WineInk: Sonoma Spring
Is this the most beautiful wine region on earth?
2017 Flowers Moon Select Chardonnay
To me, no grape variety signifies spring more than Chardonnay. And in April there is no wine I would rather open than a Flowers Chardonnay. One of the most beautiful locations in all of Sonoma is the Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard. Over 1,000 feet high and less than two miles from the Pacific, this vineyard basks in ocean breezes and slumbers under coastal fog. The wine tastes of its origins and brings a basket of the fruits of spring. Meyer lemon, honey, and a slightly herbaceous green scent of lemon grass make a chilled pour seem like a spring day. This is the best of the Flowers.
This one came on April Fool’s Day. Aspen’s Queen of Cannabis, Katie Shapiro, had forwarded a missive from the Sonoma County Vintners association about how April was to be named Sonoma County Wine Month. Now, as this came on a date known for hoopla from a weed-y source, it took a minute to make sure I was not being hoodwinked.
Sure ’nuff, Katie was right. April has been decreed, for the first time, as “Sonoma County Wine Month” by the vintners and it is a righteous idea, one that should have legs long into the future. To celebrate, many of Sonoma County’s wineries will be hosting special experiences and offering both in-person and virtual specials, in addition to shipping promotions. The idea, of course, is to sell wines, but the real benefit may be to bring some attention to one of the most beautiful and varied wine regions on earth. And it does so during one of the most beautiful months of the year.
When it comes to global recognition as a wine region, Sonoma long lagged in the shadow of the adjacent Napa Valley. Napa’s marketing muscle and laser focus on the production of Cabernet Sauvignon, the world’s most popular wine, have placed it at the pinnacle of American wine. But for those who value diversity of varietals, varied weather and geographic conditions, the things that make for what the French call terroir, then it is Sonoma that may be at the top of the heap.
MY SONOMA AWAKENING
As a consumer, my earliest Sonoma awakenings came in the form of Chardonnay. I remember falling hard for the Chateau St. Jean “Robert Young Vineyard” Chardonnay in the 1980s. The wines were oaky, buttery with hints of vanilla, all of the things that eventually created the ABC, or “Anything But Chardonnay” movement. But oh, what wonderful wines they were to my emerging palate.
What I didn’t realize at the time was that these were “single vineyard wines.” That is to say the “Robert Young” designation on the bottle was an announcement that these wines came exclusively from one place, a family-owned, -grown and -raised vineyard in the Alexander Valley. Later, on a my first Sonoma winery visit, I traveled to Kenwood to visit Chateau St. Jean expecting to see the vineyards that gave birth to my chardonnay, only to be told no, the vines lived 35 miles away. It was the beginning of a geographic understanding of the vastness that Sonoma is known for as well as the notion that grapes are sourced for particular reasons, not just proximity.
Three decades later, the Sonoma AVA, which encompasses the county, has eighteen sub-appellations, or areas that are designated to possess characteristics so unique that they make each special in their own way. There are over 425 individual wineries in Sonoma County, and while chardonnay — much of it made in different styles from the aforementioned Robert Young of my youth — is still a cornerstone, it is pinot noir that is the showstopper these days.
Places like the Russian River Valley, just outside of the trendy town of Healdsburg, Carneros near the San Pablo Bay, and the Sonoma Coast, have become go-to appellations for those who love wines made from the often finicky and thin-skinned grapes. While each location is geographically different, they all benefit from moderating cooling influences. The Russian River gets a healthy helping of evening fog that settles around the vines in the valley. Carneros, relatively flat, gets breezes off the bay and the rugged Sonoma Coast gets both fog and winds across their vineyards. It is these different kinds of climatological occurrences that make the wines different.
A trip to Sonoma (Alaska Airlines has flights into Sonoma County Airport-STS) can provide myriad possibilities for wine lovers. Large wineries like Kendall-Jackson near Santa Rosa, the largest city in Sonoma, have spectacular gardens, restaurants and tasting options.
Stopping in Carneros the attraction may be the architecturally significant Ram’s Gate winery. Up north in Healdsburg, the charming downtown square is filled with shops, hotels, restaurants and wine tasting rooms with the Dry Creek Kitchen, and Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar amongst the staples. And there, Kyle Connaughton and his wife Katina’s Single Thread farm, inn and restaurant have earned Michelin recognition. The eleven course-tasting menu is a luxury rooted in nature.
Go further afield to the Francis Ford Coppola Winery in Geyserville in the northern reaches of the County and you’ll find a winery filled with film memorabilia from the director’s personal collection and a series of poolside cabanas overlooking vineyards.
But for me the beauty of Sonoma is best found on the windy roads that cross the county and lead to the sea. Try Route 116 from Sebastopol to Graton, then along the Russian River out to Jenner. Once you hit the coast, the drive up Highway 1 to Sea Ranch is amongst the rugged and most beautiful sections of the entire West Coast
In recent years, fires have ravaged Sonoma County. Last fall it was the Glass Fire, in 2019 the Kincade Fire, and in 2017 the Sonoma Complex or Tubbs fire. All created havoc and destroyed large numbers of homes. And while the community is still struggling to rebuild and return, the county is so vast that it is easy to find areas that were not touched by flame.
While I always love a visit to Napa, the trips are a little bit structured. Winery visits are planned, dinner reservations are made in advance. Slacks and a blazer are packed. With Sonoma, there is a little more serendipity. Unexpected discoveries can be made. Lunch happens when you come upon a roadside food truck or a tacqueria. Jeans or shorts are encouraged.
The vibe is just a bit more laid back.
As I said, the point of this piece is that we are in the early stages of the inaugural Sonoma Wine Month festivities. If you can’t get to the coast, you can bring some of the happenings — or at least some wine.— here.
Many wineries are celebrating the month by offering discounts on wine shipping with minimum purchases. Silver Oak, for example, is offering free shipping on all orders. You can get a case of Flowers Chardonnay with complimentary shipping and Chappellet will ship your purchases for just a buck. That’s just the beginning. Go to sonomawine.com/sip-from-home/#virtual
Then there are virtual experiences. Benziger Family Vineyards are hosting Virtual Private Happy Hours with hosts Chris or Jill Benziger when you order a package that includes wines and the 45-minute Happy Hour at benziger.com. They also feature a special tasting in honor of Earth Day on April 22.
Anthony Giglio, a long time presenter at the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, has teamed with the Foley Food & Wine Society to discuss wines with recipes provided and prepared by Foley Food & Wine Society Chef Alec Graham. Friday nights, 6 p.m. MT @FFWSociety on Instagram.
And on April 22nd Don Wallace, Proprietor of Dry Creek Vineyard, will host a Honey & Olive Oil Virtual Tasting at 5 p.m. MT. Don will be leading a delicious exploration of K&D Mercantile (named after winery owners Kim and Don Wallace) estate olive oil and honey, while sharing his passion for biodiversity. This virtual tasting will take place via Zoom, which is free and easily downloaded to all devices.
This is just a sampling of the virtual events that can be found this month. For more, go to https://sonomawine.com/sip-from-home/#virtual.
“2023 predicted to be the Vintage of a Lifetime in Napa Valley,” proclaimed the headline this week in a press release sent out by the Napa Valley Vintners, the trade organization that represents the growers and producers in America’s most famed wine region. If there is anyone more optimistic than winemakers, it is the group that represents them.