There is too much wine in Sonoma County.
When my wife and I started planning our trip, trying to narrow down what wineries we wanted to visit overwhelmed us. After a few months of regular late night research sessions, we made the conscious choice to stop freaking out, and instead pick a few places we knew we didn’t want to miss, book a group tour for one of the days, and play the rest by ear. We filled in the time between wineries and tasting rooms with disc golf, sightseeing, movies, good food, getting sunburned, and just lounging around.
We attempted to balance our visits between boutique wineries and larger producers. Our general preferences lean hard towards the boutique end of the spectrum, but we have some favorites out here that we wanted to make sure we got to as well.
If you’re thinking about taking a trip to the area yourself, I hope this post helps with your own late night planning sessions. On the other hand, if you’re just trying to burn some time reading about our experiences, I hope there’s enough here for you to enjoy as well.
(This is a long post, so as a quick point of reference the following are, in order, the wineries described below: Bluxome Street Winery, Kunde, Sunce, Larson, Jacuzzi, VML, Ridge, Hook & Ladder, Fog Crest, Red Car, Limerick Lane, Bella, Unti, Alexander Valley Vineyards, and Jordan.)
Wine Day #1: San Francisco
We kicked off our trip with a few days in San Francisco. We weren’t expecting to taste any wine in the city, but we found ourselves without much to do after a Giants game at AT&T Park. A quick Google search of attractions within walking distance of the park ended with us wandering into Bluxome Street Winery.
We were pleasantly surprised by what we found. Small production, reasonably priced wine in a relaxed, open venue. I think if I lived in San Francisco I’d find myself here quite a bit before and after ballgames.
The wine itself was all solid, maybe erring on the safe side. Mostly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, which ended up being the two primary varieties we ran into during our trip.
Wine Day #2: Hopping on a van
On a previous wine vacation to a different region, we ponied up the dough for a hop on wine tour. Thanks to a great guide, we enjoyed our experience and decided to do the same for at least one of our days in California.
We have some regrets, which I’ll get to in a moment. First, the good stuff.
Luckily, our guide was congenial, and our group friendly. Our first stop on the tour was Kunde, a massive operation that distributes nationally. I knew the grounds would be beautiful (and they were — the cave tour was neat, too), but what I didn’t expect was how much we enjoyed the wine. The C.S. Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay was the biggest surprise for us, as we’re not typically huge on Chardonnay. If you’re looking to visit a large winery in the area, skip Kendall Jackson and go to Kunde instead.
This is when things went off the wall. This is when we visited Sunce.
Now, to be absolutely clear, we very much enjoyed Sunce. The winemaker is obviously a madman, and I appreciate that. Instead of doing what you might expect by focusing on a handful of wines and working each one to perfection, the Croatian mad scientist running the show at Sunce prefers to make one or two barrels of approximately a gazillion different wines. And they are good. Combine this with a zealous host who seems to pour more tastings the more you talk to him, and you end up with a group of people only halfway done with their tour all completely trashed. If you visit Sunce, which you should, make sure to give yourself lots of time afterwards before trying to do much of anything. Whatever you do, definitely don’t try to immediately go drink more wine at two additional places.
Larson Family Winery came next. How was it? I couldn’t tell you. My palate was completely torpedoed before we even started tasting here. What I can tell you is that there were some adorable labradors wandering around, and that they had cornhole. I can also tell you that we bought a bottle from them, so at some point I’ll figure out if Larson makes good stuff. Jill, my wife, was so drunk she didn’t even want to smell the wine. Luckily, we stopped and enjoyed a picnic lunch afterward, so I was at least somewhat coherent for our final stop of the day.
Jacuzzi, another large producer and sister winery to Cline Cellars, is run by the Jacuzzi family. Yep, same Jacuzzi you’re thinking of. I generally find Cline to be a solid value winery, so I was optimistic about Jacuzzi, but I wasn’t blown away. Their offerings were Italian in style and solid all around, but not mind-blowing or all that unique. However, the views from the grounds were impressive, and I did enjoy their olive oil. Like Larson, I do feel like I probably wasn’t able to give their offerings a fair shake because of how much I had to drink beforehand, so you probably shouldn’t take my lukewarm feelings towards Jacuzzi too seriously. It might be better than I’m giving it credit for.
