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 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.

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!

 

 

Sonoma County Wine Region – Keller Estate

Last on our tour through Sonoma County and the search for exceptional wine tasting experiences was Keller Estate. Located in the southern part of Sonoma County off Lakeville Highway, this Petaluma Gap winery is open by appointment only (although a quick phone call ahead usually gets you in right away, 707.765.2117). When you arrive, expect to be seated, not ushered up to a crowded winetasting counter. The feel here is luxurious and the pace of wine tasting is leisurely. Knowledgeable wine servers share information about the winery and serve popcorn popped in the winery’s estate produced olive oil, with a side of olive oil for dipping. While this might seem like an unusual pairing for wine tasting, the olive oil is quite delicious and the popcorn and olive oil flavors don’t detract from the wines.

Our first visit to Keller was exactly this kind of experience. 90 minutes tasting four wines in the tasting room, overlooking the vineyards and learning about the chardonnays, pinots and the Rotie being poured that day. But our return visit was so amazingly over the top and indulgent that I would happily repeat the experience. Called their Serenity and Wine Brunch, this is a three course, gourmet feast paired with estate wines. For $65 per person or $50 for club members, this is an excellent way to sample the Keller wines.

Brunch is served on the Vineyard Terrace with sweeping views of the vineyards, olive groves and Mt. Tamalpais. Seating is family style at a long, elegantly set table. Be prepared to get to know your table mates as the wine is poured. And, servings are generous! We started with a crisp, dry rose, worked our way through three different chardonnays, sampled a couple of pinot noirs, the Rotie and ended with a sparkling wine.

DSCN2650

We even received a special treat at the end. With temperatures hovering around 100 degrees that weekend, Brian, our host, had set up the wine cave earlier in case we needed to sit inside. While we did enjoy most of our meal on the vineyard terrace, Brian kindly invited us back to the cave to cap off the afternoon with dessert and sparkling wine. We parted ways with our new found friends, purchased some favorite wines, then set off on the road wondering how we were ever going to just be able to walk into an ordinary wine tasting room again and belly up to that crowded bar!

DSCN2645DSCN2653

So there, dear readers, is the last of our Sonoma County exceptional wine tasting experiences. It was fun. It was indulgent. It gave us unique and up close opportunities to learn more about Sonoma County wines and sharpen our wine tasting skills. Impress your friends or impress your date. Guaranteed that any one of these five experiences will do the trick!

Sonoma County Wine Region – Rodney Strong

DSCN2580

Rodney Strong is a striking and dramatic winery. Upon arrival you might quickly draw the conclusion that this is one of those wineries owned by a giant corporation charging $20 per tasting and drawing throngs of wine lovers to its tasting room. But it’s not; in fact Rodney Strong is family owned and proud of it. The winery makes great wine but a visit there provides so much more. During the summer time, the winery sponsors concerts in its outdoor amphitheater and wine and food pairings on the terrace. It was the latter that brought us back to Rodney Strong for another exceptional wine tasting experience.

On this particular trip to Sonoma, we were seeking “exceptional” wine tasting experiences. We first got the idea when we visited Rodney Strong last fall. By exceptional, I mean we are seeking either a beautiful setting, or a leisurely seated wine tasting experience, or a gourmet food and wine pairing, or an otherwise unique and special wine tasting experience.

DSCN2599

For $55.00 per person, the winery offers a leisurely paced food pairing of small, gourmet bites with five different wines. Seated at an umbrella shaded table overlooking the expansive picnic grounds and vineyards, we were offered an envelope with cards describing the menu of soon-to-come food delights and winemakers notes for each of the wines. The food was prepared by Chef Tara Wachtel and served by Greg, a long-time employee, former home winemaker, jazz pianist, and general expert of our favorite drink, wine.

DSCN2601

Rodney Strong did not disappoint. Nearly two hours, six courses, and five wines later (plus a few extra tastings), we were feeling thoroughly relaxed and very satisfied. We walked away with a greater knowledge and appreciation for the wines that are produced in Sonoma County and thoroughly impressed with the Rodney Strong staff that made us feel like special friends just visiting for lunch.

