Sonoma is a big place.

Sonoma

And unlike in Napa, where most wineries are located either on Route 29 or the Silverado Trail – both major roads – Sonoma’s sprawl offers up a sense of remoteness and intimacy unlike any other wine region in the U.S. What many people refer to generically as “Sonoma Valley” is actually just one of 12 AVAs (American Viticulture areas) within Sonoma County, many of which overlap and few of which make a lot of sense. Sonoma is about twice the size of Napa Valley, and you can get lost pretty easily. I did, going from one winery to another, many situated on narrow, winding roads with no other commercial properties nearby. I wish I’d brought my GPS receiver, and I recommend it.

REALLY Goode

Murphy-Goode

My first visit was Murphy-Goode, in the company of our host Larry Tedeschi, a genial fellow who may or may not be the tasting room manager (refreshingly, titles don’t seem to be a big deal at here.) Larry was cheerily absorbing at that moment that a sale of this independent winery to Kendall-Jackson had just been completed, but was optimistically confident that M-G would be allowed to continue its good works unhindered. I hope that’s the case.

First, I cannot say enough how enjoyable and different the Murphy Ranch Petit Verdot is. Search for Petit Verdot as a varietal, and you’ll be lucky to find a dozen, anywhere. And even at M-G they were using it principally in tiny proportions as a blending grape for their Cabs and Merlots, until someone decided to bottle the stuff on its own, with maybe a few percent of Merlot. Yet by its lonesome the Petit Verdot is stunningly good: an inky number bursting with black cherry, blueberry and plum flavors, well-balanced, with rich, chewy tannins. Just plain remarkable. I will bet you can only find it online, and if so, buy it as I don’t think they’re making it anymore.

Before wowing us with the Petit Verdot, Larry poured three versions of M-Gs Sauvignon Blanc, ranging from the austere and crisp Sonoma County Fume Blanc, to the “Deuce” Sauvignon Blanc – rich, 100% oak fermented and ML. He then led us into the barrel room to taste the bumper crop of 2005’s, many of which were being racked. Now, I don’t know how you rate wines so young, and I don’t pretend to know how these will taste even two or three years down the road. But based on my previous tastings of Murphy-Goode’s line, I am confident that the 2005s have huge promise.

One of the cool things about Murphy-Goode is that while it’s a fairly large operation – about 180,000 cases – the atmosphere is that of an operation one-quarter as large: friendly, informal, and welcoming.

I contrast that with the high school clique-ish reception I received at similarly-sized Markham Vineyards (in Napa) last January. There the tasting room staffers knew zilch-point-squat about the wines they were pouring; were mostly concerned about being paid for the tasting upfront (as if I would run out the door with Cab dribbling out of my mouth) ; and were interested mostly in selling obscenely expensive sequined t-shirts. Markham is an archetypical example of the “commercial varietal” winery, if you get my drift. I dashed off a letter of protest to the GM about it, and the only response was deafening silence. Too bad.

The Italian Stallion

Pedroncelli

Anyway, I digress. From Murphy-Goode, we drove west and north to Pedroncelli in Geyserville, where we were greeted by Ed St. John, the VP of Sales and Marketing. Pedroncelli, which I believe was formerly called “J. Pedroncelli,” is a true family operation founded in 1927.

Ed poured us a glass of their 2005 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel Rose, an unremarkable but thoroughly refreshing wine, and slowly walked us up a steep hill of the vineyard, with a vista of the entire property. From the crest he pointed out blocs of Tinta Madeira, Tinta Cao, Touriga, and Souzao, the four “greats” that go into Pedroncelli’s 2001 Four Grapes Dry Creek Valley Port, which at the time wasn’t really on my mind or my radar for tasting.

Pity. I managed to wrap this smallish, 500ml bottle carefully enough to sustain a ride to EWR in my checked luggage, overcoming the ban on liquids in carry-ons following the thwarted terrorist plot in the UK. I opened it for two fellow Port lovers a couple days later and discovered what in my view is the best domestic “Port” I have ever tasted: complex, rich, and fruity, nicely structured. I tend to gravitate to Tawnies to avoid the overwhelming sweetness of most Ruby ports, and in this case I didn’t have to go there.

We returned to the tasting room where we tried the Fay Vineyard Alexander Valley 2003 Cab, which was impressive for an ’03, and a delicious ’02 Petite Sirah, “Dry Creek Valley Family Vineyards.” But my favorite was the Sangiovese Alto Vineyards Dry Creek Valley 2002 – cranberries, cherries and blueberries, with smooth tannins, medium body, and a medium but very satisfying, punchy finish.

