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Sonoma County

The Sonoma County area is one of my favorites based on scenery and serenity alone. Throw in a healthy dose of wineries producing some of the best wines in the world and you have a wine-lovers paradise. Sonoma County wineries are often separated into two general areas: Sonoma County (North) and Sonoma Valley (South). The northern area includes the districts of Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill and the Russian River Valley, and the cities of Geyserville, Healdsburg, Guernville. The southern area includes the districts of Sonoma Mountain and Carneros (which is shared with Napa), and the cities of Santa Rosa, Glen Ellen, and Sonoma. The rocky soil, good drainage, warm days, and cool, sometimes foggy nights provides an excellent climate for growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. Although tasting rooms can get quite busy during weekends and the summer months, they are usually far less crowded than those in the Napa Valley.

Sonoma County (North)

This area includes the districts of Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill and the Russian River Valley, and the cities of Geyserville, Healdsburg, Guernville.

Alexander Valley Vineyards
8644 Hwy 128, Healdsburg / 707-433-7209

The rustic appearance of the Alexander Valley Vintners tasting room and the friendly staff both add to this winery's charm. The winery produces Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Syrah, Merlot, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and a Cabernet blend called Cyrus. The wines are all high quality and reasonably priced-- the Viognier and Zinfandel were among my favorites. The pricier Cyrus blends (there were 3 vintages available) are the obvious standouts and produced some discussion in my group as to which we liked the most.

Armida Winery
2201 Westside Road, Healdsburg / 707-433-2222

Named after founder Bob Frugoli's grandmother, Armida is located on a hill overlooking the Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys. The hospitality center looks like a geodesic dome that collided with a Cape Cod house, and is unique and quite attractive. The view from the tasting room is impressive: overlooking landscaped grounds, an attractive pond and the valley below. The wine list includes several Chardonnays, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Zinfandel. My favorite was a light and fruity Chardonnay with peach and pear aromas and was reasonably priced .

Canyon Road Cellars
19550 Old Redwood Hwy, Geyserville / 707-857-3417

Fformerly the Nervo Winery, Canyon Road Cellars is one of Sonoma County's oldest wineries. The tasting room is comfortable and offers gift items and some cheeses. The Canyon Road wines, especially a floral Sauvignon Blanc and a buttery/lemony Chardonnay, are very good values. Wines under the Venezia label are also tasted for a fee and includes a Regusci Vineyard Chardonnay with vanilla, butterscotch and tropical flavors, a Bianco Nuovo Mundo Meritage, a Cabernet Sauvignon and several Sangioveses.

Chateau Soverain
400 Independence Lane, Geyserville / 707-433-8281

Chateau Soverain, one of the most attractive wineries in Sonoma County, is fashioned in the style of a French chateau (with a little bit of Hop Kiln thrown in) perched on a hillside above the vineyards. On the afternoon we were there, wild turkeys were roaming through the vines. We tasted a floral and peachy Viognier, a reserve Chardonnay with aromas of spiced apple and buttered toast and Rhone-style blend called Composee which was spicy and tannic with flavors of berries, plums and nutmeg. My favorites were a Dry Creek Zinfandel and an Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon with berry, currant and vanilla aromas. There are wine-related gift items in the tasting room and an adjoining restaurant.

Clos du Bois
19410 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville / 707-857-3100

Clos du Bois is one of northern Sonoma County's largest wineries and the winery complex was recently extensively remodeled. The new tasting room is a large, open space with cathedral ceilings, wood beams and a large, roomy tasting bar. The wine list consists of the classic varietals for the area, including Alexander Valley selections. Particularly outstanding was the Marlstone Vineyard Meritage which had a fruity, berry taste, and the Briarcrest Vineyard 100% Cabernet Sauvignon with plum, raspberry jam and cassis flavors and a dry finish.

