30 Days, 30 Vineyards
Article by Becky Creighton
It was a definitive moment.
I had thought about it A LOT.
I had my dream, I created my plan, and then I set out to do it.
This isn’t a story about great triumph or overcoming a huge obstacle. But, it is a story about going after a dream. For the last 20 years, I have been a student of food, wine, whiskey (who remembers The Bourbon Girl?!) and mostly, connecting with others who have the same passion – thank goodness there are a lot of us out there!
What is my dream? To be knee-deep in wine country. To experience life with those who live it every day, and to be around that community because it brings me such joy, happiness and the opportunity to constantly learn.
It was time! My son, boyfriend and I packed up and headed to California wine country. Trust me, choosing between Napa, Sonoma, Calistoga, Healdsburg, etc., was not easy. There were many things to consider: walking access to restaurants, coffee shops, etc., not too touristy, not too remote, and a comfortable home in our budget. We wanted to experience what it would be like to live in wine country, not vacation.
After many searches on AirBnB, VRBO, and the like, and then really identifying what was important to us, we chose Sonoma! We found a beautiful house in a perfect location, about a mile to Sonoma Square. We acclimated very well to the Sonoma scene, enjoying the weekly live music and farmer’s markets in the Square on Tuesday’s; walked to a coffee shop almost daily and, of course, we visited wineries and tasting rooms.
Actually, we visited 30 wineries in 30 days.
Sounds easy, right? Not as easy as you think but we were up for the challenge!
Our first vineyard was Kunde (rhymes with Dundee) and our last one was a tasting room in Yountville, Silver Trident Winery, and 28 in between. To say which one was my favorite would be like asking me to choose my favorite child. No thanks! Each experience had its own charm, amazing stories, of course, wine and some new friends.
So, if you don’t know much about Sonoma, know this…it’s big. Really big. And let’s not forget Napa. You can’t live in Sonoma for a month and not go to Napa. So, we definitely got our gladiator on over there as well. We aimed to visit places we haven’t been to before, major wine regions like Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma, Sebastopol, and we focused on wineries that produced less than 5,000 cases. Clearly, 30 days wasn’t going to be long enough.
Let’s talk about some hidden gems. We spent a day in Dry Creek Valley (think Ridge, Lytton Springs) – big zinfandel country, and as we discovered, sparkling wine country as well.
What say you? Sparkling wine out of zinfandel country? No, it’s not white zinfandel. Not even close. Let me introduce you to Amista Vineyards. A lovely, no appointment necessary, small vineyard and winery. We were fortunate enough to have been hosted by their National Sales Director, Robert “Chief” Rainwater. (I kid you not, that is his last name, so, I call him Chief. 🙂
Other than having the coolest last name ever, Robert was gregarious, generous, funny and this man knows his stuff! The blanc de blanc was amazing. I love the dryness of it, the tickle to your nose as you drink it, and the complexity of this California sparkling. They don’t stop at blanc de blanc, they also make a sparkling grenache and wait for it…a sparkling syrah. Trust me when I tell you, it doesn’t taste as it looks, which is a deep rosy color – you’d think sweet – nope. You should think wonderful but that’s one of the things I love about wine, it’s all subjective. You like one wine and you don’t like the sparkling syrah…so, I’ll drink it. We both win.
Just down the road from Sparklesville is Nalle Winery. We were lucky to have Doug Nalle at our tasting. Doug has forgotten more about growing grapes and making wine than most would learn in a lifetime. To say he is a character would also be a huge understatement. He is irreverent, funny, clearly cares about the process of growing grapes (they dry farm their vines – meaning no irrigation) and is adamant about showing the true expression of zinfandel.
You won’t find a jam bomb from Nalle Winery. What you will find are amazingly well balanced, peppery zinfandels. And, if you’re lucky, when you make an appointment to go, you’ll also find Doug there. Make sure to ask him about the Squirrel Wine Club.
