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sonoma wine tasting - narrowing down our options‏

first of all, i want to say thank you to all the chowhounders who've already helped me with SF and Napa suggestions. i wish there was some way i could return the favour - perhaps if you're ever in the south of england?! if so, get in touch!
this is the final thing i need some advice on. i'm trying to narrow down our sonoma itinerary. i've spent hours researching this, but the more i read, the more confused i seem to get! everyone's taste is different and there are so many recommendations. i've tried to focus on posters who seem to have a real interest in wine (such as whino, marria lorraine, hunt - sorry if I missed out anyone!), but even so it's really hard to decide. please help!
ideally we don't want to visit more than 4, perhaps 5 wineries. we want to taste across the board - pinot, zin, some whites. it would be great to have one winery that's appointment only, because they tend to be the most special experiences (although I feel nervous about this, since we're no experts!). i'm looking to buy a couple of bottles to take with me (but no more, since we live in the UK). we're looking for the best sonoma has to offer - wine is passion - so quality is paramount. but value for money and overall experience is also important. here are the choices:

Hartford Family
Merry Edwards (slightly nervous about making an appointment if it's just going to be us there!)
Garry Farrell
Stryker Sonoma
Moshin Vineyards
Robert Young
Pappapietro Perry
Ridge and Seghesio (although I like their wines a lot they are last on my list since I've already tried a lot of their wines and would rather try something not readily available in the UK)
also, not keen on Martinelli and Rochioli since I've read that they don't usually pour their best wines, which are mailing list only.

thank you!

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  1. For great Zinfandels, you really should head a bit west, to the Dry Creek area. It's actually my favorite part of wine countrly, less touristy, and very reminiscent of Burgundy (except for the wines, of course). I'd strongly suggest Rafanelli and Limerick Lane.

    3 Replies
    1. re: winedude

      Among the Dry Creek Zin producers, I would love to go tasting at Bella and Rafanelli. Both are small, family operations that sell direct to their fans. Both require appointments, which requires more oganization than I've been able to muster. Ridge/Lytton Springs is another possibility.

      For Pinot, Pappapietro is good. Another small producer that is located pretty close to Sonoma is McRostie. They took home a bunch of medals in a competition I work for and have my curiosity piqued. Moshin Vineyards is another award winner with great Pinots.

      If you are staying in Healdsburg, consider visiting La Crema. Their tasting room is in town, and they offer a good variety of wines.

      1. re: BernalKC

        Have you been to Rafanelli lately? I've heard reports that there is little to none to the tasting. Of course, it used to be great.

        1. re: maria lorraine

          No, I have not been there. My list is based more on the wines I like than the accommodations -- I haven't done much wine touring since we had kids, which means I haven't done it in a long, long time.

    2. Belma, when is your trip? The Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander Valley areas are having Barrel Tasting Weekend both this and next weekend. See www.wineroad.com for details.

      There are in my mind two separate Sonoma County areas - the area around Healdsburg with the appellations listed above among others, and the one around the town of Sonoma, which includes Sonoma Valley and Carneros. These appellations themselves provide very distinct terroir due to climate, elevation, soil, etc. Which area were you planning on visiting?

      You can go through Carneros on the way to Napa from SF or on the way back. Or if you're planning on staying up in say St. Helena or Calistoga, you can go over the mountain into Alexander Valley.

      I can give you a list of some of my favorites if you tell me where you'll be going and staying.


      5 Replies
      1. re: grapecrusher

        thanks grapecrusher. we're not actually going until april (i'm being extra organised!) and we're staying/starting our trip in healdsburg - so would like to focus on that area, and not sonoma or carneros so much (although we are driving back to SF the same day and plan to be there by the evening). yes please, some of your favourites would be great - i' m getting lost with all the choices!

        1. re: belma79

          There are a ton of them for sure. Here's a list of a few of them I enjoy for various reasons. I'm just going to do this off the top of my head. This area is definitely less pretentious, less crowded, and less expensive than Napa. And most won't charge you.

