Close friends contribute to our personal growth. They also contribute to our personal pleasure, making the music sound sweeter, the wine taste richer, the laughter ring louder because they are there – Judith Viorst
The most fun one can have in the California wine country is by sharing their experience of tasting wine and learning about the places the grapes are grown and vinified, with great friends who also appreciate the finer points of good wine. That trip happened for my wife and I recently in the Northern Sonoma County, with eight other great friends from Colorado.
We stayed at our favorite bed and breakfast, the Honor Mansion, in Healdsburg, CA, which is in the heart of the Sonoma Wine Road. We had a blueprint for visiting wineries and restaurants, and high hopes for a great experience in the California wine country.
Our adventure began in the Dry Creek AVA (American Viticulture Area) at Mauritson Winery for a winery tour with a glass of their Chardonnay. No less than Carrie-Anne Mauritson, wife of Clay Mauritson, owner and winemaker, was our charming tour guide. Crush was just beginning so many of the tanks were bubbling away with grapes being fermented into wine. We hopped into two suburbans and made our way up above lake Sonoma to the famous Rockpile AVA, where Mauritson has more acreage under vine cultivation than any other grower. Cemetery Zinfandel is made there, and although the grapes had already been harvested, we saw the vineyard with its well-drained clay-loam soil.
Rockpile is at almost 1,000 feet elevation, and because of the underlying Lake Sonoma inversion, Rockpile never has fog. The unique climactic conditions with constant wind, poor water retention, moderate temperature, and general maritime climate at elevation, provide for stressed vines that produce excellent grapes for winemaking.
As we walked around Jack’s Cabin vineyard, an incredible lunch was laid out for us on picnic tables. A wonderful spread with various cheeses, charcuterie, Heirloom tomatoes from Carrie and Clay’s garden, prosciutto and Gruyere cheese sandwiches on crusty baguettes, and of course, more wine. Clay Mauritson rarely submits his wines to any formal wine grading organization such as The Wine Spectator, because it is his philosophy that wines shouldn’t be produced just to garner a superior rating. It seems like its easier and easier for wineries to achieve a 90plus rating, but for Clay, the more important goal is to achieve a product that attains the quality characteristic that the land, vineyard and vintner can assemble. The occasional wine that has made it into a formal wine grading always seems to receive 90 plus scores anyway. Several brothers in the Mauritson family are in charge of the vineyards, while Clay is in charge of the winemaking. It is a family affair that achieves a high level of success, year after year.
For a change of pace, our next stop was Blanchard Family wines, located in the self proclaimed Healdsburg ghetto. This was an urban, vineyardless winery that has a grassroots beginning from two brothers (Mark and James), who found they shared a love of wine and a dream of starting a winery. They finally took the plunge a few years ago and began with a ton of grapes, and old wine press and high hopes. It took a few years of trial and error (mostly error), but slowly began to expand their mailing list. James has close ties to the US Air Force (Air Force Academy grad, and current helicopter pilot), and they have become the official US Air Force winery. They make a proprietary blend called Red Scarf Blend, which is dedicated to the US military Special Forces, and whose proceeds go towards helping the families of those who have fallen while serving in the most elite branches of the Armed Services. We had a very relaxed tasting and tour of their warehouse and new tasting room, which houses their entire operation. Mark is affable, full of personality, and seems to love giving out barrel tastings of their latest vintage. We even did a mini blending experiment with their Zinfandel, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. They have big plans to continue expanding, and so far, seem to be on the right track.
The next day I was excited to get to our first stop, Martinelli Winery in the Russian River AVA, because it is one place my wife and I have been collecting wine from for quite some time. Every other time we have visited we have only done tastings at the winery, because that is all they traditionally do for visitors. However, this time, we were able to get on their rarely offered- only during crush, harvest tour.
The Martinelli family has a very interesting five-generation story, dating from the late 1800’s when grapes were sold at $5 per ton. Their most famous vineyard, called Jackass vineyard, is the steepest in the county, with a well-drained slope of almost 60 degrees. My two favorite Zinfandels produced here are the Giuseppe and Louisa Zinfandel, and the Jackass Hill Zinfandel, although they produce more than 25 different wines. We had a great tasting and our favorite Zins did not disappoint.
