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Is this a good start for a wine tour in Sonoma?

I'm going to be in the Bay Area over Xmas and NY and am very keen to visit some wineries. I don't know where to start really, but would prefer not to go on a pre-packaged bus tour with lots of tourists looking to get drunk.
I have been recommended the following by a colleague who used to live in the area. I was hoping to get some opinions on this or other recommendations that I must go to.

Gundlach Bundschu - http://www.gunbun.com/
Ravenswood - http://www.ravenswood-wine.com/home.htm
Benziger - http://www.benziger.com/

I guess you can't really visit more than 3 or four in a day so I would really like to go to the best!

Thanks in advance!

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  1. Well those are all close to each other around the town of Sonoma. And they are all very friendly. If you'd like a fourth nearby, consider the sparkling wines of Gloria Ferrer, or start a bit further north in Kenwood at Kunde, and then work your way south.

    1. >>so I would really like to go to the best!<<

      None of those are the best by any stretch of the imagination. They are fine and commercial and good for "the basics". But in terms of the best wine and best customer service? Try to schedule an appoint ment at Merry Edwards and at Siduri/Novy. Make sure you hit Hartford Family. These are all in the Russian River Valley. Also, if something falls through, Martinelli and Rochioli are in the area. All of these are vastly superior to the wineries you mention.

      3 Replies
        1. re: whiner

          If you're looking to actually taste some of the better wines rather than just visit some of the wineries that make some of the better wines, it should be noted that Martinelli and Rochioli in particular are generally not pouring the wines they are famous for, which are typically available mailing list only.

          Also, for folks doing a first time visit to wine country, scheduling a visit with a place that does not have an open tasting room (true of both Merry Edwards and Siduri/Novy) may be somewhat intimidating. For places that keep regular tasting room hours, I'd also suggest Ridge, Bella and Preston up in Dry Creek / Healdsburg, and Gary Farrell, Porter Creek, and Woodenhead around Westside Rd. / River Rd.

          1. re: Frodnesor

            Ridge, Bella and Preston up in Dry Creek / Healdsburg

            ...wonderful suggestions for this poster...

        2. The small city of Sonoma? Or Sonoma wine country (Sonoma County), which is quite large and which includes Russian River, Healdsburg, Westside Rd., Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley (known for Zins), and so forth?

          1. If you're set on staying close to the town of Sonoma I suppose that's all fine (I'd add Cline to the list as well), but I think the more interesting wines and wineries are found further north in the areas around Santa Rosa and Healdsburg.
            I've always found the sonoma.com website helpful for planning with some good winery maps and tasting room hours, etc.

            1. Based on the reaction of other posters to "I would really like to go to the best" and where those comments have led, let me ask...

              I'm guessing from your other posts on this site that you reside in or near London. So I'm also going to guess you are not familiar with wines from Sonoma County, although Gallo gets exported to the U.K. (and is hardly representative of what you are looking for).

              Visiting wineris in California is a bit different than those you might have visited on the continent. The ones you listed are fine, and make some good wines. And even though you may not arrive in a bus, they will be corwded with outher visitors, particularly Ravensood and Benziger, which aren't quite as remote as Gundlach Bundschu. On the positive side, the tasting rooms are open many hours, and you won't need an appointment.

              There are other, less mainstream wineries that are further north in Sonoma County (the town of Sonoma will be the first part of Sonoma wine country you come to driving north from the Bay Area). They are open to the public as well, and may have fewer crowds

              Then there is another group altogether that are open by appointment only. If you choose to make appointments at those, you will get personalized attention and could likely visit with the person who makes the wine. In this way, a visit to Sonoma may be like a visit to many properties on the European continent. One difference being that appointments aren't always required in Europe to receive personalized attention from the person who makes the wine.

              So it somewhat depends not only on the quality of wine you'd like to sample (and there isn't as wide a disparity there as some might lead you to beleive), but also what kind of experience you'd like to have at the winery. At Siduri/Novy, you can visit with Adam Lee, but I'm not sure Adam sells the wide variety of t-shirts, bumper stickers, an wine glasses you'd find at Ravenswood. At J, you can take part in a wine and food pariing tasting, but expect to pay more for it than you would have to pay to taste wines elsewhere. And so on.

