Three Valley Wine Tasting Adventure in Sonoma County
With over 17 different wine regions and 425 actual wineries to choose from, it's very easy to find yourself heading to two or three different valleys when on a wine tasting adventure in Sonoma County.
According to the county of Sonoma's official count, there are over 60,000 acres of vineyards that stretch from the Pacific Coast in the west to the Mayacamas Mountains in the east.
So where in Sonoma Wine Country do you begin?
Let's narrow it down a little. Each viticultural area (wine region) has its own distinctive terroir, varietal, and winemaking style that shapes Sonoma County into a veritable wonderland for both wine connoisseurs and those who are still figuring out their favorite types of wine and characteristics.
Despite the fact I live and work in Sonoma County, I find myself every bit as spoiled for choice as an out-of-state wine country tourist when faced with a thrilling smorgasbord of wine sensory experiences available in my regional backyard.
And so I eagerly agreed to sample an enticing new wine-tasting adventure day package designed to showcase three extraordinary Sonoma Wine Country styles and varietal groups in three neighboring valleys.
Sonoma County's new Three Valley Tasting Adventure — through the Russian River, Dry Creek, and Alexander Valleys — has been artfully crafted by top wine pros to provide an unforgettable day of meandering three of the region's most diverse tasting experiences.
The itinerary includes Gary Farrrell in the Russian River Valley with a special flight of current and library releases. Then head to Dry Creek Valley for a winery and farm tour, followed by a tasting and lunch at DaVero. The day wraps up at Lancaster Estate in the Alexander Valley, with an estate tour and hillside cave tasting.
What's not to love about this itinerary? It does not disappoint.
The beauty of Sonoma County's new Three Valley Tasting Adventure is its simplicity. Make one reservation and all you have to do is stick to a thoughtful schedule that moves you and your partner or small group from one winery to another. That said, do bring along a designated driver or take advantage of one of several reliable limo services in the region. Pours are not excessive, but generous and hosts are gracious.
Emphasis is on sense of place and this is an experience for those who wish to fully immerse themselves in each unique terroir and its influence on winemaking philosophy and method. I would recommend this terrific package for pairs and small groups of up to six people, eight maximum.
Pacific coastal fog hung low over the Russian River Valley as I made my way along River Road and away from the urban sprawl of the northern borders of Santa Rosa. The Russian River is a world away from city life — a few miles away from the hustle and bustle, a heavily canopied route, interspersed with vineyards rather abruptly cuts off cell phone reception in a swift and calming departure from the pulse of the modern vibe.
Knowledgeable estate ambassadors host this exclusive first tasting at this renowned Russian River winery, featuring six highly allocated releases of single-variety Chardonnay and Pinot Noir that showcase the elegance, balance, and bright, natural acidity that is the winery's trademark.
Estate sommelier and educator Lydia Stafford introduced me to the winery's history — Southern California native Gary Farrell was a political science student at Sonoma State University when he fell in love with fine wines of the region, back in the early 1970s.
Gary started a wine tasting group with friends and soon after, immersed himself in the science and art of making world-class wines. He was head winemaker for Davis Bynum Winery for 19 years, making his mark in the wine world before crafting his first vintage for his own Gary Farrell Winery, in 1982.
A 1998 purchase of the winery's flagship 23-acre property deemed this steep, scenic, and rocky terrain completely unsuitable for the planting of vines —a picture-perfect place to make wine from the best of the best of fruit hand selected from small-production, single vineyard grapes. Currently owned by the Vincraft Group, the winery continues its collaborative partnerships with many of the same growers who've been on board for the past three decades.
Winemaker Theresa Heredia has long specialized in single vineyard wines. She has been with the winery since 2012 and, according to Lydia, she "Bounces off the walls with her ideas."