          - Siduri - The best pinots around. They source all their grapes and make it in a warehouse. Nothing to see as far as beautiful grounds (but that you'll see in Napa). It's appointment only and I think they'll pour according to your price range (as the offer pinots from $20-$90).
          - Carol Shelton - right near Siduri is known as the "Most Awarded Winemaker in America". I haven't been here yet, but we're visiting next weekend. By appointment only.
          - J Wine - They serve you a small amuse bouche or appetizer with each wine. They do charge here. Wines range from champagne to whites to pinots. All very good wine.
          - Davis Family - Fairly small producer with some really tasty wines. My favorite is a Sauvignon Blanc (not usually something I drink) with grapes sourced from New Zealand. Nice mineral notes, herbs, and tropical fruit flavors. They also make a great olive oil. There are a few tasting rooms right across the street from here as well.
          - Jordan - by appointment only. They offer very nice Cabs and Chards.
          - Meeker - I like this place for the atmosphere - it's an old bank building in small downtown Geyserville. The staff is super friendly, and give you huge pours of lots of wine. The quality has declined or my taste buds have changed a bit in the last few years, but they do big fruit forward reds. They offer Cab, Merlot, and Zin of course, but also Petite Verdot, Barberas, Carignane. And really great dessert wines.
          - Other light style pinot producers include La Crema, Deloach, Balletto but these you may be able to find in a store. And Gay Farrell has some great ones as well.
          - Michel Schlumberger has nice Sirahs, Rafanelli great Zins, Trentadue for ports, Dry Creek Vineyards has some decent priced Zins and Merlots. And Alexander Valley Vineyards has really nice Zins, Cabs, some inexpensive whites, and a great Rose.
          I think I'll stop as I'm probably making it harder now. :)

          Of those you mentioned:
          Like: Garry Farrell
          Haven't been to: Hartford Family, Merry Edwards, C.Donatiello, Robert Young, Moshin Vineyards
          Been to, but nothing special: Preston (good olives), Rosenblum, Stryker Sonoma (nice views), Pappapietro Perry, Mauritson, Ridge and Seghesio (good place for a picnic)

          1. re: grapecrusher

            Totally agree with you on Carol Shelton. But I have to say you are missing out on some of the best wineries, IMO, grapecrusher. Merry Edwards' wines are stunning, Hartford is very, very good. I like some of Preston's Rhone varietals, and think the winery is a kick. Some of Seghesio's wines are good for the money. Some of Siduri's pinots are lovely, but certainly not all, and several are flawed with Brett (OK in some wines, but not in Pinot.) I truly admire Adam and Dianne, but don't think their wines are the best around. I like Lynmar a lot.

            Just my 2 cents.

            1. re: maria lorraine

              Right on the money, ML. Have loved Merry Edwards for some time now, as well as Hartford on our last visit to the area. Was lucky enough to score a couple of cases of the Seghesio 07 Zin, great for BBQ, Italian dishes, and gifts to friends. It sells out within hours of being announced in our area.

        2. re: grapecrusher

          Absolutely recommend Dry Creek, just outside of Healdsburg. Westside Road is a wealth of wonderful wineries. Also Russian River Valley AVA. The Pinots will be much better in RRV than Carneros. Lots of maps if you go to the link above.

        3. Two Pinot Noir places that are worth making an appointment for are Siduri, and Freeman.

          For good Pinot and Chardonnay but slicker and more commercial, consider LynMar

          Hartford Family is also more touristy, but is a located in a beautiful facility in a beautiful location. You can taste Chardonnay and Pinot Noir there.

          Limerick Lane is a very good choice for Zinfandel. Another great choice which would require an appointment would be Carlisle.

          If you want to see some history stop by Swan, site of a very early Pinot Noir vineyard - which is still there. They also are a long time Zin producer.

          And don't be nervous about being the only people at an appointment. That's when you'll learn the most and have the most fun!

          6 Replies
          1. re: Paul H

            I'm curious about the tastings at small wineries where you make an appointment. I've never done this before but am interested in trying.