Our early afternoon stop was at Clos du Bois, which is the largest winery in Alexander Valley, producing over 2 million cases of wine per year. It is nice see to the contrast in the processes of boutique wineries against wine production on a large scale. Our purpose here was to experience the Marlestone blending seminar. I love these classes, because I do believe that the proper blend of different varietals can lead to a final product that is bigger than any respective component. Any wine varietal can have slightly different color, tannic backbone, finish, structure, smoothness, and mouth feel, depending on how well the growing season went. The winemaker’s job is to create a product denoting all the choice characteristics of the best varietal component any given winery can produce. When I drink wine from my favorite wineries, there is a consistency from year to year that I look for. The formula to achieve that consistency sometimes can have distinct variances from year to year. That is why the winemaker’s job is more than just following a cookbook formula to achieve a final product. Our blending class had us sitting in front of the five noble grapes that make up the Bordeaux blend: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc. We had 100ml flasks and pipets to combine and test, looking for the formula, which brings out the best of each component. It was hard to say who’s blend was the winner, but safe to say everyone had a great time.
The next fine day began at Stryker Winery and Vineyards in the Alexander Valley AVA. This Estate is near and dear to my heart, because the owner, Pat Stryker, still resides in my hometown in Colorado. The winery is beautiful, and the tasting room has won many awards for best tasting room in Sonoma.
The Stryker wines are lush, and very drinkable, and they have 95 years old Zinfandel wines that some of their estate wines are made from. We had an excellent tour of the winery and vineyards from Brian, the winery manager, and the pours were plentiful.
Our next wine tasting of the day was at Chalk Hill Estate, a large and beautiful winery dominating the Chalk Hill sub-AVA in Alexander Valley. The specialty here is white wine, particularly Chardonnay. The volcanic ash based soil restrains the fertility of the vines, which allows for concentrated fruit. The beautiful wines are cerebral in their complexity, and good to drink, even for those who think they only prefer red wine. They have a culinary food and wine pairing hosted by Chalk Hill’s resident chef, which takes place in the beautiful equestrian building overlooking the Chalk Hill hillside vineyard. The setting for this lunch is something special and this event is certainly one not to be missed.
We ended the day with something different- a wine and olive oil tasting at the Dry Creek Olive Oil Company. Our tasting commenced with several offerings from their sister winery “Trattore Estate winery” which was actually quite excellent and affordable. We had a nice tour of their olive mill and processing center, with which they do quite a bit of olive processing from many of the surrounding estates, in addition to their own olives.
They offer a wide selection of local (mission olives), Mediterranean blend (Greek and Italian varieties) and flavored olive oils (lemon, grapefruit, etc). We learned that most of the “Extra Virgin olive oils imported into the USA from Mediterranean countries are actually of quite poor quality. UC- Davis recently did a study on imported oils and found that over 98% were not extra virgin, and that most were actually blended inferior, non-olive (i.e. sunflower) oils. For real extra virgin olive oil, be sure to only look for US and Australian olive oils, which are the only countries with government, required quality control for olive oil.
Our final day of tours and tasting began at Lancaster Estate Winery in the Alexander Valley AVA. This is one of my wine clubs, and every aspect of winemaking here undergoes the strictest sense of classic winemaking done the right way. Our guide, Casey, was informative and sassy in a good way, and the wine caves were beautiful. Lancaster’s winemaker, Jessie Katz (lured from Screaming Eagle) and consulting winemaker David Ramey (who has a hand in making the French superstar Chateau Petrus, and who has helped guide the winemaking at Lancaster for more than ten years), is innovative and cutting edge in how he vinifies the wines.
Jesse is young and boasts numerous awards and scores in the mid-nineties for Lancaster’s Pinot Noir, Estate Cabernet Sauvignon and Nicole’s Proprietary Red. The wine tasting was in their new beautiful wine caves after a vineyard tour. I believe that after visiting Lancaster, even the most wine savvy connoisseur will come away with new and relevant knowledge.
Our last formal wine tour of the day was at Garden Creek Winery in the Alexander Valley AVA. The small 1500 case production is a labor of love by owners Justin and Karin Warnelius-Miller. Justin was busy with the Chardonnay grapes just harvested and Karin gave us an intimate look at wine production on a small scale.
She was absolutely charming, and we had a wonderful winetasting by candlelight in their wine aging barn on site. Their primary focus is to allow the grapes to express as much of the terroir as possible through minimal manipulation, cold storage carbonic maceration, natural fermentation, and aging in French oak barrels. The wines are great and this place is worth seeking out.
We ended this day at Alexander Valley’s Simi Winery for the release party of their 2010 Landslide Cabernet Sauvignon. This was held at the winery in the midst of a beautiful redwood grove with reggae music and Caribbean food. An excellent festive atmosphere was perfect to close the day. In addition to the Landslide Cab, the Simi staff was pouring library Cabernet from the 1980s and 1990s.
The Northern Sonoma County is a great place to experience the very best of California wine making. We had cases of wine and memories, packed in our luggage and ready to ship home. The region is beautiful, and we Americans are so fortunate to have this place and the wines that come from here. That’s all for now.