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Sonoma wine tasting recommendations (NOT Russian River Valley or Healdsburg)

Hi all,

I'll be visiting Sonoma in August for a couple of days and will be staying in the city of Sonoma. I'm hoping to find some good winery suggestions near Sonoma, i.e., the Sonoma Valley AVA, Los Carneros AVA, Sonoma Mountain AVA, Bennett Valley AVA, and perhaps some places in southern Napa Valley. Even though I hear great things about RRV, Healdsburg, and Dry Creek wineries, places past Santa Rosa are just too far away.

I'm looking particularly for off-the-beaten path wineries that aren't the huge tourist traps or that aren't the high-volume makers that I can buy off the shelf here in DC. A good example is a winery I love, Robert Biale Vineyards in Napa. Excellent wine, nice winery, good people, family owned, small batches, and not sold at retail.

That said, if there's a really spectacular winery that's just too interesting or beautiful to pass up, that would also be great.

Lastly, I like big Zins, dry Reislings, buttery Chards, and Syrah. My girlfriend likes more southern Rhone-esque reds, acidic whites, and Pinots. That pretty much covers everything, I'm guessing, so we're not looking for a single type of varietal.

Right now, Matanzas Creek and Gundlach Bundschu seem like good choices. Wondering if anyone has any thoughts on Loxton or Wellington. Arrowood seems good, but I wonder if the wines are worth the price? Ditto Muscardini. Scribe, Audelssa, and Tin Barn are some smaller spots that get good reviews on Yelp, but I can't find any other reviews or comments about them in other places.

I've gone through a bunch of other posts on the board, but they seem to focus mostly on wineries in RRV, Dry Creek, or Healdsburg. Thanks in advance for any help.


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  1. The SO and I are members of Deerfield because we really enjoy the wines, the wine cave setting, and the staff. We've also had great experiences with both the wine and staff at Imagery and Audelssa, though be forewarned that Audelssa sells its wines young so anything you purchase will need to be put down for a few years. Still, there are several bottles of Audelssa in my wine fridge for the future.

    We had a great time at Gunbund when we went, and picked up two bottles of Gewurztraminer (gorgeous, gorgeous nose, and not nearly as sweet as is usual), and strongly considered also buying their artist label wine, the varietal escaping me at the moment. We were especially impressed with their customer service after it turned out that the first bottle of Gewurztraminer we purchased was corked, which happens sometimes to the best of wineries. We emailed them to let them know, they were extremely apologetic, and let us get a new bottle and exchange the second several months later. Gunbund was definitely more crowded than Deerfield, Imagery, and Audelssa though.

    2 Replies
    1. re: artemis

      I was just about to ask about Deerfield too. Found some really interesting write ups about them.

      Thanks for the notes about Audelssa, Imagery, and Gunbund.

      1. re: artemis

        Second on everything artemis said about GunBund. It's lovely.

        It's very true what maria lorraine is saying about the wines you like not usually being from the area you're visiting. That's not to say you won't find things you like, but listen to her. She is very familiar with the area and is seldom wrong.

      2. A Zin fan might want to make the (not so far) trek to the Zin Mecca aka Dry Creek Valley: http://articles.sfgate.com/2008-01-18...

        My personal favorite: A. Rafanelli.

        6 Replies
        1. re: Ricardo Malocchio

          Dry Creek is a great area for tasting Zin. A closer great Zin producer is Ravenswood, on the outskirts of the city of Sonoma.

          Actually, there are no more "off the beaten path" great wineries. All that's left are some small wineries that are not generally open to the public and have limited tastings by appointment only. Storybook Mountain Vineyards NW of Calistoga on Hwy 128 comes to mind and they make incredibly big, wonderful Zins.

          1. re: dlglidden

            There are some very good wineries I'd consider off the beaten path in Dry Creek; Frick and Coffaro come to mind.

            1. re: Pius Avocado III

              I don't consider ANY dry creek winery off the beaten path. The Dry Creek area (and its paths) has, rightfully, been beaten to death.

              Actually, come to think of it, one excellent source of Sonoma Zinfandel is Rosenblum Cellars in the city of Alameda. By not even being in Sonoma, it should qualify as being off the beaten path.

              Rosenblum Cellars
              2900 Main St # 1100, Alameda, CA

              1. re: dlglidden

                Diageo said it was closing Rosenblum Cellars in Alameda a few months ago, transferring operations to Beaulieu in Napa Valley.

                1. re: dlglidden

                  Of course it's all relative but each time I've gone to Frick and Coffaro we've been the only party tasting and both are a far cry from the Disneyland atmosphere that generally prevails these days.

