California Wine, Palate Press, Sonoma, Sonoma Wine Country
WOW! sums up my first hot air ballooning experience. My husband surprised me for my birthday with the trip during our Sonoma Wine Country Weekend. What a way to see wine country!
It was an early morning start but so worth it. We met the Up & Away crew at the Sonoma County Airport. Conditions were perfect so we headed over to an area on the runway to prep for take off. It was a chilly clear morning (dress in layers) but we warmed up quickly as we assisted the crew. It starts out slowly…laying out tarps, unrolling the balloon, cold inflating with a giant fan…then they fire up the burners and things literally heat up.
Our balloon, Sonoma Star, was inflating nicely just as the other two balloons going up that morning were. We were lucky enough to be in a private ride with our pilot Jimmy. Then the winds started to shift and our balloon started to blow sideways. The crew rushed to try to keep it inflating evenly. There was talk of having to start over. The other balloons were almost done. When the wind shifted again, Sonoma Star started to rise as we all held onto the basket to keep it down. Jimmy instructed us to jump in the basket… and we were off. Suddenly it was quiet and we were floating up into the air looking at the other two balloons below us. Incredible… this must be what it feels like to fly!
For the next seventy-five minutes we floated where Mother Nature took us…winds driving us south to Santa Rosa. It was a quiet still Sunday morning, not a cloud in the sky, it warmed as the sun rose in the sky. The only noise came when Jimmy fired up the burners. We floated over houses, waved good morning to people, scared a few horses and cows, and just enjoyed the majestic views of the vineyards, many still full of color, the mountains in the distance with the fog laying close yet to burn off.
The crew stayed in touch and tracked us on the ground. Then came the fun part…where to land? We couldn’t quite make it to our destination as the winds calmed so we wound up landing in a nice open field. The crew caught up with us to help. And then two other ‘crews’ who had been following us showed up…two cars full of little boys insisting their parents follow us for the last thirty minutes. Jimmy brought us down safely and the boys helped pack up the balloon.
After all the excitement we headed over the Kendall Jackson Winery Estate for a champagne brunch in their vineyards. Mike, owner of Up and Away, was there to greet and thank us.
Everyone, including our hotel The Farmhouse Inn, recommends Up and Away. They do private balloon rides, groups (one of the balloons up with us held about 10 people) and even do weddings in the balloons!!
Put this on your lifetime MUST GO list. It’s a phenomenal experience!
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For the last day of our Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, we headed into northern Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley, known for Cabernet Sauvignon, and Dry Creek Valley, known for Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc produced from its warm days and morning fog off the Pacific Ocean. These two wine areas definitely feel different than the Russian River Valleyâ€¦more hills, warmer, lots of colorful leaves still on the vines.
Jordan is a gorgeous 1,300-acre estate in the Alexander Valley with a stunning 18th century chateau replica sitting at the end of its winding driveway. Of all the wineries we visited on the trip, this is the biggest (70,000-90,000 cases per year) and most easy to find wine in your market (now available in all fifty states and thirty countries). I began a conversation with Jordan last September during the #CabernetDay virtual wine tasting event. Very impressed with the Cabernet Sauvignon education they gave me that day, I thought it a good place to visit so we booked a tour.
