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Sonoma, one sip at a time

Taste your way through vineyards of Napa's neighbor

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Bella English
Globe Staff / October 1, 2003

SONOMA, Calif. -- San Francisco was a great starting point for our adult getaway, with an early morning jog over to Fisherman's Wharf, a glimpse of Alcatraz, hot fudge sundaes in Ghirardelli Square, a cable car ride back, and dinner in Chinatown. But the main event was Sonoma County, an hour or so to the north. And so we spent one quick night in the city before setting off, with another couple also celebrating their anniversary, for wine country.

To be perfectly frank, our trip was planned around eating and drinking, and Sonoma is a great place to do both. "Slow-noma" is the country cousin to neighboring Napa, which is more developed and busy. The vibe in Sonoma is laid-back Californian -- no honking horns or backed-up traffic. "Where are all the people?" wondered my friend Mary Ann, who lives in New York.

When we were there, in late June, the weather was a perfect 75 to 80 degrees during the day, down in the 50s at night. Oranges hung from trees, rosemary grew in fragrant bushes, and lavender turned the roadside purple in places. We felt as if we were in constant aromatherapy.

Our first stop was the town of Sonoma, known for its plaza, or park, in the middle of town. The plaza is framed by wine shops, restaurants, and historic buildings. We jogged or rode bikes into town from our bed-and-breakfast, stopping for coffee and pastries at Artisan Bakery and ending up at the Sonoma Cheese Factory for our picnic provisions. The store offers dozens of kinds of wines and cheeses and a killer deli counter.

Upon arriving in Sonoma, we went directly to Gundlach Bundschu: so many wines, so little time. We quickly learned that a wine tasting should be just that: a taste. Unless you want to be tipsy by noon, you're advised to sip conservatively and -- horrors -- dump much of the glass into the "remains" bucket. We went from there to its sister winery, Bartholomew Park, which has a small museum that details the history of the place, which includes a phony count, an eccentric cat lady, and Madeline the ghost (hence their wine named Apparition).

The wineries vary as much as the vintages. They range from the McMansiony feel of Ledson -- a newish "castle" -- to the humble Bella Vineyard, whose tasting room is in a trailer. Some tastings are free, but the usual charge is $3 to $5 for three to five wines. The tastings vary with the personality and knowledge of your guide. Ours ranged from amiable Ed at Gundlach Bundschu to a snooty young man at Ferrari-Carano.

One of our favorite places was Imagery, where artists are commissioned to design labels. The original paintings for the labels hang on the walls over the cases of wine they illustrate. Just behind Imagery is Arrowood, where we did a regular tasting of four wines for $5 and then sprang for one reserve tasting for $5. We each got a generous sip of some wonderful wines, including a '97 Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Speciale. It was fun listening to our pourer talking about "hints of aromatic cedar, coffee, and chocolate" and "mature tannins." The back veranda offers a sweeping view of the vineyard and the Sonoma Valley hills beyond.

It's a good idea to move beyond the tasting room and take a tour of a winery. At Benziger, a tram took about 20 of us through the vineyard, the driver narrating the ride. He explained that there are 13 viticultural regions in Sonoma and Napa counties. The volcanic soil is rich in minerals, which the grapes love. He showed us the "insectory," a colorful garden of aromatic flowers that draw insects from the nearby vines. He explained that an "estate" wine means 100 percent of the grapes are grown on the winery's estate and bottled there. A "reserve" wine is offered in very good years.

After a couple of days in Sonoma, we headed north to Healdsburg, stopping on the way at Preston Vineyards, a lovely gem known for its picnic area with boccie court. Lazy cats sprawled under tables or on the shady porch. Winemaker Lou Preston makes his own sourdough bread in a wood-fired oven, and his olive oil has been praised by Wine Spectator. The day we were there, he was selling jug wine right out of the barrel.

We were staying at the Hotel Healdsburg, located on the historic town plaza. Here, we ran into a cycling group making its way from vineyard to vineyard, and wondered how the cyclists managed to stay on their bikes after a tasting or two. The hotel has a spa, pool, and hot tub -- perfect after a hectic day of tasting. Fresh figs grow on trees in the pool area and were ours for the picking.

In the mornings, we jogged through a vineyard and shopped in stores around the square before tackling the day's wine itinerary. Some of our agenda we planned ahead of time; certain vineyards require reservations. But we left extra time for "finds." Such was the case with Unti, a small vineyard that makes a wonderful grenache. The guy who grows the grapes and bottles the wine was also the one who poured our wine and boxed some up for us. Rafanelli was the opposite: We had made an appointment weeks before and were told to drive up to the gate and punch in a number on the keypad. We felt as if we were on hallowed ground. An older gentleman named "Coach" sold us some bottles, which you can find scarcely anywhere except the vineyard.

But our favorite place was Iron Horse Vineyards, where Laurence Sterling, the founder's son and the vineyard's attorney, showed us around. He met us with glasses of 1996 Brut LD and a good line: "The only way to make a small fortune in the wine business is to start with a large fortune." The grounds are gorgeous; founder Barry Sterling is in charge of all the plants, flowers, and herbs.

We ended the afternoon at Goat Rock Beach, where we sat on driftwood and conversed with nuns wearing full habits and flip-flops. The next day, we flew back home to reality. But we figured out a way to extend our trip: Each month, we receive two bottles of wine from a Sonoma vintner, thanks to the wine club we joined -- after one particularly generous tasting.

Bella English can be reached at english@globe.com.

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