At the end of the day, as much as we enjoyed the company and the tour guide, we made a choice to ease up a bit. From here on out, we’d drive ourselves around. No more four-winery days, and more time between tastings. No way I could survive a week doing that every day. Not even ten years ago when I was twenty one.
Wine Day #3: This is why we came
A couple of years ago while visiting San Antonio, I wandered into a neat wine shop that happened to be pouring some tastings. Far and away my favorite that day was the Bradford Mountain Red Field Blend, an unforgettable, mean, powerful wine that was somehow also weirdly elegant. I bought a couple of bottles and took them home. After sharing with my wife, and discovering that we could not find any of that wine for sale in the greater Houston area, we vowed to stock up next time we went to San Antonio.
Unfortunately, when we did make it out to San Antonio just a few months later, they were down to just a few bottles. We bought them out, and I started getting more serious about figuring out how we could get our hands on more. Turns out, the wine was vinted by Virgina Marie Lambrix over at VML, a satellite winery to Truett-Hurst. This put VML high on our list of places to visit during the trip.
From my understanding, Truett-Hurst is the cash cow in the relationship. They are masters of branding and have deals with a number of major retailers (Kroger, Target, etc.) to produce slick, high-end looking wine exclusive to each retailer. (Is the wine actually exclusive? Or do they just slap cool looking labels on the same wine and call it a day? I don’t know.) VML, on the other hand, is Virginia Lambrix’s passion project. I do concede, however, that it is possible that the idea that VML is a “passion label wine” is simply another marketing tactic that has worked incredibly well on me.
VML used to have a separate tasting room apart from Truett-Hurst in a different part of town, but I guess that didn’t work out, because VML now operates on the same grounds as their parent/sister(?) company. Which is fine, because the property boasts some gorgeous views.
Okay, so what, who cares, how is the wine?
We breezed by the Truett-Hurst tasting bar and walked right up to VML’s, and it was amazing. Absolutely amazing. Easily some of the best we tried the entire trip. Her Pinot Noir offerings especially shined. They were lean, balanced, nuanced, fascinating, and just unbelievably good. Her Chardonnay was also incredible, and, much to our delight, they were pouring and selling the Bradford Mountain Field Blend we originally fell in love with. I almost felt like we could have gone home right after we finished there and I would have been happy. Luckily, we didn’t have to do that at all.
So how the hell do you follow up something like that? You go down the road to Ridge, one of the California wineries that became legendary after the infamous Judgement of Paris.
What we didn’t know but quickly found out was that Ridge was hosting a club member only event that day. When we arrived, it was jam packed, and my initial impression was that Ridge was even more popular than I thought.
Some employees stopped us as we approached and told us about the event. After a half-hearted attempt to get me to sign up for their club (maybe my haircut gives away that I probably couldn’t comfortably afford it), she asked where we were from and if we were big Ridge fans. After telling her our story and saying something to the effect of, “it’s no big deal, we’ll drop by tomorrow, we’re not about to miss Ridge while we’re in town,” she took pity on us (again, maybe it’s the haircut), and let us crash the event for no charge. It wasn’t the experience I expected from Ridge — it was less of an intimate tasting and more of a big party — but we got to try tons of fantastic wine, mostly Zinfandel, and didn’t have to pay for it.
Things did get a little awkward when we bought a bottle to take home and the cashier tried to look up our membership information. I told him we were friends of members who brought us along, and was grateful when he didn’t ask for their name.
Day #4: Some pleasant surprises
A couple of years ago on our anniversary, my wife and I found ourselves out of town and enjoying some Italian at a not-very-fancy restaurant. Their wine list wasn’t extensive. The most expensive wine they carried was a Cabernet from Hook & Ladder, a small to medium sized producer founded by the De Loach family after getting rich selling off the De Loach label. There wasn’t anything else even moderately attractive to us that they served, so we ordered it. We liked it, but I always suspected our enjoyment was mostly based on the occasion and not so much the drink itself. Regardless, our personal connection to the wine, and the fact that the winery was literally around the corner from where we stayed, encouraged us to head to their tasting room and see what all they offered.
