Nineteen years ago, I moved to Sonoma County and took a small, and what I thought would be temporary, step into the wine business. At the time, I lacked any knowledge of grapegrowing and winemaking, didn’t know anyone or my way around, and wasn’t even much of a wine drinker -- only the occasional White Zinfandel or Blue Nun, as a break from my beer-and-a-shot style.
On vacation in Sonoma County in 1987, the place flashed “HOME” like a big Las Vegas neon sign. I was taken by the beauty of the area -- not just the vineyards, but also the rivers and lakes, the mountains, redwood forests, winding country roads and rugged coastline -- and with the friendly people who went out of their way to be helpful. I loved the fact that I could dine in a fine restaurant and be seated next to a grapegrower in jeans and dusty boots.
So in 1990, I packed a U-Haul truck and moved to Sonoma, with no job in place. I’d figure it out when I got there, I told myself. If it didn’t work out, I could always return to San Diego.
Within a few weeks of arriving, a wine job fell into my lap, as a temporary harvest worker for a company that owned three Sonoma County wineries. For $7.50 an hour, I would check grape sugar levels in the vineyards in the mornings, and work in the cellars in the afternoons. I had no experience, yet I thought, what the hell, this will be a great way to meet people, familiarize myself with the area, get a workout and a tan, and bide time until I found a real job.
Today, I am no longer trim nor tanned, yet I know Sonoma County like the back of my liver-spotted hand. The short-term crush job eventually evolved into a career, introducing me to fine wine, warm, generous wine biz people from all walks of life, and the unexpected pleasure of sitting at a table with friends, eating a casual meal, drinking local wines and conversing well into the night. After two months working harvest, I had a major crush on Sonoma, and determined to make wine my new career.
As the 2009 harvest unfolds, I’ve been thinking about how much the Sonoma County landscape has changed since I arrived. I love the area as much now as I did when I arrived, yet things are definitely different, among them the increase in population, traffic, cost of living and tourists, and in my little town of Healdsburg, a trend toward upscale shops, restaurants and wine bars, replacing the mom-and-pops of the early 1990s.
At that time, the most important wineries included Buena Vista, Chateau St. Jean, Clos du Bois, Dry Creek Vineyard, Ferrari-Carano, Jordan, Matanzas Creek, Rodney Strong and Simi. Smaller, Italian-immigrant-founded producers, such as A. Rafanelli, Pedroncelli and Seghesio, had established themselves for their Dry Creek and Alexander valley Zinfandels, and Gloria Ferrer and Shug helped put Sonoma Carneros on the map as a cooler-climate source for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
These producers continue to make high-quality wines today, although some have had ownership changes since 1990, and a few have seen their personality blunted by corporate acquisition. Folks in the wine industry used to know all the players, and if a winemaker left to take another job, everyone buzzed about it. A label redesign was big news, and if a new winery opened its doors, the Press Democrat newspaper in Santa Rosa was all over it.
Now, when a Sonoma County winery changes hands, it draws merely a shrug, because it happens so often these days, with the recession and consolidation in the wine industry. Winemakers switch jobs like baseball managers switch teams. Big companies tweak their labels every few vintages to chase consumer trends, and new brands launch so frequently that most of us no longer know all the players. I see a new label on the shelf and ask, “Who are these guys?”
There are now more than 250 wineries in Sonoma County, and the number of producers has soared in other California regions as well, among them Napa Valley, Mendocino County, Monterey County, Santa Barbara County, Livermore and Lodi. Industry expansion, line extensions, changes of ownership, vintners selling their brands and creating new ones, the emergence of new growing areas, and the seduction of wealthy folks from other areas to grow grapes and make wine, all contribute to a tsunami of brands in the market, and confusion as to who makes what.
So in the past few months, I’ve made a concerted effort to learn what it is I don’t know. Instead of rolling my eyes at a new Sonoma County label, I’ve tried to learn more about it. If there is a wine I haven’t tried, I seek it out. And thankfully, some wineries still have public relations personnel to guide me, and consumers, to the wines.
Here are just a handful of my recent discoveries, wines that wine lovers should know about. It’s one thing to be new; it’s another to be new and provide high-quality, interesting wines. The producers below deliver those goods.