To note: Pedroncelli’s “vintage selections” average about $12, and its “single and special vineyard” selections don’t exceed $20. For whatever reason, and using wine economics I don’t fathom, this family is committed to producing fine wine at affordable – that is, low – prices. Good on them, and good for us. I love this place.

Back South a Bit

Alexander Valley Vineyards

Matt Kramer, author of New California Wine, says of Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg “…sited in the eponymous valley, (Alexander Valley) issues an array of wines, only one consistently shines: Cabernet Sauvignon.”

I tend to agree, although that sentiment is based on a single afternoon’s tastings – of everything in the store, courtesy of Alexander’s Jil Child who was fun and feisty, and gave us a great tour of the place and the underground caves. And I did and do love the 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon – a medium-bodied gem, with polished tannin, black cherry and plum flavors and a long finish. For the price, this is an absolutely outstanding wine and tremendous value.

On the other hand, the “Sin Zin” was adequately spicy, but an all too typical showing although it was in an interesting bottle.

Moving Kinda Slow…at the Junction

Jimtown Store

After an afternoon of tough sledding in Alexander Valley we headed to a local gem, the Jimtown Store. This place was so charming and such a throwback that I looked around for Billy Joe, Bobby Joe, Betty Joe, and Uncle Joe.

We sat on the back patio and ate chicken salad sandwiches, washed down with a crisp Fume Blanc, and unfortunately I didn’t write down the name or my impressions of it. But if you’re in the area tasting, don’t miss a visit and a light lunch at the Jimtown.

A Castle on The Plaza

Castle Vineyards

Castle Vineyards is a tiny (3500 case) operation that specializes in Rhone varietals including Pinot, Viognier, Syrah, and Red Grenache. The Castle Winery in Buena Vista isn’t open to the public, but they’ve got a small but charming tasting room off the plaza in Sonoma town with a patio, and you can bring in lunch or snacks to enjoy as you taste their creations.

Perhaps it was just an off day, but the tasting room staff wasn’t exceptionally friendly or knowledgable and frankly they appeared bored. However, the pours were generous and the wines were generally excellent, especially the Viogner and Grenache. The Viognier, in fact, might be the best domestic version I’ve ever tasted. I also heartily recommend their Syrah “Port.” Like an idiot I waited too long to place an order, and found to my dismay that there was no more Viognier, but I’ll certainly get in line for the next vintage.

Castle recently issued a strangely un-dated news release that says “Castle Vineyards & Winery has been recently acquired by John and Kathleen Sweazey, who combine years of passionate wine interest and experience with their success in small business enterprises.” It appears as though the Sweazeys bought the operation from the winemaker Vic McWilliams. I haven’t followed these folks for too long so I’m not sure what this means for the future; still, I heartily recommend a visit when you’re in Sonoma.


A Sonoma Institution

Sebastiani Tasting Room

Sebastiani is one of the best-known wineries around, and while I don’t frequently drink its stuff, I felt that no trip here would be complete without a visit. Samuele Sebastiani came from Tuscany in 1895 and bought some vineyards from the Franciscans in 1904, and the family name has been established in Sonoma ever since.

The tasting room just two blocks from Sonoma Plaza is a large and handsome facility, but gives off an overwhelming sense of retail commercialism – offering trolley tours, the most merchandise I’ve ever seen, and an art gallery with rotating exhibits. They’ll even rent you the historic family home for a night or several (shades of Bill Clinton and the Lincoln Bedroom?) so that you can avoid those quaint and uncomfortable B&Bs with furniture you can’t actually use. Anyway, the operation is now run by Samuele’s granddaughter Mary Ann Sebastiani Cuneo and her husband Richard.

Interestingly, both the website and the establishment ignore over the fact that the place was until recently headed by Mary Ann’s brother Don. Along with his sons Donny and August, Don now runs a competitor – a negociant company that produces more than a million bottles under the labels Mia’s Playground, Screw Kappa Napa, Fusee, Pepperwood Grove, Aquinas Napa Valley, and Smoking Loon.

Sebastiani wines are solidly crafted from fruit sourced at their vineyards across Sonoma, but in my experience are not standouts, except perhaps for their Cherryblock offerings which are fairly expensive, allocated wines. Yet the vast majority of their stuff is under $20 and very good value. And to be fair, you should do some focused tastings to see what you like.