On a recent visit to Napa Valley and Sonoma County, I visited some very unique and fascinating wine country destinations. The two regions each have their own personality and charm, and of course, world-class wines.
Napa Valley produces only 4 percent of California’s wine grapes, and only 9 percent of the county’s land mass is planted to grape vines, although it seems like a lot more when you drive through it on Highway 29. Within the valley’s varying topography of valley floor, sloping alluvial fans, steep mountain slopes and plateaus, there are 16 approved AVAs (American Viticulture Areas) in the region. Within those boundaries, there are approximately 700 grape growers and 325 winemaking facilities, representing roughly 450 brands. Ninety-five percent of Napa Valley’s wineries are family-owned.
Sonoma County generates only 6 percent of California’s wine production, with only 6 percent of its landmass devoted to grape vines. Sonoma County’s vineyards are directly impacted by their proximity to the 60-mile-long Sonoma Coast where the maritime fog blankets many of the vineyards, preserving acidity and complexity in the wines. Sonoma County has 15 unique regions, 450 small and family-owned wineries, many of which are in their third and fourth generations of ownership, and grows more than 50 types of grape varieties.
Trinchero Napa Valley
Back in 1948 Mario and Mary Trinchero, along with their three children, left their comfortable New York City life for the Napa Valley. They discovered and purchased an abandoned 19th-century winery called Sutter Home, and by the ‘70s, they were solidly entrenched in the Zinfandel business. Then in 1972, Bob Trinchero invented a little gem called White Zinfandel — no one needs to be told how successful that was! They used this new-found growth to start buying the best Napa vineyards they could find, and with the purchase of Folie à Deux winery in Rutherford in 2004, they now had the makings for creating the new Trinchero Napa Valley winery. Recreated from the ground up, the winery was designed as a showcase that displays the Trinchero family’s personality and history everywhere. With the addition of Mario Monticelli as the winemaker in 2007, the puzzle was complete and their first wine of exceptional quality was produced. State-of-the-art from head to toe, the winery is also equipped with a full restaurant kitchen, chef and staff for teaching and accommodating their guests with some of the best cuisine in the valley.
TNV produces an array of wines. As many as six types of Cabernet are produced from different appellations including Rutherford, St. Helena, Mt. Veeder and Atlas Peak. The two outstanding Merlots hail from Rutherford and Daybreak Block in Napa Valley. Mary’s Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Meritage from Napa Valley round out the portfolio.
The winery is located in Rutherford, just north of beautiful St. Helena, in a stunning setting with breathtaking views.
Rutherford Hill Winery
Rutherford Hill Winery is the Terlato family’s first owned winery. Situated on top of a hill in Rutherford, it is appropriately named. The views from the 26-acre estate are as spectacular as its wines. They farm 180 acres of Napa vineyards; two vineyards are in their home-based Rutherford appellation, and the other properties are in Pope Valley and Oak Knoll.
Merlot is king at Rutherford Hill, which was one of the first wineries to bottle Merlot as a stand-alone varietal back in the ‘70s. It still accounts for almost 60 percent of their production. Chardonnay, Cabernet and Barrel Select Red are also available from distributors, all of which are 100 percent Napa Valley fruit. They craft nearly a dozen wines at the facility including Quickfire, Tangley Oaks, the Luke Donald and Jack Nicklaus label wines, and The Terlato Family Vineyards wines, all under the direction of Marisa Taylor Huffaker, their winemaker since 2004. Marisa and all of the Terlato Wine Group winemakers as a whole are under the supervision of Doug Fletcher, VP of Winemaking for the Terlato Wine Group.
Rutherford Hill has a spectacular cave system, which is among the largest in California at over 40,000 square feet. With the naturally cool temperature and high humidity, it is the perfect atmosphere in which to age and maintain their wines. All their wines are barreled in 100 percent French oak, with the reds spending 16-18 months in the caves.
The Stags Leap District is Napa Valley’s smallest and most acclaimed sub-appellation. Located along the Silverado Trail in California’s Napa Valley, the Stags Leap District is home to many of the most elegant Cabernet Sauvignons grown on American soil, including the wines from Chimney Rock, where Cabernet is king. The Chimney Rock estate now comprises 119 acres of vineyards divided into 28 distinct blocks, allowing for highly specialized viticulture suited to each specific site. The Tomahawk, Alpine, Cardiac Hill, and Ganymede vineyards are all within a quarter mile of each other; however, they each display remarkable and consistent individuality.
