Sonoma Plaza – A Great Way to Sample Sonoma County Wines – Part 4

Welcome back to the final blog in a series on small town Sonoma wine tasting. If you missed the prior articles, you can catch up here.

With 25 tasting rooms right in town, it was hard to choose and certainly not enough time to cover them all! But I have one more to share with you, located in the Ledson Hotel, on 1st Street East. The lobby of this historic hotel transforms into a comfortable lounge around a glowing fire (most welcome on the cold day we were there) and a long bar with chairs along the side wall. The tasting room offers samples of wines from Ledson Winery and Zina Hyde, with plenty of chardonnay options.

My favorite was the Ledson 2015 Russian River Chardonnay Reserve. A little pricey at $52.00, but this full bodied, creamy wine was delicious with subtle notes of toasted oak in the nose. The palate was layered with hints of crème brulee and butterscotch, typical characteristics of a Russian River chardonnay.

Two More Restaurants Worth Trying

In the first three blogs, I covered some excellent restaurants, especially La Salette and the famous Girl and The Fig. To add to the list, here are two more I would recommend:

Mary’s Pizza Shack at 8 West Spain street, a chain restaurant in Northern California, might not be your top choice in this town full of gourmet restaurants. But the fire on the patio drew us in on a cold, rainy day and we’re glad we stopped by. The menu is full of Italian and comfort food options, but the wedge salad was one of the best we’ve ever eaten. Drizzled with Italian and chunky blue cheese dressing, topped with tomatoes and bacon, focaccia bread on the side, this was the perfect size lunch. Gary ordered a bowl of their homemade minestrone soup with ham. Also, delicious!

Sonoma Grille and Bar, at 165 W. Napa Street, frequented by locals and tourists alike, was packed on this cold, rainy night in the middle of the week. Thinking that was a good sign, we stopped in there for dinner on our second night. Seafood and steak are both great options at this place. The fact that our server from the Lake Sonoma wine tasting room earlier that day was dining there that evening just confirmed our guess about the quality of the restaurant.

The vibe here is comfortable and wait staff super friendly. A handful of window seats make this place a little more fun – people watching while eating and dining. The restaurant includes a bar with ten seats that were fully occupied with locals enjoying a conversation, hand crafted cocktails, and appetizer plates of crispy calamari, cheeses and artichoke topped flatbread.

Places to Stay

For overnight stays, there are plenty of hotels on the Plaza or within nearby walking distance including MacArthur Place, a 64-room luxury hotel and spa just four blocks from the Plaza; the Best Western Sonoma Valley Inn, just one block from the Plaza; Sonoma Hotel, a 16-room historic boutique hotel on Sonoma Plaza; and Ledson Hotel, a luxury hotel with six guestrooms on Sonoma Plaza.

For more information on the town of Sonoma, wine tasting rooms, lodging, and restaurants, visit: SonomaPlaza.com.

Now park your car, wander through the historic trappings of small town Sonoma, and enjoy some of the best wines that Sonoma County has to offer.

Sonoma Plaza – A Great Way to Sample Sonoma County Wines – Part 3

Welcome back to my series about small-town Sonoma! Gary, my favorite wine tasting partner, and I spent three days exploring the town’s many wine tasting rooms in search of the perfect chardonnay. If you missed Part One or Two, you can get caught up here.

With 25 tasting rooms in easy walking distance of each other, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by choices. We visited several, but by far, my favorite was Bennett Valley Cellars. Located at 127 E. Napa Street, this small but comfortable tasting room features bar stools at a long white L-shaped bar, as well as three nearby tables available for seated tastings. We cozied up to the bar and quickly got to know Iliana from Italy, a lively and knowledgeable hospitality hostess.

Inside Bennett Valley tasting room

The original founder, Emilio Zanin, also hails from Italy. Pictures on the walls show the 60-year generational history of this family winery established on the 40-acre Simpatico Ranch Vineyard in the Bennett Valley AVA. In Italian, “Simpatico” means “likable” and that is exactly how I found the 2015 Chardonnay, a Reserve Limited Release. As close to “perfect” as a chardonnay could be, it exudes rich, buttery characteristics with complimentary oak nuances and a silky yet crisp finish. Like Iliana says, “You’ll dream about it!”

