Note: The wineries in this post followed the common industry practice of waiving tasting fees for bloggers and other media. 

Is a trip to wine country on your list of resolutions for 2018? If so, Sonoma County should be on your agenda.

Sonoma is sometimes an afterthought – nothing more than a quick stopover between San Francisco and Napa. But this diverse county is a worthy wine destination unto itself, offering everything from stunning tasting rooms with breathtaking views to flip-flop-casual samplings in out-of-the-way vineyards. Most importantly, though, Sonoma offers plenty of good wine.

In this post, we’ll explore three blockbuster wineries that hosted me for tastings on a visit to Sonoma last fall. Next time, I’ll unveil a few of the region’s hidden gems.

Ridge Vineyards

Ridge has two tasting rooms – Monte Bello in the Santa Cruz mountains and Lytton Springs in Sonoma. I visited Lytton Springs, an airy, modern space overlooking rolling vineyards just north of the charming town of Healdsburg.

Ridge Sign
Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs tasting room

Ridge may be best known for its Monte Bello Bordeaux blend. I was fortunate enough to taste the 2005, and it was truly spectacular. This wine definitely needs some age, though, so if you invest in the current vintage, don’t be tempted to open it too soon.

Ridge 2005 MonteBello
2005 Ridge Monte Bello

The zinfandels were what spoke loudest to my inner wine nerd, however. Zin is not usually my grape of choice, but Ridge makes an almost academic-level study of the varietal, using it to show terroir to an extreme degree.

Ridge Barrel Samples
Barrel samples at Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs

When I visited in November, there were sixteen zins on the for-sale list, most of them single-vineyard. I tasted six, and not a single pair was alike. The starkest contrast was between the 2015 Hooker Creek and the 2015 Ponzo Vineyard.

Ridge Ponzo Hooker Creek
Ridge Hooker Creek & Ponzo Vineyard zinfandels

Ponzo Vineyard is Ridge’s only Russian River site. Appealing savory qualities like bacon and tomato paste jumped out of this cool-climate, well-structured wine. Hooker Creek is a warmer vineyard site. The resulting wine has lovely floral and strawberry characteristics, but with plenty of structure from grippy tannins and puckery acidity.  I couldn’t resist buying a bottle of each, so I could repeat the side-by-side comparison back home in Orlando.

MacRostie Winery & Vineyards

MacRostie has been making wines since 1987, but the winery didn’t open its spectacular tasting room south of Healdsburg until 2015.

MacRostie glasses w view
MacRostie tasting room terrace view

The views here will take your breath away, especially on a late afternoon in autumn, when the last rays of sun cast a golden glow on the gently rolling sea of vines surrounding the window-lined space.

MacRostie Vineyard 3
Evening light at MacRostie Vineyards. Credit: Steve Mort

Two outdoor terraces wrap around the building, offering the best views, complete with heaters and blankets for when the air turns chilly.

MacRostie tasting view 2
MacRostie tasting room terrace at sunset

Wine-wise, the focus is on elegant single-vineyard chardonnay and pinot noir, so my tasting here was another opportunity to experience several different terroirs. My favorite comparison was between the 2015 Champlin Creek and 2015 Manzana pinot noirs.

MacRostie Sun 2
MacRostie Vineyards just before sunset. Credit: Steve Mort

The Champlin Creek vineyard in the southerly Carneros region birthed a wine with lovely aromas of violets, cinnamon, and olives, and flavors of dark cherry and tangy cranberry with mouth-watering acidity. The Manzana vineyard lies in the Green Valley sub-region of the Russian River Valley, much farther north and closer to the Pacific than Champlin Creek. Experiencing this delicate pinot is like smelling and tasting a beautiful bouquet of roses and violets.

Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery

I try to visit different wineries each time I go to California, but sometimes I can’t resist a repeat. On my last trip, I spent a happy afternoon on Gary Farrell‘s sunny terrace, and this time, it beckoned once again – but not just because of its beautiful views, chardonnays, and pinot noirs.

Gary Farrell glasses w soil
Terrace tasting at Gary Farrell with soil samples from three vineyard sites

Gary Farrell now boasts an Orlando connection.

Orlando foodies and wine lovers may remember Tiffany Kuhn from her time as sommelier and wine director at Del Frisco’s Double Eagle Steakhouse on International Drive. Last year, she relocated to California and is now Estate Sommelier & Wine Educator at Gary Farrell.

Gary Farrel Tiffany
Orlando native Tiffany Kuhn now educates visitors like me about Gary Farrell wine. Credit: Steve Mort

She hosted me for another great terrace tasting of single-vineyard bottles, complete with soil samples from the vineyards and a couple of very fun and geeky bonus wines. The first was the 2015 Rochioli-Allen Vineyards Clone 76 Concrete chardonnay.

Gary Farrell Concrete Chard
Gary Farrell 2015 Rochioli-Allen Vineyards Clone 76 Concrete chardonnay. Credit: Steve Mort

The name says it all! This wine is made from a single clone of the chardonnay grape, grown in the Allen Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. It’s aged, not in oak barrels, but in a concrete vessel shaped like an egg. The resulting wine has a creamy nose, almost reminiscent of powdered sugar, and a fascinating soft, powdery, mouth-coating texture.

Gary Farrell Concrete Egg
Concrete “egg” used to age Gary Farrell’s Clone 76 Concrete chardonnay

The second bonus wine was the 2014 Hallberg Vineyard-Dijon Clones pinot noir. This wine is made from two specific pinot clones grown in the Hallberg Vineyard in the Green Valley sub-region. I found it extremely complex but highly approachable, with notes of cranberry and strawberry rounding out the underlying savory, earthy flavors.

True to Terroir

All three of these winery tastings continued the theme of terroir I’d encountered earlier in my wine country visit. It’s wonderful to see California winemakers letting the fruit express itself instead of over-manipulating the wine. As a geeky wine lover, it was a special treat to have so many opportunities to taste the results!


2 thoughts on “Where to Go in Sonoma: The Blockbusters

  1. That’s great you visited Sonoma following the conference! I visited Ridge a few years back and truly enjoyed the experience. Sorry we didn’t get to meet at #wbc17. Perhaps our paths will cross in Walla Walla?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was a beautiful time to be there – I had so many great photos it was hard not to include even more in this post! Not sure yet about Walla Walla – hopefully I’ll make it out, and I’d love to meet you if I do!


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