What a day…the early morning fog, which usually doesn’t burn off until 11 or so, was gone by 8:30. We jump into the car for a sun drenched drive out to Sonoma, the county just west and a little north of Napa, to explore the wine country there. Sonoma is more rural, and not as developed/upscale, as its sister county, Napa. Many people say that Sonoma is how Napa used to be. We found the people to be very down to earth, friendly, and willing to take all the time in the world to talk about their passion: wine.
Ken did the research and chose 3 wineries for us to visit, based on timing of tours and tastings, cost, and size. Again, Sonoma, like Napa, has towns stacked from south to north, with many vineyards along the way. The three vineyards we visited were totally different: small, medium and corporate large. We had tours planned for the small and medium wineries.
The first winery we visited was Rodney Strong. One reason we picked that was that we had enjoyed that brand when we were at dinner with our friends in Sausalito after our visit to Muir Woods about 10 days ago. We had a tour with Allen at 11:00.
We started with the history of the winery. Rodney Strong was a trained ballet dancer and spent 4 years in Paris dancing at the Lido (which is like the Moulin Rouge, and to which I had even been to!). He returned to the States and decided to pursue his passion for wine, which he got while living in Paris. He bought the vineyard in 1959, making it the 13th bonded winery in Sonoma at the time. He stated that he knew he couldn’t be an old dancer, but he could be an old winemaker. I like his philosophy!
When he aged, he sold it to Tom Klein and his family, in 1989, who continue to run it today. Tom had a degree in business from Stanford and decided to use that training and combine it with his love of the wine industry. He is a wise man. As we found out, like the tip of an iceberg, there is A LOT to it!!
Allen took us out to the vines. There is so much to this part. We were near the Russian River Valley. There are so many micro climates around here as the topography has the foot hills, the valleys, water underneath the ground, or rock, etc. The soil, the drainage, the slope of the land, when the fog comes in the morning (or not), the temperature, the sunshine, the rain, everything you can’t control, effects the grapes. Also, there are so many variables that you can control: how you plant, how you prune, how you water or not, when you pick, etc. etc. And that’s just the vines! They also plant crops that nourish the soil and have 100% sustainability. Also, along environmental lines, they make sure they are carbon neutral in the vineyard. Very California!
We learned about barrels (each hold enough wine for 300 bottles and cost about $1000). The oak that they are made from can be gotten in France (the trees take 127 years to grow to have the optimum characteristics) or the U.S. (where it takes 37 years to grow, but they are not anywhere near the French ones in desirability). They are then burned (or a new process: scalding in very hot water) and shaped. Each barrel had the name of the grower, the forest they came from, the year, the process, etc. This all affects the aging. The reason the wine maker uses oak, is that oak breathes (and when some of the wine evaporates, it is called the “angel share”…note the red stain on the barrel from some leakage).
Another process with the barrels is called Malo-lactic (and another decision). It is a type of secondary fermentation which makes the wine taste “buttery”, especially the oak barreled chardonnay.
A couple of other things we learned from Allen were that red wine is fermented with its skins, which is what gives it its red color, while with white wine, skins aren’t used . Makes sense. There is a lot of chemistry involved, too, regarding sugar content, alcohol levels, ph, etc. etc. Very complicated. Another thing that struck me was that Allen kept calling the tanks and barrels the “winery”. I guess I had never made that association.
After the extensive tour, which took about an hour (and was just us, even though it is open to the public – and was free!), we went into the tasting building. Since by now Allen knew our whole story (and think he enjoyed how interested we were), he wanted to personally handle our tasting. They had a few to choose from. You could get 2 tastings for free, or 4 for $10 and $20 respectively, depending on the fineness of the wine. We chose the first one, but Allen, bless his heart, gave us more than the 2 and from the other lists, ending up with the most expensive wine offered as a tribute to our new retirement and trip to France! What a guy! Of course we bought a nice bottle of wine and gave him a nice tip, so everyone was happy.
We had a delightful picnic lunch that I had brought (French cheeses, a baguette, a wonderful tomato/avocado/onion salad in good olive oil, and grapes) sitting outside the tasting room overlooking the beautiful vineyards and foothills. The weather was sunny and getting warmer since we were more inland. A light breeze kept us comfortable, and of course it is very dry. Both the grapes and Ken and I enjoyed that weather.