Bennett Valley Cellars chardonnays

California State Route Highway 12 traverses Northern California’s iconic Wine Country and cuts directly through the town of Sonoma, turning westward at the Sonoma Plaza. Naming a winery Highway 12 then strikes me as perfectly appropriate. With a tasting room located just off the southeast corner of the plaza, tucked into a retail store in a glass fronted building, Highway 12 offers a rare opportunity to sample complimentary tastings of premium wines. Reserve wines have a tasting fee, but it’s waived if you purchase.

With no chairs for seating, this is old fashioned, “belly up to the bar” wine tasting by the glass. But I found it worth standing around for when I tasted the three chardonnays they produce. I loved the Carneros Highway Chardonnay. At just $19.50 a bottle, this one came home with me!

For dinner we headed to The Girl and the Fig. Popular with locals and tourists, this locally owned restaurant is famous for its Cal-French gourmet food. Just across the street from the northwest corner of Sonoma Plaza, this restaurant has been serving fine, farm-to-table country French entrees for over 20 years. Proprietor, Sondra Bernstein, specializes in pairing “Rhone-alone” wines with her Sonoma-French cuisine. Wine flights are served in a quirky assortment of water, wine and compote glasses, and provide an opportunity to sample more wines from Sonoma County.

The Girl and the Fig

Gary said the pastis-scented mussels with garlic, leeks and herbs were best he’s ever tasted. This casual bistro comes equipped with a full cocktail bar, great dessert offerings and its very own newspaper, the “Fig Chronicles.”

In Part 4, and the last of this series, I’ll share one more wine tasting room to visit, and places to stay.

Be sure to sign up for my distribution list or follow me on Twitter (@chardygirl) and I’ll let you know when the next in the series is out! Until then, I’ll keep on the hunt for the “perfect” chardonnay.

Sonoma Plaza – A Great Way to Sample Sonoma County Wines – Part 2

Welcome back to my series about small-town Sonoma! We spent three days exploring the town’s many wine tasting rooms in search of the perfect chardonnay. If you missed Part One, you can catch up with it here.

With 25 tasting rooms in easy walking distance of each other, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by choices. We loved our first stop at Lake Sonoma Winery, but it was time to find lunch.

Just on the other side of the Plaza, we stopped by the Sonoma Cheese Factory, specializing in authentic barbeque, on 2 Spain Street.

Sonoma Cheese Factory – a great place for lunch

The pulled pork sandwich caught our attention and was just as delicious to eat as it looked on the plate. Sonoma Cheese Factory also offers wine tasting. You can enjoy a flight of wines if you want to sample more of Sonoma’s offerings or just order a glass of local wine with your lunch. A gourmet store as well, this place is perfect for putting together a picnic lunch. In business for over 85 years, it’s easy to see why this place Is so popular.

Pangloss Cellars Tasting Lounge

Next, we headed to Pangloss Cellars Tasting Lounge, at 35 East Napa Street. Housed in a refurbished building built in 1902, the tasting lounge is cavernous. Visitors can relax at the large tasting bar in the back of the room or enjoy food and wine pairings in the vintage arm chairs and couches nested around coffee tables along either side of the room. At the back of the room, facing the tasting bar, is a dramatic wall of wine bottles. The lounge itself is handsomely appointed. Rock walls, rustic timber supports, exposed beams in the ceiling, and wood floors harken back to the building’s original purpose – a general store.

Comfortable seating lines the Pangloss Cellars tasting room

Seated at the tasting bar, we were served by the knowledgeable and gracious, Allisa. The tasting fee was pricey, at $25 per person, but the experience was well worth it! Plan to spend the afternoon here – as the pace is relaxed, educational, and the tasting menu generous. We tried the 2015 Chardonnay made with 30% new French oak. As Allisa, explained, the winemaker doesn’t like “a stick of butter or an overly oaked chardonnay” so he doesn’t do anything to affect the malolactic fermentation. Whatever happens, the winemaker lets it happen naturally. With a clean nose, this chardonnay is bright and crisp but still creamy and lightly oaked. 376 cases produced, the wine retails for $35.

