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.

Wine Tasting on a Rhone River Cruise with Petaluma Gap Winemakers

Cruising down the Rhone River on a wine themed river cruise was a great way to see the South of France and taste the wines of Provence. But we were even more fortunate to be sailing on a wine-themed cruise sponsored by the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance out of Sonoma County.

To promote its efforts to become their own designated appellation and raise a little money, the Alliance sponsored the cruise and sent along several cases of wine supplied by 12 wineries from within Petaluma Gap. The Alliance also sent four winemakers to represent the Gap, educate guests on the ship, conduct wine tasting sessions, and host winemaker dinners.

Lucky me, one of the first wine tastings featured four chardonnays from the region.

Pellet Estate 2015 Un-oaked, Sun Chase Vineyard

First on the tasting menu was a Pellet Estate 2015 chardonnay, unoaked from the Sun Chase Vineyard.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you already know that I lean towards chardonnays that are barrel fermented. But, I’ve tasted a few unoaked versions lately that have opened my eyes and palate a bit. The beauty of the unoaked chardonnay is the flavor of the fruit comes through and this Pellet Estate is no exception. Aged 8 months in stainless steel, the wine was clear and shiny with lemon yellow hues. The nose offered hints of pear, apple and pineapple aromas. The high fruit flavors of citrus, apple and pineapple were layered with a hint of almond and melon. It finished with depth and complexity. Alcohol is 14.5%. The wine retails for $36 at the winery.

Agnitio 2013 Chardonnay Sun Chase Vineyard

Next, we tasted the Agnitio 2013 Chardonnay, also from the Sun Chase Vineyard. This turned out to be my favorite. I was very pleased and surprised when a bottle of this showed up in our cabin later, thanks to the generosity of the winemakers.

This is Agnitio’s first vintage of Sun Chase Chardonnay. 100% fermented in oak barrels, this wine displayed the luscious Sonoma County chardonnay flavors that I love. The nose expressed aromas of lemon, white flowers, and pear and vanilla. A wine more full bodied than the Pellet, the mouthfeel had depth and complexity. There was some minerality in the flavor, layered with pear, vanilla and a hint of butterscotch. Alcohol is 14.1% and the wine sells for $40 at the winery.

Pfendler Vineyards 2014 Chardonnay

Pfendler is a small production winery that only has three wines in its current release, producing just 400 cases of this chardonnay.

Aged 10 months in French oak, the Pfendler was a beautiful wine with aromas of honeysuckle, apple, spice and lemon crème. The mouthfeel was lush and the color bright golden straw. The wine was layered with flavors of lychee, pear and a touch of minerality. Alcohol is 14.1% and it retails for $8 at the winery.

Rodney Strong 2014 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast

Rodney Strong makes several different chardonnays and is one of my favorite Sonoma County wineries.

Barrel fermented in new French oak, the wine had aromas of toasty vanilla, apple and pear. The mouthfeel was rich and creamy, with flavors of pear, pineapple and a touch of spice. This was my second favorite in the tasting. 14.0% in alcohol, the wine retails for $25 at the winery.

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…

Wine Tasting in Northern California’s Delta Region

The Napa Valley is renowned throughout the world for its premier wines, and the Santa Barbara wine tasting region was made famous by the movie “Sideways”. Sonoma County is known for its quaint towns, luscious wines, and scenic vineyards. The Lodi and Amador wine regions are well known in Northern California for their robust reds and the Paso Robles wine region now boasts nearly 300 wineries in its appellation. But hidden in the backyard of California’s state capitol, the undiscovered wine tasting region of the Sacramento River Delta beckons to residents as well as visitors looking for a convenient, yet local getaway.

Take a leisurely drive along the meandering Sacramento River on a warm summer day and experience unhurried, uncrowded wine tasting at family run, local wineries. Enter the Delta and be instantly transported to a world of pear farms, and grape vines, and small towns full of California history still occupied by real people living a small town life.

Sacramento River

I just love the Delta. I fell in love with it the very first time I drove down the river road, past Rio Vista, where suddenly, the Sacramento River widens and changes, flowing toward the Antioch Bridge, eventually making its way to the San Francisco Bay.   Discovering wine tasting in this region that I love just makes it even better.

Enter the region through the tiny town of Freeport, gateway to the Delta. Cross the historic Freeport Bridge, once used to film the movie “The Prize” to the west side of the river. Continue south about 2 miles to the Old Sugar Mill, a repurposed sugar mill that now houses wine tasting rooms for eleven area wineries. It would be easy to spend all day here, but see more of the region and move on to Bogle Winery, just a few miles further south, past Clarksburg on the South River Road.

Bogle is the perfect place to enjoy a picnic on the spacious grounds, surrounded by vineyards. The grassy area is dotted with picnic tables and chairs, or take advantage of the balcony seating upstairs outside of the tasting room, while enjoying a bottle of wine. My favorite wines are the Reserve Chardonnay, the Viognier, only produced about every other year, and the Phantom Red, a blend of petite sirah, zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, and mourve`dre.

Bogle Outside

Back on the river road towards Clarksburg, cross over the Freeport Bridge and head south on the River Road (Highway 160) to Scribner Bend Vineyards, owned by Mark and Lorraine Scribner. The winery offers a small, but lovely picnic area surrounded by rose bushes, and a giant outdoor tent used for weddings and winery events.   Staff are friendly and knowledgeable and always happy to pour a second taste of something you tried but aren’t quite sure about.

Scribner Bend

I love the Reserve Chardonnay, one of the newer additions to their wine selection. This wine only comes in a 375 ml bottle and is reminiscent of that old fashioned, oaky, buttery chardonnay.

There are now twenty wineries in the Delta wine region. Not all have tasting rooms yet, but look for that to change in this wine growing region as more and more Northern Californians begin to discover what has quickly become my favorite place to wine taste.

Places to Eat:

Looking for a fun place to eat before hitting the wineries, or in-between? Try Husick’s in Clarksburg. This restaurant, opened in October 2014, by Katherine Van Diest, boasts barbeque ribs, tri tip, and other meats.  The atmosphere is funky and the restaurant serves 14 different beers on tap plus wine tasting from four local wineries.

Alternatively, the Dinky Diner is across the street on the river side and serves what I would describe as an old-fashioned hamburger grilled right there in their old fashioned road side trailer.  Sit outside  at picnic tables and enjoy the river view while you eat your lunch.

Delta Tours:

Wine tasting tours are available through Delta Heartbeat Tours, Thursday through Sunday at a cost of $60 per person. The company uses comfortable mini-buses to visit some of the Delta’s best wineries and also offers tours to 9 Delta towns as well as custom tours. www.deltaheartbeattours.com  or (916) 776-4010.