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Wine Tasting at Tara Bella Winery

Tara Bella Winery in Santa Rosa

Just when you thought you knew the rules in Sonoma County wine regions, a little wrench like Tara Bella gets thrown your way. Tara Bella Winery grows award-winning Cabernet Sauvignon in the heart of Pinot Noir territory.

When Rich Minnick planted a small block of Cabernet on his seven-acre property in 1996, the Russian River Valley had already become world-famous for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and he was told that Cab wouldn’t fly here.

“When you try to do something different,” says winery manager Susan Bookstaff while telling the Tara Bella story on a tour of the little property, “the naysayers come out of the woodwork.”

Rich and Tara (hence the winery name) Minnick went ahead with the Cabernet, and were vindicated with a double gold medal at the San Francisco Chronicle’s 2003 wine competition, the nation’s leading judging event for American wines. This got the attention of a film crew from CNN, and a four-minute feature aired on television.

Nothing but Cab Hounds

After the big win, the Minnicks doubled the vineyard with the encouragement of their friend and wine hobbyist Kevin Morrow. Now it’s six acres—still a small holding. Unusual for such a boutique operation, all of the winemaking, bottling, and labeling is done, by hand, on the property.

The ownership has since transitioned smoothly, keeping wine club members happy, to Kevin and Wendy Morrow. Having grown up on a dairy and pig farm in Wisconsin, Kevin has a farming background that he has drawn upon to invigorate the vineyard, growing cover crops between the rows and employing natural materials for pest control.

Each visit to Tara Bella is tailored to the group, and visitors from different groups are never combined, says manager Bookstaff, in order to give them the best experience. Some may want to spend more time on the specifics of the Cabernet clones, for instance, while others who’ve perhaps never seen a vineyard before, Bookstaff says, just want to experience it: “They get so excited, they practically want to pet the grapes on the vine!”

Still others are fans of Presley and Thornton, the basset hound winery dogs who are seen wearing various hats in “winery dog” books. Some wine club members ask about the dogs before asking about the wine.

Visitors can immerse themselves in the vines as long as they like when booking the nicely appointed little suite that’s perched right above the winery. You won’t find this on Internet vacation booking services or anywhere else—it’s a winery exclusive available mainly to Tara Bella’s wine club members and customers. Most guests use it as a base to explore wine country, but some just want to enjoy the Russian River Valley view from the sun deck.

In the Cellar

The wine cellar is aromatic and cozy—it smells like a wine cellar, in the best way. Two Cabs are poured, the Tara Bella Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), which they also call their “Argentina clone 4” and Tara Bella Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($75), aka “French clone 4” or “Latour clone.”

Grown as little as 50 feet apart, the wines couldn’t be different. The 2013 Reserve hints of the appealing, vinous aroma of the cellar, laying down big, black cherry flavor and grippy tannins on the palate. In contrast, the supple 2013 Estate has a fruity-floral aroma of violet flowers, licorice and just a shaving of graphite—Left Bank alert! Claret fans take note.

All Cabernet bottles are hand-dipped in dark red wax. When they added a Cabernet rosé ($35) to the mix, the commercially available pink wax was too bright for Wendy Morrow, who’s also an artist, so she ordered up pink, yellow and white and made her own hue. Sometimes the blend isn’t perfect, and is streaked with colors—these bottles, I’m told, are especially valued by some wine club members.

Geeky Sonoma

When people say that Cabernet Sauvignon or Pinot Noir doesn’t grow well, or grow at all somewhere, they don’t mean that the vine itself can’t grow. Vitis vinifera will grow almost anywhere, given a little access to water. It’s the grapes themselves that may not “grow” into ripe, balanced, perfectly suitable material for making fine wine in different climates and regions.

The Russian River Valley is great for Pinot Noir, but note that the area where Tara Bella is located, in a little neighborhood off Olivet Road that’s called Olivet District by an association of local wineries, has been known to produce excellent, deeply flavored Zinfandel for many decades.

Hit the Road

There are only three restaurants in the Bay Area that carry Tara Bella’s very limited release Cabernet Sauvignon, including two in Sonoma County. Make reservations at Stark’s Steakhouse or Ca’Bianca in Santa Rosa if you haven’t had time to stop by the winery on this visit, to try their Cab with dry aged steak or ossobuco.

Details: Tara Bella Winery, 3701 Viking Road, Santa Rosa. Tours and tastings by appointment only, Wednesday–Sunday. $15 per person.

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