I went really deep into the contemplative weeds on that last post, eh? Thought I would lighten things up a bit by finally discussing something that I’ve discovered I really, really love doing. A lot. A LOT.
Naughty denizens, whatever you’re thinking right now…I’m proud of you. But it’s not that. Or that.
No. See, while another one of my Internet PersonalitiesTM might be known as a whiny hater, Loba would now like to declare her passion as a wine-y lover. (Ooh, overwork that pun, Loba!) I love to drink. True, I used to love to drink because I loved the numbing insouciance of total inebriation. Rite of passage and all that jazz, I suppose. I’m a bit of a higher-class drinker now. I drink to enjoy the flavors, the craft, the love that goes into these libacious fineries. I’ve already proven myself to be quite the beer snob, both through Darktober and Febrewary.
Now it’s time to do the same with wine.
For several years now, we’ve been making regular trips to both the East Coast (Virginia) and West Coast (California) wine regions. Virginia has surprised us several times with some really fabulous wineries nestled throughout the Shenandoah region, but none so far has come close to competing with what California has to offer. Whatever miracle of wind, water, fire, earth, and air that winemakers have captured out there, they have become masters (and mistresses) of bottling the magic in the most delicious ways possible.
First, a few points of clarification. When we visit California wine country, we stick with Sonoma. Why? Personal preference. Experience has left us with the opinion that Napa is overcrowded, overpriced, and overhyped. They have decent wine, sure, but not decent enough to support the fees and prices they charge. Napa is the Disney of Wine Countries.
Conversely, Sonoma is bucolic, relaxing, and they offer wines that are the most appealing to our palates. If you lean toward Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels and shy away from crowds and empty fanfare, then Sonoma might be the side for you, too.
The other thing that we love about Sonoma is the abundance of small wineries. I love going to wineries so small that their bottles don’t even have bar codes on them. I’m not trying to be “I liked that wine before they had bar codes” hipster or anything. I’ve simply learned that a lot of times (but not always), if a winery has become large enough that they’re able to ship large batches of multiple varieties and vintages all the way over to the East Coast, then it’s because they’ve hit upon a process that allows them to produce bottle after bottle after bottle of generic wine. Again, it can be generic and delicious—but it’s still generic.
Think of it this way. When you buy tomatoes from a chain supermarket, they’re tasty, right? Nice, pretty little hothouse on-the-vine tomatoes that all taste fine…and the same. And then you get tomatoes from a farmers’ market or, even better, from your own garden. They might not be as refined or as pretty as the hothouse tomatoes, but they’re fresh and warm and succulent. And the flavor! You can taste the difference—intense, rich, robust. That’s kind of how I feel about wineries large enough to mass-produce versus the smaller wineries. The mass-produced wines can be great (there are a few I love), but the smaller wineries are free from the pressures of mass production and can focus on cultivating a wine of intensity and surprising variation.
Like I said, today is my declaration of wine snobbery, denizens.
That all being said, whenever we’re about to take a trip to Sonoma, I spend a good week or more doing research. I pull out my map of the region and I begin to cross-research wineries there against wineries recommended by different sites related to the area as well as against personal reviews on Yelp or Trip Advisor. I narrow down the selection to a list of places I think will be good (or places we’ve been to previously that we enjoyed and want to revisit). I group them according to area, charge up my GPS, and I’m ready to go. So far, we’ve made it to more than 50 wineries (in both Sonoma and Napa). That might sound like a lot (okay, it actually is a lot), but we haven’t even scratched a patch on wine country, considering that Sonoma alone has almost 400 wineries.
So what’s the point of this post? Well, I’m not Yelp or Trip Advisor, but I do have some recommendations. I’ve narrowed my first list down to 10 (because that sounds like a lovely even number, right?). Some of these are wineries we’ve been to more than once. Some are wineries we just discovered—but their wines were so delicious, I couldn’t help but praise them. All of these wineries produce rich, bold, complex reds—so sorry if you aren’t a red wine drinker. I’m admittedly just starting to learn more about white wines, but I will be sure to indicate if any of these wineries have whites I enjoyed.
