by Jay Kitterman, consultant, LLCC Culinary Institute
Earlier this month, Carol and I joined 24 other wine enthusiasts from Springfield and toured Sonoma wine country. We took advantage of the annual Wine and Food Affair: the premier event for Wine Road Northern Sonoma County, a weekend of wine and food pairing in the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys.
All of the wineries that participate have a special wine and food pairing. With the price of a ticket comes a tasting glass and wristband. For those not drinking wine there are other beverages provided at each site.
John and Ronee Kennedy, originally from California, have coordinated a visit every other year and this was trip number seven for them. They choose Sonoma because it has been able to preserve the tradition of agriculture matched with the art of winemaking as seen in the scores of tiny wineries. Some produce less than 100 cases of a single variety and are seldom tasted outside of the immediate area. Even if you do not enjoy wine, the gently rolling hills covered with grape leaves reflecting every autumn color make the trip worthwhile.
Sonoma is just 45 minutes from San Francisco and offers amazing travel experiences and getaway activities. Great for a visit, Sonoma is the birthplace of California’s wine industry-Count Agoston Haraszthy, originally from Hungary, started wine production in 1856.
A word you often hear when speaking with the wine growers is “terroir”-a French term which by definition includes many variables. Tom Klein, proprietor of Rodney Strong Vineyards, likes to say that “grape vines can be grown nearly anywhere in the world that offers soil and sunlight.” In his opinion “grapes establish an unusual symbiotic relationship with their environment deeply rooted in the soils, the vines respond to tiny changes in elevation, slope, sun, exposure and weather patterns.”
Sonoma County is enormous-roughly the size of Rhode Island. In addition to wine there are great opportunities for visiting artisan cheese makers, craft beer breweries and olive oil producers. Sonoma is famous for its wide variety of recreational activities including golf courses, bike riding (important to be on the constant watch for them) and parks. The weather is amazing and temperatures seldom dip below freezing even in winter. Many of the local restaurants pride themselves for either growing their own produce and meats or sourcing it locally.
We stayed in Healdsburg which is convenient to many wineries. Healdsburg is at the north end of Sonoma Valley and seems to be the center of action with fashionable shops, inns and bistros opening around the main square.
Wine is big business for Sonoma and is growing. The retail value of all wine produced in Sonoma is $7.6 billion and provides almost 55,000 jobs. Sonoma has become one of the world’s premier wine regions, and there are over 400 wineries.
We drove from Los Angeles to Sonoma and saw firsthand evidence of the drought. Most of the wine makers I spoke with said they know that the continuing dry spell has inflicted widespread economic damage on the Golden State, especially to the agriculture industry. One exception for the most part has been the wine country. They feel the warm days, cool nights and dry weather have produced grapes of taste and quality that some believe are some of the best ever. I learned that the reduced water forces the grapevines to produce smaller berries which results in sugar and flavors being more concentrated. If there is too much rain, grapes can be covered in mildew and mold.
As I mentioned there are many wineries and most have tasting rooms. Below are ones that we enjoyed and would recommend. Be prepared to possibly join a wine club. One advantage is to enjoy their limited production reserve or estate wines that normally are not sold locally. Make sure you ask questions regarding how many bottles/cases you are required to purchase, over what period of time, and when you can cancel. If you are not careful and join too many clubs the UPS delivery person will become a regular visitor to your home.
Kendall Jackson is one of the largest and offers a first rate introduction to tasting. The company oversees 18 different brands. It is truly worth a visit. Behind the main chateau is a three-acre sensory garden that allows visitors to sip wine while sniffing tobacco, mint and cherry plants.
White Oak Winery is recognized for producing wonderful Chardonnay, Zinfandel and what has become their flagship wine: Sauvignon Blanc. They have a very impressive Mediterranean-style winery in what some call the most scenic area of the Alexander Valley. The estate is nestled amongst 17 acres of Zinfandel vines dating back to 1929 and 1935. In addition there are small lots of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc to the estate. Francesca Huson, Director of Hospitality and Retail, and Taylor Ely, Wine Club Manager, were great hosts for our dinner picnic.
Rodney Strong Vineyards: Rachel Russell, Lead Hospitality Representative, provided us a wonderful tasting. Her passion for sharing Rodney Strong wine with guests and determining their wine drinking preferences so they know what to ask for at other wineries was quite evident. Rodney Strong is a true example of the California dream. A ballet dancer by trade, Strong retired in 1959 and moved to Sonoma Country and launched his winery, then called Sonoma Vineyards. He died in 2006 and the tradition continues with Tom Klein. They focus on Pinot Noirs from Sonoma’s cooler areas and Cabernet and Zinfandels from Alexander Valley. The winery’s total production is over 800,000 cases. Six of us purchased lunch from Big John’s Market in Healdsburg and shared Rodney Strong wine overlooking Alexander Valley.
Sunce (pronounced Soon-say), established in 1991, is located just off of River Road on Olivet Road in the heart of the Russian River Valley. It is a small, ultra-premium winery producing small lots of rare varietals, vineyard designates and classic blends. Wine educator Steve Hess treated us to tastings directly from the barrels; it was quite fun. Each of their releases is limited, sometimes 200 cases or less, and many are pre-sold through barrel futures.
Jigar Wines: Jigar Patel, born in Toronto and raised in Chicago, credits his college stints in fine dining for initially bringing him into the world of fine wine. After college, fascinated by wines and winemaking, Jigar spent several harvests helping friends in the Sonoma County wine industry. Whether working in the cellar or walking the vineyards with growers, Jigar is committed to crafting fine wine. Visit the Jigar tasting room located at 6615 Front Street in the heart of beautiful Forestville. His wife Stephanie is also from Illinois and is the General Manager.
The SHED: Winner of a 2014 James Beard Award, the SHED, located in downtown Healdsburg, is a market, café and community gathering space. Most of the food served comes from local ranches and farms located within 10 miles. The store spans two stories above North Street in downtown Healdsburg. With its modern industrial design, it’s impossible to miss.
There is much to explore amid the 9,700 square-foot building, where the mission for the owners is to be a community center for guests to dine, shop for high-end kitchen and garden equipment, and stock up on local boutique foods. Divided into sections titled EAT, COOK and FARM in huge wooden letters, the store beckons with discoveries at every turn, as what might be described as Williams-Sonoma mixed with a designer farming store, a wine bar and a touch of Dean and DeLuca. One of the most unique aspects comes in the fermentation bar. In the back is straw in tight bales for the “Farm” area and is used as a display table for designer-style gardening equipment.
For a future article, I will write more about different wine varieties. Planning a trip for this number of people involves making hotel arrangements, dinner reservations, scheduling tastings and trying to keep everyone on schedule. Our thanks to John and Ronee Kennedy as well to Anne and David Haaker.
“Place is not everything. But place is the most important thing. When you discover a passion for something, whether it’s golf or jazz, politics or poetry, you want to live it and breathe it.” – Tom Klein, Proprietor, Rodney Strong Vineyards