While the wine world was watching neighboring Napa County, the laid-back and unpretentious Sonoma County grew into a first-class destination where wines are just as delicious… and still affordable.
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The heavy bookcase filled with classics fit right into the parlor’s Victorian décor at the Grape Leaf Inn in Healdsburg, Calif., a northern Sonoma County town that is at the nexus of the region’s best-known appellations. Every afternoon, though, the case swung open to reveal a steep staircase down to the “speakeasy” where guests could sample wines produced by the B&B owners Ken and Diane Wilson. The wine cellar bar really didn’t have a history as a speakeasy, but the artisan wines served were my first revelation to this area’s secret allure. Small wineries are producing some phenomenal wines that are still reasonably priced compared to similar wines produced in Napa or Tuscany.
Sonoma’s charm is becoming a well-known secret as many accolades are coming its way. Wine Enthusiast and USA Today named it one of the Top 10 Wine Destinations in the world for 2014. A few weeks prior, Healdsburg’s Honor Mansion received TripAdvisor’s Travelers’ Choice award for America’s No. 1 most romantic spot. And if you plan to drink a California wine tonight, chances are it’s from northern Sonoma’s Wine Road, which meanders through six of the county’s 14 wine growing appellations and has been recognized by Bicycling Magazine as one of the greatest rides on Earth.
Sonoma County is a long, almost rectangular county — much like Florida’s own Lake County — with many different classifications of loamy soil, which is perfect for grape growing. At the southern end of the county is the renowned town of Sonoma where many wine tourists stop and go no farther. However, that is a mistake as the northern end of the county gets much more interesting with three highly regarded wine growing regions: Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, and the Russian River Valley, all circling the historic town of Healdsburg.
“Northern Sonoma is an amazing place to grow grapes,” says Clay Mauritson, whose family settled in the area in 1868 and planted their first vineyard in 1884. “We are blessed to have so many different types of soils.”
The Russian River carves the valleys of northern Sonoma, and the warm summers, cool winters, and fog from the Pacific Ocean provide perfect growing conditions for many types of grapes. It’s no wonder each appellation has its standout varietals: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the Russian River Valley; Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc from Dry Creek Valley; and Cabernet and Merlot from the Alexander Valley. Dozens of other varietals, including Barbera, Grenache, and Sangiovese, are also grown in these valleys, but it is the Cabernets and Chardonnays from this regional trifecta that can hold their own against varietals from around the world.
When wandering the Wine Road, either by car or bicycle (an increasingly popular mode of transportation for tourists), visitors will see wineries of all sizes. The surprise is how well they all get along. From small producers like MacPhail that produces only 5,000 cases a year to the well-known Dry Creek Vineyards that sells 100,000 cases annually, winemakers sing in unison about the area’s friendly spirit, common goals of sustainability, and cooperation to make things happen. They want Sonoma to be the No. 1 wine region in the world where oenophiles can explore a full range of tasting experiences while talking to the winemakers in the tasting rooms.
The secret to success has to be the laid-back and unpretentious environments that the wineries have created. Northern Sonoma wines are world-class, but the local feel is unmistakable.
“We want people to discover something new and wonderful,” explains Chef Bruce Riezenman, who works with Lambert Bridge’s winemaker Jennifer Higgins to create exquisite wine and food pairings at the winery’s Dry Creek Valley headquarters. “Wine is an opportunity to enjoy the things in life that matter: health, happiness, family, and friends.”
That sentiment is echoed by the townsfolk of Healdsburg, a place described as the “belle of a trendy country ball who prefers to be out in the vineyards sampling Zinfandel on the vine.” Indeed the down-to-earth charms of the northern Sonoma town are inescapable, whether you are on its historic town square surrounded by tasting rooms or discovering a few of the almost 200 nearby wineries.
Northern Sonoma Wine Recommendations from Local Wine Merchants
Nancy Lackey, Owner Wine Cellars of Mount Dora and Wine Cellars Uncorked in Eustis
Folie a deux Zinfandel ($18.99) Dry Creek Valley
Kurtz Family Cellars Chardonnay ($20.99) Russian River Valley
Clos du Bois 2008 Merlot Reserve ($24.99) Alexander Valley
2009 Jordan Cabernet ($61.99) Alexander Valley
Joyce Huey, Owner Two Old Hags Wine Shoppe in Leesburg
J Vineyards 2009 Pinot Noir ($40) Russian River Valley
Rodney Strong 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon ($22) Russian River/Healdsburg
Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnay ($27) Russian River