            Does anyone know if there's usually a cost attached to the private tastings by appointments? And are there an expectation that you'll buy a case of wine, or can you just buy a bottle?

            1. re: singleguychef

              There is usually not a cost associated with small appointment-only wineries, and they will be delighted if you buy anything (which you should if you like the wine and you are not a regular/mailing list customer).

                1. re: singleguychef

                  It's easier to get an appointment if there are several of you in the party.

                  1. re: Paul H

                    ...but groups more than 6 almost always mean lots of drinking and no buying, so many wineries will be hesitant to give you an appointment. 4 is ideal.

                    1. re: SteveG

                      and often the winery will schedule your appointment at the same time as other folks. There is never any expectation to buy.

          2. You said you were starting in Healdsburg if so I would recommend stopping at Stephen and Walker, and La Crema they both have tasting rooms right in town. Others I like are Marimar Torres and Balletto both have very good Pinots, one that you listed Pappapietro also puts out a great Pinot. Enjoy your trip!

            1. Go to one of the zinfandel giants in Sonoma, Martinelli. At Ravenswood, they offer a very brambley Cabernet Franc, which l send home by the case, great deal, great wine.

              1. Good luck, belma79. These winemaking regions are popular subjects on this and the Wine page, you may find lots of relevant information by searching those two pages. Here's a recent thread:


                One poster seemed unenthused by Rosenblum's and Ridge's Sonoma-County tasting sites and I might agree for the casual experience, but it's worth knowing that both firms are part of the reason any of us heard of Zinfandel at all. 25-30 years ago, many of today's Zin producers, if they even existed, weren't making Zinfandels, but Rosenblum and Ravenswood were establishing reputations for solid wines of value, Ridge for long-aging high-end Zinfandels, still moderately priced. I and other Zin fans enjoyed their products then and still do. It is California's distinctive red-wine grape, and they were pioneers (Ridge maybe more extensively than any other firm). Another previous thread on that region mentions Pinots as well as Zins:


                Ravenswood Winery
                18701 Gehricke Rd, Sonoma, CA

                Ridge Vineyards - Lytton Springs
                650 Lytton Springs Rd, Healdsburg, CA

                Rosenblum Cellars
                250 Center St, Healdsburg, CA

                3 Replies
                1. re: eatzalot

                  Belma, eatzalot makes a good point. Even if you've tasted Ridge, you haven't tasted the plethora of single-vineyard Zins that Ridge./Lytton Springs offers when visiting the winery.Consider it.

                  1. re: maria lorraine

                    Exactly, also love the Geyserville offerings.

                    1. re: maria lorraine

                      that is a good point, you're right. i was actually watching this british BBC show (oz and james big wine adventure) last night and they go visit paul draper at ridge. oz (very famous wine personality here in the UK) loves his wines. made me think that since i do as well, i should make a point of going. to try something i can't taste here (the current tastiing list on their website is very exciting! see http://www.ridgewine.com/acrobat/LSTR...) and also, everytime i do drink a ridge wine in the UK, i can think back on my visit! it's a great thing to be able to do.

                  2. You've gotta love Chowhound. The OP listed 13 wineries and asked for help in narrowing down the list. There have been 23 additional places mentioned so far. :-)

                    7 Replies
                    1. re: Paul H

                      yes, i'm even more confused now!! (o: thank you all though, this is great stuff. but if someone can help me to narrow it down that would be great! if all of YOU had to pick 5 wineries to visit from those listed here, which would they be? then i can pick out which are most mentioned (one way of doing this!) it seems as if merry edwards, hartford, gary farrell, preston, ridge are coming out tops (also thinking of my previous research)....

                      1. re: belma79

                        also would perhaps add lynmar to the list above. so, how about: ridge, preston, gary farrell, hartford, merry edwards, lynmar?

                        1. re: belma79

                          Are you still looking to try a full range of varietals? at least. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and perhaps Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah?

