Gary Farrell Winery in Sonoma County
Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery

How to Describe Wine in Sonoma County Style

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You don't need to be a Sommelier (or know how to pronounce it) to describe the wine swirling at the bottom of your glass. In fact, learning the right words to describe your wine can be as approachable as you want it to be. In Sonoma County, there is no shortage of varietals to test your senses and help you expand your vocabulary. Many words used to describe these wines actually make a lot of sense, too.

Learn Sonoma County vocabulary with The Travel Mom

Take the word, “oaky.” The perception of oak in the aroma, or the taste, of wine isn’t necessarily good or bad. Long aging in oak barrels mellows red wine, and rounds out whites like Chardonnay, imparting a toasty, or sweet kiss of oak, essence to the wine. Aging a wine for too long, or in the wrong kind of oak barrels for the wine, may result in a woody characteristic that doesn’t appeal to everyone.

But there’s a whole lot more to it, particularly for winemakers like Theresa Heredia of Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery. Heredia explains that winemakers also have to factor in a long list of oak barrel specifications, including: the forest where the oak was grown; the length of time and the environment in which the wood was cured; and the in-house methods employed by the cooperage, or the company that builds barrels. There are different methods just of bending the staves, for instance, that may affect the quality of the wine. When Heredia joined the Gary Farrell team, she brought her relationships with cooperages with her, including a few that aren’t the same old names you recognize from every cellar—if you’re a geeky barrelhead-head, that is.

Group of people in Sonoma County drinking wine while overlooking the Dry Creek Valley AVA
Gustafson Family Vineyards in Dry Creek Valley AVA

Famed winemaker Gary Farrell is more than a name on a bottle: Farrell instilled his own exacting protocols in a succession of winemakers, assuring that his style of pure-fruited, bright Pinot Noir is alive and well. Visitors may enjoy the wines with a view of the Russian River Valley’s redwood-studded ridges from the winery’s terrace, or taste in the remodeled tasting lounge with a cheese pairing.

Two more wine words come to mind at Ridge Vineyards, situated between the Sonoma County appellations of Dry Creek Valley and Alexander Valley: old vine and varietal. Ridge’s famed Lytton Springs vineyard was planted decades ago, and many vines are over 100 years old. That’s definitely old vine. They don’t look as lush and bountiful as younger vineyards in the valleys, down below, but the winemakers at Ridge feel that it’s worth it to keep farming these old, gnarled survivors from the days before Prohibition, because after long decades of growing in this site, the small crop of grapes they provide lends more intense flavors to the wine.

Ridge has been making Lytton Springs wine since 1972, and in many years the blend of grapes that were planted together in the old days does not qualify the wine, according to government labeling rules, as a pure “varietal” Zinfandel—the threshold being 75%. For example, their 2017 Lytton Springs contains 74% Zinfandel, 15% Petite Sirah, 9% Carignane, and 2% Mataro.

Group of people tasting wine in Sonoma County

But is Zinfandel a “jammy” wine? Many are, and they can be delicious. One small producer in Dry Creek Valley that strives to make a balanced, food-friendly, and not particularly jammy wine is Nalle Winery.

Set in the middle of a Zinfandel vineyard, the wine cellar looks like a sort of living pyramid. An inventive substitute for a below-ground cave, it’s actually a quonset hut covered with earth and planted with rosemary by winery founder Doug Nalle. The key style that Nalle Winery, now helmed by Doug’s son Andrew Nalle, is known for is an elegant, lower alcohol style of Zinfandel. The winery is open on weekends to drop-in visitors.

Head back into town for a refresher (and refreshing) course in “dry” wine. At their downtown Healdsburg tasting salon, Cartograph Wines features a Riesling that’s a tasty reminder that even wines that are thought of as usually being “sweet” are often, in fact, made in a dry style, without “RS.” That’s more winespeak, for residual sugar!

Written by James Knight