                  As for Rosenblum, it was all downhill after the sale. I highly recommend Rock Wall, run by Kent Rosenblum's charming daughter Shauna- not as Zinfandel-focused but the approach to winemaking and quality of the wines are very close to the Rosenblum of old.

                  Rock Wall Wines
                  2301 Monarch St, Alameda, CA 94501

                  1. re: Pius Avocado III

                    I really, really like Frick. Love his Rhone varietals. But the winery is way, way out of the OP's desired area.

          2. This is a tough request. I can tell you have specific types of wines that appeal to you and your girlfriend, and I want you to have a wonderful visit here and not be disappointed. Please be advised that the areas you've chosen (AVAs) don't -- for the most part -- excel in the wines you like.

            I'd have many recs for you in other AVAs, but for the Sonoma AVAs you list, only these:

            Laurel Glen (Sonoma Mountain) is rather good. Wonderful proprietor, history, charming.
            Arrowood -- a variety of whites and reds. Arrowood's prices are average, BTW.
            Imagery -- some Rhones, a white Burgundy-style wine, others. Check the webiste.

            Hyde De Villaine may well be your cup of tea:

            None of the wineries you mention are in the same league as the wineries just above. I checked the Cellar Tracker reviews for all the wines by Audelssa (the best of the lot), but Muscardini, Tin Barn, Scribe, Loxton and Wellington don't seem to warrant a visit in light of much better options.

            The Sonoma AVAs are rather varietal-specific.As already mentioned, the best Zins are definitely Dry Creek Valley. That's really the area to visit, and you won't find many good ones south of there, even Ravenswood's.Their vineyard-designate Zinfandels have dropped markedly in quality the past five years.

            The best pinots in Sonoma County are from the Russian River Valley; the ones in the Carneros are mostly thin and disappointing in comparison. I just checked the Sonoma Carneros map and didn't find a single winery that fit your criteria. The Napa side of Carneros offers more possibilities. Truchard, wonderful for both Chard and Pinot. They also make a decent Syrah. Saintsbury, good for both whites and Pinots (esp. the Reserves). Adastra, wonderful Pinot. Acacia a bit off its game lately. Bouchaine climbing out a long sleep. Artesa, OK. Domaine Carneros good for the reserve bubbly, La Reve; the rest is a pass compared to what else is available.

            I can't think of a single excellent Syrah from the Sonoma AVAs you list worth seeking out (and I just confirmed this by going to Cellar Tracker and searching). I also typed in each of the best known Rhone varietals and came up with almost nothing in the AVAs you mention. Cline makes some Rhone wines, but they are greatly disappointing to me (a Rhone wine lover). Imagery may be your best bet.

            Riesling is not at all common in Northern California wine country, and though you can find them here and there, they are nothing like German or Alsatian Riesling. Acidic whites, as you know, are stylistically almost the opposite of buttery chards, and usually a winery makes one style or the other. Matanzas Creek makes a nice ML Chard, but this is the Santa Rosa area, so a bit north of where you want to be. You may enjoy the MacCrostie Chardonnay (kind of a butterball) if you'd like to stop by the tasting room in Sonoma.

            If you were willing to venture farther north where the wines are more to your liking, then that opens up more possibilities.

            3 Replies
            1. re: maria lorraine

              I like Muscardini reds a lot (I usually only drink reds), and ditto next door to them at Enkidu. I personally don't like Imagery wines at all (same for their source, Benziger). My own taster doesn't agree with Cellar Tracker about those wines.

              Muscardini Cellars & Ty Caton Vineyards Tasting Room
              8910 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood, CA

              Enkidu Wines
              8910 Sonoma Hwy, Kenwood, CA 95452

              1. re: Mick Ruthven

                Thanks. I wish I liked Enkidu wines. Way overripe for me. I don't care for Benziger's wines either.

                Was just reading about Landmark's Rhone wines, a new direction for them:

                1. re: maria lorraine

                  I remember the time I was driving on Hwy 12 and saw the Imagery sign and decided to stop since I had never been there. As I tasted their pretty-expensive wines (reds) I just wasn't liking them at all and then I discovered they were the high-end wines of Benziger. Some things don't change for me.

                  I'm sure Enkidu wines seem overripe to some people. I have to admit to liking that type more than some people do. Hey, who need subtle when you have have blockbuster. I'll definitely be at their open house on the weekend of July 17-18.