                          1. re: Paul H

                            yes, with pinot, chardonnay and zin being most important!

                            1. re: belma79

                              <ridge, preston, gary farrell, hartford, merry edwards, lynmar>

                              Good list. That will be fine. Just one day in Healdsburg? If so,
                              that is too many wineries. Then I'd do, of the ones above, Ridge,
                              Hartford, Merry Edwards, then Preston, Lynmar, and Gary Farrell.

                              1. re: maria lorraine

                                Nice list. Based on your comments on Lynmar and Preston (which pretty much match my feelings), I'll have to search out Merry Edwards and Hartford.

                                A note on Preston: they make pretty good country-style sourdough breads multiple times a week which are often for sale in the winery, so it could be a good first stop for the day or a good picnic spot (though I think you have to reserve or something--look on their web site). I find if I'm trying to hit a lot of wineries in a day, having bread in the car to munch on between stops helps to reset my taste buds and keep the stomach from running empty.

                                1. re: maria lorraine

                                  thanks maria! i can always rely on your advice. (o: i think that's my list, in that order.
                                  steveg, thats good advice about bread, i must remember that. it would be my first, if not second stop, so will definitely buy the bread if available.

                      2. I haven't been to most of the wineries you listed, but I had a very bad experience at C. Donatiello. I was there last summer and something was horribly wrong with one of the wines they poured me - it was easily the worst tasting I've ever had. I don't know if it was a problem with that particular bottle or with the wine itself, but I didn't stick around to find out.

                        2 Replies
                        1. re: adk

                          But... bad wine should not be synonymous with a bad experience. Telling the differences between wines is why there are tasting rooms. Its an occupational hazzard that you will taste some bad wine. As a sport, its kind of fun that way. With smaller producers especially, there'll be big fluctations from one label to another, one vintage to another. Hey, if the winery is in a nice setting, and the hosts are friendly, a little bad wine shouldn't dent the fun of it.

                          1. re: BernalKC

                            You're absolutely right; indeed, my experience at C. Donatiello was quite enjoyable, a statement which I realize seems to directly contradict my earlier post. The hosts weren't particularly friendly (though they weren't rude either), so my companion and I took our pours away from the bar and sipped them while reclining in a pair of remarkably comfortable chairs. It was extremely hot that day and we'd already visited several wineries, so it was great to just relax and soak up the AC. The fact that one of the wines was so bad actually made the experience more fun.

                            However, OP said that "we're looking for the best sonoma has to offer - wine is passion - so quality is paramount." When I said I had "a very bad experience," I was using the wine's quality as the sole metric. It's entirely possible the bottle we tried was the exception rather than the norm, but that was my experience.

                        2. Hello. Just want to say I'm back from my trip and to thank you again for all your advice on both Sonoma and Napa. To be honest I wouldn't have made many of the choices I did without this board and I'm so glad I did. Shafer was spectacular! It was worth every penny. The wines were amazing, as was the hospitality. It was such a privilege to spend a couple of hours there and to taste those wines. Our group was especially lucky as they were bottling the latest 1.5 that day so we actually got to see this happen AND got to taste the wine, one year before its release. And to top it all off the wine poured by the wine maker himself! We also got to meet both John and Doug Shafer. I also went to (in Napa): Sequoia Grove (ok, good cab, friendly tasting room), Frog's Leap (really fun tour and a great property) and Mumm (nice place to relax after a day of tasting). The next day in Sonoma I did Ridge (I love their wines, so it was great), Preston (very pretty grounds, ok wines, Sauvignon Blanc drinks nicely), Hartford (tasting room a bit too slick, but I thought their pinots were excellent), and last but by no means least, Merry Edwards. Her pinots are lovely and it was wonderful to be able to taste such a range. So thank you again for all your suggestions and help. And a piece of advice I would give to anyone planning a trip to either Napa or Sonoma, don't be afraid to make appointments, it's the best way to experience the wines!

                          1 Reply
                          1. re: belma79

                            Thanks for the nice write-up. Glad you had a wonderful time.