Oh, and enjoy a few of the multitudinous photos I took recently while driving around Sonoma. That’s another thing I love about Sonoma—even if you don’t like wine, you’re going to love the area. Stunning vistas and long, winding roads that duck through groves of ancient, gnarled trees cloaked in Spanish moss and meander through orchards and rustic valleys full of flowers and farmhouses and collapsing barns. I could drive around these areas all day. Plus, the perfectly aligned rows of grape vines do wonderful things for my mild-grade OCD.
And now, in alphabetical order…
Loba’s Top Ten Sonoma Wineries, 2014 Edition
A. Rafanelli. We visited this winery for the first time during our most recent trip. It’s by appointment only, but it’s well worth the effort. They also are very amenable to making time to welcome you for a tasting. I didn’t realize we needed an appointment, so we ended up literally phoning them while sitting outside their gate; 15 minutes later, we were driving up to one of the most beautifully kept wineries we’ve ever visited. Seriously, this place is beautiful. Do not miss the opportunity to wander around the property after your tasting. We entered the rustic tasting room and immediately received a glass of the most delicious Zinfandel I’ve ever had. It was dark and luxurious, with a fine floral finish. They don’t offer many wines for tasting, but this Zin was wonderful enough to make the trip worth it. We also were lucky enough to meet the owner (who looks eerily like actor Ray Wise, who will always be Leland Palmer to me). He’s quite a gentle, genial gentleman, and the history of his family’s journey from Italy in the early 1900s to this beautiful winery and its wonderful wines is lovely.
Bacigalupi Vineyards. This was another recent discovery, but another winery that shows the strength of its age and experience through delicious wines. One of the things that we learned from other wineries’ staff is that Bacigalupi is a well-respected vineyard. Several other wineries purchase grapes from them because of their quality and consistently praise them (which is kind of nice; Sonoma wineries are very supportive of each other). It’s only been since 2011 that Bacigalupi have run their own tasting room to let others sample their own blends. The winery produces a lovely Chardonnay, but we instantly fell in love with their Pinot Noir. Again, this is a wine that speaks to a deeper level of care and skill, with delicious complexity. Additionally, the family-run tasting room was a lovely experience; we even ended up meeting both the Bacigalupi twins, Katey and Nicole, as we stopped one day for a tasting and the next day to pick up a bottle of Pinot because we couldn’t stop thinking about it. Great experience.
Frick Winery. What do you get when you combine a charming tasting room, an eclectic wine maker, and a line of wines so delicious that it’s virtually impossible to select one favorite? You get my favorite winery. Bill Frick is a viticultural virtuoso. He’s been working his vines since 1976, and it’s pretty much just him running the whole show. He only produces 1,400 cases each year, which grants him the ability to be very hands-on and selective with the whole wine-making process. The end result is a series of some of the most holistically pleasing wines I’ve ever had the honor of experiencing. He also offers one of the most diverse line-ups, especially for Pinot Noir and Zinfandel-heavy Sonoma. He excels at both reds and whites; his Viognier is elegant and coquettish, and his Cinsaut and Counoise are bright bold streaks of incomparable flavor. There’s a reason that we have more Frick in our fridge than any other winery’s offerings. Simply put? He’s amazing.
J Vineyards & Winery. This is probably the most mainstream winery that will be on this list. It’s also one of our first truly great wine-tasting experiences (and the winery that introduced us properly to the Sonoma side of the wine coin), so J has a special place in my heart. They are gifted at Pinots, including several single-vineyard rotations that definitely wow and surprise with subtle flavor variations that make each worth trying. They also surprised me with some truly exceptional sparkling wines. I’m typically not much of a sparkling wine fan, but J’s line is atypically sweet (without being cloying) and refined (without being overly processed). Be forewarned though: They are also one of the most expensive wineries we’ve ever visited in Sonoma. Definitely a treat reserved for when we feel like splurging a bit.
Matrix Winery. I nearly didn’t stop at this winery because of the name. Unless Trinity is going to be my sommelier and Morpheus is somewhere in the back, adding blue and red pills to the wine, I kind of think the name is a little silly. Then again, I go by LobaBlanca, so what do I know about serious names? I’m so glad we stopped, because Matrix has become one of our favorite stops since we discovered them a few years ago. They are a premier producer of fabulous Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels, (sensing a theme?) and Sirahs, including several awarding-winning vintages made with…Bacigalupi grapes (insert “It’s a Small World” theme here). Their tasting room can get a little crowded on weekends, which detracts from the experience slightly, but their wines have always impressed.