After nearly two hours enjoying a delightful tasting experience of whites and reds, it was time to think about dinner.

La Salette – gourmet Portuguese dining

That evening we dined on gourmet Portuguese cuisine at La Salette, 452 First Street East, a popular restaurant. We added the optional wine pairing with dinner. Generous pours, perfectly paired with the appetizers, entrees and dessert, allowed us to sample more Sonoma County wines and provided an extra special dining experience.  I do recommend making reservations in advance as this sophisticated, tile-mural trimmed bistro has quite a local following.

After dinner, a leisurely stroll around the Plaza was the perfect way to end a perfect day. In Part Three of this series, I’ll tell you about two more delightful wine tasting rooms that I highly recommend and why, plus another restaurant that you’ll want to try!

Be sure to sign up for my distribution list or follow me on Twitter (@chardygirl) and I’ll let you know when the next in the series is out! Until then, I’ll keep on the hunt for the “perfect” chardonnay.

 

Sonoma Plaza – A Great Way to Sample Sonoma County Wines

Sonoma County, along with Napa and several other areas in California, suffered devastating wildfires last fall. Tragically, lives, jobs, homes and businesses were lost. The fires also took a toll on tourism, the lifeblood for wine regions, as many out of towners still think that Napa and Sonoma burnt down. But they didn’t and are advertising heavily for customers to come back. So, we decided to head to Sonoma County and do our small part for the economy. And, of course, enjoy some fabulous wines.

Renowned for its chardonnay, and just a one-hour drive from my home, Sonoma County is one of my favorite wine regions. Rolling green hills planted with miles and miles of grapevines, pedestrian friendly small towns, and more than 400 wineries, located in six wine growing regions, make this part of Northern California a big draw for wine lovers.

Overlooking Sonoma County vineyards

With 18 different AVAs spread over 1,768 square miles, it would take even the most dedicated wine lover to properly sample this region’s chardonnays. Fortunately, the small town of Sonoma – not to be confused with the County of Sonoma – provides 25 wine tasting rooms all within walking distance in the center of town. Spread around Sonoma Plaza, an 8-acre historic, Mexican-era style plaza, the biggest dilemma was where to start.

Entrance to Lake Sonoma Winery

After parking the car at our hotel, my husband and favorite wine tasting partner, Gary, and I walked a few short blocks to the Lake Sonoma tasting room at 134 Church Street. The winery converted one of the town’s older houses into its tasting room and this recently refurbished tasting room feels like visiting the home of a friend. As Kelly, the tasting room manager, explained, “the life of the party is always in the kitchen. The winery turned the kitchen counter of this former home into the tasting room’s serving bar. Surround by barstools, this feels like a comfortable spot to sit, sip, and savor the wines. What a refreshing change from the usual, crowded “belly up to the bar” seen at so many other wineries.

Lake Sonoma tasting bar

The adjacent lounge, fashioned out of the former living room, is designed for customers who want to relax and enjoy a glass or bottle of wine. A comfortable couch with pillows and a blanket, as well as leather chairs are nicely arranged for this purpose. And the former dining room, complete with a dining table and comfortable chairs, serves as a place for wine club events and special wine and food pairings.

Lake Sonoma Winery Lounge

But we went there for the wines, so we settled onto bar stools to sample chardonnays from this well-known winery. They make five chardonnays, four from the Russian River Valley. Sonoma County is home to some of the most diverse terroirs and micro-climates in the world and the Russian River Valley, I think, produces some of the most outstanding chardonnays. We tasted the 2014 Lake Sonoma Winery, Russian River Valley and the 2016 Madrone Estate Winery (their sister winery in Glen Ellen), Sonoma Valley Chardonnay.

