Wine Enthusiast

ARTICLE | July 26, 2017

A Guide to Sonoma’s Best Winery Experiences, Part 1

While arguably less famous than its neighbor to the east, you’d be hard-pressed to find a wine region in California that offers more of the good life than Sonoma County. It’s a place that’s hard to beat when looking for a relaxed approach to eating and drinking.

Wedged between the cool grandeur of the Pacific Ocean and the warmth of the Napa Valley, Sonoma’s temperate, Mediterranean-like ambience supports a healthy food culture to match its wine. You name it, it’s here: from oysters and cheeses to tomatoes, grass-fed beef and Liberty duck. The wine grapes, too, are marked by a profound diversity, and rivers, lakes, parks and mountains invite outdoor activities of all kinds.

The Classics

It’s good start to visit the places that helped define a region. Many of these properties continue to be family-owned and run—a constant that persists widely in Sonoma County.

Hanzell Vineyards
Set above the city of Sonoma, Hanzell represents an original vision for a vineyard site and winemaking consistency, as it has produced estate-grown Pinot Noir and Chardonnay since 1957. The wines are celebrated for being ageworthy. Heritage winery tours delve into the history of winemaking and viticulture at Hanzell with a seated tasting of current wines. Private estate tours venture into the vineyards. By appointment only; hanzell.com.

Iron Horse Vineyards
In the mid-1970s, the Sterling family set out to make world-class sparkling wines from a pocket of the Russian River Valley that would eventually become its own appellation, Green Valley. They planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay within areas of a rambling 300-acre ranch. The wines of Iron Horse Vineyards have graced White House state dinners, raised money for environmental causes and pleased countless palates over the years. In addition to its lineup of dry sparklers, Iron Horse makes block-specific still Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Tours and tastings from its hillside barn are the best way to take it all in. By appointment only; ironhorsevineyards.com.

Jordan Winery
Based in Alexander Valley since 1972, Jordan makes two wines, a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Chardonnay, crafted by one of Sonoma’s longest-tenured and beloved winemakers, Rob Davis. It offers a wealth of visitor options, from library tastings to estate tours of its gorgeous property, where it grows olive trees for its proprietary olive oil, along with a wide range of produce for its in-house chef. The winery recently launched a Jordan Cuvée by Champagne AR Lenoble, as well as caviar in collaboration with Tsar Nicoulai. By appointment only; jordanwinery.com.

Martinelli Winery
The Martinellis are farmers first—the family have been Sonoma County grape-growers since the 1880s. Jackass Hill is among its most famous sites, one of the steepest non-terraced vineyards in Sonoma County, historically suited for Zinfandel. The second and third generations of the Martinelli family continue to farm Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and other varieties. They sell the highly sought grapes to other wineries and keep just enough for themselves. Taste the wines from their outpost on River Road. Open daily; martinelliwinery.com.

Rochioli
Many believe that Russian River Valley Pinot Noir wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Joe Rochioli Sr., who came to America from Italy in 1911. He planted wine grapes on what is now Rochioli Vineyards and started with Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, the latter of which remain some of California’s oldest such plantings.

It was his son, Joe Jr., who first put in Pinot, who was soon selling the grapes to Davis Bynum Winery. The rest is history. Williams Selyem, Gary Farrell and others continue to make wines using grapes from those vineyards, while Joe Jr.’s son, Tom, makes Rochioli’s wines. Open daily, with patios for picnics.

Word of Mouth Favorites

These are mostly small, emerging wineries have been generating a particular buzz. These producers craft smaller-batch wines from meticulously farmed, often estate sites.

Arista Winery
Hidden on a hillside above Westside Road, family-owned Arista is producing its best wines ever, both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir along with a bit of Gewürztraminer and Zinfandel, from sites throughout the Russian River Valley, Mendocino and its own estate. It offers three levels of tastings, from an Appellation Experience of five to six wines, to its Taste of Terroir, which is focused on smaller production offerings, and an East Meets West experience contrasting wines from the Russian River and Anderson Valleys. By appointment only; aristawinery.com.

Donum Estate
From the wilds of Carneros, Donum is a pedigreed property devoted to making powerhouse, ageworthy Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from several estate properties, including their Russian River and Anderson Valley vineyards. A visit highlights not only the precise vision and meticulous farming behind these wines, but the windswept nature of the appellation. It’s also a great place to take in sculptures from around the world. The Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads from Ai Weiwei is particularly astounding. By appointment only; thedonumestate.com.

