Guide to Holiday Wine Tasting in Sonoma County
“Over the Russian River, and through the redwoods, to the tasting room we go.” Over the winter holidays in Sonoma County, when we may be entertaining guests, family or friends from other parts of the country, wine tasting is one of our favorite activities.
Combining the advantages of scenic country drive with history, architecture, and of course, delicious wine, a wine tasting jaunt can appeal to almost everyone — whether they’re wine connoisseurs eager to finally get a first-hand taste of Sonoma Wine Country, or they’re just desperate to get out of the house.
But first we’ll want to assess our party’s level of interest in wine, and make a plan accordingly. Success depends upon simplicity of design, not trying to do too much, and tailoring the destination to the wine drinker.
Old and New Reliables
Wine may induce a mildly pleasant sensation in small doses; too much of it can lead to a headache. Same goes for too much wine talk. If you are a connoisseur of single vineyard, two-barrel lots of cult Cab but your guests just like a little wine now and then, it’s best not to drag them by their palates through a tasting they might feel bad for not enjoying.
Instead, see the sights: Drive through the redwoods to Korbel Champagne Cellars, where the free tour and tasting is a perennial favorite, and the old-fashioned tasting room is decked out for the holidays. More newly-fashioned, but classic and comfortable, Ferrari-Carano’s Enoteca reserve room in the cellar downstairs offers table-side tasting service on weekends.
At Sonoma’s Buena Vista Winery, a portrait of Count Agoston Haraszthy — and perhaps a real-life actor portraying him — welcomes visitors by a crackling fireplace in a tasting room filled with artifacts, and stocked with wine from this historic, revitalized bodega.
South of Sonoma, Gloria Ferrer offers a lightly informative tour of sparkling wine production: robot included. There’s a nice view by the fireside here, and at nearby Ram’s Gate, multiple gas fireplaces blaze all day on a hill above the Carneros. You can order inventive and delicious small plates to share here, which pair with a nice variety of wines. There are many other great choices, but don’t try to do too much. Unless everybody’s really charged up, two wineries are enough.
Cult Pinot Fantasia Tour
I’ve seen men driven mad by the access to coveted wines we enjoy here. On short notice it may difficult to get an appointment at some of the more exclusive, waiting list-only wineries, but there are plenty of opportunities for devotees of Pinot Noir to drop names.
Pioneering Russian River Valley Pinot Noir growers Rochioli Vineyards are pouring most days of the week. Weekends only, walk knowingly around the back of the rustic cellar where Pinot history was made at Joseph Swan Vineyards. Fans of the Helen Turley style may drop in on Martinelli Winery — and anyone can enjoy its cozy, country store atmosphere.
Some dedicated, small producers of cool-scented and alluring, top-notch Pinot who are devoted to their craft full-time (i.e., skipping over the consultant-made, vanity labels for now) have nevertheless managed to open a little storefront to offer tasting: For starters, seek out Skewis Wines in Healdsburg; in West County, Occidental’s Boheme Wines, and Sebastopol’s La Follette.
In Kenwood, eclectic Kaz Vineyard offers free juice, a play table and, sometimes, light sabers. At Cline Cellars, south of Sonoma, feed the fish and explore the grounds where pheasants and turtles roam in good weather; the onsite California Mission Museum may be of interest to California-educated fourth graders.
Orange Wine or Go Home
We’re given to understand that in certain urban hothouse environments, hip wine drinkers consider funky-smelling all-natural orange wines from Sicily as the only authentic wines. Fair enough: Lead them to the natural, yet sweet-smelling and pure wines of the Natural Process Alliance, when you can catch them.
Just off of the 101 freeway, my friends at Old World Winery don’t crow the “natural” slogan, but make foot-stomped, intriguing varieties like Abouriou.
Not all-natural but pleasing to the urban eye, the young folks at Banshee play vinyl LPs and pour their wonderfully affordable and eminently sippable Sonoma Coast Pinots at the requisite communal table in their stylish new Healdsburg tasting room.
Whatever route you take, your guests will appreciate the “only in Wine Country” experience you’ll be providing.
Note: Please note that most wineries are closed on Christmas Day (Dec 25) and New Year's Day (Jan 1).