I think we were both expecting something very commercial, polished, and flashy, but what we got was a very low-key, relaxed tasting room with employees that were knowledgeable on top of being hospitable. As a bonus, we both liked the wine. There were some forgettable pours, but we fell in love with their reserve Pinot Noir. We found it to be rich but balanced, easy to drink but constantly interesting. Hook & Ladder is a place novices would feel comfortable, but wine nerds wouldn’t be bored. I’m glad we decided to drop by.
Fog Crest came completely out of left field for us. If I correctly recall, it popped up on a “wineries to check out in Sonoma” recommendation thread on Reddit, and chances are I glanced at their website, thought to myself their label and name looked and sounded boring, and stuck it on the “we might check it out if we’re nearby” list. Luckily, like Hook & Ladder, it was a tiny drive away, so we went, and it ended up being one of our absolute favorite stops on the trip.
Their line up was predictable (Rosé, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir), but everything was expertly made, balanced, and compelling. We were both, again, surprised at how much we liked the Chardonnay. For transportation reasons, we tried to follow the general rule of only buying one bottle from each stop. Choosing just one from them we wanted to go home with proved difficult.
The best part of Fog Crest was undoubtedly the wine, but the tasting experience came in a close second. The host invited us to enjoy our tasting out on the patio, where we hung out in comfortable chairs, chatted with the well-informed employees about the wine, and took in the sights. One of the employees we talked to mentioned they may have to switch to appointment only in the future, so if you’re thinking about checking them out, I’d consider giving them a call or looking online to make sure you’ll be able to get in without any problems.
We ended our wine tasting day at the Red Car tasting room. These guys hit the standards of the area (Chardonnay and Pinot Noir), but they also make plenty of Syrah, which I appreciated and greatly enjoyed. They cover their bottles with more information than they do tasting descriptions, which I also appreciate. These guys take their wine seriously, and it shows when you taste them. They are quality wines made with knowledge, experience, and restraint.
Their tasting room sports a much different flavor compared to surrounding wineries. The decor and employees feel transported from a city like Austin or Portland. A large “Compact Disc” LED sign hung on the wall, indicating to me that CDs are now retro enough to be cool again. Their was a turntable with records you could put on, though I didn’t notice what options they had. In retrospect, I wish I would have. All of the employees were hip, young, and full of quippy, clever small talk. For example, while describing a pair of wines, one employee said something like, “This wine begins my date, and this one ends it. It’s like satin sheets and dim lighting…” I heard him use the line on at least three different guests, ourselves included. This atmosphere and style undoubtedly appeal to a lot of people, but it didn’t quite work for me. Maybe it makes me think about how much of a dork I am? I don’t know.
Regardless of the fact that I didn’t love the tasting experience, I did love what we tasted. I wish one of my local wine shops carried their offerings.
Day #5: Hey look, some Zinfandel!
Limerick Lane is a small, appointment only winery that I strongly think is worth your time, especially if you like Zinfandel. The experience here is intimate and relaxed and boasts beautiful views and mind-blowingly good wine. Their rosé of Syrah was excellent, but quickly outdone by the best Rhone style blend I tried on this trip, and some of the most fascinating, layered, tasty Zinfandel I have ever had, period.
Our tasting was complimented with a short tour of the property that featured some neat history and insight into why their Zinfandel tastes so different than what’s typical of the area. There was nothing flashy about the tour (other than the beautiful views, which I never got tired of no matter how many wineries offered them), but it was still one of my personal favorite experiences of the trip.
Lots of wineries throw around the term “family owned,” meaning that basically Constellation (or a similar conglomerate) hasn’t bought them out yet, but Limerick Lane feels family owned. It’s a small operation making some truly special wine. Do yourself a favor and don’t miss it.
Bella came highly recommended, and after visiting it’s easy to see why. Stunning views, tastings done in their cave, and solid wine make it a good stop. I guess the word about Bella is out, too, because this place was packed. A number of groups took advantage of the family friendly atmosphere — plenty of picnicking and young children romped all over the place. (One toddler in particular almost gave me a heart attack with how close he was the edge of a steep hill.)
I kind of wish that I came on a day with fewer people — it was July 4th weekend and I believe that brought out the crowds — but I get the impression that this place is usually plenty busy regardless.
