On To Sonoma!
Sonoma is an entirely different place for wine tourism than Napa. It helps that we stayed in Sonoma, but Sonoma’s expansive footprint still made for a lot of driving. Luckily the driving was easy and there was virtually never traffic, unlike the expensive and irritating alternative net door.
I mentioned it was wet. It was really wet. I didn’t get any good shots of it, but there were definitely places where the canopies of vineyards headed completely underwater. Vineyards with standing water among the vines were sort of impossible to avoid.
This happens, more or less, every year, as we were told. The big difference is that this was happening far earlier in the year than is typical, and that was weird.
So it was wet. There were some closed roads and a lot of places with Internet or power that was down, but you know, it was still pretty okay. On the upside it seemed to keep some of the tourists away. So that we could be tourists.
Syrah: The Breakfast of Champions
There are also a lot more opportunities to taste without appointments in Sonoma. This is not to say that there aren’t a lot of appointment-only tastings (or places where one will have a better experience with an appointment). With that said, our trips through Napa were heavily scheduled and regimented, entirely coordinated by when we could get appointments. We didn’t really want to repeat that experience in Sonoma and went for a far more casual approach – we never had more than a single tasting appointment scheduled on a given day.
We kicked off the day with a visit to Copain Wines up in Healdsburg. Tasting Syrah at the butt crack of dawn is always a bit interesting, but it worked out. Copain’s sold-out wine (its Pinot Noir) was entirely uninteresting to us, which is good, since we didn’t have an opportunity to taste it. Far more miportantly, Copain is a solid Syrah producer that’s still working on finding its footing. We enjoyed some of their older wines that sourced grapes from vineyards further south, and weren’t quite as delighted by the examples that tended towards more estate-managed fruit. Still, it was fun to taste how the winemaker’s style has changed dramatically in just half a decade. Definitely worth a shot if you’re a Syrah drinker.
And Now For Something Completely Different
After that, it was a bit of a bust. We had a long list of places that were appointment only, and none of them were answering their phones. After trying to get a human to answer at more or less the top ten red Rhone varietal producers in Sonoma (which is not to suggest that Sonoma is home to a great deal of Rhone varietal producers, but it’s the kick we were on that Saturday) and failing, we decided to head for lunch.
We headed to Santa Rosa for lunch, and all of the sudden got a call from Tripp Donelan at Donelan Wines. He saw that he’d received a call from the 203 area code and decided to call back and see what was up. Turns out that Tripp grew up next door in Darien and spent some time out here in the financial industry before making a go in the wine business. Cool. So we scheduled some time that afternoon to swing by the winery and head to lunch.
Lunch was at The Spinster Sisters, and it was delicious. We started with a delicious pickle platter:
I had some eggs benedict that were fantastic and I forget what M had, but it was nice too:
So then we headed to Donelan. Donelan’s winery was a variety we hadn’t encountered yet. While we stumbled upon several wineries in Napa that brought their fruit in from all over, generally there was at least some estate fruit growing around the winery, or at least somebody’s vineyards. It looked like wine country, you know?
Donelan’s winery is tucked into a corporate park, near a bunch of other corporate parks. There are no vineyards in sight. A lot of the businesses back in the corporate park weren’t even wineries.
But, there was something logical about this. Donelan’s winery was outfitted to be a winery. It’s easy to get trucks there to deliver fruit, it’s easy to get equipment driven in, and the building is appropriately large for things like inventory and barrel storage. Where a lot of wineries seem to shoehorn in the actual winemaking process, it was clear that Donelan set up their winery around the winemaking process so that the vineyards from which they sourced could focus on the grape growing process.
Tripp gave us a tour (and I regret I didn’t have a camera on me, as I wasn’t even sure we’d found the right place originally) and showed us the facility and then we sat down to taste through a bunch of wines.
Donelan’s Syrahs are outstanding. If you like Syrah that’s well made, has a real sense of place, and still shows a bit of restraint, the wines are not to miss. There’s a nice range of bottlings from the $50 to $100 range that show dramatic differences.
Like Copain, my only frustration was that it sounds like Donelan has a somewhat difficult time selling its benchmark Syrahs, whereas the demand for its Pinots is insatiable. This is not to insult the winemaking for the Pinots (indeed, I didn’t even try them), but with world-class Syrah, I’m left at complete loss why anybody would feel the need to look further than the Rhone grape bottlings. I can’t really recommend these wines enough.
