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The Dilettante's Guide to Sonoma Wineries

In a few days I'll be in Sonoma. Past visits have included: Chateau St. Jean, Hop Kiln, Roshambo, Domaine Carneros, Buena Vista, Valley of the Moon, Field Stone, Ledson. My goal is to visit ten wineries during my stay, but my goal is not to taste the best wines Sonoma has to offer. Rather, I'm looking for the "experience." In other words, which wineries have the most gorgeous tasting rooms, beautiful or unique buildings, architecture, friendly & passionate people, fountains, ponds, swans, furry animals, really cool cave, oldest whatever, atmosphere, etc. Don't hate me. This is probably my last visit to Northern California and this wine tour is more about entertainment than quality wine. I hadn't planned on going to Napa - I realllly want to avoid Napa, but just found out about Dario Settui's castle. I checked out the website and it looks hysterical. Only that might lure me into Napa, otherwise I'll visit anywhere in Sonoma County. Sincere thanks for any help with this unusual request. And don't worry, I absolutely will drink some really great wines -with dinner!

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  1. Though I may not be able to help much with the direct query, OneMoreBite -- for reasons that may become clear -- a certain profundity here bears noting, IMO, on the general subject of why visit California wineries.

    I hope no one will indeed "hate" you, but if they do, it may show that they've bought into an unexamined assumption that the "natural" place to get good wines is at the wineries. That has not been my experience, as a Bay Area wine geek and winery visitor, more avid than most, since the 1970s.

    With some exceptions certainly (like Ridge, in the Cupertino Hills, Santa Cruz Mountains AVA), in considerable experience I've found that wineries themselves are seldom the places to get, nor, in particular, taste, the best selection of their wines.

    In fact most people who visit California wineries are very casual buyers anyway, there for the fun "experience." They may do some critical tasting and buying, but they more often go to drink than truly taste (a different activity, not always possible to do carefully at a busy winery tasting counter, where you may not even have all the wine samples side by side, and where sometimes they're even surprised when you ask for a spit cup).

    I've gotten more useful samplings of many California wineries -- useful for truly learning the wineries, and making buying decisions -- via merchants who have good relationships with them, and private or cooperative tastings among consumers who pool larger selections from a given winery -- or bottles that they've personally cellared, testing the winery's ageworthiness claims -- than the ad-hoc choice available at any given winery tasting-room visit. Which also limits you to wineries that HAVE public tasting facilities -- more common here in California than in some major winemaking countries, but still far from universal.

    "The experience" really is a distinct feature of wineries and their environment. I enjoy it too. It is neither necessary nor sufficient for fully appreciating a winery's produce. Go for it!

    1. Artesa for the architecture/grounds.

      Hanzell for the views/tour.

      Deerfield tastes in a cave and solid wine but is otherwise unremarkable.

      Stonestreet has an awesome, quiet patio and solid wines.

      Ferrari Cerano for villa/gardens (pretty typical of Napa but the few ones like it in Sonoma).

      Lynmar has a nice patio (have to reserve in advance).

      Freeman also tastes in a cave (appt only) and has solid wine but is otherwise unremarkable.

        1. Speaking as another winery visiting dilettante - I really enjoyed the tour at Benziger, in a Universal Studios sort of way. There's a tram that takes you up through the vineyards and down to the caves.

          1. A footnote (since goldangl's suggestions touched on it) re a detail that often comes up in these winery threads, but is seldom explained: Local history of this "cave" thing. May be useful to vistors from out of the area, or for future reference.

            "Cave" came into US wine-world language from the French industry, where it idiomatically means cellar or vault. Thus imported wines have often been labeled "mise en bouteille dans nos caves." French winemakers go on about their "cave," which may be a basement under a wooden building. Occasionally they're even caves in the English sense. Years ago I got good California wines at the Boston-area shop Cave Atlantique ("Atlantic Cellar").

            Several years ago in northern California a fashion developed, seemingly overnight, for wineries to get or make "caves" in the different English-language sense, and advertise the fact. For a while it was a frenzy. Good old TJ Rodgers of Clos de la Tech even ran into neighborly opposition to all the dynamiting. Now, many wineries use "caves" in the English sense as "caves" in the French sense, and boast of it. The partial meaning shift can be confusing for French-speaking visitors, or those more acquainted with European wines. Some journalists etc. writing about wineries have been unaware of the ambiguity.

            1. As far as you can get from Sattui, Joseph Swan.

                1. Gundlach Bundschu has a real cave. Very pretty spot.


                  1. Enjoy your trip!

                    Cornerstone - gardens (think sculpture & hardscape more than plants), shops (sculpture, odd & unusual items to see)

                    Benziger - try to get to the biodynamic garden up the hill - it's harvest season now. Glen Ellen Star down the road is owned by family and is open for lunch on summer weekends.
                    glen ellen star

                    Quarryhill Botanical Garden - no wine, but cool place for a picnic

                    VJB - people watching on the patio, ice cream, deli, woodfire pizza on the weekend.

                    Korbel - take a tour of historical garden around the old house. Then go across River Road to the Russian River.

                      1. Gary Farrell Winery, off Westside Road outside Healdsburg has a gorgeous tasting room with stunning views overlooking the mountains. Love their wines, too!