De Loach Vineyards
1791 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa / 707-526-9111

De Loach is located in a ranch-style, weathered complex with a small courtyard in the center. The wine list is extensive and they offer a selection of six or seven for tasting. The Fume Blanc was non-grassy with aromas of figs, the Chardonnay (of which they had four variations) was crisp and buttery with aromas of green apple, the White Zinfandel was effervescent and better than most, and the Gewurtztraminer was semi-sweet with floral and green apple aromas. There were several Cabernet Sauvignons- the Estate Bottled was rich with blackberry and chocolate aromas and an estate Zinfandel tasted of raspberries and currants. The list also includes Pinot Noir, Merlot, Petite Sirah and Port and most are moderately priced.

Dry Creek Vineyards
3770 Lambert Bridge Road / 707-433-1000

Dry Creek Vineyards is a very attractive ivy-covered winery set in a peaceful tree-studded setting. The tasting toom has tall, wood beamed ceilings and the tasting staff was extremely friendly. Our host, Dolly Oberti-Rinn (aka "the Dolly Mama) has worked at the winery for 16 years. We found a light, fresh Chenin Blanc with citrus and tropical flavors and an orange finish, a complex Reserve Fume Blanc (aged sur lie) with tropical fruit, melon and butterscotch aromas, and a Reserve Chardonnay with tropical, honey, butterscotch and apple flavors. An old vine Zinfandel had raspberry, strawberry jam and pepper flavors, a Meritage tasted of blackberry, black cherry and cassis, a Cabernet Franc had spicy black cherry and plum flavors, and a Cabernet Sauvignon had blackberry and currant flavors and was a good value.

Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery
8761 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg / 707-433-6700

This is one of the most impressive winery complexes in Sonoma County. In the form of a magnificent old-world Italian Villa, including formal gardens, Roman columns, manicured lawns, flowing water and magnificent views (the scenery directly behind the tasting bar is worth the visit alone), this winery is worth a visit even if you don't drink wine. And if you do, the wines are very good. You'll find a wide selection of quality wine related gifts in the tasting room. Be sure to walk down to the wine cellar below the tasting room for an impressive view and through the gardens just off the main path.

There were two reserve Chardonnays, one with burnt caramel, butter and apple flavors and another with apricot, peach and butter flavors. The Merlot tasted of blackberry, plum and currant, while the Cabernet Sauvignon had plum, raspberry, currant and mint flavors. Both had a long, tannic finish. A Sangiovese/Cabernet blend called Siena had berry, plum and strawberry jam flavors with a dry finish, and a fruity Bordeaux blend called Tresor had hints of chocolate and wood with a tannic finish. A Fume Blanc, Syrah, Zinfandel, Sangiovese and Cabernet Franc round out the list.

Hanna Winery
9280 Hwy 128, Healdsburg / 707-431-4310

Hanna's beautiful tasting room is perched upon a hill, offering a memorable view of the surrounding vineyards. Hanna produces Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay,Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel. The Elias Chardonnay, touted as "creme broulee in a glass," was big and buttery, with melon and citrus flavors. My favorites were a Bismark Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon, with black cherry and tobacco flavors, and a big, bold and toasty Bismark Ranch Zinfandel-- one of the best in the county.

Hop Kiln Winery
6050 Westside Road, Healdsburg / 707-433-6491

The winery gets it's name from the former hop kiln (a historic landmark) that houses the winery and tasting room. A quick tour around the rustic tasting bar will reveal the steel vats and wooden kegs of the working winery below. Sarah Walker, the tasting room manager, poured a crisp Chardonnay, a raspberry flavored Zinfandel, a jammy reserve Zinfandel, and a Zinfandel/Valdiguie/Cabernet blend called Marty Griffin's Big Red, a very good value red table wine. There are some inviting picnic tables around a small pond and a few gift items sold in the tasting room.

Korbel Champagne Cellars
13250 River Road, Guernville / 707-824-7000

This historic winery in the Russian River town of Guernville, is one of the most interesting and impressive wineries in California, if not the most, and is worth going out of your way for. I have several times. Not only are the flowered grounds and castle-like buildings magnificent, you will be treated to the most complete and informative winery tour you will most likely experience. Visitors are treated to a museum depicting the history of the winery, an interesting slide show, a lengthy tour of the stone cellars, and a relaxed tasting. The sparkling wines are excellent and most are widely available. Korbel also produces some varietal wines and an excellent brandy, although the latter is not available for tasting.

