About this series: After years of loving (and semi-seriously studying) wine, I finally took my first trip to Napa and Sonoma this summer. It was a wonderful week of sunny days, cool nights, beautiful views, and beautiful wines. These are the impressions, discoveries, favorites, and surprises from my journey.
This being my first trip to California Wine Country, I focused mainly on Napa, but I couldn’t leave without a little taste of Sonoma too. We managed to fit quite a lot into just a day and a half, including a few well-known places and one hidden gem.
Day 6, Part 2 – Thursday, Aug 4
Wine Country Tip: Take a Winery Break
After five and a half days and 14 Napa wineries, even I was a little burned out on wine-ing. It’s not a bad idea to take a little break, and in this area where scenic and recreational opportunities abound, it’s not hard to find something else fun to do.
Our choice was a sojourn to the Pacific.
After a pleasant meandering drive through rolling farm country, we ended up in the tiny coastal town of Jenner. We made it just in time for a late lunch at the beautiful River’s End restaurant, where the storied Russian River meets the Pacific. The place is virtually hanging from a cliff, with a wall of windows facing the sea and views up and down the rocky coastline. There’s even a colony of seals on the beach below.
After lunch, we took a spectacular – and stereotypically foggy – drive north on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Fort Ross Vineyard: Spectacular Pinot & Sonoma’s Only Pinotage
We couldn’t stay away from wineries for too long, though, because we found ourselves just a few miles from the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA.
This new wine region was created just four years ago, carved out of the much larger Sonoma Coast AVA. It’s only a few miles from the Pacific but high enough in elevation to be above the fogline.
There are many vineyards in this AVA, but Fort Ross Vineyard boasts the only public tasting room.
This place is a hidden gem. It’s well worth the effort to take the scenic drive up a winding road high above the Pacific Coast Highway. Fort Ross’s stylish and spacious tasting area opens onto a beautiful terrace overlooking the ocean (on clear days). It’s sunny and warm even when dense fog envelops the world below.
It was here that we found what might have been our favorite wine of the trip.
Like most places in Sonoma, Fort Ross specializes in pinot, and we tasted four. All were excellent, but the standout for us was the 2012 Bicentennial Pinot, named for the 200th anniversary of the founding of the Russian settlement of Fort Ross.
Like Failla’s Fort Ross AVA wines, this one smelled like the sea, with briny aromas of castelvetrano olives mixing enticingly with a bit of cranberry. When you sip this light-bodied, elegant wine, the savory notes continue, in perfect balance with red fruit flavors of cranberry and tart cherry.
My only regret is that we bought just one bottle. It didn’t last the night. And now, judging from the website, it may be gone. I really want some. Right now. Ah well, lesson learned.
Fort Ross Vineyard also boasts makes what it says is the only pinotage in Sonoma County and one of only six in all of California. Yes, pinotage, the South African grape!
Vineyard owners Lester and Linda Schwartz are from South Africa. They imported budwood from their home country, from which UC Davis developed the two proprietary clones the Schwartzes now use to make their version of their homeland’s signature wine.
The 2011 pinotage we tried was a taste of South Africa with California flair. It was light bodied with the high acid that’s typical of the varietal, but I didn’t detect the smokey quality that I usually get on South African pinotage.
It had notes of tangy red fruit and even tomato, with a dusty, earthy quality to balance the fruit. This is a very nice wine and a lovely homage to the Schwartzes’ heritage.
Day 7, Part 1 – Friday, Aug 5
Gary Farrell: A Sentimental Chardonnay
Before I even started planning this trip, I knew I wanted to visit Gary Farrell Winery.
It was a Gary Farrell chardonnay that disabused me of my bias against California chardonnay. A few years ago, my cousin Stacey Webb brought me a bottle that she and her husband had brought back from their visit to the winery. It was delicious. We shared it on my porch in Orlando, along with laughs and stories that lasted well into the night.
Last year, Stacey passed away, well before her time. I knew one day I’d visit Gary Farrell and drink a toast to her.
The terrace at Gary Farrell is pretty close to what I pictured when I imagined a California winery – wide, sun-splashed, stone-covered, overlooking an expansive view.
The seated tasting experience here is relaxed and unrushed … and delicious.
I was surprised to learn that Gary Farrell does not grow any of its own grapes. All are sourced from surrounding vineyards, but that doesn’t diminish the quality of the wines.
Everything we tasted was single-vineyard. The wines were poured in flights – one chardonnay, one pinot noir – to allow for comparisons among the various vineyards and vintages.
We tasted two 2013 chardonnays and one 2011. That was a little unfair because, while the 2013s were excellent, they were overshadowed by the 2011 Westside Farms, with its beautiful age-gifted golden color and honeyed, creamy notes.
The pinot flight included two 2013s and a 2014. The 2014 Toboni Vineyard had a pinkish hue and greenish notes – it needs a little more time. Cranberry was the dominant component of the lovely 2013 Rochioli-Allen Vineyard. Our favorite was the 2013 Hallberg Vineyard, which had a little of the salinity we’d enjoyed in the Fort Ross pinot the night before.
We got to sample a “bonus” pinot at the end of the tasting – the 2014 Bien Nacido Vineyard from Santa Maria Valley in the Central Coast AVA. This is a very interesting and complex wine. The nose is juicy and fruity at first, with notes of cranberry; then a hint of black pepper pops out and continues into the first sip.
What a treat to get to try this lovely wine in such a beautiful and sentimental spot.