California welcomes 23.6 million visitors in search of the country’s best wine each year. Most of those wine lovers visit the North Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA), one of California’s five “super AVAs” and home to the most esteemed wine regions in the U.S: Napa and Sonoma. In my last column, I focused on Napa; here I will spotlight the Sonoma region.
Double the size of Napa, and more expansive at 70,000 acres, Sonoma is a laid-back, rustic version of its glitzy counterpart. About 6% of California’s total wine is produced here—Napa produces 4%--but with soil more diverse than France, its 18 distinct wine regions are astoundingly unique. While Cabernet Sauvignon is king in Napa, Chardonnay is the most planted varietal in Sonoma at 15,000 vineyard acres planted. Pinot Noir is Sonoma’s most abundant red grape varietal at 12,500 acres.
With 400 wineries to visit in Sonoma, I’ve selected a few standouts that represent the region’s tradition; provide a fascinating educational experience; and demonstrate the future of winemaking.
For Sonoma Tradition
Home to both Buena Vista winery, California's oldest commercial winery, and Gundlach Bundschu winery, California's oldest family-run winery, the Sonoma Valley is known as the birthplace of the California wine industry. Start at Buena Vista winery near downtown Sonoma and learn about the legacy of Agoston Haraszthy who pioneered viticultural practices and established California’s first premium winery in 1857. Now under the winemaking estate of Jean-Charles Boisset, the winery has been designated a historic landmark and produces expressive wines from several of Sonoma’s sub-AVA’s. www.buenavistawinery.com
While difficult to pronounce, it’s easy to understand why Gundlach Bundschu, or “GunBun,” continues to thrive as Sonoma’s oldest family-run winery. First planted in 1859 by German businessman Jacob Gundlach, the Rhinefarm vineyard is an ideal location for producing a variety of high quality varietals in both its valley floor and hillside plots. Combined with its stellar quality wines, GunBun’s rustic and casual ambience pay true homage to Sonoma’s early agricultural roots. www.gunbun.com
For Sonoma Education
Travel north to Glen Ellen’s Lasseter Family Winery for an in depth education on Old World influences on Sonoma winemaking. Passionate about French wines, the Lasseter family purchased their stunning 95-acre Sonoma Valley AVA property in 2002 with a focus on Bordeaux and Rhone varietal wines made with minimalist winemaking techniques. Organically-farmed vineyards and their eco-friendly winery result in terroir-driven, restrained, and elegant wines. www.lasseterfamilywinery.com
An AVA the Pedroncelli Family helped form, Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley is closely-associated with Zinfandel--half of all Sonoma Zinfandel is produced there--and to a lesser extent, Sauvignon Blanc. Visit this historic property first planted to Zinfandel in 1904 and learn about the Mother Clone vineyard which still thrives and contributes fruit to some of their blends. One of the few families to resurrect California’s wine industry after Prohibition, Pedroncelli also produces Sauvignon Blanc with an expression true to Dry Creek’s pedigree. www.pedroncelli.com
For Sonoma Innovation
The wine-making world continues to be an overwhelmingly male-dominated industry--only 10% of Californias 3,700 wineries have a female lead winemaker. Visit Merisi Winery in Sonoma to drink the award-winning wines of one of the few. Founded by Mandy Donovan, Merisi wines showcase the true character of fruit coming from Sonoma’s most respected boutique and sustainable vineyards. Her minimalist winemaking techniques and thoughtful focus on heritage varietals give wine lovers a glimpse of Sonoma’s hopefully more-diverse future. www.merisiwines.com
While the October 2017 wildfires came dangerously close to Scribe Winery--in fact pictures circulated that appeared to be showing the winery in flames--no damage was sustained, and the property, once a turkey farm, remained intact. Using fruit fortunately harvested right before the fires struck Sonoma, owners/winemakers/brothers Andrew and Adam Mariani craft low intervention, terroir-focused wines. Their picture-perfect Hacienda near downtown Sonoma is the ideal perch to taste how the future of natural winemaking is now. www.scribewinery.com
While occasionally feeling as gnarly and old as a mother--clone, that is--Erlinda would love to share with you her many other favorites in Sonoma, Napa, and the rest of the winemaking world. Reach out to me at email@example.com or visit www.thevinicola.com, Instagram (@thevinicola), or Facebook (theViniCola) to join #WINESCHOOL.