Quivira Vineyards
4900 W. Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg / 707-431-8333

The Quivera tasting room is located in a somewhat modern barn-like building with large glass doors that offer a view of oak aging barrels stacked floor to ceiling. There were two non-grassy Sauvignon Blancs including a fruity Reserve with flavors of pineapples, lemon, butter and green apple. A light Dry Creek Cuvee was a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre and Zinfandel and the list was rounded out by a medium-bodied Zinfandel and a somewhat dry Merlot. There are also several gift items and books sold in the small tasting room. Prices are reasonable: from $11 for a white table wine to $20 for the Merlot.

Silver Oak Cellars
24625 Chianti Road, Geyserville / 707-857-3562

This impressive winery resembles a large English country estate but was in fact built in the image of the horse stables at Stanford. This is a beautiful complex with a charming courtyard complete with three-tiered fountain. The winery has a long-standing reputation for producing one of Sonoma County's premier Cabernet Sauvignons and I was not disappointed at my last visit. Although they were sold out of the Alexander Valley Cabernet, they did have the Napa Valley Cabernet available for tasting. The $5.00 tasting fee for the one selection may sound steep, but a taste of this Cabernet that includes a very nice logo glass is worth the price. This Cabernet was complex and rich, with cassis, blackberry and even a hint of nutmeg, with a slightly tannic finish. This wine was aged in oak for 30 months and will age nicely for 10 to 15 years. They also produce a Port, which I was sorry to hear was not available for tasting.

Simi Winery
16275 Healdsburg Road, Healdsburg / 707-433-6981

Simi's tasting room is situated right on Healdsburg Road just north of town, but once in the winery complex you may feel somewhat removed from civilization's madness. The stone winery is built around an open courtyard shaded by redwood trees and the tasting room is an octagonal room made of stone and wood-beamed ceilings. Simi is one of the largest wineries in the area and it is reflected in the wine list. The whites consisted of a tropical/citrus/buttery Sauvignon Blanc, a Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon blend and four Chardonnays including a wonderful Carneros appelation which tasted of vanilla, butterscotch and raw almonds. There were two Zinfandels-- one from 95-year old vines and a medium-bodied Dry Creek Valley Zin. There was also a jammy Shiraz (aka Sirah) with nuances of vanilla, a wonderful, heavy bodied and tannic Cabernet Sauvignon with flavors of blackberry jam, and a Muscat Canelli with orange, peach and pear aromas. There is a large selection of quality wine-ralated gifts in the tasting room.

Topolos at Russian River Vineyard
5700 Gravenstein Hwy. N, Forestville / 707-887-1575

This winery is rural simplicity at it's best. The main two-story structure contains the well-known Russian River Restaurant upstairs and a small, funky tasting room below. They specialize in organically grown fruit using mostly dry-farming techniques. The wine list was surprisingly long and included no less than seven Zinfandels, ranging from light and fruity wines to a smooth Zin from 110-year old vines. I liked a fruity, tannic Rossi Ranch Zinfandel. Of the other wines, the Gewurtztraminer had apricot/peach/honey aromas, a Charbono had strong berry flavors and a Muscat L' Orange was light with a distinctive orange/apricot aroma. This is a friendly place where the staff (looking more like surfers than wine hosts) made sure guests had a good time.

Trentadue Winery
19170 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville / 707-433-3104

Trentadue's tasting room is located on the upper level of a rather nondescript winery building but the wood-paneled room is light and airy, as is the winery staff. THe wine list included Chardonnay, two sparkling wines, Sangiovese, Carignane, Zinfandel and a Zinfandel blend. A Merlot was full-flavored with blackberry and black cherry aromas and the Cabernet Sauvignon had aromas of blackberry, cassis and dark chocolate with a long finish. The most interesting were the dessert wines: a French Colombard-based White Port and a Merlot Port with Chocolate Essence which was infused with chocolate flavors before bottling.