Theresa's “Inspiration Series,” released each October for winery club collectors, was first taste of the day. Just 103 cases were made of this 2013 vintage Rochioli-Allen Oak Puncheon Chardonnay with its aromas of Mandarin oil, cedar spice, and lemon zest. Bright, vibrant, with racy acidity it set the stage for two additional Chardonnays and three Pinot Noirs. Fruit for the second of the Chardonnays, a 2013 Durell Vineyard, was aptly described by its winemaker as "Grenades that explode with flavor." Robert Parker scored it a 98.
Pinot Noirs from Theresa's barrel room are lighter than others, yet still full bodied enough to stand up to a good meat dish. First in the Pinot flight was a brand new Collectors Club release, a 2014 from the Bien Nacido Vineyard in Santa Barbara County. Baking spices, Oolong tea and dried mushrooms on the nose, followed by a palate of dried strawberries, plums and tobacco leaf.
Maitake mushrooms, cedar chest, and rose petals on the nose made 2013 Rochioli-Allen Vineyard Pinot Noir, up next, a beautifully structured wine, also awesome with food. Vines were planted by Joe Rochioli, a legend in the region, in 1967.
Fog settles on the vines where fruit grows for Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir. I imagined pairing a 2013 with notes of huckleberries, wild mushrooms, and cedar on the nose with any sort of mushroom dish. Delicious, earthy and everything I expect to find in a stellar Pinot.
It was hard to tear myself away from the terrace at Gary Farrell after leaving the winery's private salon tasting room. Adventure called.
Topography and terroir changes dramatically a few miles over into neighboring Dry Creek Valley with a superbly contrasted second stop at biodynamic olive orchards and Italian varietal vineyards for lunch and a tasting and a bonus of piglet spotting at DaVero Farms and Winery.
Onwards along Westside Road, I pondered the remarkable diversity of the area before pulling into the sprawling 66-acre DeVero wine and olive paradise, opposite Dry Creek's Victorian Madrona Manor.
Super-personable director of operations and one of the owners, Andrew Hock, whisked my tasting partner and me off in his four-wheel drive to tour the outer ridges of biodynamic olive grows and Italian varietal vineyard, much of which is left wild, as one enclosed ecosystem.
All of the wines made from grapes grown on seven acres of the farm are from old Italian varietals, fermented with wild yeast and aged in neutral oak barrels. Andrew set out a picnic lunch in an idyllic, private seating area in a shaded, pond-side glen. Founder and co-owner, entrepreneur Ridgely Evers and his former Stars chef wife, co-owner Colleen McGlynn, have lived on this sublime land for 33 years. Ridgely was the first to introduce Tuscan varietal olive trees to California, back in the late ’80s.
Andrew explained how select plants bring in armies of insects that, in turn, promote a beneficial growing environment for grapes, 5,000 olive trees, and other fruits and vegetables grown on the farm.
You won't find DaVero products on store shelves. There's simply not enough for distribution. Every single ounce is sold to club members and tasting room visitors, other than a small, select amount of oil that supplies chef Mario Batali's New York restaurants, for finishing purposes on his signature plates.
I spotted sheep and bee boxes, predatory bird boxes, a hummingbird sanctuary, and willow circle — a tasting room within a tree. We stopped into an airy barn to visit one of the farm's mother pigs, a Duroc and Gloucestershire Old Spot, and her week-old litter.
We talked about the history of Sonoma Wine Country and the varietals that were first planted and some, renamed for an American market. Despite the fact that the vast majority of wines made in the region are French, Andrew explained the rationale of planting Italian varietals. Latitude and growing conditions make the most sense for Southern Italian and Sicilian fruit.
"We live in a hot, dry Mediterranean climate," he said. "Burgundy experiences more rainfall."
I learned that naturally occurring acid levels of grapes grown in balance with the climate makes for a more balanced wine, with lower sugar content. Along the way we tasted a refreshing and bright, foot-crushed 2015 Vermentino (the premier white wine of Sardinia, Liguria and the Tuscan coast) and a rich and aromatic Malvasia Bianca (Sardinia and Sicily) from the same year.
