fruit being harvested at Chalk Hill
Grapes Being Harvested in Sonoma County

Sonoma County Wine Making

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The cycle of the seasons are anything but routine in wine country. From the first budbreak of the year to the finished product on the bottling line, every step counts in making fine Sonoma County Wine.

Learn about Sonoma County Wine Making with The Travel Mom

After the harvest, grapevines lose their leaves and go dormant for the winter, like other deciduous vines or trees (maples, and oaks, for example). When dormant, the vines are hardy and can withstand freezing temperatures. Budbreak describes the time in spring when the first tender green leaves sprout from last year's woody canes. It's a particularly beautiful sight when viewed up close - very close. 

Visit the small demonstration vineyard, originally planted by the viticulture students at Santa Rosa Jr. College, at Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens, in the spring to note how each variety (or cultivar) of wine grape buds out in a slightly different timeframe. Some don't make an appearance until weeks after the early ones.

Kendall Jackson in Sonoma County
Kendall Jackson Winery and Tasting Room

In summer, study up on the difference between Pinot Noir and Merlot - just in case there's a test! Ampelography is the practice of identifying grapevines, beginning with the shape of the leaves. When it's close to harvest, the grape clusters provide you with a few clues, too.

Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate and Gardens is located just north of Santa Rosa, at the gateway to northern Sonoma County wine country. Although it's convenient to the 101 freeway, and there is ample parking available, the visitor center has a peaceful, park-like setting which invites strolling through the rose gardens and the vines, provides the shade of a gazebo amid the trees, and offers learning opportunities in the culinary and "sensory gardens". Both self-guided tours and guided tours with the wine tasting (at 10am and 2pm by reservation) are available.

The crush, the time when grapes are picked and delivered to the winery for fermentation is a visibly busy time at Martinelli Winery, a few miles to the west of Kendall-Jackson on River Road. Bins of grapes may be lined up outside the winery, while tanks are filled and barrels are washed. Winter and summer are not necessarily slow seasons at the winery, either, as barrels are brought back out on the crushpad to be drained and refilled, while others are topped in the cellar - extra wine must be added to make up for evaporation even in the coolest of cellars.

martinelli road in sonoma county
Vineyard View from Martinelli Road in the Russian River Valley

As young newlyweds, Giuseppe and Louisa Martinelli arrived in Sonoma County from Italy around 1887. Within several years, they planted grapes on an impossibly steep hillside that later generations dubbed "Jackass Hill". In the 1970s, Lee Martinelli Sr. continued the family tradition and planted more vineyards. Today, Martinelli grapes from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast are prized among winemakers, and are vineyard-designated in top Sonoma County wines. Only 10 to 15 percent of Martinelli grapes show up at their own winery, the most distinctive building of which are old hop kilns, painted a cheerful red.

bottle of Korbel champagne
Korbel Winery in the Russian River AVA 

At last, the wine is put in bottles for the market. But how do they get the bubbles in the bottles for sparkling wine? That explanation is a job for Korbel Winery, makers of "California Champagne" and they do it well. And free of charge! Tours begin at the small visitor center, which was Korbel's own station on the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad during the logging days on the Russian River. Tours include a fun little documentary, screened in a theater comfortably outfitted with oak benches, full of "did you know" details (Did you know that it all started as a cigar box manufacturer?). The Korbel tasting rom is a big, old-fashioned room where the product is chilled, bubbly, and priced within everyone's reach. Pop that bottle and celebrate another year and all the steps that made another successful vintage!

Lodging in the area: Vintners Resort

Written by James Knight