A drive on the main highway through the heart of the Sonoma Valley yields many a beautiful vineyard view, but few signs for wine tasting and virtually no commercial clutter of any kind. Yet tucked away in the sleepy hamlet of Glen Ellen is a wealth of wine tasting opportunities at wineries that span the whole history of winemaking in Sonoma County, back to the very beginning. It would take intrepid visitors several days to visit the top wineries in Glen Ellen. Here’s a list to get you started.
A must-see, this is the quintessential Glen Ellen winery, and only partly because it was the original home of the Glen Ellen Winery whose wines became ubiquitous nationwide after the brand was sold to big business. After that, the Benziger family took a good look at the health of their vineyards and the state of the soils in their Sonoma Mountain vineyards, which are situated in a “volcanic bowl” overlooking the Valley of the Moon, and are adjacent to Jack London State Park, and decided to pursue organic and Biodynamic farming. Today, informative tram tours of the vineyard are a main attraction, while the ranch-style tasting room maintains a down-home, friendly Sonoma County vibe even when it’s bustling with visitors.
One of Glen Ellen’s newest family ventures, the ultra-modern Hamel tasting room and terrace looks southwest over the valley, from the opposite side of Benziger. Badgers are big here with the Hamels, but also excellent hospitality, food pairings and great wines like estate Zinfandel.
Speaking of Pinot Noir, here’s a place where the wines of Pinot specialists, a husband and wife team with long years of experience in the business of making wine, offer a chance to compare different clones of Pinot from the same vineyard and other delights for geeks of the Pinot Noir-loving variety to gather in a comfortable lounge that’s just steps away from breakfast, lunch or dinner in “downtown” Glen Ellen.
On a side street just a block from Arnold Drive, Laurel Glen offers lovers of mountain-grown Cabernet Sauvignon an opportunity to explore the revitalization of another classic Glen Ellen winery. Laurel Glen made one of the early “cult” Cabs in the 1980s, but fell off the radar for a while. Not so, for in-the-know collectors of the wines of this Sonoma Mountain gem. Although under newer ownership, the winery’s legacy is in good hands with winemaker Randall Watkins, whose father was good friends with Laurel Glen founder Patrick Campbell. In a former architect’s studio, this is a quiet detour, a fascinating new and old “discovery” for fans of structured Cabernet.
Located at the corner of Sonoma Highway and Arnold Drive, the Mayo Family can be easily recognized by the antique yellow truck parked in front. Mayo is dog-friendly, offers a hearth on colder days, and there’s picnic seating out back in fair weather. The wine lineup is diverse, not just on account of Jeffery Mayo’s European wine experience, and the skills of winemaker Mike Berthoud (formerly of Arrowood), but because the complex topography of this area allows them to make a variety of varietals, from Pinot Noir to Petite Sirah.
Although many of the wines at Eric Ross Winery originate from other appellations, this rustically situated tasting room is very Glen Ellen, indeed. Viognier and Syrah are star varietals poured by friendly folks in this barn-style structure, located just across the road from an historic mill and winery that dates to the mid-1800s.
Two trees tell the story at Madrone Estate, if you don’t count the practically tree-sized old Zinfandel and other vines in the historic vineyard just behind the tasting room—some of them at least 130 years old. There’s an old California bay laurel about that age that bears a plaque by the old stone cellar, while inside, a “family tree” details the history of the winery and vineyards, which includes the one-time ownership of Senator George Hearst. Today it’s run by a Canadian wine dynasty who have preserved and promote the historic nature of the estate.
An offshoot of the Benziger wine dynasty, Imagery Estate is located just across the narrow valley from the home estate. Founded by the charismatic and irreverent family son Joe Benziger, Imagery Estate has two disparate and quirky aims: to reproduce the Benziger “Parthenon” somewhere on each one-of-a-kind, artist-commissioned wine label, and to showcase a wide variety of often unheard-of varietal wines. The combination makes each visit to Imagery an opportunity for discovery and fun.
Creator of many, much-loved Sonoma County wines of the 1970s and 1980s, Richard Arrowood left Chateau St. Jean and his eponymous Arrowood Winery and headed for the hills—just a few miles down the road. Here, he’s even closer to the famed Monte Rosso vineyard’s old vine Zinfandel from which he makes an outstanding, vibrant representation of the varietal, as well as his estate Cabernet and Rhône variety vineyards. A bit out of the way, but well worth the trip.
Wouldn’t it be nice to end with a sparkling wine, a rich, savory yet lean and citrus-inflected vintage sparkling wine, no matter what the appellation? Surprisingly, Robert Hunter’s Glen Ellen vineyard in this warm “banana belt” of the Sonoma Valley, although it produces some of the earliest-ripening grapes in the valley, also makes some fine base wine for sparkling goodness. Robert Hunter’s sparkling wines are made off-site, but they are aged well, and always seem to combine the best attributes of sparkling wine that one would want, from toasty richness to citrusy zip. Tours of the home estate and gardens (attention, botanical buffs!) offer another insider’s glimpse into the bucolic life in rural Glen Ellen.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.