Monday, December 15, 2008

Sonoma County Wine

Anu and I went up north Sunday, into Sonoma County, Napa's lesser known sibling region. While everyone seems to know about Napa wines these days (we recommend V. Sattui, Praeger Port Works, Heitz, and Grgich), Sonoma is only starting to get the recognition it deserves. There are too many really good wineries up there to list them all, so I recommend repeated visits, and a trip to the Sonoma County Harvest Festival (each October) to sample a range. Here, however, are a few of our favorites:

Winemaker Rick Hutchinson is a heck of a nice, friendly guy, and Amphora is one of the best places around to go for barrel tastings because of that. Rick makes one of the only Chardonnays I'll even drink at all, never mind enjoy, and his reds include excellent Zinfandel and Cabaret Sauvignon, as well as Merlot, Syrah, and Pinot Noir (all varietals I don't normally care for that much, but all of which are excellent at Amphora -- I've even bought futures on Pinot and Syrah there). We drink way too much Amphora wine to really have a favorite.

Hailing from Croatia, winemaker Frane Franicevic makes California wines in an old world style. While I'm not normally a big fan of non-German whites, their Pinot Gris is particularly good (as are their German style whites: Riesling and Viognier). Their reds include a particularly good selection of California-Italian style wines: several Zinfandels, Barbera, Sangiovese, and also a very good Bordeaux-style Meritage wine, and several Pinot Noirs. My particular favorite on the red side is the Meritage, though really even their least interesting wine is above average. The staff is friendly, and Suncé's barrel tasting days also involve good food as well as great wine.

Camellia Cellars
Winemakers Bruce Snyder and Chris Lewand run a small, homey shop and are also friendly folks. Camellia makes some good Zinfandel, Sangiovese, Syrah, and even a Dolcetto. Their blends, Damio Grazie and (when it's available) Lost Barrels, are both excellent. Lost Barrels is a favorite of ours, though that blend is always an experiment and is only available when Bruce decides that he's got a blend worth releasing -- and that's not every year.

Deux Amis
This small winery run by Phyllis Zouzounis and Jim Penpraze specializes in Zinfandels -- they have five different Zins, one Pinot Noir and one Petit Sirah. You can really taste the difference between their Zinfandels, and all five are good. Tasting is by appointment only, though, so call in advance if you're going up to Sonoma and want to visit this winery. It's worth the bother.

Martin Ray
Formerly Martini and Pradi, Martin Ray has restored the M&P red jug wine, and while it is no longer unsulfited, it still tastes very much like an Italian working class table wine, which is great. The large jug wine is, in my opinion, superior to their smaller jug wine called "Red" in the fancier bottle. They also have a good Cab and some other decent wines, but the jug wine is really the main reason we go to Martin Ray.

Another winery that we go to primarily for one thing, Trentadue carries the sparkling wine that the once great, now defunct Topolos / Russian River winery used to sell (it is made by the same winemaker, who was a subcontractor to both wineries specifcally for this sparkling wine). Trentadue also has one of the few Rosé wines that I can drink, and good selection of decent red wines, and some nice Port style wines (including one made from Viognier, which is unusual and tasty).

Even though there is good stuff to drink right here in Alameda County -- such as Rosenblum (who also have a shop in Sonoma), Periscope (who share a space right here in Emeryville with another good winery, whose name I can't remember, but if you go to Periscope you get to try both), and St. George (who make spirits, not wine) -- we still like to go up to Sonoma, a growing region where you can see the vineyards and make a day of it.

Unfortunately, the consolidators, and bus tour operators (who charge for tours but don't share proceeds with the wineries, and therefore drive the wineries to charge for tastings because tour visitors rarely purchase wine), are starting to ruin Sonoma like they have Napa. If you want to establish relationships with winemakers and tasting room staff, and enjoy all the benefits that provides (friendly service, interesting discussions, barrel tastings, sit-downs with snacks and wine, etc.), you had best start heading up to Sonoma now, before it's too corporate for anyone to have a good time other than the company accountants.