              Just stay away from Ledson. On that, many of us replying to your post can agree.

              5 Replies
              1. re: Brad Ballinger

                Let me just note that I think this post makes Ravenswood sound more crassly commercial than I've ever perceived it on several visits. Yes, they sell t-shirts and knick-knacks (many tasting rooms do), but they are also always pouring several different county-designate zinfandels and usually a couple single-vineyard zins as well. Particularly since zinfandel is something of a uniquely Californian wine (I know that's not completely true, but it's mostly true), I think it makes for a decent opportunity to get to know this particular grape. Even more so if you're using the town of Sonoma as your home base and/or are unable to get up to Ridge.

                1. re: Frodnesor

                  I would agree about Ravenswood had I not in the past year tasted through their complete line and been floored by the drop of quality in the vineyard-designate wines. I had a big "What happened??" huge-question-mark erupt inside my head...

                  Have you tasted through the R. vineyard designates lately, frod?

                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    Not in a couple years. That's too bad. Was it '06s you were tasting? Josh Raynolds (of IWC), whose tastes I tend to "get" more than many other published reviewers, gave a pretty glowing rundown on the '06 lineup and I had high hopes.

                    1. re: Frodnesor

                      I believe they were 05s. Would have to check my notes to be certain...and unfortunately, I can't access them at the moment...

                      Will try to report back on the vintage...cheers...

                  2. re: Frodnesor

                    Agree with your points, but the OP appears to want to avoid crowds. That's my only reason for suggesting other places on this visit.

                2. Thanks for all the useful information!
                  I guess I should have been more specific in my request for what I was looking for.
                  I was not trying to be a snob with tourist remark, Only that I did not want to visit places which just cater to huge numbers of people and make you feel like part of a production line.
                  I would also be intimidated to visit places where you have to make an appointment to see someone privately.
                  I'm looking for the middle ground, medium sized wineries which cater to visitors but are not on the route for every minibus tour in town. I would like to taste some nice mid-priced wine, as well as a little high end stuff, so I could take a bottle of something special back with me.
                  I will be going with family, who are all keen on wine, but not expert so somewhere that can guide and educate would be good too.
                  I just want to get the most out of my trip as it is a long way to come from London and I would not want to miss out on anything really good.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: ahab2009

                    If you have enough time budgeted, drive past the town of Sonoma to Santa Rosa. From just north and west of there there, you have a couple of good options are sort of what you are looking for... Drive along River Road or Westside Road. Others will have more suggestions for you.

                    Regardless of where you go, plan on it taking longer to get to wine country if there is an auto race at the race track south of Sonoma. And plan for a longer return trip to San Francisco that you might otherwise estimate -- particularly if you visit on a weekend.

                    1. re: Brad Ballinger

                      If you head to the Russian River Valley/Westside Rd. area (where I'd go if I were you), take Highway 101 north pass Santa Rosa into Healdsburg and exit at Dry Creek Rd. This bypasses the race track completely (that's the Hwy.37/121 turnoff towards the city of Sonoma). Many maps of the Sonoma County wine regions available online, especially here:

                      This thread is a mother lode of information about the Healdsburg/Russian River area:

                  2. Ahab2009,

                    One place that has not been mentioned is Kendall-Jackson in Windsor (south end of Sonoma). Regardless of what you think about their branded wines, their portfolio is still pretty borad.

                    Their sensory garden is not to be missed. If you can wrangle a dining event (lunch maybe) at their kitchen, go for it in a heartbeat.

                    Yes, it is commercial, and many of the wines are grocery store fare, but they do some great things, given the cash flow of those mundane, pedestrian wines. Still, if one should want something more than the standard winery tour, this is a "sleeper."



                    3 Replies
                    1. re: Bill Hunt

                      Ahab2009, I wanted to try and convince you to make appointments. My husband and I did this trip in 07. we are far from experts in wine, in fact when it comes to tasting i would call us novices. However we are keen and interested. I was given the exact same recommendations when I planned our trip. I was nervous about how 'formal' it would be with the appointments.