A lovely mid-to-late ripening Pallagrello Bianca is the only white wine of its kind (native to Campania) currently made in the United States. Last of the great Italian wines in this educational line-up was a fine, old-world, estate grown iconic Sangiovese from the winery's home Hawk Vineyard.
The winery's first vintage of its more complex late-ripening red 2013 Carignano (found on the island of Sardinia) is meticulously crafted from fruit grown in Mendocino County.
One final tasting before we were back on the road in search of yet more fine wine treasures, was an exquisite swirl of Meyer lemon estate extra virgin olive oil. This is olive oil as it is meant to be — peppery and fresh and impossible not to leave for home with a bottle of.
Last, but certainly not least, this amazing day in Sonoma Wine Country ends on the (Chalk Hill) road-less-traveled with a super-sophisticated estate tour and hillside cave tasting of four elegant, Burgundian-style wines at Lancaster Estate in the Alexander Valley.
If I found myself lagging a little as the afternoon wore on, arrival at Lancaster Estate, a 20-minute or so drive into the Alexander Valley, piqued my interest from the parking lot.
Founder Ted Simpkin (later Lancaster) built a massive, modern marvel of a home atop a hillside overlooking his 76-acre namesake vineyards and winery at the convergence of southern tip of Alexander Valley where it meets Chalk Hill and Knight's Valley.
The majority of the winery was purchased by Bill and Carol Foley's Food & Wine Society in 2012, though Ted and his family are frequent visitors to wine club events. I was surprised to learn that the family's formidable former home is available for rent by wine club members and is a popular choice with wedding parties.
Ted planted big, bold, Burgundian varietals, the first vintage was released back in 1995. Assistant hospitality manager Aleisha Aragon walked us through to the winery's luxurious 10,000-square-foot "No Name Cave," designed for Ted and his family and built into soft soil of volcanic ash. The cave is horse shoe shaped and impeccably outfitted with state-of-the-art, modern lighting and a library room fit for a James Bond set.
There we tasted four of the winery's finest estate wines, starting with Sophia's 2013 Hillside Cuvée, composed of young hillside blocks of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and the winery's oldest block of Malbec. Flavors of cherry, currant, raspberry, and dark chocolate framed strong, velvety tannins on the finish. Robert Parker describes this wine as the perfect example of Californian fruit.
A 2009 Lancaster Estate Cabernet, aged for 24 months, was every drop as good, with its sagey, herbal quality, tart flavor and aromas of black cherry, clove and nutmeg.
Winemaker David Drake makes great wines. His Lancaster Estate 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon is big and bodacious with silky tannins framing dark cherry, berry, vanilla, and spicy black currant flavors on the palate.
Crafted from the estate's finest blocks and barrels from those blocks, Nicole's 2012 Proprietary Red (named for Ted's wife) is a unique blend of the best of the hillside's terroir. Silky in texture with layers of dark cherry, blackberry, lavender, and dark chocolate, this special wine is released each year at Christmas time for wine club members.
Tours start at 10.30 a.m. to noon at Gary Farrell Winery, 12.30 to 2.30 p.m. at DaVero Farms and Winery, and 3 p.m. at Lancaster Estate, from where, I suggest you add on another couple of hours to wrap up the day with an early dinner a short drive north in Geyserville either at the excellent Diavola Pizzeria & Salumeria or equally stellar, longtime traditional Italian family Catelli's Restaurant.
Don't have time for dinner? Pit-stop at Carrie Brown's Alexander Valley iconic Jimtown Store for signature sandwiches, salads, sweet treats and souvenirs.
An overnight stay or two in Sonoma County is your best bet to bookend this great get-away. The Farmhouse Inn, in Forestville is a luxury option worth pushing the boat out for. The Hyatt Vineyard Creek Hotel is another good option.
Make a credit card reservation for your Three Valley Adventure by contacting any one of the three participating wineries 48 hours in advance. Non-wine club member pricing totals $175 per person with a discount for wine club members of any one of the three wineries.