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Sonoma/Napa Tasting Report (long)

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A friend and I just completed a three-day tasting tour of Sonoma and Napa, much of it planned using recommendations from members here. This was the fifth or sixth trip for each of us, so during the course of previous trips we had learned at least a few things about what we did and did not want.

This trip was organized by region, with one per day - Russian River, then Dry Creek, then Napa. In each, we tried to not visit places we had been before, which knocked out some (Ridge, Seghesio, Papapietro Perry, etc.) that we knew we loved, but didn’t want to revisit given our limited time.

The goal was to visit places that made high-quality and interesting wines, and that were less “corporate”, rather than having to adhere to a particular style or varietal. While we visited a high number of places, particularly on the second day, we tried to avoid palate fatigue (and of course, alcohol-related issues) by scheduling things as far apart as we could, eating lunch in the middle of the day, sharing tastings, not finishing tastings when necessary, and drinking a lot of water. I live in New York, so my goal is to taste, and buy, the best American wines I can get my hands on to enjoy throughout the year.

My impressions and opinions below are just that - I don’t pretend to be any kind of expert, and I don’t feel I can take it upon myself to offer full critiques of most of the wines, especially as I didn’t take individual tasting notes. But, I hope some of the below can be useful to others looking for recommendations in the future.

Day One- Russian River
Dutton-Goldfield. This was our first stop on Thursday, in large part because there was a huge accident/fuel spill on 101 blocking northbound traffic that diverted us over this way. I had not had their wines before but had tried some Goldfield-consulted wines from other labels. While the pinots were impressive, I found some of the other wines hit-or-miss - in particular, I was not a fan of the Zin or the Syrah. The Gewurtztraminer, which was done in a dry style, was a surprise success.

Merry Edwards. We booked an appointment for the reserve tasting and were blown away by the quality of her Pinots. The reserve tasting was a very civilized, sit-down affair in a private room which gave us more of an opportunity to discuss the wines and compare and contrast different bottlings from the same vintage, as well as one library wine.

Copain. I discovered Copain when I was served one of their Pinots as a wine pairing at an NYC restaurant. I fell in love instantly, and their tasting - outdoors in the perfect weather, overlooking the hills and vineyards - confirmed that I was right. Interestingly, their fruit is primarily from further north in the Anderson Valley in Mendocino, which seems to yield more delicate refined wines. Each Pinot was outstanding, and I was similarly impressed with their Syrah. They also do a not-delicate-at-all monster red that I believe is sourced from Paso Robles - also quite enjoyable, but more suitable as a “cocktail wine” than the other wines they were tasting.

Sheldon Wines. I personally feel like a trip is not complete without a visit to at least one “garage-style” winemaker, and Sheldon’s laid-back shared winery and tasting room in the corner of a strip mall in Santa Rosa was a perfect way to end the day. This husband-and-wife team is self-taught, and their commitment to craft, including their dedication to minimalist techniques, was evident. Their wines tended to be leaner and more “European” in style, and several were outstanding. I was partial to their Rousanne-based white blend, and to their Graciano - which is a fairly rare Spanish varietal that is not widely planted in CA. Tobe and Dylan are also really cool, down-to-earth and interesting people to talk to, and the story of how they ended up here is an interesting one. If the taco truck happens to be out from when you are there, skip whatever meal you’re having next and have some tacos - they were amazing.

Day Two: Dry Creek Valley
While I had loved many Dry Creek wines on previous visits, there were several “misses” today, particularly among the 2008 vintage, which appears to have been particularly rough on Dry Creek Zin. It may also have been, as I mentioned, that I didn’t visit a number of favorites from past trips like Ridge, Unti, and Seghesio. As you will notice, this was by far the longest day, and the palate fatigue absolutely set in at some point, although we tried to break things up to minimize that.

Mauritson - A bit of a random stop for us as the place we tried to go to first was not open when we arrived. The tasting room employee was lovely, but the wines we tasted were, sadly, not to our taste for the most part. We tried their current zin, Rockpile Syrah, Cabernet, and a Cabernet-based blend, and none of them really hit with us. I also felt that, it being the beginning of the day, some of the wines still needed a few more hours to open up.