Our next stop was a very small winery owned by an Australian, Chris Loxton.
It is near one of the towns: Glen Ellen, and is essentially a one man shop. Chris gave us a wonderful tour (again, we were alone with him) for 90 minutes! He is an interesting man. Chris has a PhD in Physics and ran a big lab at the University of IL (my undergrad alma mater) in Champagne/Urbana for 8 years. His family has had a vineyard/winery in Australia for 4 generations, where he learned how to do things. He has a deep tan (he said that if the winemaker doesn’t have a tan, that tells you he is not out in the grapes making decisions. He doesn’t know what he is doing…the grapes tell you all), and a twinkle in his eye. You can tell he loves all aspects of what he is doing. He raises 30% of his grapes and then buys the rest from other growers in the area (and acknowledges their name on his bottles). When he does this, he has full control over when they are picked and other aspects of the growing. He only has 5 types of wine and makes only about 100-250 cases of each. He has won numerous awards for his port. He told us that he contracts out pickers when the grapes are ready (when they turn from green to purple) and that the smaller the berry, the more intense the wine (that’s why red wines use a small grape so more skin and less internal juice).
Included in the tour (for $15 each person) was a tasting of all 5 types of his wines. He brought out some others, in addition to the usual tasting, that he wanted to share with us. He loved it that my son, Mark, was working on his PhD in Physics, that I had gone to U. of I. and that we were off to France partly for our interest in wine.
He was a delightful guy and would love to support his Loxton winery. I had him sign a bottle that we bought addressed to my brother. We intend to enjoy the contents and leave the bottle for him as a keepsake. We told this to Chris, and he wrote on there: “ To Gordie, this bottle WAS for you” and signed his name. I love it: a perfect Big Sister thing to do to her Little Brother. Gordie will not like it at all. LOL (Guess some sibling things you never grow out of.)
Another thing we learned from Chris is that 90% of wine bottles from Australia are screw top, so he uses that a lot, too. The reason is that Australia, obviously, has to export its wine a lot. They found that they were losing 8-10% of the corked bottles to mold on the cork itself. That’s a lot of waste and money lost, so they decided to go to screw top, which doesn’t affect the taste of the wine at all. It’s sort of a cultural shift, and seems like it has not caught on as much here in the States. Of course wines from CA don’t have to worry about exporting that much. The wineries have such a big market close by, that it’s not as much of an issue.
One thing that Chris told us about was how he watches the weeds and lets them tell him information about conditions which for him, determines what grapes to plant where. Ken, who enjoys gardening, was really struck by this. He never had viewed weeds as informative, just as nuisances!
We bid Chris “g-day”, and left the small one man shop, having really enjoyed our time with him.
Our last stop was to a big, well-known corporate giant: Kendall Jackson. There we just had a tasting, and Johnny, took care of us. A 27 year old cutie, he enjoyed talking and pouring, again, a lot more than was on the tasting sheet. We had a two for one coupon and got a nice tasting (with extra pourings, ala Johnny) for $10. He brought out his very favorite, an expensive blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and something called petit verdot. It was the Hawkeye Mountain label from Kendall Jackson, and only 106 cases are made each year. It is named for the mountain (one of 7 volcanoes in the area, many extinct) where Jess Jackson, of Kendall Jackson fame, is buried. Like the other 2 wineries we visited, Kendall Jackson practices 100% sustainability.
Because marketing is also a huge component contributing to the success of a winery, I could see how Kendall Jackson concentrated on this aspect. It’s tasting building and gardens were beautiful, and you could rent out some of its huge rooms for weddings/parties, etc. They had cooking classes, wine/food pairings, garden tours, etc. It was nice, but almost seemed like it should be in Napa, rather than Sonoma because of it being so upscale.
We left Johnny at almost 5, as that’s when they closed (as do most tasting rooms…you don’t want people drinking and driving on those country roads so late at night). We were off to the town of Sonoma for dinner at Meritage Martini Oyster Bar and Grille, a place that our friends that we had gone out with a couple of days ago had recommended. It was a hard decision, as there were so many other restaurant choices, but we had a delicious dinner (a Chef’s tasting with boar’s ribs, fresh local oysters, etc.) outside on their back patio. A very casual place, with great service, food, and wine. It was the perfect end to a memorable day.