2014 Lake Sonoma Russian River Valley and 2016 Madrone Estate Winery Chardonnays

The 2014 chardonnay is an excellent example of fruit from the Russian River Valley. Hints of light oak and orange blossoms in the nose, followed by layers of vanilla and lemon cream in the palate combine for a delightful wine from start to finish. Partial fermentation in stainless steel produces a medium bodied wine with crisp acidity. Light-straw in color, 14.4% in alcohol, sells for $30.00 at the winery.

The newly released 2016 Madrone Estate Chardonnay from Sonoma Valley was my favorite of the two. The winery’s first estate grown wine from their Sonoma Valley estate produced a soft and creamy chardonnay. Aromas of vanilla and toffee come through, followed by flavors of crème brulee and a hint of butterscotch in the palate. With the perfect amount of acidity, this wine is delicious on its own, but would pair well with creamy foods. Light-straw colored, 14.1% in alcohol, retails for $40.00 at the winery.

We dined, shopped, talked to locals and tasted at four wineries in a few short days and I have so many more recommendations for you. But, I’ll stop here today and follow with more about the other wineries we visited, and even a few restaurants, in a short series of blogs on Sonoma, California.

Be sure to sign up for my distribution list and I’ll let you know when the next in the series is out! Until then, I’ll keep on the hunt for the “perfect” chardonnay.

Edna Valley 2015 Central Coast Chardonnay from California’s “Tuscany”

The Edna Valley American Viticultural Area—part of the San Luis Obispo County wine region—is often compared to Italy’s Tuscany Region in central Italy for its beauty. Spread across just 22,000 acres, nearly 30 wineries call this home.

With a continuous stream of coastal marine air, Edna Valley’s cool climate is perfect for producing chardonnay. Today, I am tasting the 2015 Central Coast Chardonnay from Edna Valley Vineyard, one of the area’s best-known vintners.

The bouquet displays aromas of soft peaches and quince. I taste butterscotch, so often found in California’s Central Coast chardonnays, and clove flavors. This is not a big wine. It’s light-bodied but elegant with bright acidity and a slight bite in the finish. The alcohol is 13% in volume.

The Edna Valley Vineyards 2015 Central Coast Chardonnay is not a high end wine like their Heritage Chardonnay, Reserve Chardonnay, or the Chamisal Chardonnay that I previously reviewed. But, it does make the perfect weeknight wine and at $10 a bottle, that’s good enough for me. I picked up a bottle at our local Raley’s grocery store, but you can also purchase it on Wine.com for the same price.

We paired this with a potato, pancetta flatbread with white sauce and found the combination to be delightful.

Sonoma, Napa, and Mendocino Wine Regions – Ways You Can Help

Sonoma County, one of my favorite wine regions, has been burning for almost a week. The nearby regions of Mendocino and Napa are also suffering catastrophic losses. With more than 5,000 homes destroyed, 36 people dead, and more than 50,000 people under evacuation orders, it doesn’t feel like the right time for a wine review. Instead, I ask that you consider ways to assist. Supplies, and especially monetary donations are needed.

Here are a few ways you can help:

The Red Cross needs volunteers to help with fire evacuees. Sign up online here or contact the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County at info@volunteernow.org or call (707) 573-3399.

United Way of Wine Country created a relief fund to help those affected by the fires. Donate here.

The Salvation Army has multiple teams providing meal services at evacuation centers and is seeking monetary donations. 100% of your donation goes to the relief effort. Donate here.

For other ways you can help, visit the Santa Rosa Press Democrat website for a comprehensive list of evacuation centers and volunteer opportunities.

Thank you for your kindness and generosity! I’ll be back soon with more wine reviews and stories.

Chardy Girl

Dog Ridge Butterfingers Chardonnay – McLaren Vale 2016

Somewhere in the McLaren Vale wine region, South Australia, lives a winemaker after my own heart. Determined to reintroduce a style of chardonnay that has gone out of favor in Australia, Fred Howard of Dog Ridge Winery began making an old-fashioned, creamy, buttery chardonnay called “Butterfingers.”