            2. Here are some suggestions for off-the-beaten path winereis, some close and some just a bit further but seemingly within your guidelines:
              1. Roessler Cellars, right in the town of Sonoma, just off one-half block off Sonoma Plaza. Tasting room only. Very good pinots. No appointment needed.
              2. Hendry Winery, 3104 Redwood Road, Napa. Great wines, including wonderful zins. Meet the owner/wineaker, George Hendry, who is wonderful. Need appointment.
              3. Walter Hansel Winery, south of the city of Santa Rosa but technically, I believe, in Santa Rosa. Meet the owner/winemaker Stephen Hansel. Need appointment.

              Sonoma Plaza
              475 1st St W, Sonoma, CA

              1. Make an appointment at Stony Creek for a good Reisling - also Pey Marin, though good luck with that appointment. A very good small Zin winery is Limerick Lane. If you are willing to make appointments there are scores of places worth visiting. Just remembered... add Lynmar to the list - no appointment needed there.

                Limerick Lane
                1023 Limerick Lane, Healdsburg, CA

                1. quinalty, unless you're planning to bike/walk to all of the wineries you're visiting, I think it's worth it for you to expand your geographic boundary. You're coming all the way from DC and have a couple of days to spend in Sonoma. Healdsburg is only 36 miles away - even when I lived in San Jose (110 miles away) I'd drive up to Healdsburg for day trips. It's way prettier as you get further north, and you'll significantly up your chances of finding wine you love.

                  1. Thanks SO much to everyone for the wonderful suggestions and feedback. Particular thanks to maria lorraine because it is clear you put a lot of time and effort into your very detailed reply.

                    Daveena, I may well expand our trip to some Dry Creek or RRV wineries since that seems to be where the top quality Sonoma wines are, particularly for Pinots and Zins. One of the challenges, however, is that there are a couple of Napa wineries I want to go to (Robert Biale, Honig, Domaine Carneros, maybe Vineyard 29 if I can get an appt) for various reasons and that eats up our time. And, while it is probably somewhat sacrilegious for serious oenophiles, we might do a day on a Sonoma wine tour with a company like Platypus. With all that, suddenly there isn't much time left for our own exploring of Sonoma, and driving 45-60+ minutes away (each way) to the northern and western parts of Sonoma just crushes us time-wise.

                    Nevertheless, I'm not ruling anything out, and everyone's comments are MUCH appreciated. If anyone has any CAN'T MISS spots in Dry Creek, RRV, Healdsburg, or the Napa side of Carneros, please let me know.



                    Domaine Carneros
                    1240 Duhig Rd, Napa, CA

                    5 Replies
                    1. re: quinalty

                      I've mentioned it already, but A. Rafanelli in Dry Creek Valley is just wonderful on all counts. My favorite Zinfandel. And also Eric Asimov's favorite, assuming you might be more swayed by a recommendation from someone who really matters in the wine world!

                      You'll have to make an appointment, and I've heard they're hard to come by. That said, I called up one midweek morning about this time last year and got an appointment that same day (weekend would probably be quite different). Don't make the mistake of calling at 7am like I did - remember: this is someone's family residence, not one of the big theme park style wineries.

                      The drive is simply beautiful, one of my favorite areas in the region. You'll pull up the driveway and likely be greeted by one of the Rafanelli's yellow labradors who (I swear) will lick your hand and lead you round to the tasting room where you're likely to find one of Dave's wonderful daughters - maybe even Shelly, who I believe has taken charge of the wine making there - in their unassuming tasting room.

                      Try the Cabernet Sauvignon, too. Be prepared to purchase as Rafanelli wines are generally only available from the winery or at restaurants (though I see that some places are selling it retail, probably to Dave Rafanelli's extreme chagrin). Unlike far too many cult Cali wineries, the Rafanelli's have always kept their prices well in check. Expect about $32/bttle for the Zins, $8-10 more for the Cab.

                      1. re: Ricardo Malocchio

                        The drive to the Dry Creek area is stunning, if the OP is willing to revise his plans.

                        I'd read other Chowhound posts before committing to Rafanelli. It's fairly tough to get a good tasting there anymore. It's not like what it used to be. I'm glad your experience was a good one (probably helped that you had an appointment), but many reports from both Chowhounds and winery insiders have said that the wines weren't nearly as good as in previous years, the pours were extremely small, and only a couple of wines were available for tasting. Kinda sad -- I used to love it there also.

                        1. re: maria lorraine

                          Yeah, I was at Rafanelli last summer (with an appt, I don't think you can taste there without one), and while the setting was beautiful and the people were lovely, the wines weren't great, and no one in my party liked them much or purchased.