                      I am so happy that we decided to go this route. We did 2 days in Sonoma and 1 in Napa and had appointments each of the days, with a bit of time for popping in somewhere each day (got to be a little spontaneous).

                      Most of the vineyards that we went to had email addresses and websites so we could contact that way, but a few I had to call. I had most of it organized b4 I went, but had to make a couple of contacts once I was there.

                      We were made to feel at home at the very first stop. These people that run the small family owned and operated wineries are so passionate about what they do, that they truly want to share this information and passion with you. You get tours and tastings that you maybe would not get otherwise. I was also nervous about the spit bucket. I did not ever spit (although my hubby did), but I did dump. When we went to the first place (Neale) in Napa, we went to the barrels in the cave and did barrel tasting, let me tell you at 10am, I am tasting a couple sips and dumping the rest. All the wineries understood this!

                      Bottom line is I feel like we came away with an experience and a wealth of information and some absolutely amazing wines that we could not get here at home.

                      here are the place we went to and really enjoyed, and purchased wines at almost all of them.
                      neale (napa)
                      truchard (napa)
                      tresspass (napa)

                      also here are some threads that I started when I was planning my trip:

                      enjoy your trip!

                      1. re: cleopatra999

                        yes, I remember when you were planning your journey! glad it worked out well. the funny thing about appointments is...that more wines magically seem to be opened than otherwise would be opened. Plus, you have a staff member attentive to your needs...appointments are the way to go!

                        cheers, happy holidays, cleo...

                        1. re: cleopatra999

                          I am also a big believer in making appointments. This also limits one's attempts to get too much in, in too short a time.

                          While I have not sampled all on your list, of the majority, that I have, I have to say "Great List!"

                          I also find the various sub-apps and general layout of Sonoma more conducive to the appointment schedule, than say much of Napa. Not to try and compare the two appelations, just to comment on the geographic nature, that separates them, as much as the Mayacamus Ridge.



                      2. While Benziger might be large and commercial, my husband and I wound up visiting there last October. We were not originally planning on going there, but our server at Ubuntu gave my husband and me free tickets for the Benziger tour and tasting, and our guide wound up giving us free passes to about 5 wineries including B.H Cohn and Domaine Carneros.

                        While Benziger may not have the best wines in Sonoma, when we were there it wasn't that crowded and they give tours in very small groups. Truthfully, I had the most fun at Benziger,

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: MrsT

                          Mrs T...sorry to disagree...

                          Benziger is a mystery...their wines are hugely disappointing, especially in comparison to the absolutely superlative other wines available in the area. The mystery is this -- you'd think their biodynamic practices would produce better wine. I've tasted through the entire regular and reserve lines, and while I really, really want to like their wines, there's not a winner among them. I love the property, though. Too bad something is going so wrong over there...

                          Instead, Ridge is an excellent visit. Merry Edwards. Dutton-Goldfield. The Dry Creek area is wonderful. On the lovely and charming Westside Road, one could hit many excellent wineries lined up like so many posts on a fence...head in those directions instead...

                        2. ahab2009,

                          DON'T WORRY about appointment only wineries. Even for complete novi, they are great. The two that I suggested, Merry Edwards and Siduri/Novy get novi there all the time. There is no preassure to buy, they really just like the more personal approach to the situation. Also, with these smaller wineries, if you do wind up buying something, you will be bringing somethign back to England that isn't already available there at all.

                          Hartford is great in that it is a smaller winery with a beautiful property and great wines and no appointment is necessary at all.

                          4 Replies
                          1. re: whiner

                            Whiner, I'd recommend pacing yourself by focusing on the varietals you prefer, using the spit bucket, taking notes when tasting and bundling your winery visits by geography.

                            I don't recall seeing you list your favorite varietals. If you prefer certain varietals, this winery search site can be useful - or simply for a geographic search: http://cawinemall.com/.

                            If you are partial to Pinot Noir, for example, you will want to spend time in Carneros and the Russian River Valley. Similarly, there are numerous other AVA's (Dry Creek, Rutherford, Calistoga, Alexander Valley, Sonoma, Napa, etc.). If you do your research on your wineries and look at a map for grouping and distances between wineries it will all fall into place. Restaurant and lodging preferences are another consideration.