Just up the road from Dry Creek Valley is Alexander Valley and like Dry Creek Valley, it gets hot with cool nights, which helps produce great cabernets. Our next vineyard did not disappoint either.
I was introduced to Karin Warnelius-Miller through a mutual friend. Karin and her husband, Justin, own and run Garden Creek Vineyards. What a beautiful property, story and wine. Karin moved to Alexander Valley from Björsäter, Sweden in 1974 as a child and feels very much at home on their slice of heaven among the vines. She and Justin even got married on the property.
Garden Creek are private tastings only and we just missed the Outstanding in the Field dinner they had our last night there, that’s how beautiful this property is. But, it’s Karin and the wine and the story that drew us in.
One of the great things about Sonoma is their town square. I was lured into a tasting room in Sonoma Square because there was a sign that said “Free Rosé Tasting.” Sign me up!
We took a seat at the table and one of my favorite people I have met in a long time came to our table and poured us our rosé. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to introduce you to Dr. Chris Thorpe. I affectionately refer to him as “Dr. Chris.” Dr. Chris is well into his, well, I actually have no idea how old he is. I just know if you go to Sonoma, you need to stop at Adastra’s tasting room and meet Dr. Chris. His son-in-law, Edwin, is the winemaker and Dr. Chris farms about five acres in Napa (just behind Domaine Carneros). Dr. Chris believes that if you take care of the land, the land will take care of you, so his wine is also organic.
Carneros is known for pinot noir and chardonnay and Adastra makes both as well as syrah and, of course, rosé. When I tell you the 2016 pinot noir is amazing, believe me. It is a fantastic expression of California pinot noir but with more backbone than most. It’s structured and the fruit is ripe but not too ripe. Anyway, I could go on and on about this wine and about the endearing nature of Dr. Chris.
Now, if you head out to Sonoma, you should definitely head up to Glen Ellen. A tiny little town filled with a lot of character. There are a few places you should definitely put on your list to visit. First, if you love baguettes, you must go to Les Pascals Patisserie et Boulangerie. We probably went at least five times, it was that good. And just down the sidewalk, no appointment necessary, is a great little tasting room, Kivelstadt. Jordan takes great care in making the wine. He also pays homage to his family by naming the wines for them and having an artist create probably some of the coolest labels out there. Jordan makes a refreshing and lovely rosé and The Father’s Watch has been a long-time favorite of mine.
We also visited a tiny winery and very unique tasting room at Talisman. If you like pinot noir, you will love this little gem. Marta, one of the owners, took us through a number of their pinot noirs and it was an experience! Marta’s hospitality and her personality are larger than life, we didn’t want to leave.
From Sonoma to Napa! In full disclosure the next vineyard I’ll talk about I have been to before, but, it was also 14 years ago when they were just getting started. If you like cabs (why else would you go over to Napa?!) then you would really enjoy what Bennett Lane has to offer.
And, no, I didn’t go there because they have a gladiator helmet, although, I quite liked wearing it. The assistant winemaker, Bennett Salts, took us through our tasting and what a tasting it was! We went from sparkling to rosé to cabs and they were all worth a second visit…or third or maybe we joined the wine club! Bennett Lane has a wonderful property as well and the best part was having Bennett take us through the tasting. Here is a man who is clearly passionate about making wine and sharing his knowledge with guests.
The best part about our trip wasn’t the wine, although, don’t get me wrong, it was fantastic and we may or may not have come back with a few cases and joined a few wine clubs. The best part was the people we met, hearing their stories, and sharing their wine with them.
But, all good things must come to an end. There were so many other vineyards, winemakers, and restaurant owners that made an impression. Thirty days really wasn’t long enough.
Becky Creighton owns and runs Colorado’s first food tour company, Culinary Connectors, which started in 2008. Follow Becky at instagram.com/30days30vineyards/ to see videos and pictures of her 30 days in wine country.