                          1. re: JasmineG

                            I must respectfully disagree with this "wines weren't great" assessment, while acknowledging the inarguable subjectivity of personal taste!

                            I frankly never liked Zinfandel before tasting Rafanelli's, and if you were there last summer, then the 2007 Zinfandel was featured. 2007 is considered as potentially one of the great Cali Zin vintages, so it may just be that the more Old World, unfiltered style of Rafanelli is not to your liking. That said, I've also found this wine to have improved greatly over the past year, becoming much more balanced and losing what I perceived as a bit of courseness and a touch too much alchohol heat from my tasting at the winery.

                            Consider: "http://www.wdcv.com/index.php?option=...

                            ""The early evaluation of wine from Zinfandel grapes of the 2007 vintage is very exciting and encouraging; possibly the best in the last 60 years," said John Pedroncelli, winemaker at Pedroncelli Winery for six decades. "The wines have great color, full berry flavors with great natural acid balance. A. Rafanelli Winery had about 90 percent of their Zinfandel harvested by September 4. "It looks great," said proprietor Dave Rafanelli. "A lighter than expected crop speeded up harvest. Vines can ripen the smaller volume of fruit more quickly than a bumper crop." Winemaker John Olney summed up this year’s Zinfandel harvest for Ridge Vineyards Lytton Springs: "... So far, 2007 appears to be a vintage that balances power and finesse."

                            Also: http://www.winespectator.com/wssacces...

                            "The 2007 Zinfandels had a coming-out party Saturday at the Zinfandel Advocates & Producers (ZAP) tasting in San Francisco, and it looks like California has pulled off a trifecta. The 2007s have the potential to surpass the 2005s and even 2006s... The 2007 Zinfandels have the same supple, balanced and fruit-forward qualities found in the 2006s but seem to have more depth and weight. The 2007 growing season was long and had moderate weather throughout the season, which allowed Zinfandel to fully mature without driving up alcohol levels."

                            And, of course, Mr. Asimov (great article on Zin generally, although he doesn't opine on the 2007 vintage):

                            "I do in fact have a favorite zinfandel. It comes from A. Rafanelli in the Dry Creek Valley in Sonoma County, and I have a reason for never drinking it: it's not sold at retail shops, and you have to be on a mailing list to get it, which I'm not."

                            Of course, you'd be getting the 2008 vintage when visiting this summer (and 2007 for the Cabernet).

                            1. re: Ricardo Malocchio

                              Thanks for that NYT article. I loved Thomas Keller's “I’m very elementary, I usually drink the wine that I want to drink with the food I want to eat.” I've been saying that for a long time when I drink zins with seafood :-)

                    2. Cline Cellars has some great zins and blends that you can only find at the winery. Their Mourvèdre, Cashmere, Heritage, Big Break, and Bridgehead are our favorites.

                      Too bad you don't want to venture north. Just north of Hburg is Bella Vineyards, which has some outstanding zins - after all, Dry Creek is prime zin soil. Their Big River Ranch and Lily Hill zins are wonderful.

                      Bella Vineyards
                      9711 W Dry Creek Rd, Healdsburg, CA 95448

                      Cline Cellars
                      24737 Arnold Dr, Sonoma, CA

                      1. I've been to both Loxton and Wellington, and I think both are excellent places...go to Loxton for Zin/Shiraz and Wellington for Rhone Varietals. I wouldn't say they are "wow" wines, but they are much more reasonably priced than many wines in Sonoma/Napa, with excellent values <$30.

                        Loxton has a free tasting (and tour if you wish) and you get to taste and chat with the winemaker himself, Chris Loxton. He'll even sign a bottle for you if you like. I enjoy their big Zins and Shiraz, but thought their "Sonoma Reds" blend was also great value for ~$15 (use this more as an everyday drinking wine...he called it "for a Tuesday night") .

                        Wellington also had many great wines under $30 (I think only their cab was >$30), and comp your tasting if you buy a bottle. I particularly liked their Rhone varietals, and when we were there they even had some white Rhones that were particularly good and not something you would see everywhere.

                        As others have mentioned, RR is still the best for Pinot Noir (Lynmar and Merry Edwards are great). Ridge is still my fave for zins (and just one of my all-time favorite wineries, period), but they're quite a ways up at Healdsburg...I do think they're definitely worth a visit though.

                        1 Reply
                        1. re: arlenemae

                          Have to agree, if you are Zin fan, how can you not visit Ridge???