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Matanzas Creek Winery

I was hoping to find out what’s new at Matanzas Creek when I strolled up to the winery on a recent weekday morning, and something new is the first thing that I saw—or heard. A spunky, affectionate little tortoiseshell cat, having wandered over from somewhere or other in the past few days, is desperately campaigning to get the tasting room to adopt her. On the deck in front, which is shaded by 400-year-old oaks and overlooks the vineyards of Bennett Valley, she’s meowing nonstop at the door. You’d think it was milking time at a dairy barn—and the funny thing is, that’s exactly what gave this property its claim to fame. I’ll explain.

Lavender Time in the Lavender Barn

Bennett Valley wasn’t the hotbed of the wine boom when Sandra McIver purchased the property in the early 1970s, but it had been lousy with the grape before Prohibition. To this day, although dotted here and there with country villas and horse stables, the valley is a bit of a backwater in the middle of Sonoma County, and the winery that Bill and Sandra McIver founded in 1977 is the only one that’s open to the drop-in wine taster.

It’s a worthwhile spot to drop in on, not least for the three-acre lavender fields that were planted as a “first line of defense” against marauding deer, on the advice of their landscape architect. No weddings are allowed, but I’m told that plenty of proposals are to made here—you’ve just got to catch the lavender in the few weeks that it blooms, and mind the bees. If you take the tour, you might peek into the lavender barn, an old dairy barn packed to the rafters with bunches of lavender hanging to dry, to be processed into products that are sold in the tasting room’s gift shop—it’s in an alcove space, like a hotel shop, set apart from the wine because of the competing aromas!

Take a Sip

Built in the 1980s, the winery has been updated inside, and the staff is both professional and welcoming. There’s tasting at the bar or on the deck, with a few tables inside for cheese plates during winter months.

Matanzas Creek has historically been known for its Chardonnay and Merlot, and they’re both pretty good—the Alexander Mountain Estate contributes to the chewy, fig, prune and chocolate character of the 2011 Sonoma County Merlot ($30). But the Sauvignon Blanc program is really shining these days under the direction of Chilean-born winemaker Marcia Monahan, who took the position in 2010 after working for Jackson Family Wines, owners of Matanzas Creek, for a decade. If you like your tropical fruit and bright, grassy notes upfront, start with the 2013 Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc ($21). If subtle, floral notes with a hint of tropical fruit in the background appeal to you, finish with the more ethereal 2013 Helena Bench Sauvignon Blanc ($40).

Geek Out

About that dairy barn: when it’s allowed to, Chardonnay gets its “buttery” aroma and rich mouthfeel from a secondary fermentation, where bacteria convert malic acid (think apple juice-flavored) into lactic acid (butter, cream, or crème brûlée, depending on a variety of factors). Working out of the old dairy barn—which doesn’t look like your ideal winery facility, today—in the 1970s, the McIver’s new winemaker, Merry Edwards, discovered a unique buttery taste in the Chardonnay and had the bacteria checked out in the lab. It was a tenacious holdover from the dairy days, so the story goes, and it’s still available from the lab as strain MCW—although Marcia Monahan has flouted tradition and abandoned it for her Chardonnay, preferring a more subtle flavor profile.

Hit the Road

From Bennett Valley, you can easily continue to Santa Rosa, Cotati, or Glen Ellen. Spring Lake Regional Park is a favorite spot for an easy walk. Around Cotati, a university town in the country, you can find farm stands and vegetarian restaurants. In Glen Ellen, try the house-made IPA at the new place-to-be, Aventine.

6097 Bennett Valley Road, Santa Rosa, CA 95404. Open daily, 10am–4:30pm. Tasting fee, $10-$15. Cheese pairings $25 per person, 10:30am–3:30pm. 707.528.6464

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