Savor Sonoma :: Valley Vintners Branch Out

  • by Jim Gladstone
  • Sunday June 4, 2017
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Here in the Bay Area, when we head up to wine country for the weekend, we're just as likely to be visiting Sonoma as Napa. To most of the world, Napa remains the stronger "name brand" when it comes to California wine geography. Even locally, when Sonoma does have name recognition, there's confusion between the County and the Valley.

Earlier this spring, The Sonoma Valley Vintner's and Growers' Alliance (SVVGA) made a bold move toward changing that perception, with the debut of an intensive weekend-long showcase of local viticulture, Signature Sonoma Valley.

Local winemakers were celebrated - and oenophiles from across the country were educated - over a series of meals, tastings and in-depth panel discussions.

According to SVVGA Executive Director Maureen Cottingham, the weekend was intended not only to generate national and international buzz for the region's hundreds of wineries, but to reinforce a sense of pride and solidarity among industry professionals in the Sonoma Valley to launch Signature Sonoma Valley as an annual event. A second edition has already been scheduled for April 6-8, 2018.

A palpable sense of mutual support was felt throughout the weekend, as winemakers visited colleagues' properties and toasted their peers.

Exemplary of this was a tasting panel held at the Durell Vineyard, during which five Valley winemakers - whose offerings have distinctively different taste profiles- spoke about how they collaborate with growers to custom-cultivate Chardonnay grapes in different areas of the vineyard's acreage.

These and the dozens of other winemakers and growers who participated in the weekend event are working with the SVVGA to educate the wine-drinking public about the myriad nuances to be found across the local vintages.

Here are some intriguing ideas gleaned from Signature Sonoma that will help you make the most of your own tasting excursion:

Sonoma Valley Does Not Equal Sonoma County

Sonoma County incorporates a much larger area than the Sonoma Valley wine region, stretching from Cloverdale in the north to San Pablo Bay in the south; and from Calistoga to the Pacific coast, east to west. There are vineyards and winemakers countywide in 17 designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), but true Sonoma Valley wines are made in only five of them, packed tightly into the county's southeast corner: The whole bunch can be visited over the course of a single weekend.

Bennett Valley AVA: The smallest of the five Valley AVAs, with just 650 cultivated acres, is cradled and kept cool by Bennett Peak, Sonoma Mountain and Taylor Mountain. While vintners across the Valley use Bennett-grown Chardonnay and Syrah grapes, Matanzas Creek is its sole open-to-the-public winery and also sells numerous lavenar products. (6097 Bennett Valley Rd., Santa Rosa

Sonoma Mountain AVA: With a peak elevation of 2,300 feet, the mountain allows grapes to grow above the fog line with sun-soaked days but chilly nights. Cabernet Sauvignon grapes grow particularly well here, though most are sent to vintners elsewhere. There's but one visitable winemaking operation here: Benziger Family Winery (1883 London Ranch Rd., Glen Ellen.

Los Carneros AVA: Overlapping Sonoma and Napa Counties alongside San Pablo Bay, hilly Los Carneros produces Pinot Noir along with Chardonnay grapes, many in vineyards owned by major global sparkling wine producers including Taittinger and Moet et Chandon. Oddly, Los Carneros' Jacuzzi Family Vineyards do not produce a bubbly.

Moon Mountain AVA: The newest AVA in the Valley, officially designated just four years ago, is on challenging rocky terrain just east of Glen Ellen. The turf supports smaller, thick-skinned Zinfandel grapes, a high cost growing situation that yields pricier, high-quality vintages. Several wineries here, including Hanzell Vineyards and Kamen Estate offer tastings and tours by appointment.

Sonoma Valley AVA

The Most Stylish Tastes

Among dozens of smaller tasting rooms -where guests will often have the benefit of an actual owner or winemaker on-site and eager to share stories and insight- Sonoma Valley has some larger operations offering experiences that go well beyond a tipple and a chat.

