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Go Tasting at Sonoma Portworks

While the Petaluma River is no Douro, and has never pretended to be, the old riverfront district of Petaluma is a fitting location for Sonoma Portworks. Like the old port houses of Porto — if you’ll indulge the fanciful comparison — the Sonoma Portworks cellar and tasting room is located right along the riverfront.

Tucked away in a low, docklands warehouse on a dead-end street, Sonoma Portworks is the only port house in Sonoma County Wine Country. They also make sherry, grappa, and their own unique take on balsamic vinegar.

The Port of Petaluma

The Petaluma River is southern Sonoma County’s “local river made good,” a cross between a creek and a tidal slough that was declared a river by an act of Congress in the 20th century, to facilitate commercial shipping. Now, the revitalized waterfront is home to cafés, distilleries, and local artisan food companies like Cowgirl Creamery.

Portmaker Bill Reading’s most widely recognized port may bring a smile of remembrance to many who like a little liquid indulgence now and then: He’s the creator of DECO, the Zinfandel port that’s infused with chocolate — the one in the tall, green and black bottle.

His other productions are on a much smaller scale, and are made and aged in this Petaluma cellar. In one corner, he’s got a four-barrel “solera” system for aging the grape-based spirit that arrests fermentation, making a port wine both sweet and higher in alcohol. He’s the only producer he knows of who’s using wine barrels to age the spirit into a mellowed brandy before use.

In another corner rests his homemade foot-treading contraption — Reading’s ports are gently foot-trod after fermentation, a labor-intensive extra step that’s hardly done in Portugal these days.

What’s New from the Old Cask

Since my last visit to Sonoma Portworks, owners Bill and Caryn Reading have upgraded the visitor experience — not that a board set across two barrelheads isn’t refreshingly rustic, but the new tasting bars topped with gleaming slabs of cherrywood are attractive, and the old vines strung with sparkling lights add a little something, as well.

They’ve also just released a new pride of the Portworks: A tawny-style port called ARIS Cask Reserve Port (375ml $44). Reading used to import Australian tawny port, as well, until that economic snafu a few years back tanked his buying power vis-à-vis the Australian dollar. The Aussie tawny was rather well liked by his customers (fortified spirits have a long history in the Australian wine industry), so he got to work creating a California version. At last, he’s got one that he feels is as good.

The Cask Reserve shows surprising mineral notes on the nose, a breeze of rock dust subtly infused with dried nuts and dates. More silky than aggressively sweet on the palate, it’s a very sippable, long-finishing fortified wine.

In the style of a ruby port, the ARIS 2008 Petite Sirah Port (375ml $34) is made from California grapes that, Reading says he believes, are better suited to making a port style than the traditional port grapes of Portugal.

The DECO Port ($20), Zinfandel port with chocolate essence, is just plain fun. On the non-alcoholic side, Portworks still makes their unique — I’m using that well-worn word again, and I’m standing by it — sweet balsamic-style vinegar, Sonomic. Made from grapes, it’s not clear if it’s a sauce or a vinegar, but Sonomic Red ($16) it’s equally delicious with stir-fried Brussels sprouts as it is on ice cream. Also sporting new packaging and an easier-to-store bottle, Sonomic Gold ($46) is the one for summer salads.

Any Port …

You know the story about champagne: although everybody who’s not strictly on the inside of the wine business calls any sparkling wine “champagne,” the heavies from Reims enjoined us to call our locally made bubbly “Sonoma County sparkling wine.” Same story with port: traditional port is made in Portugal. While some California operations, like Reading’s Sonoma Portworks, got their name and label “grandfathered in,” some Napa portmakers recently gave it up for the Douro. The story continues.

Hit the Road

After tasting all that sinfully sweet, delicious port, stop that giggling and sober up with a coffee at Aqus Café, on the corner a few steps away. It’s a big, comfortable café with lots of tables and light — they also serve beer. Sorry, but don’t bother the distillery next door — they’re not open to the public at this time. Then take a walk along the historic Water Street Trestle or explore the shops and restaurants of the Theater District and downtown Petaluma.

613 2nd Street, Petaluma CA 94952. Open Thursday through Monday, noon–5 p.m. Tasting fee is only a requested donation to Jack London State Park. 707-769-5203.

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