Sonoma one sip at a time

Trip Start Dec 14, 2007
Trip End Mar 16, 2009

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Flag of United States  , California
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Of all the big wine growing regions in the world we probably knew the least about Californian wines. We knew that there was a lot of hype around their Zinfandel and that they had some interesting Pinot's and apparently produced a few good buttery Chards so we were pretty excited to learn more.

IMH: More than 500 wineries exist in the Napa and Sonoma Counties. Napa Valley is probably the most well known wine region in California, but also known for expensive tastings and wines where Sonoma is referred to as more down-to-earth.

We decided to spend most of our time in Sonoma and stayed in Santa Rosa, a more affordable town located at the southern end of the region. Sonoma County consists of several viticulture areas with specific associated terroir (geography). We visited wineries in the three big areas: Alexander Valley - considered one of the most diverse grape-growing regions in California, varieties include Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc; Dry Creek Valley - described as "quintessentially Sonoma County", leading varieties include Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot; Russian River Valley - with exceptional Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.

As we arrived mid-afternoon on day one, we were only able to fit-in one tasting in Napa, on-route to Santa Rosa. We bought our most expensive bottle of wine (a delicious wooded Chardonnay) at this winery, but as we were sharing it 3 ways (Ryan-me-Amber) it seemed fair to treat ourselves. To make most of the tasting opportunity left in the day we visited a wine shop in Winsor, a small town located north from Sonoma in the region, and were able to try a 'flight' of 5 whites and 5 reds for a mere USD5 per flight. What a bargain and also a good opportunity to identify some great boutique wineries.

One full day was dedicated to wine-tasting in Sonoma. Unfortunately we could not put the cabriolet's top down (we hoped to "style-it") as the weather didn't quite co-operate. The disappointment soon passed as we tried our first wines, staring in the Alexander Valley in the north working our way down through the Dry Creek Valley and ending in a grand finale at J Wines in the Russian Valley. Why a "grand finale" when we were fortunate to taste so many amazing wines through-out the day and bought much more wines than anticipated (or budgeted)? J Wine has a concept called the Bubble Room, where an executive chef pairs a flight of wines (5 different wines) to a gourmet menu. You have to make a reservation in advance and I was a little bit anxious that it is too big an investment and didn't quite know what to expect, but was hoping for a similar experience as what we had in Australia.

We arrived at J Wines and were warmly welcomed - we felt a little bit embarrassed (and under dressed) for all the attention. We received a glass of their sparking wine on the tasting menu while we waited to enter the infamous Bubble Room. We were received by bubbling Monica who manages the Room and treats the guests like royalty, with her own touch consisting of lots of fun and laughter.

We had an option of two flights; each had their own associated menu to enhance the experience of each wine. Monica was very accommodating and we were able to mix and match wines as we wanted. We were even able to try a late disgorged sparkling wine which sells for USD100++ per bottle! By the way, the Americans can label and call their sparkling wines 'Champaign". As warned when I booked, the paired dishes are snack size and probably not sufficient for lunch, but we found it to be just enough. To anyone going to Sonoma and who really appreciates food and wine pairings - consider J Wines' Bubble Room. Even if you are not up for the pairing, it's worth the stop for a tasting and do try their range of sparkling wines, sorry - Champaigns.

On our last day we drove through Napa Valley on our way to San Francisco and were awed at the amount of limousines driving passengers to and from tastings. We were stunned with the crowds we had to fight through to get to the tasting counter and elbow our way into a spot. I am sure there are amazing wines to be tasted in Napa, but on the surface, I am glad we focussed on Sonoma on this visit, even though there are many more wineries to explore in Sonoma as well.

What an amazing time in Sonoma!!! Apart from us being in heaven, we were so lucky to share this experience with Amber, our newly emerging red-wino Kiwi friend. We knew she loved and enjoyed the wooded, buttery Chardonnays, but she really impressed us with being game to try and experience so many different reds. Sonoma offers the opportunity to try many different wines and also some quirky experimental varietals from Italy, Spain and France.

We were impressed with Californian wines, but in general I would not rate them higher than the general wines tasted in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. All-in-all - a lovely new World Wine region.

More photos to follow from Amber's camera...
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