Friday, January 13, 2017

Your Perfect Weekend In Sonoma Wine Country: My Top Ten List

This post is all about the wonderful wineries that farm organically and support healthy farming practices.

Most importantly, of course, they make great wine and offer eco-friendly tours that delight.

So here's my list of the Top Ten Wineries to Visit in Sonoma. Come with an empty trunk.

*Starred wineries are participating in this weekend's WinterWINEland festivities this weekend. All are open. The rains are over for now. Expect sunny skies Friday Jan. 13 through Sunday, Jan. 15.

1. Ridge Vineyards* - The Old Vine Classic

Sonoma's largest organic grower (most people do not know that about Ridge), and one of the state's undisputed best wineries (most people do know this), Ridge has two locations - one in Cupertino (in the South Bay's Santa Clara County), and one in the old vine heartland of Lytton Springs, in Sonoma's Dry Creek Valley AVA.

Long known for its old vine Zinfandels, which it treats with the same respect as fine Cabernets, the winery is near the end of a multiyear transition to certified organic farming.

Farming: Certified organic (or in transition, depending on the particular wine and vintage)

Advice: Take the guided old vine tour (available in season) to get out into the vines

Don't Miss: East Bench Zinfandel, Geyserville Zin (from some of the oldest vines in California)

2. Skipstone - Luxury Cabernet in Alexander Valley

A little known pleasure, Skipstone is tucked away in a special spot in Alexander Valley, far from the madding crowd. You'll need an appointment to visit.

The estate belongs to a tech entrepreneur, Fahri Diner, who, with the help of Amigo Bob Cantisano, transformed an aging vineyard into a glorious estate. (Fun fact: Jess Jackson's former house is next door, but not visible). Expect

International super star Philippe Melka is the winemaker here.

Farming: Certified organic

Advice: Call in advance for a tasting appointment

Don't Miss: The estate's red wines - Cabernet and a Bordeaux blend (Cab Franc and Merlot) ($75-$125)

3. Preston Farm and Winery - Down Home Goodness 

If anyone can be said to be preserving Sonoma's agricultural legacy of farming, it's Preston, where farming, sheep and vineyards flourish on the flats in a secluded part of Dry Creek Valley.  Buy bread made by the proprietor Lou Preston daily, from his legendary oven on site, get yourself some local cheese in the tasting room, and settle in for a country visit. Picnic tables let you feast outside on the grassy lawn.

Farming: Certified organic and Biodynamic
Wines: Certified "Made with Biodynamic Grapes"

Advice: Allow time to take a relaxing, self guided walking tour of the farm (or, during the week, play bocce ball)

Don't Miss: Syrah ($30)

4. Quivira Vineyards - A Little Red, A Little White 

Quivira is an easy roadside stop on Dry Creek Valley. A modern tasting room looks out over a tasting room garden display area, where you can commune with chickens and raised beds.

Farming: Certified organic and Biodynamic (some of the estate; some of the estate is not)
Wines: Certified "Made with Biodynamic Grapes" (check with tasting room staff - not all of the wines are estate grown or certified)

Advice: Book a tour for the most fun

Don't Miss: Quest Zinfandel, Fig Leaf Sauvignon Blanc and (my favorite) the Rosé (all certified "Made with Biodynamic Grapes")

5. Kamen Estate Winery - Killer Mayacamas Cabernet

High above the southern end of Sonoma, with killer views looking out over the Bay all the way to San Francisco, the estate tour at Kamen is an extraordinary experience. This all estate winery is a labor of love built by two men - screenwriter Robert Kamen, the owner, with the help of Sonoma's organic vineyard rock star Phil Coturri.

The site is a hillside above Sonoma in the Mayacamas mountains.

Farming: Certified organic

Advice: Book the vineyard tour. (You can just taste in their downtown tasting room, too, but the vineyard tour is very special).

Don't Miss: Any wine they pour in your glass - they're all superb.

6. Horse and Plow - Eco and Artisanal

Horse and Plow is one of my favorite wineries in the entire state, because they fill a rare niche. They make everyday artisanal wines from organic vines. The husband-wife couple of winemakers Chris Condos and Suzanne Hagin work their magic using fruit from a variety of vineyards in Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino. Suzanne also makes some gorgeous Pinot Noir (the higher priced stuff) and white wines under Gardener label.

On top of that, the couple just opened a supercool tasting room in Sebastopol, next to their home, in town - and they make artisanal ciders as well!

Farming: Certified organic
Wines: Certified "Made with Organic Grapes"

Advice: Join the wine club and stock up

Don't Miss: The Pinots

7. Laurel Glen - Sonoma Mountain Grown Cab 

Like a great European estate, less is more at Laurel Glen, where their estate grown Cab is the main event. Duck into their Glen Ellen tasting room for a tasting. General manager Bettina Sichel, a veteran wine marketer from Napa, resuscitated this classic 16 acre, Sonoma Mountain site (you can't see the vines) with Phil Cotturi and brought joy to the world.

Farming: Certified organic (2014; 2012 was an in transition year)

Advice: Pick up a copy of Peter Sichel's autobiography, Secrets of My Life, written by proprietor Bettina's grandfather - for sale in the tasting room. The family has been in the wine business for five generations. The story is a fascinating romp through World War II in Europe, CIA adventures and bringing Blue Nun wines to America.

Don't Miss: The Cabernet

8. Hawley Winery* - Falcons and Hillside Cabs

People think of Dry Creek as Zin country, but it ain't necessarily so. The Hawley family has a great site up on Bradford Mountain, growing Cab and Merlot. Winemaker John Hawley, a legendary pioneer who brought Sonoma's wines up to new heights during his tenure as head winemaker at Clos du Bois and Kendall Jackson, has flown falcons since he was in his teens. If you're lucky, you may catch sight of them in flight.

Farming: Certified organic
Wines: "Made with Organic Grapes" (estate wines only)

Advice: Book ahead for the vineyard tour; you might get to see the family falcon

Don't miss: The Meritage

9. Hamel Family Winery - Classy Glen Ellen Estate 

New in town, but they're doing everything right and putting their heart and soul into it. And a lot of money to create a showpiece that honors nature. Just entering this tasting room, you sense that the room is paying homage to the land, with stunning views across the valley towards Sonoma Mountain. The wines are simply as gorgeous as the setting. Often translucent.

Fun fact: William Randolph and Phoebe Hearst once lived on this historic site.

Farming: Certified organic; in transition to Biodynamic certification

Advice: By appointment only so call to book. Buy a bottle and linger outside on the deck, enjoying the scenery.

Don't miss: The tour (book ahead)

10. Amapola Creek - The Hand of the Master

Richard Arrowood has earned his place in the sun as a Sonoma icon, who put Sonoma Cabs on the map decades ago, breathing new life into the region formerly known only as Napa's neighbor. His Amapola Creek winery is where he carries on his fine winemaking traditions, in a glorious hillside estate, planted over volcanic soils.

He recently celebrated his 50th anniversary as a winemaker with some blowout vertical tastings. You can taste current vintages during the morning and afternoon tastings, offered on weekdays.

Farming: Certified organic (estate wines and Chardonnay only)

Advice: Book ahead - it's the only way to visit

Don't miss: The Signature wine here is the estate Cabernet ($90)

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