                            Know ahead of time, how much wine, if any, you plan to take home, and any associated costs / restrictions. In general, if making an appoinment, it is polite to purchase - you are engaging someone's time and consuming their product. In your case, finding out who their UK distributor is, assuming you like their product, would make a good impression.

                            You will, no doubt, have a great visit.

                            1. re: Andy Jacob


                              I strongly, STRONGLY dissagree with above poster's comment:

                              >>In general, if making an appoinment, it is polite to purchase - you are engaging someone's time and consuming their product.<<

                              Most of the time when I make an appointment it is with a winery that has no wine available to purchase (though I did not reccomend any of those wineries to you). I have NEVER felt preassure to purchase ANYWHERE that I made an appointment, nor do I think it is ever expected. That said, the vast VAST majority of the CA wines I drink are from wineries that only offer tastings by appointment because I geuinely feel that it is the smaller, more artisnal wineries that are making, by far, the best wines in the area.

                              1. re: Andy Jacob

                                Andy, Agree with you about "focusing on the varietals you prefer, using the spit bucket, taking notes when tasting and bundling your winery visits by geography."

                                However, I also think you're wrong on several counts.

                                Carneros for Pinot Noir...no, sadly, not any more. a few exceptions exist.

                                "Polite" to Purchase while visiting: Andy, I don't know where you got this idea, but it is certainly not in keeping with current Northern California wine-tasting protocol. One is never obligated. You may not like the wines, or the style of wines, or the wines may not fit your budget. It is quite acceptable to say, "We haven't quite found what we are looking for," or "Oh, the wines are lovely, but a lilttle outside our budget." Perfectly fine.

                                The cawinemall site is huge, but that also means it's a big unwieldy. It's merely a list, not a list with recommendations...and some of the best wineries for visits aren't on it.


                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  I also *believe* that there is no spoken, or unspoken, contract to purchase from the winery, just because on has done a tasting, whether by appointment, or not. I often do, but that is my choice.

                                  Living in AZ presents a problem for me. Some can/will ship to me, but others will not. In a few of those instances, I purchase, what I cannot obtain locally. If I like a particular wine, I will ask about its distribution and sale in AZ. As the prices are usually ver similar, between retail and at the winery, it's not about taking my purchases home, but later acquiring them. No one has ever made me feel poorly for asking who their AZ distributor is, or where I can find the wines, back home.

                                  The general concept of the "tasting room," is to expose possible consumers to the wines, share the love the staff has for the wine, and make it easy for the tasters to obtain the wines - nothing more, IMO.

                                  Since the Landcruiser only holds 19 styro-shippers, if my wife has meetings and flies back from SF, I am limited, even if I have driven, and I usually have about 5 cases to clear out of my locker in Napa. Somethings gotta' give. I WILL pick up wines that are only available at the winery, but make notes on others, that are more readily available.


                                  PS, since someone mentioned J in Sonoma, I wish to share a little tid-bit. Visited and liked a few of the still PN's. I went to buy a mixed case. The clerk asked where I was located and I replied, "Arizona." She said that she could not ship to me there, so I gave her my Napa address. She said that she could not ship to me there, either. I asked why. Her comment floored me, "because we know that you'll ship these wines to yourself in Arizona and drink them there... !" OK, so these wines were not good enough to worry about, considering the winery's policy. About 3 months later, we hosted a major dinner and the restaurant's sommelier recommended the J sparklers. "Not for MY guests," was my reply. We'll be in Arizona, and they don't like the idea of people drinking their wines in Arizona." He did not get my reference. We chose an Iron Horse sparker, instead at a much higher price-point. Joy Sterling has never indicated to me that she did not want her wines consumed in my state.

                            2. those are decent if quite commercial large wineries, and Sonoma is a cute town, but if you're looking for a real wine experience, you need to go to the Russian River, which is in Sonoma County. Pinot noir and zinfindels are fabulous, and there are many wineries in a pretty small area. try this link


                              1. Rochioli in RRV is a must. A few others in the area worth stopping are Martinelli, Rafanelli, David Coffaro, Joseph Swan Arista and Copain.

                                Back in Sonoma, stop at Landmark if you are going to hit the area at all. They make some excellent wines at the high end.