Jordan started in 1972 when Tom Jordan, a trained geologist in the oil and gas business from Denver, bought this property. Tom and his wife, great lovers of European wine and food, actually tried to buy ChÃ¢teau Margaux in the late 1960s until the French realized they were American. Then one night after enjoying an incredible California wine from Georges de Latour’s Beaulieu Vineyard made by AndrÃ© Tchelistcheff they decided to build a winery in California. Now run by Tom’s son John, Rob Davis, their winemaker for thirty-five years (mentored by Tschelistcheff), leads production of their Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
The winery tour was a treatâ€¦ worth booking in advance and the $30 per person fee. Maribel greeted our small group of six and lead us on an educational grounds and chateau tour, stopping along the way for lovely wine tastings paired with delicious nibbles from Jordan’s chef Todd Knoll. The property is beautiful and the wine facilities state of the art including their own irrigation system. The Barrel Room is impressive with 4,000 barrels stacked high and the Library full of old wines and artifacts. Our last stop was the Cellar Room, revealed behind a secret door in the Library, where we enjoyed a sit down wine tasting paired with yummy artisan cheeses and the Jordan Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
We tasted their ’09 Chardonnay Russian River Valley, ’00 Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County, ’03 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley and ’07 Cabernet Sauvignon Alexander Valley. My favoriteâ€¦
Jordan wines are definitely worth picking up to try at home and if you’re in Sonoma, they are worth booking a visit. The team was extremely welcoming! When you book a tour you’re automatically enrolled in their Jordan Estates Rewards Program where you accumulate points for exclusive experiences with Jordan. Also check out their website and follow them on Twitter (@jordanwinery).
In planning our trip, Unti was on my list to visit. But as they are by appointment tastings and I hadn’t made an appointment in advance, I didn’t think we’d get to them. In route to Dry Creek Valley and our third stop, I saw Unti’s sign on the side of the road so we decided to pop in. So glad we did!
Unti Vineyards is a family affair started by George Unti and his wife Linda in 1997. Their son Mick manages operations and winemaking. Gina is their daughter. George’s family roots go back to Tuscany where his father was from. After years in the grocery business, George got into wine and now they have sixty acres of grapes growing eleven different varietals. Here’s a great map of their vineyards.
Dry Creek Valley’s climate is ideal for growing classic Mediterranean grape varieties. Unti’s goal is to make the best and most interesting wines from their property in partnership with Mother Nature. French Sebastian Pochan has been their winemaker for eight years.
Gina tasted us through their ’10 Cuvee Blanc, ’08 Grenache, ’09 Segromigno, ’08 Zinfandel, ’08 Syrah, ’07 Syrah Benchland and ’09 Petit Frere. My favorite and what we brought homeâ€¦
A fun laid back experience awaits you at Unti and some fantastic wines!! Definitely make an appointment to stop by or as they are small production, around 7,000 cases, you can also buy them online.
We found our way up into the Dry Creek Valley for our last winery visitâ€¦the gorgeous Spanish mission-style estate of Michel-Schlumberger. Another Twitter connection (@M_Schlumberger and @sonomawineguy), I thought it would be fun to stop by to say hi. I tried and loved their Pinot Blanc over dinner at Zazu a few nights before so wanted to taste more of their wines.
The estate was founded in 1979 by Jean-Jacques Michel from Switzerland and originally named Domaine Michel. In the early 1990′s Jacques Schlumberger, who’s family had been making wine in the French Alsace for four hundred years, joined Jean-Jacques and his business partner Ridgely Bullock creating the current name. Known for their excellent Bordeaux varietals they concentrate on Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Chardonnay. Winemaker Bryan Davidson develops wines that are imprinted with the terrior and nuances of each vintage.
We sat outside on the gorgeous patio looking out onto the vineyards for a fun tasting with Laurie, their wine educator…’10 La Nue Unoaked Chardonnay, ’09 Le Fou Pinot Noir (they are the only Pinot Noir in the Dry Creek Valley, made in true Burgundian style), ’07 Le Sage Merlot, ’08 La Cime Cabernet Sauvignon and ’09 La Source Syrah. My favoriteâ€¦
We bought a bottle of the Merlot to bring home. And as a birthday gift Jim and Laurie were sweet enough to give me a bottle of their Pinot Blanc! The winery offers a variety of tasting options and tours all by appointment.
That wraps up the three days of winery tours. Lastly I’ll share details on our exhilirating hot air balloon ride and delicious dining!
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On the second day of our Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, after an exhilarating early morning hot air balloon ride over Sonoma County vineyards, we visited wineries in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Valleyâ€¦Martinelli Vineyards and Winery, VJB Vineyards & Cellars and Muscardini Cellars.
