with Napa Valley, it’s time to reconsider. Although Sonoma County lacks some of the glitz and fame of its neighboring vino hub, the lower key region offers equally sophisticated vintages, a gourmet food scene backed by the county’s more than 200-year-old family farm tradition, and a patchwork of landscapes speckled by towering redwoods and seasonal golden mustard blossoms.
This September, I toured the county during its whirlwind Wine Country Weekend – a three-day extravaganza of food fests, auctions, and winemaker dinners – and I can vouch that no grape connoisseur will go home disappointed by the selection on tap in the region, a swath of land slightly larger than the state of Rhode Island. Moreover, 2010 brought with it a host of new options for visitors, including a grape harvest promising rare, one-of-a-kind flavors.
Grape Harvest 2010
Mother Nature took northern California on a roller coaster ride this summer, with June and July delivering one of the wettest and coldest summers in the last 50 years. Many winemakers responded by cutting the canopy on the vines to prevent mildew growth and give the fruit maximum sunlight exposure, but when an August heat wave sent temperatures soaring above 100 degrees, some of those sunbathing grapes got scorched.
The tumultuous weather destroyed grapes and delayed the fall harvest by as much as three weeks in some vineyards, but the silver lining is that the surviving vines could produce some of the region’s most complex vintages, with winemakers anticipating lower alcohol contents and bolder fruit flavors in some of the wines.
Vintners are quick to credit grape vines with the success (or failure) of a year’s wine, but until recently, few wineries allowed visitors to actually explore the farmlands that source those plummy Syrahs and creamy Chardonnays.
Now, two Sonoma groups facilitate hikes through the region’s rolling vineyards: Sonoma County Vineyard Adventures (www.sonomavineyardadventures.com), launched by the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission in January 2010; and Sonoma Vineyard Walks (www.sonomavineyardwalks.com), started by the travel company Zephyr Adventures in 2008.
Sonoma County Vineyard Adventures offers free, low-impact, self-guided tours at four wineries throughout the county: Matanzas Creek Winery, in Bennett Valley; Paradise Ridge Winery, in the Russian River Valley; Balletto Vineyards, in the Russian River Valley; and Mauritson Family Winery, in Dry Creek Valley. Each of the trails run for less than a mile; hikers simply pick up a detailed map at one of the participating wineries and explore at whim.
Alternatively, Zephyr Adventures’ walks provide a guided, all-inclusive experience that lets hikers choose between day trips and five-day vacations, all customized depending on the group’s interest in wines, history, scenery, and exercise; walks start at $125 per person.
Thomas George Estates
Father-and-son team Thomas and Jeremy Clark opened Russian River Valley winery Thomas George Estates (www.thomasgeorgeestates.com) in 2008, and although it’s certainly not the most famous recent addition to Sonoma (in July, Francis Ford Coppola opened his splashy eponymous winery and on-site restaurant, Rustic, to the public; www.franciscoppolawinery.com), it captures the casual, rustic vibe that distinguishes Sonoma from next door Napa.
A traditional tasting room is open daily for visitors to sample Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel, but the true treats here are in the well-planned extras: Purchase a customized picnic basket and a bottle of wine to enjoy amid the surrounding countryside, or gather a group for the new four-hour cruise of Lake Sonoma ($45; available May-October), complete with an onboard tasting.