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Travelling has become more complicated than it used to be. On my list of considerations, the following factors come into play: Is it safe? Is there a direct flight, (if there isn’t, then the lost luggage factor increases dramatically), will I be able to order food in the local dialect, and, most importantly, do they make good wine?
Sonoma, Calif., checked all the right boxes so off we went. It had been a few years since my last visit, but I’ve been paying a lot of attention to a couple of grapes that have become Sonoma’s calling card; pinot noir and zinfandel. On most days, if you asked me which grape I love the most it would be pinot noir but I’ve always had a soft spot for really good zinfandel, and Sonoma hits it with both of those varieties.
Burgundy has always been the epicentre for great pinot, but prices keep going up and availability keeps going down. This forces pinot fans to look elsewhere and Sonoma, particularly the Russian River Valley AVA (American Viticultural Area), has become a great option. One of the major complaints about Cali pinot in the past is that the wines were too extracted and jammy, which you rarely see from Burgundy. The Russian River Valley sees a dramatic cooling effect from the Pacific, however, and that allows winemakers to get a better handle on ripeness levels. As the region has progressed over the last decade or so, many winemakers have developed a better understanding of the fickle grape and its subtle charms.
Most winemakers in Sonoma will tell you the ideal scenario is to cultivate the subtle complexities of the grape without it losing its sense of place, an important factor for all wine in my opinion. I love wines that say something about their provenance, so in a glass of Cali pinot, I look for a taste of sun and surf along with the classic spice and earthiness often found in Burgundian examples.
Walter Hansel Winery produces lovely chardonnay and pinot noir from their Russian River Valley winery, and I had the pleasure of visiting with Steven Hansel (Walter died many years ago) during my visit. There’s no tasting room, we stood outside and tasted his range of wines, and one thing was abundantly clear: he’s a farmer first and foremost. We talked about the weather, the vineyards, this year’s harvest, and the journey from making basic plonk to one of the most respected producers in Sonoma.
Later that day, we visited Rodney Strong, a much larger producer with all the bells and whistles, but they make a range of fairly priced wines, and I was particularly impressed with their cabernet sauvignons. Sonoma’s cooler climes deliver cabernets that in many ways have more in common with Bordeaux than they do with those of their neighbours in Napa Valley, and that was the case here. They have a great website – www.rodneystrong.com – and I suggest you check out the blog from their resident sommelier Ron Washam. Individuals like him are one of the reasons I love the wine business most days.
Another grape that has always intrigued me is zinfandel. It comes in many forms and there’s a lot of it in Sonoma, but the best examples are among my favourite wines on the planet. A great example is the wines of Carlisle, owned and operated by Mike Officer. Mike is a former software developer who decided to pursue his passion for wine, focusing on zinfandel and Rhone varietals. His vineyards are home to some 100-year-old-plus vines, some of which have yet to have been identified. Rather than tearing them out he simply blends them into his wines, much like Ridge Vineyards does. This means you’ll find grapes like mourvèdre and grenache in his blends, and it makes for a range of wines that are brimming with personality and delicious complexities.
Happily, Ridge Vineyards was also on our travel docket, and while I’ve been to their Monte Bello winery in Santa Cruz, this was my first visit to their Sonoma operation, and I felt like I was returning to the mother ship. I firmly maintain that if I could only drink the wines of a single producer from the U.S. it would be Ridge. I’ve had 20-year-old bottles of their flagship Monte Bello Cabernet that will rival any first-growth Bordeaux (and at a fraction of the price), and the wines from their Sonoma winery follow suit. About 30 years ago, I was camping on the West Coast and was introduced to a bottle of Ridge York Creek petite sirah by some friends. The previous versions of this grape I had tried were clumsy and over-extracted, but this was a thing of beauty, dark and gutsy yet somehow elegant at the same time. Their wines seem to have gone from strength to strength since that initial taste.
This year, the vintage in Sonoma is looking very strong, despite being several weeks behind schedule. It’s been a cool year by California standards, but the long, even period of growth holds tremendous potential and winemakers are excited, along with being a little nervous. But that, after all, is the life of a farmer; watching the skies and keeping your fingers crossed.
If you go, I’d recommend staying in either the towns of Sonoma or Healdsburg, you’ll find plenty to do with lots of great dining options. For driving enthusiasts, the Sonoma coast is stunning with unending twists and turns; just don’t let the amazing vistas distract you from the road, there are very few guardrails. The Canadian government has issued a travel advisory to the United States, but California is on the safe side. I used to like spending a few days in San Francisco, hanging out in Tower Records and City Lights bookstore, but the city is in a serious state of decay right now. Hopefully, that improves.
The wines from Walter Hansel, Ridge Vineyards Carlisle and Rodney Strong are all available in select wine shops in Calgary. Cheers!
Geoff Last is a longtime Calgary wine merchant writer, instructor, and broadcaster. He can be heard on Fridays on CJSW’s Road Pops program between 4 -6 p.m. Media inquiries can be directed to [email protected]