Benovia Wines – Mike Sullivan left Hartford Court Winery to join this new producer, based in the Russian River Valley, yet sourcing grapes from Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley as well. Benovia makes Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, and all the wines I tasted were top-notch and balanced. Best of the bunch: the 2007 Cohn Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, which is invitingly floral on the nose, with black cherry, black tea and spice flavors, and a crisp yet caressing mouthfeel.
Capture Wines – Ben and Tara Sharp’s first release is a remarkably complex, suave 2008 Sauvignon Blanc made from grapes grown on the Kick Ranch in Santa Rosa and the Windrem Ranch in Kelseyville, Lake County. Their ultimate strength likely will be Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style red blends, made by former Chateau Latour winemaker Denis Malbec and his wife, May-Britt. The grape source is Tin Cross Vineyards, overlooking Cloverdale, some 2,400 feet above the Alexander Valley floor, and while the reds won’t be released until 2010, the site suggests spectacular wines.
Cobb Wines – Each of winemaker Ross Cobb’s six Sonoma Coast Pinot Noirs are 13.5% alcohol or lower – an admirable achievement, as each wine has plenty of ripe fruit flavor and a suppleness that makes it enjoyable now, yet also deserves cellaring for up to 10 years. All his wines have pure fruit, elegance and refreshing acidity; my hands-down favorite is the 2006 Coastlands Vineyard Diane Cobb Block Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir -- pricey at $72 per bottle, yet pure and ethereal, with multi-layered texture and flavor, and a dead-ringer for Grand Cru Burgundy.
Grey Stack Cellars – The brand launched as Dry Stack Cellars, but the Williams & Humbert winery in Spain, producer of Dry Sack Sherry, strongly encouraged Peter and Marie Young to change the name. In 2008, Dry Stack became Grey Stack, and the wines -- Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Grenache and a Syrah-Grenache blend -- are made from estate grapes grown in Bennett Valley, east of Santa Rosa, and the Greywacke Vineyard in Russian River Valley. The best wine to try now is the keenly balanced, rich yet racy 2008 Rosemary's Block Sauvignon Blanc Bennett Valley.
Huge Bear – Tim Carl uses Knights Valley grapes for his Huge Bear brand, which includes Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. A Napa Valley native, Carl earned a Ph.D. in genetics, worked as a strategic management consultant, and cooked at Auberge du Soleil, John Ash & Co. and Chateau Souverain. His 2005 Sonoma Cabernet Sauvignon is, as the brand name implies, a big wine, yet it’s balanced and with a refreshing finish.
Kelley & Young – Jim Young is the son of Robert Young, Alexander Valley’s iconic grapegrower who died in June 2009. While Jim has been heavily involved in his father’s Robert Young Vineyards and Robert Young Estate Winery, he and his wife, Kathleen, branched out with their own label, Kelley & Young. Current releases are a gorgeous 2007 Alexander Valley Sauvignon Blanc, which spent two months in French oak, yet is crisp and refreshing, and a 2007 Kathleen Rosé, an unusual blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot that is surprisingly lively and fresh.
Sojourn Cellars – Partners Erich Bradley and Craig Haserot produce Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon under this label, yet it’s their Pinot Noirs, all from the Sonoma Coast appellation, that grab me by the throat. The 2007 Sangiacomo Vineyard Sonoma Coast is expressive of its windy, chilly place in the Penngrove-Cotati area. Unblocked from ocean winds and fog, this vineyard in the Petaluma Gap produces vibrant, high-acid Pinot Noirs, with firm structure, velvety tannins, crisp red fruit and a refreshing finish.
Thomas George Estates – The Baker family of Toronto, Canada, purchased Davis Bynum’s winery and vineyards in Russian River Valley in 2008. Since then, the Bakers have begun modernizing the winery and hired vineyard consultant Ulises Valdez to refurbish the estate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vineyards – now called Baker Ridge Vineyards. The Bakers also purchased the Cresta Ridge and Starr Ridge vineyards from Gary Farrell, making Thomas George a potentially powerful player in Russian River Valley. With its vineyards in redevelopment, Thomas George has relied on purchased grapes to get things started. The Thomas George 2008 Sonoma Valley Viognier is on the leaner, refreshing side, with white flower and honeysuckle aromas, and crisp white peach and pear flavors.