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Wine Secret: Occidental Road Cellars

During The Wine Road’s 36th annual Barrel Tasting, a few participants who strayed a bit south of better-traveled roads were treated to a quieter scene and promising small-production wines from a road less traveled: Occidental Road.

Take the grower’s discount

Grape growers first, the Prather family sold their grapes to high-end wine brands before making their first vintage in 2006. Their winery was indeed on the road less traveled until they opened this tasting room in a former paint store on the edge of Sebastopol in September, 2013.

It’s an attractive and unfussy little spot with huge picture windows and a place to stay and linger at a table. Sometime in 2015, they hope to complete a small wine production facility in the back of the lot.

Now, what do I mean by a “grower’s discount” when we’re talking about $34 wines? I mean about $20, give or take, and certainly not on the same wine — just the winegrower’s expression from the same vineyard, called Horseshoe Bend. Let’s back up for some history:

Richard Prather was a former farm boy who thought he’d escaped the rural life — he was an auto body shop man for 20 years. But his wife Joelle’s grandfather had purchased a ranch in the Occidental area in 1910, in order to grow apples, pears, and cherries. It was her father who, retiring from veterinary practice, first planted grapevines on the property in 1996.

They grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and Syrah. Among their sought-after clients is the “cult” wine brand Radio-Coteau, which has exclusive rights to the vineyard designation “Cherry Camp.”

One my favorite wine shop moments from the previous decade is of a sweaty-browed shopper jealously hoarding a clutch of bottles that included Radio-Coteau (usually available strictly by allocation only), seemingly nervous to leave those he’d brought up to the counter when he went back to the shelves for more! That’s the level of grapes we’re talking about here.

But the vineyard is the kind of place that’s decorated with an extensive, rusting crawler collection along the drive in, and the proprietors are unaffected, dedicated folks.

Take a sip

To taste the 2012 Syrah from barrel, you’d think a cherry orchard was still very much responsible for the flavors. As Richard Prather tells it, this vineyard on the edge of the Russian River Valley appellation may be cool climate, but it’s not extreme. The clone for the 2009 Helen’s Ridge Zinfandel ($34) was specially chosen for the characteristics of the site.

But out there, some vintages actually are too extreme for Syrah. So I’m glad they still have some 2007 Horseshoe Bend Syrah ($38) on hand: with wild, leathery notes over plush, boysenberry fruit, this shows Sonoma County Syrah at its best.

Geek out

Get the scoop from a winegrower who’s quite happy to talk at length about the ins and outs of cool-climate viticulture at informal, no-appointment winemaker evenings on Thursdays. Richard Prather won’t give you that old line about how their vines struggle to survive despite the odds in meagre, yet so beautiful, “terroir” — you know, and then the angels sing, and so on.

They’re all about building their brand with honest, one-on-one conversations, approaching their wine club business on the same personal basis as they’ve been accustomed to with their longstanding group of (renowned) grape clients.

Hit the road

Occidental Road is right on the road — Gravenstein Highway, that is, in the town of Sebastopol. There are plenty of amenities nearby, from supermarkets to hardware stores to local fave pizza joint Mombo’s.

If you’d rather get away from it all and wind down the evening on a deck in the midst of the vineyards, you’ve come to the right place: The Prathers offer the main house in the middle of the vineyards as a vacation rental.

Occidental Road Cellars, 870 Gravenstein Highway North, Sebastopol, CA 95472. Thursdays 11 a.m.–7 p.m., Friday–Monday 11 a.m.–5 p.m. 707-827-3327.

Find more info about Wineries & Wine, Food, and Hotels in Sonoma County.

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