Preston- This was a CH recommendation and it was a knockout. A bit out of the way, and totally worth it. Their offerings included a Rousanne-based white (“Madam Preston”), which I’m always a sucker for, a “Syrah-Sirah” (Syrah and Petit Sirah blend), “L Preston” Rhone blend, Mourvedre and a Petit Sirah. Of these, I particularly liked the Mourvedre and the Rhone blend for their rusticity and balance, but I was wowed by everything we tasted. If you’re so inclined, you can also purchase bread, house made olive oil, and cheese and have a picnic on the property.

Bella. Fairly high on my list of disappointments, I should have been more worried when some people in the Dutton Goldfield tasting room the day before described a wine tour of their property in a jeep that involved (in their telling) getting wasted. I did not take that tour, so I can’t comment on whether that is true. Their property itself is lovely, but the tasting room in a “cave” and the general atmosphere in there gave it a bit of a corporate vibe for me. I did not like most of the wines at all - we poured out all of the wines except for a rather stunning Sonoma Coast Pinot.

[As a side note, is the new marketing thing in CA to serve a massive, buttery Chardonnay and then say it is “Burgundian” in style? Because surely most of the people pouring these wines know what white Burgundy should taste like. I was given this “Burgundian” line at several places, and then promptly served something very non-Burgundian.]

Zichichi. A random stop recommended at Mauritson, this small facility was acquired in 2000 by a gentleman from New Orleans and his wife, and he is making some blockbuster estate-grown zin. We tasted two of his zin bottlings, and then were offered a barrel tasting of his 2010. The wines were, to me, excellent representations of the varietal, in a softer and more restrained style, and the 2010 we tasted, in particular, was phenomenal - so much so that we bought a half-case of futures!

A. Rafanelli. After a late lunch, we went to an appointment at A. Rafanelli, an outstanding producer whose 2007 Cab I had recently enjoyed. While the tasting experience and staff were lovely, I was less blown away by the wines this time, likely because they needed more time. They are a producer to whom I give the benefit of the doubt.

Talty. Another CH recommendation, and a strong one, we enjoyed the widely varying styles of Zin that Talty had on offer - one of which was exceptionally lean, while others were a touch more opulent, though still on the lighter side of the Dry Creek style.

Wilson. Wilson serves a massive list of zins, but after trying a couple of them and their cabernet, we decided to leave. I liked neither the wines nor the somewhat more bustling tasting room atmosphere.

Family Wineries. I highly recommend this co-op of five small wineries, which is located in the same complex with Peterson, Amphora, Kokomo, and the outstanding Papapietro Perry, who make some of my favorite Pinots. Family Wineries gives you a chance to try a wide variety of producers, varietals and styles in a single tasting room. Our tasting was done by Jerry Forth, founder of one of the member wineries by the same name, who happened to be working his shift. I was impressed, as expected, by the Dashe Zin he was pouring, by his own 2009 Cabernet, and by the very huge, American-in-style, but tasty, Lago di Merlo Barbera in particular.

Kokomo. My friend and I are both members of their wine club, so we felt like we couldn’t pass up a visit to Kokomo although my palate was pretty much for nought at that point. Having tried most of their current releases at other times, I would strongly recommend them as a bit of an under-the-radar choice. In my opinion, they make a wide variety of wines very well, including their Peter’s Vineyard Pinot. Their prices are also a bit more reasonable than some producers in the area.

Day Three: Napa
This day was the best-paced, with a smaller number of visits over a wider span of time.

Corison. I’m not sure there is anything illuminating or complimentary that I can say of Cathy Corison and her wines that hasn’t already been said, but this is a place I always go out of my way to visit. I love her more restrained style, and their tasting room experience is always a good one, being appointment-only. In this case we were treated to a wide swath of the past decade, tasting the 02, 04, 05, 06, 07 and (I think);08 Cabernet releases. Had a lovely conversation with the gentleman working the tasting room bar (including some hilarious anecdotes from him about ultra-high-tech vanity wineries that had gone up in the region) and a lot of delicious wine.

