The best part about visiting Sonoma County wineries, for me as a wine writer, is that I often get to breeze by the tasting room bar and meet with the winemakers themselves for a tour of the vineyards and winemaking facility, and then sit down to talk about the wines, geek out about grape growing practices, or anything in particular.
There are a few Sonoma County wineries that offer every visitor this opportunity, which is valuable not because a meeting with the winemaker has extra cachet, but because they’re often the most down-to-earth people in the whole operation. And in the smaller wineries that are tucked away in the appellation of Sonoma County, they often are the operation.
While tasting room staff may be knowledgeable about the wines, the winemaker has the inside scoop.
Let’s start our tour by meeting a few of the winemakers of Dry Creek Valley.
When you’re ready to question the overly used word “unique” to describe the many small wineries of this area, drop in on Nalle. Set amidst a plot of old Zinfandel vines, the wine cellar looks like a sort of living pyramid, from certain angles. An inventive substitute for a wine cave, it’s actually a sort of Quonset hut, covered with earth and planted with riotous rosemary by winery founder Doug Nalle. An elegant, lower alcohol style of Zinfandel distinguishes this winery’s lineup. Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon also offered.
Today, Doug Nalle’s son Andrew, a personable young winemaker who earned a degree in philosophy besides studying winemaking around the world, meets with visitors by appointment, while Doug sometimes mans the bare-bones cellar tasting room “bar” on Saturdays and Sundays when the winery is open to drop-in visitors from noon to 4:30 p.m. $15 tasting fee ($20 each for groups of eight or more). $30 tasting fee by appointment, Thursday and Friday only.
Winemaker Michael Talty also specializes in Zinfandel, primarily older, single vineyard bottlings. Visitors to this small, contemporary barn-style winery set in a dry-farmed vineyard may meet with the winemaker, vineyard manager, or tasting room manager: all of them Michael Talty, a one-man show. Vertical tastings earn new Zin fans by displaying the ageability of Dry Creek Valley’s best-known varietal wine. Open Friday to Sunday, noon to 4 p.m., or by appointment.
Tiny Frick Winery is also a one-man show, making hard-to-find varietal Rhône-style wine like Counoise and Cinsaut from a 7.77-acre vineyard. In Dry Creek Valley, this backroads bodega was founded back in 1976 when such a venture could be funded by the sale of a 1957 Chevy. While offering no tours — because winemaker Bill Frick is always behind the bar at the endearing little cottage-like tasting room — the tasting room invites perusing the artwork and personal collection of porcelain souvenirs from the historic Italian Swiss Colony winery (Frick visited the winery as a child, and was inspired to become a winemaker), and visitors can stroll by the picturesque Owl Hill vineyard. Frick pours wine from 12-4:30 p.m. on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in summer (Memorial Day through Labor Day) and on Saturday and Sunday in the winter season. Tasting complimentary with purchase.
Lots of wineries offer a gourmet olive oil for sale in their gift shop, but Trattore takes visitors to the olive mill for “a fun and informative session on the art and science of making extra virgin olive oils,” during an estate tour experience they call the “Get Your Boots Dirty Tour.” Winemaker Ryan Schmaltz can lead this tour, which wends through vineyards and olive orchards by mule — a Kawasaki Mule 4-wheel-drive vehicle — or by foot, finishing with a wine and olive oil tasting. The winery can accommodate a tour of six people on the Kawasaki Mule during the non-rainy season. For groups larger than six, it’s a walking tour. $70; $40 for wine club members.
It’s a sparkling experience at Amista, which makes the bubbly stuff as well as Syrah and other wines. Winemaker Ashley Herzberg leads a guided of the estate Morningsong Vineyard followed by a seated tasting of the winery’s sparkling wines and still Rhône varietals. The full experience is $95 per person, $75 for wine club members. Four-guest minimum.
Perched on a hill above West Dry Creek Road, Flanagan offers a tour and tasting with winemaker Isabelle Mort. “Isabelle is fabulous and engaging and does a great tour of our marquis property in Dry Creek Valley,” according to Flanagan. The winery was bonded in 1885 and visitors may get the chance to sample wine directly from the barrels in the original barrel barn, built in 1885. Tastings by appointment, 11 a.m. and 1 and 3 p.m. Tasting fee is $40.
Rolling hills of Cabernet await exploration in this winery’s highest price visitor experience, the “Cabernet Ranch Experience.” $900 per couple, the price includes one case of block-select Cabernet Sauvignon from the winery’s estate vineyards at the southern end of Dry Creek Valley, a few miles from the winery on Lambert Bridge Road. Owner Jason Passalacqua and winemaker Jessica Boone conduct a tour of the ranch and a tasting of their Block Select Cabernets. By reservation.
Here’s a last-minute update from West Wines, a tiny cellar on Dry Creek Road that’s big in Sweden — winery founders Katarina Bonde and Bengt Akerlind had their wine featured at the 2010 Nobel awards banquet in Stockholm. During harvest 2018, Katarina, the winemaker, leads a series of vineyard hikes at their Dry Creek Valley vineyard property. “It has beautiful views of Dry Creek Valley below and Mount Saint Helena in the background,” says Bonde. “I will let the group taste grapes and they will all pick berries, and I am bringing field tools so they can help me check sugar levels and pH. We will discuss how I make harvesting decisions and what we do when we bring them in for crush and press.” Included will be a wine tasting of past vintages, and a discussion about what it takes to make a Cabernet that is meant for cellaring, and how it improves with age. Cost is $30. Meet at 10 a.m., finished at tasting room at 11:30 a.m.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight