People ask me all the time for wine tasting suggestions when they are out in California Wine Country, and while I have certainly not been to each of the 450 wineries in Sonoma, but I figure I am approaching having visited about 25% of them, which is not too shabby….
So I thought I would write a post listing some of what I think are the best tasting experiences in the county. Before I get to the list, let me make a few things perfectly clear:
- I made my choices from only those wineries that I have actually visited, which should make sense. If it doesn’t, well you are probably not all that bright.
- I love Pinot Noir (and Chardonnay) above all others, so I more often than not visit Pinot producers.
- I first listed all the tasting rooms that I have visited and then rated them on several criteria, all of which are subjective:
- Wine Quality–I do not care how beautiful your tasting room is, or how hospitable your tasting room staff can be, above all else, tasting room experiences are judged by the quality of the wine.
- Tasting Room–So much of the wine tasting experience is the tasting room itself. In my opinion, the physical space needs to be inviting and comfortable without being ostentatious.
- People–I also considered the people that one encounters during the visit. Extra points were given the accessibility of the winemaker or owner. Points were deducted for perceived turnover in the tasting room staff.
- Other–Sure, this was a bit of a fudge factor, but extra points were given for additional factors that were beyond the “normal” tasting room experience (e.g., tours of the vineyard, barrel tastings, fantastic views).
B Kosuge: I have visited Byron Kosuge many times and I have sent a few people his way and everyone that has visited him agrees—the tasting experience is unique. Byron does not have a fancy tasting room (in fact he has no real tasting room at all), nor does he have his own winery (he makes his wines at a custom crush facility in Santa Rosa. What he does have, however, is a very approachable personality, an ability to explain wine making in very understandable terms, and wonderful wines (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), many of which he will have you sample right from the barrel. One Caveat: it is sometimes difficult to track Byron down as he consults for wineries all over California and South America.
Frick Winery: I have only been to Frick once, but it was memorable enough to be included here. It is difficult to put a finger on the single best aspect of a visit to Frick, but the fact that Bill Frick himself is the person pouring the wine in the tasting room is hard to beat. It takes a bit to get him talking (particularly if the tasting room is crowded), but once he does, his knowledge about winemaking and the Valley are unsurpassed. His wines are damn good as well, made from varieties that you do not come across all that often (Rhône varieties: Syrah, Grenache, Consult, Grenache Blanc, Viognier, etc.), and by far the most affordable wines on this list. The tasting room is smack-dab in the middle of the vineyards, which is also a huge plus if you ask me. One Caveat: This is the only winery on the list that does not require a reservation, but is only open for a few hours (12-4:30) on the weekends, so plan accordingly.
Halleck: Another winery that I have only visited once, but spectacular it was. The visit takes place in Ross Halleck’s beautiful home, which overlooks the expansive valley and is adjacent to his one acre vineyard. Ross has an engaging personality and an infectious enthusiasm for life in general and wine in particular. When I was there in the summer, we started tasting wines first down in the vineyard and then outside on his deck, over-looking the Valley. The conversation, the view, and above all else the wines (Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and Pinot Noir), were wonderful. One Caveat: As I mentioned, the tasting occurs at Ross’ house, is fairly intimate, and can last close to two hours, so be prepared.
Littorai: Tucked away down a private road just outside the town of Sebastopol, Littorai is perhaps the most educational stop on this little list. Each visit lasts about 90 minutes and starts with a tour of the facility, vineyards, and eco-system—Littorai firmly believes in sustainable agriculture and practices biodynamic farming. The tour is a great introduction to this growing approach to grape growing and wine making, but be sure to wear comfortable shoes that you do not mind getting dirty! The tasting occurs in the winery, and the wines are simply superb (and the prices certainly reflect that). One Caveat: While getting a reservation has always been fairly easy, don’t plan on meeting Ted Lemon—the tours are led by very knowledgeable guides, not the famed owner/winemaker.
The Vineyard of Pasterick: Another Dry Creek Valley winery makes the top five with Pasterick. The tasting room is inside the marvelous cave that was built on the property into the hillside right below the vineyard block whose fruit goes into the top wine: The Angle of Repose. Pasterick does not produce a lot of wine—a paltry 800 cases, nor does it produce a wide range—Syrah and Viognier are the only two varieties, but make no mistake—these are some of the best wines you will find anywhere. Tastings are conducted by either Gerry, the owner/winemaker or his daughter Alexis, the Assistant winemaker. You can’t get any closer to the “action” than that. One Caveat: Pasterick makes both one of the best Rosés and best Viogniers I have ever tried, but they are only available through the wine club and quickly sell out every year.
So there is my list, take it or leave it. There are certainly a whole host of other wineries that could have made it, and in the near future (hopefully), I will post some of the wineries that did not make the top five, but are without a doubt worthy of a visit.