Back to Healdsburg
After Donelan, we drove up to Healdsburg again to see the downtown area. Healdsburg is great in that it has a modestly sized square where it’s easy to walk to numerous tasting rooms. I would be tempted to stay within walking distance of the square were I to visit again. With that said, even in this relatively quiet time of year, there was a decent crowd in Healdsburg; when it’s packed I imagine it would be outright maddening.
We strolled into the first tasting room we saw, Roadhouse Winery, the first of several tasting rooms where we got funny looks when we asked where they would prefer we spit. We ended up with a solo cup to share, it was sort of awkward but it worked out. Roadhouse specializes in low-production Pinot Noirs and fruit flies. While fruit flies are a fact of life for tasting rooms, Roadhouse somehow was the most uncomfortably disgusting tasting room we encountered in this regard. It’s the first and only time I can say that the fruit flies became a distraction, as we had to aggressively fight to keep them from ending up down our throats with each taste of wine!
Roadhouse’s Pinot was mediocre. At the price point, I found it completely unimpressive, and I’m under the impression that this is more of a “lifestyle winery” than a winery that takes itself seriously. With mid double-digit prices for Pinot that would give a good $12 bottle of Pinot a run for its money, I was embarrassed for their wines, and their tasting room staff did not help the experience: They seemed to be preoccupied with getting to some winery party that was going on at the same time, and had little interest in either their wines or, well, us.
The best wine they had was a chocolate dessert wine, which would make a lovely gift for somebody who doesn’t like wine.
The only upside is that Roadhouse sent us to JCB, which tries to offer a faux posh tasting room experience right in the middle of Healdsburg. Jean-Charles Boisset makes some interesting wines, and JCB is a collection of “wine styles” versus particular vintages or locations. He tries to seamlessly blend old-world and new-world, and in some cases seems to pull it off. We found their cremants the noteworthy examples, with their still Chardonnay not bad. The reserve Cabernet was not available to taste, and I’m probably okay with that.
Williamson Wines was our next destination. Williamson offers a unique tasting room experience in Healdsburg. First off, the tasting is free. Second, each wine tasted is served with a small food pairing as well (nominally a slice of neutral cheddar with varying toppings intended to pair with their wines). Most of the pairings worked relatively well, and overall the experience was rather pleasant. The staff was friendly, but clearly overwhelmed and confused by all of the traffic. All told, it felt like there were 50 people trying to order a sandwich at a Subway simultaneously, and it wasn’t a particularly cogent, coherent, or structured experience.
With that said, the staff did their best to try to get us through a decent selection of food and wines (they only missed a few, which is alright, as they still poured a pretty dramatic quantity of wines).
They did have more laid-back tasting areas in an adjacent room, but they either were not available for walk in tastings or were already saturated. There was a small foodstuff merchandise area to purchase thing featured in pairings, as well as a moderately extensive spice area for some of the generally more esoteric seasonings one might need in food. That was fun.
I would recommend the experience just to see how it’s executed, but I would not bother if you’re only interested in their wines. We tried about a dozen wines, and they were all mediocre at best, if not outright lousy. Clearly this is a winemaker that sells an ideal centered around food and wine pairings. Their product is not remarkable or notable in any way otherwise. The unfortunate problem is that better-executed wines also pair well with food.
Our final tasting room in Healdsburg was Portalupi, a fun little Italian varietal winemaker that also offered wine by the glass and table wine by the jug. The concept was novel, all of their wines relatively inexpensive, and all of them rather decent at their price points. I found their Bianco, Barbera, and Port especially nice for the money, and if I lived in the area their milk jugs of red table wine would probably be a good go-to bottling for a party. Probably the best “value” producer we tasted the whole trip.
Barbecue … In Sonoma
Our final destination that evening was dinner; we went to the Fremont Diner, a breakfast and lunch with typical diner fare that somewhat recently has started serving barbecue dinners as well! We sat at the bar, arriving shortly after the happy hour concluded, which afforded an outstanding view of the kitchen.
The barbecue platters were huge and fantastic.
Our waitress said “she was a pork butt sort of girl” so I went with that.
The pork butt was just magic with some hot-pepper-infused vinegar. The pickles were also fantastic, the coleslaw was nice, and the apples and fennel (with some nice heat) were just plain outstanding.
The whole meal was a hair over $40 with some beer, and was just remarkably good stuff. I didn’t expect outstanding barbecue on the west coast, but I can tell you it exists. Bravo.