Call ahead and reserve a time for your own exceptional wine tasting experience. You’ll find it hard to go back to the old process of standing in a crowded wine tasting room, elbowing your way to the wine counter.

Sonoma County Wine Region – Sbragia

Next stop on the tour was Sbragia Winery, north of Healdsburg on Dry Creek Road.  We visited this place last October and had an exceptional wine tasting experience then.  The view is beautiful, too, so we decided to add this to our list of wineries to visit on this trip in search of unique wine experiences.   Sbragia offers a variety of different options including tasting on the terrace with a charcuterie and cheese plate for $30, a chocolate and wine pairing for $30 per person or $15 for wine club members, or a sensory tasting for $50 per person or $20 for wine club members. The winery will also conduct customized tastings such as a compare and contrast of one varietal (a chardonnay to chardonnay or vintage to vintage), with advanced notice.

We called ahead and signed up for the sensory tasting.  Wow!  What an experience!  Arriving early, we got a lot of good photos from the spacious deck overlooking Dry Creek Valley while we waited for our tasting to begin.  Our host was Andrew McPherson.  A wine collector for 20 years now working in the wine industry, this man was a wealth of knowledge.  Andrew reserved the library for this special tasting, and supplied us with a generous and sumptuous charcuterie board.  The sensory tasting is almost a sommelier like experience where visitors get to learn what aromatics are using the La Nez Du Vin wine aroma kit, along with tasting five different Sbragia wines. The kit contains 54 little jars of different aromas.  We used ten, two per tasting, for this exercise.

We started with a sauvignon blanc, then a chardonnay, before working our way into the reds.  The way the sensory tasting works is you start smelling and tasting the wine to try and detect the different characteristics.  Then Andrew would hand us two different vials and ask us to guess what the smells were from.  He also supplied us with a wine aroma wheel that separates the fruits in white wine to fruits in red wine, floral scents and flavors, vegetal, oak aging characterics and even off odors that sometimes show up in a bad wine or a wine with a bad cork.

Wine Aroma Wheel 001

Each time we tasted, sniffed, and wrote down our guesses.  Then Andrew would tell us what the actual scent was and let us smell the vial again.  It was pretty laughable how many times we got it wrong but the experience was an important step for us in helping develop our palates.  After two and a half hours and a sampling of some of Sbragia’s other reserve wines, we were done!  Thankfully, this was the only appointment we scheduled for the day.  Because there were only the two of us with Andrew, we really got a crash course on wine tasting.  But, I would definitely go back again with friends and do it all over again.

For those of you looking to teach yourself at home, you can actually buy the kit for $399 at winearomas.com. This is often a required kit for enology students at UC Davis.  You know how students sell their text books back at the end of the semester to get some money back?  I think I’ll head over to the UC Davis book store and see if I can’t pick up a used aroma kit sold back by a recent, broke graduate.  Who knows?  Maybe next time I’ll get more than two out of ten right!

 

 

 

Sonoma County Wine Region – La Crema Winery

Next stop on our trip was La Crema wine tasting room in downtown Healdsburg.  This is a spacious and well appointed tasting room.  You’ve read my blogs about the various La Crema chardonnays so you already know that I’m partial to them.  But visiting the wine tasting room is always a treat, especially if you are a wine club member.

The very first time that Gary and I visited La Crema in October 2015, I was duly impressed with the royal treatment.  Upon arrival, Gary mentioned that I write a chardonnay blog and was looking for the perfect chardonnay.  Lisa, the wine tasting room lead, quickly took over and lined up a side by side tasting of every chardonnay they had open that day.  My favorites were the 2012 Nine Barrel, the 2013 Russian River Valley, and the 2012 Arroyo Seco chardonnays.  We joined the wine club that day and went home with too many bottles to count!

The next time we returned in March of this year, as wine club members, we were escorted to the members only lounge in the back of the tasting room, and invited to sit down in the comfortable living room style seating.  The convivial Shelby served us several of their premium wines, while expertly describing the origin of each one.

