When you’re in Northern California, the idea of a wine tasting trip in Sonoma is so tempting. The setting is idyllic – rolling hills of green, fresh air, country roads, and there’s everything a dedicated foodie might desire. Many indulge and wineries throughout the county fill their tasting rooms with crowds offering a wine selection sure to please every palate. Sonoma is one of the few places in the world where such a diversity of wines can be grown. Some vines flourish in coastal fogs, others do better with elevation and still more dig roots deep in the sunny valley acres.
I was hosted by the Sonoma County Winegrowers Association but all opinions and experiences are my own.
Sonoma is serious about its future. Over 100 vineyards are working towards Sustainable Certification. According to the most recent Sonoma County Winegrowers Sustainability Report, sixty have earned it and twelve wineries proudly bear the Sonoma County Sustainable Winegrowers Logo on their labels.
With so many choices, what makes a vineyard wine tasting stand out?
The choice is easy when you consider a family owned endeavor steeped in a commitment to sustainability. Here are five wineries where you’ll find a wine selection unavailable anywhere outside of the tasting room or wine club membership, plus concierge kindness that will suggest where to find bottles near home. Several have winery chefs who will thrill your taste buds with delicious wine and food pairings at different price points. Three are off the main thoroughfares often clogged with cars. The last is a historical property in the South East end of the valley. Set your itinerary, determine who’s the designated driver and plot your course via GPS.
Background: The La Crema winery founders, Saralee and Richard Kunde, grew up in Sonoma Valley when it was primarily dairy and orchard country. Richard’s family were some of the first to plant grapes in the 1880s. Saralee’s family flourished in the dairy business. In 1989, they planted vines on 68 acres in the Northern Russian River area of Sonoma as the wine industry was emerging and the La Crema brand took root.
Their interests were diverse. Richard, a horticulturist, groomed an old oak grove and turned the original Pelletti Farm Barn into an event space surrounded by gardens. Saralee hosted gatherings for causes and helped found the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association and Sonoma’s Annual Harvest Fair. Since 2012 new owners, the Jackson Family, has led La Crema wines to win medals and international renown.
Experience: There are a half dozen separate ways to enjoy at La Crema from a wine selection tasting to a picnic to special events. I spent an exhilarating hour on the Golf Cart Tour holding a wine glass in one hand while being chauffeured through the vineyard. We stopped near an owl box that was in good use. At the base of the tall column, a scattering of white bones rested on the dark soil. The sloping vineyard is set on a watering system which allows the top vines to receive enough water without flooding the wines at the bottom. It’s just one of the sustainable practices at La Crema.
Dutton Estate Winery
Background: The Dutton Ranch is near the Sonoma Airport but the tasting room is close to Sebastopol. Joe and Tracy Dutton share an agricultural heritage deeply rooted in Sonoma County. In the 1920s, Tracy’s great-grandparents began farming apples in Forestville. Joe is co-owner and oversees the Dutton Ranch and vineyards which were founded by his parents, while Tracy guides the Sebastopol Tasting Room.
Experience: I had the unique opportunity to stay at the Ranch near the family lake. In the evening I dined on take-out but savored the Dutton Pinot while watching the light shift across the vineyard. In the morning I rose early to the sound of Canadian Geese landing in the pond and the murmur of vineyard workers. A hot air balloon settled across the road as I prepared for my day. Given the time, I would’ve gladly ventured out to the coast to enjoy a curated wine selection and food pairing. The tasting room offers casual, seasonal and private experiences.
The wines, vineyard, estate farm, and gardens all reflect Quivira’s sustainable intention but there’s nothing stuffy about how it’s done. Follow the winding road near Healdsburg and you spy the barn tasting room looming over the vineyard. A Mediterranean vibe with California’s ease sweeps through the patio tasting area. It flows past chicken pens and the overflowing garden. Winery Creek bisects the property and the corral where pigs and cows munch.
If you’re lucky enough to shadow vineyard manager, Ned Horton, you’ll glimpse the long rows of mulch drying in the sun and he may tell you about the compost made from cover crops, grape pumice of leaves and stems and organic manure. “All the plant material we can get,” Ned asserts. He learned from long walks through the property with Biodynamic consultant Alan York and today leads a sustainable dynamic for the vines.
There are a variety of wine tasting experiences from a casual to charcuterie plates with wine pairings featuring local meats and cheeses to a vineyard tour and wine selection experience by appointment.
Rodney Strong Vineyard, Dine and Wine Selection
Background: Rodney Strong developed a passion for food and fine wine while a professional dancer in Paris and searched for a location that would allow him to harvest a wide variety of grapes. “He realized that he couldn’t be an old dancer but he could be an old winemaker,” Communications Director, Christopher O’Gorman jokes. In the late 1980s, Tom Kline purchased the property and led a sustainability charge long before it was a trend. In 2003 he installed the largest solar array of any winery in the world and it was completely retrofitted recently. Today the brand manages 14 state vineyards with Level 2 Sustainability Certification – the highest achievable at this time.
Experience: Named Wine Enthusiast’s American Winery of the Year in 2013, the Rodney Strong wines continue to surpass expectations. Spend a day here when there’s a concert on the patio. Wine taste to your heart’s delight. The absolute best treat for your senses is to attend the Vine to Table Experience created by Chef Alejandro Garcia. Each tasting plate course is paired with a wine selection from the estate. Ask for the best and splurge. You will remember the meal forever.
Background: A plaque is nailed to a thick tree near the fountain pool of Cline Vineyards. It marks the site where on July 4th, 1823, Father Altimira set up a camp altar, sanctified it with a mass and named the place, San Francisco Solano. The last of 21 California Missions was later built at its present site in Sonoma with help of the coastal Miwok people. Look closely as you wind through the estate There’s an old pool house with some very early graffiti. Some is from 1897. More recently, after winemaking in Oakley, California Fred Cline and his wife, Nancy moved their winery to Sonoma County. He was one of the original Rhone Rangers and has been expanding the vineyards to include popular classics.
A California Mission Museum was built to permanently house a collection of Mission Models on the property. The models were created for the Golden Gate International Exposition of 1939 under the direction of Italian artist, Leon Byard de Vale and later rescued by the Native Sons of the Golden West. The Museum has been open since 2006. Enter the gracious farmhouse tasting room to choose from a large wine selection, and listen for the excited sounds of school children as they meet the vineyard donkeys and visit the Museum.
These are only a handful of wineries included in the Sonoma Winegrowers Sustainable group. If you have days to relax and explore be sure to sample more! Many thanks to SonomaWineGrape.org for making this post possible. Bookmark this post and explore their website as you set up your visit.
Salut, and I’d be delighted if you would share this!