As for the wine, it was very good, but probably outshined by the fact that we had visited Limerick Lane earlier that day. They seem to take the approach of “trying to make something for everyone” as opposed to picking a style and sticking to it, but it worked, and I tasted some that I liked quite a bit. They were pouring solid Zinfandel, very good Pinot Noir, and a rosé that got completely lost in the mix for me. They did have a late harvest desert style Zinfandel, which was neat, as not many of the places we tried were pouring anything quite like it.
Day #6: Independence Day
Our sixth day in town happened to fall on July 4th, which limited our options a bit, as a good number of the wineries were closed for the holiday. Luckily, we still found some places worth dropping by.
Unti Vineyards, another small, appointment only operation, impressed both of us. Their relaxed, intimate tasting room overlooked (and showed off) the vineyards. Unti specializes in Italian and Rhone style wines, although they do also offer Zinfandel as well. I’m a big fan of food friendly, earthy, subtle Rhone style blends, so Unti knocked it out of the park for me. If you’re looking for flash and fruit bombs, you may want to skip this place, but if your taste is similar to mine, I’d put this one on your “must try” short list.
Alexander Valley Vineyards is on the opposite end of the spectrum. They’re a big producer — it’s easy to find their wine just about anywhere. We occasionally pick up some of their sub $20 bottles to enjoy in the middle of the week and usually enjoy them quite a bit (especially their Merlot and Lot C Red Blend), so we decided to cap off the day with them. We weren’t expecting to be blown away, but we liked the idea of visiting somewhere that sold wine that we had tried in the past and would be easy to find in the future back home.
The tasting room experience was pleasant — the employee that poured for us was a former professor and wrote wine articles for the local paper. Both the wife and I are English teachers, so we had plenty to chat about. Unfortunately, though, the wine didn’t do a whole lot for us. Their daily drinker priced stuff didn’t impress, even at the price point, possibly because everything from Unti tasted so obnoxiously good. Their reserve list was dominated by giant, oaky fruit bombs. The Cyrus proved to be the best of the lot, but at $65 it felt a little overpriced. I don’t regret dropping by, but if another one of the wineries on our radar would have been open I wouldn’t have minded missing AVV.
Day #7: Going out with a bang
A number of the wineries, especially the big ones that like to think of themselves as high end, offer unique tastings experiences — if you’re willing to pay for them. Most of what we did throughout the week were just standard drop by tastings, so on the last day, we ramped it up, paid up, and did something special.
Well known producer Jordan hosts an hour+ long tasting that includes a tour of the estate, some fancy food and cheese pairings, and a vertical tasting of a few vintages of their Cabernet Sauvignon.
Maybe it’s my middle class background, but events with this much pomp and circumstance honestly have a tendency to make me feel out of place and mildly uncomfortable. Despite my personal insecurities, though, I had a good time at Jordan. Our host was cool, and the library tasting alone was worth the price of admission.
Probably the thing I appreciated the most about Jordan is how simple their line up is. They make a Chardonnay, a Cabernet Sauvignon, and… that’s it. The $55 bottle you can find locally is the same stuff that they have available at the winery. Their wine making style feels relatively restrained, so you get a nice expression of the grape with each vintage. They’re a high end winery that charges less than they probably could for what they offer. Consider me a new fan.
Conclusion and personal recommendations
There is too much wine in Sonoma. We ended up hitting 15 wineries in 7 days, and barely scratched the surface. You could live here a year, try wine every day, and still end up missing something.
If I had to do it again, I think the two things we would do differently would be to skip the group tour and try to target another winery or two that distributes bottles to major Houston sellers like Spec’s. It was a bit of a bummer to come home and realize that the only way we were going to ever have wine again from most of the places we tried would be to order directly from the wineries, eat the high shipping cost, and hope the wine doesn’t get cooked in transport.
Obviously, everyone has different tastes, but if I had to boil down this entire write up into a list of five recommendations based on my own personal preferences, I would suggest VML, Ridge, Fog Crest, Limerick Lane, and Unti. If we ever return, I’d want to revisit each one of those, in addition to trying new ones.
In the meantime, I guess it’s time to start planning our next wine trip. Maybe Oregon or Santa Ynez…