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Wine Tasting at Madrone Estate Winery

What’s old really is new again at Madrone Estate Winery, at least where it concerns what’s in a name. For decades, Valley of the Moon was the apt, poetic name for this historic stone winery, located in the heart of—can you guess it—the Valley of the Moon, which is another name for Sonoma Valley.

Back in the days before wine clubs, it was one of my grandfather’s favorite places to stock up on wine. He and his brother would stop by and pick up a couple of jugs of vino to pound on the porch—in a barn, I even discovered some dusty, empty Valley of the Moon gallon jugs that are labeled, as was the unapologetic custom in those days, “Sauternes,” after the famed French wine region.

From 1997 to 2012, the owners of Korbel Champagne Cellars revamped the old winery and developed a couple of popular varietal programs—notably Pinot Blanc. Then, a partnership including out-of-towners from up Canada way took control, opening a remodeled hospitality center in 2015 under the new Madrone name.

What’s with the new name? In the tasting room, I learn it’s not new at all: the property was given the name Madrone Vineyards by its second owner, Eli Sheppard, more than 130 years ago in the 1880s.

Madrone by Any Other Name

Sheppard built the stone cellar that stands today, but turned the property over in 1888 to Senator George Hearst and his son William Randolph, the same of alleged Citizen Kane inspiration.

After that, like a dollar bill, the property passed from hand to hand—an impressive “family tree” at the back of the tasting room records the various trusts and partnerships, etched in zinc, for the curious.

Good news for Madrone, the new owners have successfully run Quail’s Gate Winery in Okanagan Valley, BC, for several generations. They’ve done a nice job with the tasting room, which presents a variety of upholstered options to settle down, while keeping the spotlight on historical artifacts. According to label reproductions framed on the walls, wine was sold out of the cellar as Val-Moon and P&D during the Parducci era, from 1941 to 1997.

Stay for the Cheese

I’d recommend a tour or advance appointment for this winery. The hospitality staff are great, well versed in the estate’s history, and they’ll “steal” personable winemaker Kat Doescher away from her tasks for a few minutes, if she’s around, to talk about the wines. But their office is in the main winery building a short walk away, so let them know when you’re arriving.

The cheese plate pairing won me with rare slices from Bohemian Creamery, one of Sonoma County’s most exciting new cheesemakers.

But I had a burning question about the wine: Would the 2013 Old Vine Estate Zinfandel ($35) have the same minutes-long, silky finish that left such an impression on my budding palate memory as the one I tasted back in the late 1990s? (“Ah, so this is what old vine Zin is all about!” I thought to myself as the savor lingered on my tongue on the drive home.) Yes, or at least this long, red-fruited wine, lightly spiced with baking spices, is sweetly reminiscent of that sample from the waning days of the Parduccis’ Valley of the Moon.

Fans of Valley of the Moon Pinot Blanc, don’t despair—they’re keeping that brand alive, as part of a portfolio with Lake Sonoma Wines, too.

Of Babs and Zin

It’s no surprise that the Barbera-based 2012 The Bough Sonoma Valley Red Blend ($45) smacks of tart red fruit. Barbera is an Italian grape that’s noted for retaining its high acidity, and it’s often found in old vines patches with Zinfandel—although here in California, it’s far less famous than Zin. The flipside of “noted” can be “notorious,” however, so Barbera is suited only for the warmer pockets of Sonoma County, like this “banana belt” in the middle of the Sonoma Valley—or Barbera belt, if you will.

Hit the Trail

If you opt for the generous cheese place, work off a few of those curds with an easy stroll down a paved path at Sonoma Valley Regional Park.

777 Madrone Rd, Glen Ellen, CA 95442. Open daily, 10am–5pm. Tasting fee, $15. Tours hourly from 11am to 3pm, $25. Cheese pairing, $35 per person. 707.939.4500.

Find more info about wineries and wine in Sonoma County.

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