Our first stop was in the Russian River Valley just off River Road at Martinelli’s historic old red hops barn home to their tasting room and winemaking facilities. Now in the families fifth generation of winemakers, it all started in 1860 when Giuseppe and Luisa Martinelli came to California from Tuscany, Italy where Guiseppe had been a winemaker. After two years of working in Forestville they purchased their own land on a 60 degree slope planting Zinfandel and Muscat Alexandria Vines. This slope became known as Jackass Hill Vineyard, when in the early 1900′s the family told son Leno, who had taken over the farming when Guiseppe passed away, that only a jackass would farm a hill that steep. Today this land remains the steepest non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County and is home to some of the region’s best single vineyard designate Zinfandel.
Leno’s son Lee Sr. took over and in 1973 expanded the vineyards to include Uncle Tony Bondi’s apple orchards replanting with grapes. Lee and his wife Carolyn started the winery on its current site in 1987. In 1993 they brought in the county’s most talented winemaker Helen Turley, Winemaker of the Year from Food & Wine in 1999. She still consults with current winemaker Bryan Kvamme while Lee Sr and his two sons farm, own and operate the business. The family sells 90% of the fruit they grow keeping the best 10% for their wines producing X cases.
Judy greeted us on a rather quiet morning and took us through an incredible tasting of their wines along with the journey of the Russian River Valley. Judy has worked with the Martinelli’s for thirteen years and is extremely knowledgable. All Martinelli wines are 100% varietal from their vineyards and made the same wayâ€¦handcrafted, un-fined, un-filtered, neither cold nor heat stabilized. So what you taste is the terroir, the land and soil. It was an incredible tastingâ€¦ ’07 Martinelli Road Chardonnay, ’08 Zio Tony Ranch Chardonnay, ’08 Lolita Ranch Pinot Noir, ’08 Moonshine Ranch Pinot Noir, ’08 Zio Tony Ranch Pinot Noir, ’07 Terra Felice Syrah, ’08 Vigneto di Evo Zinfandel and ’09 Jackass Hill Muscat Alexandria. My favoritesâ€¦
We also bought the 2009 Bondi Home Ranch Pinot Noir which comes from the Green Valley AVA, an area great for Burgundian varietals. Judy highly recommended it. And we liked the 2009 Jackass Hill Muscat Alexandria, made from 100 year old vines on Jackass Hill, a sweet honeysuckle floral wine that as Judy said “you gulp down like a shot. It turns lumpy people alive again after a big Thanksgiving dinner.”
The tasting room is open 10am to 5pm daily with a $5 tasting fee.
Next we headed south into the Sonoma Valley. Just off Sonoma Highway in Kenwood, we found one of our favorites of the trip, VJB! Stepping into their tasting room was like stepping into a little Italian cafe. They were on my list of stops as their focus is old style Italian wines. They grow classic Italian varietals in Sonoma like Sangiovese, Barbera, Primitivo, Aglianico (only one to grow in the U.S.) as well as Sonoma varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay.
VJB is a small family owned winery run by father Vittorio and his son Henry Belmonte. Vittorio and his wife Maria came to the U.S. in 1963 from their hometown of Bonito, Italy south of Naples where Vittorio worked on the family vineyard since age eight. After settling on the east coast they moved to Kenwood in 1976. Maria opened a small cafe and then a restaurant in Santa Rosa in 1987. The family made wines for home and their restaurant. Then in 1999 brothers Victor and Henry evolved that wine making into VJB Vineyards & Cellars. In 2003, they closed the restaurant and opened their current tasting room.