St. Supery. Although they didn’t fit the mold of the other types of places we were visiting, I wanted to go here to taste one specific wine, their Dollarhide Ranch Cabernet. Quite a few years ago, I had a bottle of their 1997 Dollarhide Ranch at a birthday dinner, and it was the first “big American Cab” that I remember (not to mention how expensive it was). I wanted to go back and taste the current release to see if my opinion had changed. The wine I tried was much younger, but it was already well on its way to being like the ‘97 I remembered.

Tulocay. A CH recommendation. I had called Bill and asked about a tasting a few weeks ago and he had at first said no because he had a big event going. While I was still on the line, he had a change of heart and invited me to a special tasting he was doing for a group of about 30 that also included a tasting of the “Spring” label by his winemaker, Skippy. Anyone who has met these gentlemen before can imagine what a pleasure it was to be introduced to them and to this idyllic little house on a hill with a small winery attached to it. We tasted a huge range of both wines, including a barrel tasting of an earthy, funky, completely natural (no sulfites or anything else) “hippie Syrah” that Skippy was working on. We met some great new people, took in the flawless Napa weather, and generally enjoyed the heck out of ourselves. Oh, and the wines were good, too. (I was partial to the Spring 07 Merlot, the Tulocay 06 Cabernet, and the Tulocay Pinot (I think it was an 09).

Scholium Project. As if an incredible afternoon at Tulocay wasn’t enough, our final stop was a complete shot in the dark. I had been a fan of Abe Schoener’s intriguing wines since having one of his bottles at Cyrus a few years ago, and since trying any and all of his wines I could get my hands on. So, I decided to send him an email, tell him I was a fan of his wines, and see if we could get together. He agreed, and set a time toward the end of the day.

Our experience at Scholium is really an entire post in itself, but suffice it to say that the experience was perhaps the highlight of all my trips to Northern California. We tasted Abe’s wines at different stages of fermentation, straight from the barrel, even while still heavy with yeast. We talked about his winemaking philosophy, and tried (I think) almost everything he will be releasing. His wines are mind-bending, unorthodox creations, and their flavor profiles varied quite a bit from one barrel to the next at times. They tasted like nothing else - it became almost a joke to try and guess what varietal anything was after awhile. Every taste brought gasps of surprise, delight and wonderment. It was finally driven home for me in this epic evening just to what degree wine is a living thing.

In keeping with the tone of the evening, Abe not only didn’t try to sell us anything, he sent us back to SF (since we were leaving) with the rest of the bottle we had sampled, one of his 07 Chardonnays. The sommelier at Boulevard that night wasn’t quite sure what to make of us bringing in a half-full, unlabeled bottle of wine to start our meal, but....

Anyway, thanks for the (considerable) space, and the many helpful recommendations. I have many more left to try next time!

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  1. Many, many thanks for the detailed report. Enjoyed reading it.

    1. I have tasted wines from most of the wineries you visited over the past few years and some like Rafanelli, St Supery and Corrison for a lot longer. Until this past week I was unfamiliar with Mauritson when I had the chance to taste their current line-up.

      Having cut my teeth on the Zins from Ridge, Swan, Rafanelli and a few others in the 70s and early 80s I can say that the trend of the last 20+ years to high alcohol, extreme ripeness and big extract has led me to pretty much avoid the grape.

      The Mauritson Zin I tasted last week was beautifully balanced, complex and varietally correct. I did not show the pruney, overripeness and alcohol heat that had driven me away from Zin. In short, it is one of maybe five Zins tasted in the past ten years that I would actually enjoy drinking and the only one I have actually purchased.

      2 Replies
      1. re: jock

        I'm glad to hear that. FWIW, based on the better Zins I tasted during the trip, that style may finally be dying off. Of what I tasted at Mauritson, the Zin was my favorite, but it didn't "wow" me the way that some others (particularly the Zichichi) did. But I think your summation of it is consistent with what I remember. As I said, I think the overall impression of Mauritson was hurt to some degree by the bottles having just been opened.

        1. re: jonasblank

          If you ever get the chance to taste at Nichelini (Chiles Valley section of NV), I think you'd like their Zin (or Primitivo - whichever they're doing at the time). The oldest family winery in Napa Valley, and open only on weekends.