White Oak Vineyards
7505 Hwy 128, Healdsburg / 707-433-8429

The unique exterior styling of the White Oak Vineyards hospitality center, complete with tropical foliage and a giant gorilla, appears to be more plantation than winery. The spartan and tasteful interior incorporates a long tasting bar with plenty of room to move about and includes a second story gallery featuring a local artist. The staff was friendly and Denise, the Director of Hospitality, was more than accommodating. This is also an excellent spot for a picnic, as there are tables placed along the edge of the vineyards.

The wines included a Sauvignon Blanc, several Chardonnays, Napa and Alexander Valley Merlots, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The Russian River Valley Chardonnay was smooth and buttery with apple and melon flavors, the Alexander Valley Merlot was rich and fruity and the Napa Valley Syrah, my personal favorite, was big and fruity, with plum and peppery characteristics.

Don't Miss: Ferrari-Carano for the grounds, Korbel for the tour, and Silver Oak for the wines.

Favorite Picnic Spot: White Oak Vineyards (Sandwiches from the Jimtown Store)


Sonoma Valley (South)

This area includes the districts of Sonoma Mountain and Carneros (which is shared with Napa), and the cities of Santa Rosa, Glen Ellen, and Sonoma.

Benzinger Family Winery
1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen / 707-935-4046

Benzinger is one of my favorite wineries in the Sonoma Valley. Adjacent to Jack London State Park, the winery is pleasing and well laid out, the grounds are interesting (antique farm implements line the walkway) and the wines are great. The tasting room hosts one of the most complete wine-related gift shops I've seen.

B.R. Cohn Winery
15000 Sonoma Hwy, Glen Ellen / 707-938-4064

The winery was started by Bruce Cohn, the man that discovered the Doobie Brothers band, and is evident by the platinum and gold records that adorn the walls of the small tasting room. The wines consist of several tropical Chardonnays, a Pinot Noir with cherry and black tea aromas, a Paso Robles Cabernet Sauvignon with full up-front flavors of berries and cherries, and a complex estate Cabernet with intense berry flavors and a long finish. Also available is a line of olive oils, which is appropriate from this location of a former olive farm. There is a picnic area just outside the tasting room.

Buena Vista Winery
18000 Old Winery Road, Sonoma / 707-938-1266

The Buena Vista Winery was established in 1857 making it the oldest premium winery in California. The longer-than-average stroll from the parking lot along a tree-shaded path brings the visitor to the historic stone winery. The tasting room is cavernous, and has one of the larger selections of wine-related gifts. The wine, especially the reserves, were generally excellent. I particularly liked the Carneros Grand Reserve Chardonnay, the 1997 "Celebration" Zinfandel and the Late Harvest Zinfandel.

Gundlach-Bundschu Winery
2000 Denmark Road, Sonoma / 707-938-5277

Gundlach-Bundschu is definitely the most fun winery in the valley. Humor abounds with friendly attendants, contemporary music, and humorous posters on every wall. I felt the Gewurtztraminer was their best wine, and the Bearitage, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel, is a very good value. Also available is Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel. As their "sobriety test" poster states: "If you can't say Gundlach-Bundschu Gewurtztraminer you shoulnd't be driving."

Imagery Vineyards
14355 Hwy 12, Glen Ellen / 707-935-3000

Imagery, part of the Benzinger Family Wineries, moved into the new tasting room, formerly occupied by Sonoma Mountain Brewery, in 2001. The room is dominated by a double-sided tasting bar, surrounded by a gallery of artwork created for each and every unique wine label. The atmosphere is relaxed and offers much to take in, and the staff is friendly. Our host, Douglas, was very informative. There is an arty, eclectic patio in which one can relax and enjoy a picnic or a glass of wine.