Dog Ridge Butterfingers Chardonnay

In fact, enamored with Fred’s new/old style of chardonnay, Harry Fisher from The Times on the Coast, in Victor Harbor, Australia, wrote a story about “Chardonnay Recovered from Fumble.” A copy of that article proudly graces the back label of every bottle of Butterfingers. Fisher writes, “A local winemaker is winding back the clock and looking to bring bold and full-bodied chardonnays back in to popularity with a new generation of wine drinkers.”

Chardonnay recovered from fumble

Introduced to this charming, energetic winemaker at the Sydney Good Food and Wine Show, we got a chance to stop by Fred’s booth, taste his wines, and learn more about his passion for making what I call the “old-fashioned” style of chardonnay. You know – the kind I’m always hunting for…

So, of course, I brought a bottle of this golden sunshine home with me from Australia. Aged in brand new French oak barrels, this chardonnay is lightly oaked. It’s golden in color, clean, clear and well, just plain pretty! Aromas of crème brulee and pear with a faint, sweet floral note fill the glass. It is a full structured, big, round, creamy and luscious wine, with flavors of stone fruit. The wine is 13.5% in alcohol.

We paid $20.00 AUD ($15.79 USD) for this chardonnay at the food and wine show, most likely a promotional price. But, it can be purchased for $27.99 AUD at BlackSheepBottleShop.com.au or $25.00 AUD on the Dog Ridge website.

McLaren Vale, south of Adelaide is one wine region we didn’t make it to when we visited Adelaide three years ago. With only time for one wine tour, we chose the famous Barossa Valley. But now that I’ve tasted several wines from the McLaren Vale, I’m definitely anxious to visit when we return to Australia. The list is growing longer with the Margaret River wine region calling my name and the Hunter Valley still on my bucket list. Mornington Peninsula, just outside of Melbourne and an easy side trip from Sydney, also came highly recommended. Until then, I’ll be saving my pennies for a return trip to this lovely wine producing country. Australia, keep making those lovely chardonnays. I’m coming back!

What Does “Chardy” Mean Anyway?

I’ve been blogging about chardonnay, sometimes serious, sometimes irreverent, sharing my reviews and perspectives on my favorite varietal with you for a while now. If you know the story about how I got the nickname “Chardygirl”, you know it came from Australia nearly four years ago and it’s stuck ever since.

You see Australians shorten everything. Breakfast is “brekkie” (and yes, you can actually find that on menus and restaurant signs). Sunglasses are “sunnies” and tradesmen (plumbers, electricians, construction workers) are “tradies.” And if a name can’t be shortened, it gets changed altogether. A sweater is a “jumper,” a car trunk is a “boot,” and my husband, Gary’s name is “Gazza.” Go figure.

We just spent four weeks in Australia and I heard that term, “chardy,” used over and over again. In Dan Murphy’s, the local wine and spirits store which is the Australian equivalent of a Total Wine or Bev Mo, I heard staff members pointing me to the chardy section, asking others if they had recommendations for a good buttery chardy or telling me the regions for the best chardies (Margaret River, Yarra, and Limestone Coast).

At the Sydney Good Food and Wine Show, they had a whole class devoted to tasting chardies only. The instructor was kind enough to point me to the best chardy maker in the country for that good, old-fashioned chardonnay (and yes, we will be tasting and reviewing “Butterfingers” very soon.)

Even the Wine Selectors guy in the Sydney airport called them chardies. (Next time you are in the Melbourne or Sydney domestic airport terminal, you too, can kill time tasting the best Australian wines from boutique wineries for free by visiting the Wine Selector booth in the middle of the terminal.)

But it never occurred to me that you, my dear readers, might not understand why the name “Chardy Girl.”

So now you know. It’s Australia speak for chardonnay. I wonder if Napa would shudder at the thought?

Forester Estate 2016 Chardonnay Margaret River

Dear Australia –

When did you stop making those round, luscious, buttery chardonnays?

In the past few weeks, I’ve tried your chardonnays from Hunter, Barossa, Yarra and Southeastern Australia, still looking for that “perfect” chardonnay. I even went to a wine tasting event the other night in hopes of finding who’s still making that Australian style of chardonnay I remember from fifteen years ago. Sadly, our wine host informed me the trend here now is to make those same dry, crisp chardonnays that California seems to think are the hot new thing.