The unique-to-the-valley, eye-catching architecture of Chimney Rock is often assumed to be Spanish Mission style, but in fact it was built in the Cape Dutch style of the Western Cape of South Africa by its original owners, Hack and Stella Wilson, in 1983. The original layout included a golf course, which was removed to be planted to Cabernet, a much more fitting purpose to the land. One of the more interesting architectural elements is the massive allegorical frieze of Ganymede, cupbearer to the gods, which decorates the gable of the original barrel room and can be seen from the tasting room courtyard.
The Terlato Family joined the Wilson family as partners in the winery in 2000, with the goal of enhancing Chimney Rock’s reputation for producing some of the world’s great estate Cabernet Sauvignons. In 2004, they assumed sole ownership of the property. With the vision of creating classic Stags Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, winemaker Elizabeth Vianna, who first came to Chimney Rock as a harvest intern in 1999, captures the estate’s unique terroir through meticulous vineyard management and careful, artistically minimal winemaking principles.
Duckhorn Winery was founded in 1976 by Dan and Margaret Duckhorn, and their first vintage in 1978 consisted of only 800 cases of Cabernet and 800 cases of Merlot. Their focus on Merlot was inspired by Dan’s travels to Pomerol and Saint-Emilion. The winery became known for the varietal and still is today. By the late 1980s, they set out to locate and purchase vineyard properties in recognized Napa Valley areas in order to acquire sufficient vineyard land to meet most of their long-term grape needs. They acquired seven estate vineyards that are located in prime locations of the Napa Valley as well as on the coveted slopes of Howell Mountain. Dan and Margaret divorced in 2000, and the controlling interest was sold to an equity firm in 2007. Today, Duckhorn Wine Company encompasses five distinct labels: Duckhorn Napa Valley, Paraduxx, Goldeneye, Migration and Decoy.
Bill Nancarrow, a world-travelled winemaker from Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, is the talented executive winemaker of Duckhorn Wine Company’s Napa Valley properties. Bill currently oversees production of Duckhorn Vineyards wines and works closely with Paraduxx winemaker David Marchesi, in guiding each winery’s dedicated winemaking teams. As the winemaker for Paraduxx, David Marchesi is committed to the simple yet bold idea that the Napa Valley, one of the great winegrowing regions of the world, is capable of producing truly exceptional blends that showcase a uniquely Californian personality.
Pinot Noir specialist and the winemaker for Goldeneye, Michael Fay is building on the Anderson Valley’s reputation as one of the world’s preeminent locations for growing Pinot Noir.
Winemaker Neil Bernardi is a specialist in crafting cool-climate Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and is the inspiration for the world-class Burgundian style wines of Migration.
For Decoy, it’s a team effort. Winemaker Don LaBorde works in collaboration with Bill Nancarrow overseeing the crafting of Decoy’s Bordeaux varietal wines, with Paraduxx winemaker David Marchesi on Decoy Zinfandel, with Migration winemaker Neil Bernardi for the Decoy Chardonnay, and he collaborates with Goldeneye winemaker Michael Fay on Decoy’s Pinot Noir.
Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens
Taste is everything at Kendall-Jackson, and not just when it comes to the wines. The Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens is a culinary destination for foodies and wine lovers from all over the country and a must-see on your visit to Sonoma County. The sensory adventure is both inside and out. I was treated to a wine and local-artisan cheese pairing, and as a cheese lover, I was blown away by the quality and flavor of the local cheeses.
We were first served Humboldt Fog goat cheese with 2011 Avant Chardonnay, accompanied by candied pomelo rind, to set the mood and get the taste buds aroused. That was followed by Boho Belle organic cow’s milk cheese with 2010 Grand Reserve Chardonnay, accented by fennel and golden raisin jam.
This went on for three more glorious pairings until we dismounted with a Bay Blue Cheese, estate-grown honey and candied walnuts, paired with a luscious 2007 Late Harvest Chardonnay. All the pairings were prepared in the Wine Estate’s own kitchen by Executive Chef Justin Wangler and his team. Cheese pairing is not the only tasting they provide; I’m sure the dessert pairing is just as amazing.
After the palate-pleasing tasting, it was time to give the olfactory senses a whirl outside in the Interactive Wine Sensory and Culinary Gardens. Herbs, fruit, flowers, vegetables and more await you. I started in the White Wine Garden, sampling – or should I say, smelling – peach, lemon, apple and pear in the Chardonnay section. Honeysuckle, orange blossom, nectarine, lemon and apricot were in the Viogner garden. The Pinot Noir garden offered blueberry, strawberry, violets, plum and more. The gardens are just stunning with olive trees and roses adjoining them as you journey thru this olfactory experience!