Gundlach Bundschu
Outside the city limits of Sonoma, family-run Gun-Bun, as it’s fondly known, has been onsite since 1858, when the property was called Rhinefarm. Fun and down to earth in style, the winery offers cave tours, Pinzgauer army vehicle excursions, outdoor concerts and plenty of picnic areas. Of course, the lineup of wines also impresses, from its popular Gewürztraminer and Merlot to cult-like Bundschu Family Moon Mountain Cabernet Don’t miss the Donkey Bar, a lounge-styled spot to grab some wine and light eats from June through October. Open Thursday–Monday; gunbun.com.

Limerick Lane
Jake Bilbro and his family have brought new life to this storied property on the northeastern edge of the Russian River Valley. Bilbro works with viticulturalist Steve Matthiasson to coax natural-born minerality out of old-vine Zinfandel, Syrah, Grenache and other varieties, many planted in the early 1900s. Grapes go to Matthiasson, Carlisle, Bedrock, Siduri and Biale, but are also expressed most impressively within Limerick Lane’s own wines. Open daily. Tastings by appointment.; limericklanewines.com.

Three Sticks
From a restored circa-1842 adobe in downtown Sonoma, this Pinot Noir and Chardonnay specialist (who also make a smaller amount of Cabernet Sauvignon) tapped Bob Cabral, formerly of Williams Selyem to make its wines. He crafts a steady exploration of these varieties, sourced from multiple sites across California. These include grapes from the proprietor’s estate vineyards—Durell and Gap’s Crown. Visits are possible three times daily. Tastings range from four to seven wines and include library offerings. Food and wine pairings are also available, as is a three-course private lunch made by neighboring El Dorado Kitchen. By appointment only; threestickswines.com.

Cool and Coastal

While many vineyards flourish along the extreme Sonoma Coast, there are a few tasting rooms that allow you the chance to properly feel the region’s ocean breeze, and better understand the daily temperature variations that are possible in much of Sonoma County. These spots offer a true taste of the coast.

Fort Ross Vineyard
With a vineyard considered the closest to the coast in all of California, the winery boasts the first tasting room in the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation. From the tasting bar, visitors can see the ocean amidst the area’s signature rolling walls of fog coming off the water. The winery makes estate-grown Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage—a nod to the founders’ South African roots. A worthwhile trek, it’s an oasis of wild beauty and awesome views. Open daily; fortrossvineyard.com.

Hirsch Winery & Vineyard
At over 1,500 feet above sea level, Hirsch is a truly wild site. It rests two and a half miles from the ocean and is surrounded by what the winery calls a “coastal rainforest” climate—a setting that makes you feel appropriately like you’ve reached the edge of the earth. It’s a jumble of sand-stone based soils and microclimates that contribute beauty and power to the estate Chardonnay and Pinot Noirs. A journey there will confound and challenge the senses, and give perspective to the incredible wines Hirsch makes. By appointment only; hirschvineyards.com.

Keller Estate
From the top of a hillside that overlooks Lakeville Highway in Petaluma, Keller embodies the recent push by winemakers for an official Petaluma Gap appellation. It showcases the mighty wind and coastal fog that influence the grapes grown here. Keller’s site includes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah, making wines seasoned in cool-climate aspects of spice and acidity. Tastings are available on the patio or inside, and include three whites and two reds. A private cave tour is also available, or book a serene Sunday three-course brunch. By appointment only; kellerestate.com.

Littorai Wines
Owner/winemaker Ted Lemon is a proponent of biodynamic principles. A visit to his coastal pocket of land in the Sebastopol Hills offers a chance to see what that means via his Pivot Vineyard bottlings and the winery’s extensive gardens. Littorai’s Single-Vineyard Tasting explores the terroir of vineyard-designated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Gold Ridge Estate tour offers a tasting that delves deeper into the hows and whys of agro-ecological methods. By appointment only; littorai.com.

Ram’s Gate Winery
This is the first winery you’ll see when traveling into Carneros, situated on a hilltop that overlooks the San Pablo Bay—also placing Ram’s Gate at the full mercy of its winds. Ram’s Gate makes exquisite, cool-climate wines, with a focus on bottlings produced from grapes grown its own estate. Vineyard-designated offerings include those from Hyde, Hudson, Durell, Bush-Crispo and Silver Eagle. The property is well appointed and offers cozy open spaces. Food pairings are available Thursday through Monday, with a signature seated experience called Palate Play. Picnics are prepared in-season to be enjoyed by the vineyard lake. By appointment only; ramsgatewinery.com.

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