Merry Edwards. Ms. Edwards, one of California’s first female winemakers, has been cultivating her viticultural skills since 1974. The result is unquestionably stunning Pinot Noirs. In fact, I would be so daring as to state that I think her line of Pinots are the finest we’ve yet experienced. Considering the competition (even on this list alone), that’s about the highest praise I can offer.
Moshin Vineyards. What’s not to love about a winery with a giant hummingbird statue out front? Even when we don’t stop to go in, I love driving by this charming little tasting room. Inside, though, I know is a sublime line-up of amazing reds, including a fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon (which is more prevalent over in Napa than among Sonoma vintners). They also make a couple of delightful Chardonnays, but I always come back to their wonderful line of Pinots. One thing that I haven’t yet noted is that, with smaller wineries, variation is a reality…a beautiful, delicious reality. Vintages at these wineries will change depending on how well (or not so well) that year’s grape crop did. With a winery like Moshin, with several different types of Pinot Noir, you are bound to find yourself switching preferences based on all the wonderful, magical things that transpired in the process of getting from grape to wine. What’s even more fun is when wineries let you do a side-by-side comparison of different vintages of the same wine (something that Moshin has let us do). So much can change in the span of a year…
Porter Creek Vineyards. Roll up to this vineyard and you might find yourself greeted by a friendly vineyard pooch. You will definitely find yourself floored by the beautiful view from the tiny tasting barn (yes, it’s a barn). Again, this winery can get crowded easily because of the small size, but the wines are worth the stop. Pinots and Zins, of course, dominate, but Porter also makes an exceptional old vine Carignane as well as a silky Russian River Chardonnay.
Thomas George Estates. This was another recent discovery, but their wines were so amazing that I ended up buying half a case of their varieties (and would have bought one of each if I could have). They are equally skilled at whites and reds, with divine Viogniers and Chardonnays and Pinots and Zinfandels of impeccable caliber. Plus, their tasting room is located inside their wine cave, which makes for an awesome tasting experience. We were lucky enough to have a great sommelier, who had recently taken a trip to Virginia to sample some of their wines, so we were able to compare notes and exchange recommendations. We were also lucky enough to finish up our tasting and purchases right as a limo-bus full of tipsy bridesmaids (and presumably a bride) arrived to make the wine cave echo like it was being invaded by drunk chickens. Why mention this? To point out that wine tasting is not just about the wine. It’s about the sommelier, the location, the other patrons. I have no doubt that my experience there would have been far different had we arrived while the bridesmaids were getting their drunk on. In fact, I probably would have left without even going in. Just keep in mind that sometimes a winery needs a second chance to impress you (or disappoint you twice).
Zichichi Family Vineyards. If you are looking for a unique boutique experience (try saying that five times fast after a day of wine tasting), then I direct you to Zichichi. This winery does barrel tastings, which means that they take you directly into their fermentation area and draw samples straight from the barrel. It’s really quite awesome. (True, they might do “regular” tastings, too, but I don’t think they do; at least they haven’t either time we’ve been to their winery). Also, they make some truly remarkable Zinfandels. I vacillate in preference between their Estate Zin and their Old Vine Zin (see? Tasty, tasty variation), but both are extraordinary. Plus, the vibe here is so…chill. You enter a beautiful tasting room and are greeted by some of the friendliest, most relaxed sommeliers possible (I’d be pretty mellow, too, if I had their view all day). Nice, friendly, informative staff and some amazing wine. Seriously, what is there not to love about a place like this? Just note that what they are offering from the barrel hasn’t yet been bottled…so if you like what you try, you can order it, but then you’ll have to wait a few months for it to finish aging. Trust me, though, when I say it’s well worth the wait.
And there you have it—Loba’s top 10 Sonoma wineries for the moment. I’m sure this list will change. I’ve already started a list of new wineries for our next trip. Who knows what those might bring (other than more delicious red wines)? If you ever find yourself roaming around the back roads of Sonoma and you stumble across any of these wineries, I hope you give them a go. Or head to their Web sites and see what they’re selling (if you’re lucky enough to live in a state that allows wine shipments). Whatever you decide, I hope you enjoy. I also hope you have some really strong tooth paste…or just enjoy having a purple smile. Red wine—stainfully delicious.