Imagery produces Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, White Burgundy, Sangiovese, Lagrien, Cabernet Franc, Claret, Petite Syrah, and several Cabernet Sauvignons. The Cabernet Franc is excellent, exhibiting black cherry and toasty cedar flavors. Both vineyard specific Cabernet Sauvignons are equally as good: the Ash Creek with blackberry, white pepper and cedar flavors and the smooth Sunny Slope Vineyard, with notes of chocolate and bramble.

Kunde Estate Winery
10155 Sonoma Hwy 12, Kenwood / 707-833-5501

The tasting room is built on the site of an old barn and was designed to imitate the barn it replaces. Approaching the winery from the parking lot, the visitor walks beside a concrete picnic area that protrudes over a relaxing pool complete with fountains. The tasting room, long and simple with exposed redwood beams, is entered via dramatic 10-foot plus doors. The wines, made from estate-grown grapes, include several Chardonnays (the Reserve has flavors of honey, green apples and butterscotch), a peach and honey flavored Viognier, Gewurtztraminer, a fruity and peppery Zinfandel, a smooth Merlot, Claret and red and white table wines. It is well worth taking the tour to see the 32,000 square feet of wine caves, the fifth largest in the U.S., burrowed into a hillside below Chardonnay vines.

18701 Gehricke Road, Sonoma / 707-938-1960

Ravenswood is the place to go if you like Zinfandel and you may find yourself fighting for elbow room at the tasting counter. As Zinfandel accounts for three-quarters of their production, there are several styles to choose from and each has a very distinctive qualitity- ranging from light and fruity to full-bodied and complex. I particularly liked the bright Amador County Zinfandel and the big, peppery Barracia Vineyard Zinfandel. Ravenswood also produces Chardonnay, Gewurtztraminer, several Merlots, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and an assortment of Cabernet blands. The Pentimento, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon was excellent. You'll also find quite a selection of wine-related gift items in the gift shop.

St. Francis Winery & Vineyards
100 Pythian Road, Santa Rosa / 800-543-7713

St. Francis is one of the most attractive wineries in Sonoma Valley. The visitor center is based on mission-style archetecture with a beautiful, grassy courtyard overlooking the vineyards. The tasting room is ample in size, anchored by a huge fireplace and long, attractive tasting bar, and offers a selection of gift items. Our host, Louis, was one of the most gracious hosts I've encountered at any winery.

The wine list is extensive, with selections of Sonoma County and reserve wines. The winery produces Chardonnay, Merlot, Mourvedre, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Franc, and an assortment of Cabernet Sauvignons and Zinfandels. Three wines were standouts: the full-bodied Nuns Canyon Cabernet Sauvignon with plum and pepper notes; the Behler Merlot, exhibiting good structure and plum and black cherry flavors; and the big, jammy and earthy Zichichi Vineyard Zinfandel, with some leather and olive flavors on the finish. The winery also produces an excellent Sonoma County Port for a very reasonable price.

Viansa Winery and Italian Marketplace
25200 Arnold Dr., Sonoma / 707-935-4700

Viansa is one of Sonoma Valley's southernmost wineries and is an ideal place to begin or end a winetasting tour. Here you will find an impressive blending of excellent wines, gourmet foods, bakery and deli items, a wide selection of unique gifts and classic old-world charm. The openess of the wood-beamed tasting room gives the impression that this truly is an Italian marketplace. The name "Viansa" is actually derived from the owners' names: Sam Sebastiani (of the Sebastiani Winery family) and his wife Vicki. The long list of wines are only available at the winery and include several Italian varietals and blends including Arneis, Dolcetto, Nebbiolo, Barbera and Muscat Canelli, as well as several traditional Chardonnays, Zinfandel and an excellent Merlot featuring loganberry, rhubarb and smoky aromas. Our wine hostess Paisly had an impressive knowledge of the wines and was friendly and informative. There is also a 90-acre wetland behind the beautiful winery.

Don't Miss: Benzinger, Buena Vista, Ravenswood, St. Francis and Viansa

Picnic Picks: Benzinger, Buena Vista and Viansa

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