Landmark Vineyards (101 Adobe Canyon Rd., Kenwood. Founded in 1974 by a group including Damaris Deere Ford, the great-great-granddaughter of John Deere (yes, the one who invented the steel plow) and now owned by Charles and Phoebe Resnick, the California agri-preneurs' holdings include the POM pomegranate and Wonderful Pistachios brands. The winery is set amidst gorgeous, sun-soaked gardens in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains.

A contemporary California patio courtyard with a vineyard view is available for picnicking on local charcuterie and cheese, sold in the tasting room, where the handiwork of winemaker Greg Stach is best showcased in some of the Valley's crispest, brightest Chardonnays.

Farmer-led horse-drawn carriage tours through the vineyards are offered on Saturdays. Special events this summer (open to the public, reservations required) include an al fresco lobster feast with Chardonnay pairings on June 30 and a Pig, Pizza and Pinot Noir party on July 22.

Buena Vista Winery (18000 Old Winery Rd., Sonoma is among the oldest and most storied wineries not just in the Valley, but in all of California. Founded in 1857 by Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy de Mokesa �-who had previously jump-started the American beer industry as the first cultivator of hops in Wisconsin- the Buena Vista complex is now owned by the flamboyant vintner Jean-Charles Boisset. A scion of a French winemaking dynasty, he has become one of the Valley's most ardent promoters.

Centered around a castle-like complex of stone buildings, the winery incorporates an impressive exhibition on the global history of winemaking, including a collection of hundreds of antique agricultural tools. Boisset's personally curated collection of crystal decanters is also on display.

A variety of unique tasting experiences are also available, including a blending class and a pairing of wines with live classical music.

Ram's Gate Winery (28700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma. Perhaps Sonoma County's most architecturally spectacular viticulture site, this Carneros AVA winery is set on 28 acres of its own vineyards, which supplement grapes from other Sonoma growers used in Ram's Gate's pointedly food-friendly small lot vintages.

The vineyards are set around a stunning modern reception and tasting center at the crest of a hill. Designed by architect Howard Backen, the building's low-slung profile and harmonious flow of indoor and outdoor spaces feels at once luxe and intimately tied to its natural surroundings. From one of several stone-paved patios, visitors can take in a panoramic view of sun-dappled vineyards and then stroll a path through the vines, descending toward a tree-lined pond where Adirondack chairs invite quiet contemplation.

Visitors are welcomed Thursdays through Mondays, but it's essential to make an appointment. Experiences on offer include a food-and-wine pairing class with small plates tailored to the wines by Ram's Gate's in-house chef; a picnic program; and a full-day immersion program that includes an opportunity to work alongside the vineyard team, vintners, on-site gardeners and beekeepers.

Feeling Drowsy

While it's certainly possible to head up to the Sonoma Valley on a day trip, the sunshine and fine wine are likely to make you wish you'd made it a weekend.

For a wide range of options for spending the night, visit, but be sure to consider these two unique accommodations:

Beltane Ranch (11775 Sonoma Highway, Glen Ellen. Bed and breakfast accomodations on this charming homestead are available in free-standing cottages or in a main building (all rooms have private entrances). The 105-acre property has been passed down through six generations of a single family, and is now committed the organic farming of wine grapes, olives, produce, and livestock in addition to welcoming guests to its six rooms. There's a tennis court, a horseshoe pit, and endless walking trails for wandering.

Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn (100 Boyes Blvd., Sonoma Ideally situated for winery visits throughout the valley, the Mission Inn has a distinctly more relaxed feel than the Fairmont's urban properties. Standout features include a concierge desk with deep knowledge of local wineries and their offerings to visitors, spa pools full of thermal mineral water from hot springs beneath the property, and daily wine-tastings with local vintners during which a flabbergasting trolley of artisan cheeses is wheeled into the lobby lounge.

For a complete directory of Sonoma Valley wineries and further background information on next year's Signature weekend, visit

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