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Discovering the Westwood Estate in Sonoma

Westwood Tasting Room at Vine Alley in Sonoma

There are few wineries like Westwood Estate in Sonoma. I’ve always considered it an undiscovered gem, a supremely terroir-driven winegrowing operation that’s somehow overlooked by all the “terroir-driven” wine disciples, with a tasting room hidden in the shadows of a Sonoma alleyway. But recent acclaim and a change of direction have brought Westwood into the light. 

Into the Gap

While the winery is located some 20 miles from the vineyard, and the tasting room is tucked into an alleyway in Sonoma—in between the two—that doesn’t mean Westwood can’t be an all-estate vineyard and winery.

Westwood produces 3,500 cases of diverse varietals from one contiguous estate vineyard. Although the vineyard, now called the Annadel Gap vineyard, is officially situated within the Sonoma Valley viticultural area, the land drains to the Russian River Valley watershed, and the wind and fog characteristics of this particular area share more in common with the cooler Bennett Valley than even Kenwood, or certainly Glen Ellen, a few miles to the south.

That’s why Pinot Noir shares the limelight here with Syrah and Grenache. There’s even a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon, as an experiment, although it only makes the grade in certain years.

Westwood 2.0

That’s what “case wrangler” and tasting room host Susan Oh calls the most recent version of Westwood Estate, at the winery’s tasting room in “Vine Alley” in downtown Sonoma. For one thing, the partners who run the winery gave the label a makeover—from a spooky, leafless tree to a black-and-white, topographical theme, with a fancy wax stamp, for kicks.

The winery name dates back some thirty years, but it has almost nothing to do with the current arrangement—except for a certain cancelled order of then-new, “Tablas Creek” clones of Rhône grape varieties like Syrah, Counoise and Grenache. These were planted at the new vineyard, located across Highway 12 from Annadel State Park, by former winemaker John Kelly around the turn of this century.

After studying data from a weather station installed in the vineyard, Kelly claimed that the vineyard’s mesoclimate was actually cooler than the famed “Middle Reach” of the Russian River Valley growing region, so he planted Pinot Noir, as well.

Following up, current consulting winemaker David Ramey and winemaker Ben Cane, an Aussie who’s spent time in Burgundy and Barolo, as well, have made a Pinot Noir that won top honors at the Press Democrat’s North Coast Wine Challenge in 2016.

Lounge in the Gap

The tasting salon is tucked away in the Sonoma Court Shops on the south side of the Sonoma Plaza. Wines are made in the Eighth Street warehouse district on the south end of town. Although there’s no bar, it’s not a lounge: preferably by appointment, expect a thorough discussion of the terroir and history of the vineyard.

Two varietal wines that display the site’s earthy influence, as well as acidity retention: the 2014 Clone 90 “Chambertin” Pinot Noir ($54) leans toward licorice and mulled spices, with sweet red fruit, while the 2014 Pommard Clone Pinot Noir ($54) smells of smoke, fir tree and antique furniture, grudgingly giving up stern cranberry fruit and black cherry on the sticky palate. Hey, I’m obliged to root for Sonoma wines here, but do you also like Oregon Pinot? Check. This. Out.

Very rarely bottled as a varietal, the 2014 Counoise ($48) is charmingly fruity, a strawberry-blueberry blend with a buoyant palate, while the 2014 Syrah ($40) is medium-bodied but round and precise, showing notes of smoke and a hint of furry “animale” aromas typical of some of the better northern Rhone-style wines.

Hit the Road

Gazing up at the “map” of Sonoma Valley provided on the tasting room wall, you may not get a great sense of direction: created by a “moss artist,” it’s a representation of the Sonoma Valley rendered in actual moss, painted green so that the admittedly non-green thumbs at the tasting room, says Susan Oh, can provide guests with a little greenery during their visit.

If you want to see climate in action in the northern Sonoma Valley, try tackling one of the strenuous hikes in Hood Mountain Regional Park, and wait for the fog to roll in. Bring a flask of wine.

Details: 11 E Napa Street #3, Sonoma, CA 95476. Open Fri–Sat 12-5pm. Tasting fee, $25–50.

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