Vittorio welcomed us as he stood behind the big wooden bar pouring wines on this Sunday afternoon. He had me at “buon giorno”! We tasted through their ’10 Gabriella Ranch Chardonnay, ’08 Estate Sangiovese, ’09 Mendocino Barbera (won Gold Medal at 2011 Denver International Wine Competition), ’06 V’Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, ’09 Sonoma Valley Primitivo, ’08 Dante (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Sangiovese), ’09 Nero d’Avola, ’08 Estate Anglianico and ’08 Chardonnay Port. My favoritesâ€¦it was so tough to decide so we joined the club and shipped home a case including their Prosecco they import directly from Italy! But if I had to pick out of what we tasted that dayâ€¦
Overall their wines are very smooth, easy and approachable with great price points. They produce only 5,000 cases per year, sold through their tasting room, wine club, online and a few restaurants. Their Club Enoteca wine club is free to join and you chose from three bottles a quarter, one case in May and November, or one case a quarter. It also gives you access to their small productions and 20% savings on all wines.
The tasting room is open daily from 10am to 5pm with a $5 tasting fee. Just next door their NEW Tasting Room & Marketplace is under construction and looks just like an Enoteca you’d find in Italy.Â Opening is planned for spring so mark your calendars!
Our last stop of the day was just down Sonoma Highway at Muscardini Cellars tasting room, shared with Ty Caton Vineyards. There was quite the party going on with a large group when we arrived, but it broke up shortly after and we had a nice visit with Randall as his last customers of the day.
Michael Muscardini is owner and winemaker for this very small production winery, approximately 1,500 case per year. Michael’s grandfather came to San Francisco from Italy in 1892 and eventually started St. Helena Napa Valley Wine Co., where he sold specialty bulk wines. In 2000, Michael came back to his roots and planted his first Sangiovese vines. While they grew he learned winemaking.
We tasted the ’10 Barbera, ’09 Sangiovese, ’10 Rosato Sangiovese, ’09 Zinfandel and ’08 Fortuna. My favoriteâ€¦
Tasting room is open daily 11am to 6pm with a $10 fee (covers Muscardini and Ty Caton wines).
Next Iâ€™ll take you on our final day at the wineriesâ€¦Jordan Winery, Unti Vineyards and Michel-Sclumberger.
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Day one of our Sonoma Wine Country Weekend we spent in the Russian River Valley and Healdsburg visiting Iron Horse Vineyards, Pellegrini Family Vineyards and Seghesio Family Vineyards.
Our first stop was at this gorgeous hill top wineryâ€¦as you approach on a dirt road you see the palm tree lined entrance in the distance. As Iron Horse is known for their sparkling wines I thought this was a perfect start for Saturday. Their rustic outdoor tasting room looks out over the Green Valley AVA, a sub-appelation of the Russian River Valley, giving you spectacular views while you sip.
Owned and operated by the Sterling Family, they officially opened in 1979 and their sparkling wines are often called some of the best in California. They were put on the map internationally in November 1985 when the White House asked them to produce a specially Russian CuvÃ©e for the Reagan/Gorbachev Summit Meeting, a sweet style brut that they still produce today.
The Iron Horse name comes from a train that stopped at Ross Station at the turn of the 20th Century. The logo, the rampant horse on a weathervane, came from an actual weathervane that was unearthed when they were leveling the ground to build the winery. The winery produces 20,000 cases per year, so a mid-size winery, from their 320 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes. Half their production is sparkling and half still.
We enjoyed a sunny hour at the tasting bar under the heat lamps chatting with Mike Simpson as he tasted us through the Sparkling Flight (5 winesâ€¦’06 Ocean Reserve, ’07 Wedding CuvÃ©e, ’06 Classic Vintage Brut, ’06 Russian CuvÃ©e, ’06 Brut Rosé), ’09 Estate Chardonnay and ’10 Estate Pinot Noir. My favoritesâ€¦
This limited cuvÃ©e is a joint effort with National Geographic to help preserve and restore the world’s oceans.
” For us, malo-lactic fermentation is simply an acid balancing tool â€“ not a stylistic component, and we feel very strongly about keeping the oak beautifully integrated in the wine.”
Tasting room is open seven days a week 10am to 4:30pm with $10 tasting fee (waived with purchase of a bottle). They also offer tours Monday through Friday at 10am by appointment, $20 per person includes a reserve wine tasting. Friday tours are conducted by winemaker David Munksgard (except during harvest).