But, Australia, I didn’t give up! Fortunately for me, I discovered the Margaret River wine region in Western Australia is still making some good old fashioned, buttery, creamy, slightly oaky chardonnays that I just love.

I’m happy to report that the Forester Estate 2016, Margaret River is just my style.

Forester Estate 2016 Chardonnay – Enjoyed from the Balcony of Our AirBnB in Ultimo

This is a classic Margaret River chardonnay with concentrated flavors and complexity. The nose displays pure aromas of stone fruit, a hint of citrus and vanillan oak. The wine is clean, fruit driven with flavors of stone fruit. The color is pale golden and the texture is creamy, ending with a soft finish.

The Forester is easily drinkable and available at Dan Murphy’s, a “Total Wine” kind of wine store in Sydney.

A long visit to the Margaret River wine region is on my agenda for our next trip back to Australia. I’ve been told that it’s a “foodie” place with tons of great restaurants to go along with the many wineries I’ll need to visit.

So, Australia, I’m not giving up on you yet. Remember, this is where I got my nickname three years ago and I’ll keep drinking your chardonnays until the day comes for me to return home. In the meantime, you might just want to have a little chat with your winemakers and hint that maybe those crisp, unoaked chardonnays are just not so great after all…

Love,

ChardyGirl

 

 

Celebrating International Chardonnay Day with a List of My Favorites

Tasting Chardonnay at Bogle Vineyards

Dedicated to finding that perfect chardonnay, I’ve been tasting and blogging about my favorite varietal for almost two years. It’s hard to believe that much time has passed, so thanks for following my experiments and adventures.

People often ask me if I’ve found the perfect chardonnay yet and I must say, “No.” Because when I find the perfect chardonnay, the hunt is over and I won’t need to write this blog anymore. But, I will share with you my favorite chardonnays, just in case you haven’t figured a few out by reading my blog. Not in any particular order, here are my favs:

  • Matchbook Winery’s Arsonist Chardonnay – This is a beautiful winery, up the road on Interstate 5, past Woodland, near the town of Zamora, looking over the gorgeous Dunnigan Hills. At different times, they’ve made up to five different chardonnays, but the Arsonist is my favorite.
  • La Crema’s Nine Barrel and Russian River Valley Chardonnays – La Crema actually makes nine different chardonnays and this is the perfect winery (in Sonoma County) to try a side by side chardonnay tasting. Ask for Lisa and she’ll set you up.
  • Alpha Omega Chardonnay– I just reviewed this one and it is almost perfect (except it’s a little pricey for my blood). But, I thank my dear friends and neighbors for introducing me to this Napa Valley wine. They are wine club members, thankfully, so they didn’t pay full price. It’s worth a splurge once in a while.
  • Bogle Reserve Chardonnay – I can’t believe I have never reviewed this wine. I checked all my blogs and there is not one review. Sure, I’ve written about Bogle for Sacramento Lifestyle Magazine (twice) and written about the winery in my blog, but no chardonnay review. I’ll rectify that soon, but in the meantime, visit the winery and try this wine!

Together, we’ve covered chardonnays from other parts of the world as well as my own backyard. I’ve had the good fortune to visit wineries in Sonoma, Paso Robles, Mendocino, Amador, the Delta, South America, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and most recently, France. Winetasting along the way is one of the most wonderful aspects of travel.

It’s been a blast and everywhere I find wonderful, delicious chardonnay. In fact, chardonnay carries the distinction as the world’s most famous white wine and most widely planted grape. So, it’s fitting that there is an International Chardonnay Day, today, May 25, 2017.

On this most special (to me) of days, we are headed to the land of Oz, where the nickname, “Chardy Girl” was penned and stuck. (You can read the original story here.) The lucky Aussies, they have a whole month to celebrate wine, from May 1 – 31. Our plane arrives just in time to help them celebrate by tasting some of those delicious Yarra Valley chardonnays.

And you know what that means! The next few blogs will be featuring Australian chardonnays. So enjoy! Happy International Chardonnay Day! Cheers!