And on this trip, we were lucky enough to meet up with Lisa again.  Well, actually, I called the winery ahead of time and made an appointment for a special tasting of the 9 Barrel Wines, La Crema’s top of the line series of wines, and thankfully Lisa took the call. I’m now the editor of the Sacramento Lifestyle Magazine, so I was on a mission to write an article on exceptional wineries and wine tasting experiences.  But my “secret mission” was to taste the best of La Crema’s chardonnays again.

Upon arrival, Lisa hugged us both and led us back to the special “9 Barrel Library Room.”  I have to admit, I’ve never been greeted in such a friendly manner by a wine server before.  But, what the heck, this is part of the experience.  La Crema staff take great pride in not only being knowledgeable about their wine, but by being super hospitable as well.  They are all eager to ensure that their guests have an excellent experience.

The 9 Barrel wine tasting showcases the best of the winemaker and the best of the La Crema wines.  To create these magic potions, the winemaker selects the best from nine different barrels to blend together the perfect wines.  This is not a blend of varietals, but rather the best of the Russian River Valley chardonnays and pinot noirs.  In addition, we were able to taste some of the other premium wines including the Saralee chardonnay, made from grapes that come from the highly prized Saralee vineyards, a place famous in Sonoma County.  Lisa says “Happy grapes come from that vineyard.”

La Crema is now in the process of building a beautiful new wine tasting room in the heart of the Russian River Valley, a short distance from Healdsburg.  When I know more, I’ll share the news on my blog.  I can’t wait until opening day!

Sonoma County Wine Region – Chalk Hill Winery

I promised to blog on our trip through the Sonoma County wine region and what a trip it has been so far!  We are always searching for the perfect chardonnay, but on this trip we are also gathering material for an article on exceptional wineries and wine tasting experiences.

We started our day with a return to Chalk Hill Winery, just outside of Windsor, in a beautiful hilltop setting.  The lovely Hannah provided us with two tastings on the patio overlooking the pond and grape fields below, then drove us around the property for a tour of the pavilion, horse stables, owner’s house, and of course, many of the grape fields.

We returned to the bucolic and shaded patio for our final two tastings. Hannah invited us to join them for their “White Party” up at the pavilion on Saturday.  I love a party and I love this winery so it was pretty tempting to say “yes” but we have a pretty busy schedule already that day.  I do love the Chalk Hill Estate chardonnay, so we couldn’t leave without purchasing at least one bottle.

For a picnic, we hopped across Chalk Hill Road to Chalk Hill Winery’s sister winery, Roth.  This is a new facility, only about two years old, with lots of comfortable seating on their patio in the front of the winery. Amanda served us from their tasting menu while we dined on our lunch. Roth also has food for sale if you prefer.  It is a “deconstructed sandwich” in a picnic basket.  You choose the meat and cheese, and they include the veggies and bread for you to put together your lunch.

We didn’t have time to visit their wine cave, but will make sure to stop by again when we return to Chalk Hill.  One more note about Roth: their wine prices were half the cost of what we normally see in Sonoma, so they get extra points for that!

 

 

Hop Kiln 2012 North Bridge Chardonnay – Russian River Valley

Hop KilnThis is HKG’s Sonoma County estate grown chardonnay and a good example of barrel fermented and Sur Lie aged wine.  This chardonnay is fermented in French oak barrels, and a secondary fermentation also takes place in the barrel.  The result is a lot of oak in the nose and the flavor.  The wine is a solid gold color, lots of legs in the glass.  It’s complex, smooth, medium bodied and well structured.  The mouthfeel is creamy and I like that, but oak dominates the flavor and I’m not a big fan of that.

After tasting this one, I think I prefer less oak and more of the vanilla, butterscotch flavors you often see in the Russian River.  My husband and tasting partner, Gary, however, loved the big oak in this chardonnay.  14.7% alcohol.

We purchased this at the winery and although I’m not crazy about their chardonnay, I do think the winery is beautiful and worth a visit.

We are headed back to Sonoma County for a special three days of extra special wine tastings and I’ll be blogging along the way.  Stay tuned…