Our second stop was down the road in the Russian River Valley at Pellegrini Family’s tasting room on their sixty-five-acre Olivet Lane Vineyards and working winery. We showed up as they were hosting a wine club member party so the tasting room, which is also the barrel room with floor to ceiling barrels of aging wine, was decorated and festive for Christmas!
Pellegrini Family Vineyards dates back to the early 1900′s when brothers Nello and Gino Pellegrini came to New York City from their native Tuscany. After working their way west in 1925, they became wine merchants. Nello’s son Vincent took over in the early 1950s then he and his wife bought a 70-acre apple and plum orchard in 1973 and planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes, what is today’s Olivet Lane Vineyards. They were one of the first Pinot Noir Estates in the Russian River Valley. Today run by Vincent’s three children, they also have the Cloverdale Ranch in Alexander Valley and Eight Cousins Vineyard next door to Olivet, and produce 25,000-30,000 cases.
Linda welcomed us up to the old oak bar for a tasting of the eleven wines she was pouringâ€¦’10 Pellegrini Sauvignon Blanc, ’09 Pellegrini Chardonnay (nice unoaked), ’09 Pellegrini Eight Cousins Vineyard Zinfandel, ’06 and ’07 Pellegrini Milestone (blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Verdot, Malbec and Cabernet Franc), ’08 Olivet Lane Chardonnay, ’07 Olivet Lane Estate Reserve CuvÃ©e Chardonnay, ’06 Olivet Lane Pinot Noir and Reserve Pinot Noir, ’07 Cloverdale Ranch Merlot, ’09 Cloverdale Ranch Cabernet Sauvignon and ’08 Pellegrini Brothers Elevazione. We chatted about the wines and the family history as black and white photos of them hung beside us. My favorites winesâ€¦
Sourced exclusively from the volcanic, high altitude vineyards of the Mayacama Mountains of Sonoma.
Winery tour and tasting room are open Thursday-Sunday by appointment 10am-4:30pm. Our hotel suggested we pop by and as it was early December they were able to take us in. Many wineries that say appointment only do that to control during busy season and they are licensed as appointment only. Call 800.891.0244 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you don’t get a chance in advance, don’t be afraid to call once in Sonoma to check.
Saturday’s last stop was just north of downtown Healdsburg at Seghesio’s tasting room on their winery property, Caliornia’s 56th bonded winery. Seghesio is a fourth generation Italian winery founded in 1902 by Edoardo Seghesio who came to Northern Sonoma in 1886 from his family vineyards in Piedmont, Italy. In 1895 he bought 56 acres in northern Alexander Valley, the Home Ranch, and planted it with Zinfandel. In 1910 he acquired 10 more acres and planted the Chianti Field Blend of Sangiovese, Canielao Nero, Trebbiano and Malvasia. This vineyard is now North America’s oldest planting of Sangiovese.
Seghesio produces 30,000 cases per year and in 2011 merged with Crimson Wine Group. Their 2009 Home Ranch Zinfandel was just named one of the Top 100 Wines of 2011 by Wine Spectator.
It was a busy Saturday but we found our way up to the tasting bar and tasted seven of their wines. While everyone was friendly we didn’t get the care and attention we’d seen the rest of the day. We sampled through ’10 Pinot Grigio, ’09 1942 Block Grenache (planted in 1942), ’08 Cortina Zinfandel, ’09 Rockpile Zinfandel, ’08 Venom, ’08 Omaggio, ’07 Home Ranch Petite Sirah in the high ceiling tasting room overlooking their barrels of aging wine.Â My favorite wine of the tastingâ€¦
We brought home a bottle of 2008 Chianti Station from the Chianti Field Blend above which I look forward to trying. Their tasting room is open daily from 10am to 5pm.
Next I’ll take you on day two at the wineries…Martinelli Winery, VJB Vineyards & Cellars and Muscardini Cellars.
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