The botanical gardens continue with fresh herbs grown in the French, Italian, Latin and Asian gardens. Everything from tarragon to bok choy awaits your inspection! Trial gardens, seed research, pest management and more are done on property and shared with the horticulture community to improve farming and planting techniques throughout wine country.
Serenity and beauty align with fine wines and lavender at this Bennett Valley winery. Perhaps one of Sonoma County’s most aesthetically pleasing wineries, Matanzas Creek Winery has been focused on creating balanced, elegant wines since 1977. The vineyards of Bennett Valley, which was named an American Viticultural Area in 2003, are nestled between Sonoma, Bennett and Taylor mountain peaks in Sonoma County. These mountains capture the fog and cool air from the Pacific Ocean, making the temperature profile similar to that of the Russian River Valley. This cooling effect, from the Petaluma Wind Gap, produces a long growing season that’s ideal for grapevines, allowing them to be unhurried, yet hard-working. This, along with the well-drained mountain benchland soil, creates ideal conditions for growing exceptional cool-climate varietals.
Matanzas Creek Winery is owned by Jackson Family Wines, purchased from Sandra and Bill MacIver in 2000. The late Jess Jackson and his wife, Barbara Banke, bought land in the valley in the ‘90s after their studies showed the area had the climate, soils and topography to yield exquisite world-class wine grapes. They are now by far the largest land owner in the valley, owning nearly 400 acres of vineyards, including Jackson Park vineyards, a mountain vineyard estate just across Grange Road in front of the winery. Their holdings account for almost half of the 800 acres of wine grapes planted in this unique valley, where horse and cattle ranches nuzzle up against the vineyards scattered over the landscape.
Matanzas Creek produces wonderful Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. They also produce small amounts of their dessert wine, Dénouement, and Journey, their high-end flagship wine that is available in Chardonnay and Red Table Wine.
Besides exquisite wines, Matanzas Creek is also known for its lavender gardens. As each lavender stem reaches full bloom, it is hand-cut for use in culinary, bath, body and home products. Available only in the Matanzas Creek Tasting Room, on their website and in a few select California spa and boutique locations, these distinctive products are sought by consumers across the country, further adding to the Matanzas Creek mystique of beauty, fragrance and flavor that infuses everything they do.
Healdsburg in Northern Sonoma County has always been my favorite hangout while in Sonoma wine country. If you are not familiar with it, try it the next time you visit. From its central location, you can reach any winery in Russian River, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley with a short drive. There are plenty of bed and breakfasts around if you prefer that type of lodging. Hotels in the town plaza area, such as the Healdsburg Inn, Hotel Healdsburg and Les Mars, can be a bit pricy but offer the best atmosphere for your stay and night out dining and imbibing on the square. One tip for the best value is The Dry Creek Inn, located at the Best Western hardly a mile from the square. Ask for the Tuscan rooms; they are spacious Jacuzzi rooms and if you book them correctly, they are around $100.00.
The quaint, clean, adorable town plaza is the center of it all. Dozens of wineries have tasting rooms here; you can literally visit all your favorite wineries’ tasting rooms in an afternoon stroll! Eclectic artisan shops for the curious, cheese shops, wine shops, sweet shops (usually open later to catch your sweet tooth before calling it a night), clothing boutiques by the dozen and just about anything else you can think of are all here. Don’t forget to stop by the Oakville Grocery for your picnic supplies. They have the same great selection as the iconic store in Napa.
If you enjoy fine craft cocktails, and who doesn’t, it is absolutely, positively mandatory to stop in at Spoonbar (219 Healdsburg Ave). They make some of the best cocktails you’ll ever have — anywhere. The mixologists, led by Bar Manager Cappy Sorentino, will treat you to an unforgettable craft cocktail experience.
Partake by K-J, which is Kendall-Jackson’s Tasting Lounge and Flight Club on the plaza, is a smart stop. Explore a wide range of wine flights and seasonal bites from their gardens and Sonoma County’s culinary artisans. Executive Chef Justin Wangler oversees this little gem as well as the Kendall-Jackson Wine Center’s culinary program. Guaranteed good!
Try Bistro Ralph, right on the plaza, for a true bistro meal. Not too small, but intimate, they are open for lunch and dinner. Bistro Ralph offers daily specials that are to die for and a limited but delicious menu. They have a fun, interesting wine list, to boot – enjoy!
If you’re in the mood for a casual dinner and an ice cold brew, try the Bear Republic Brewing Company, just off the plaza on one of the access walks. Friendly service, good sandwiches, burgers and great beer!
There are plenty more great restaurants including Zin, Café Lucia, Dry Creek Kitchen, Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar and more. Don’t start too late because this is not a late night town; you won’t find much to eat past 10 p.m.