After gallivanting around Napa Valley and Sonoma County during a gorgeous autumn November 2017, we feel lucky to be a part of finding new appreciation for the everlasting beauty and wonderful pride of Sonoma Strong Wine Tasting. We encourage you to come see this for yourself. It’s even more amazing than we had hoped it would be.
Sonoma Strong Wine Tasting – Here We Come
Is Wednesday morning too early for cocktails on an airplane? (I’m looking at the pictures regardless). But I’m really saving my palate for premium Sonoma Strong Wine Tasting. In three hours our flight lands in Oakland, then we’ll drive up I-80 into Napa, and head straight for Domaine Carneros chateau – known for their elegant Sparkling Wine and incredible Pinot Noir. We’ll get at least three wineries in today, a few more tomorrow and then arrive in Santa Rosa to attend the Wine Bloggers Conference 2017 tomorrow afternoon kick-off.
Past the bustling harbor ports and busy bridges along Marina Bay, it was a quick 90-minute drive into the pleasant sloping hills of a mixed coastal vegetation landscape dotted with tropical palms next to olive and oak trees. Once on Highway 29, we stopped only for two Carhop Classics at a local Sonic drive-in. While laying a solid food foundation for an afternoon full of wine tasting, we called ahead to secure our Domaine Carneros reservations for two.
RESERVE YOUR TASTING AT DOMAINE CARNEROS
Parking in the driveway beneath the magnificent Domaine Carneros French-inspired mansion (1240 Duhig Rd, Napa, CA 94559) is like arriving by invitation to a glorious opening night at the Cannes Film Festival. Suddenly, I felt giddy like Jay Gatsby. I was skittish at the hedges and choosy at stone steps. The pleasant trickling sounds of the water fountains and cool breeze seemed to electrify the panoramic background of vineyards touching sky. As we approached the entrance, I made a 360 degree turn – really trying to take it all in. This view from the southern foot of the Enchanted Hills is absolutely incredible. We were then promptly seated at our own private table; no doubt, we would be sharing the finest experience a $30 per person wine tasting can offer (and that’s their least inexpensive option).
After the care of the pour into the stemware, we swirled. (I could smell strawberry as I smiled at Kimberly). Then I sipped and savored a warm, baked cherry. Followed by a swallow where a blackberry danced across my tongue and disappeared. The words Red Wine Sampler fail to describe the total pleasure of these four fine Pinot Noir (all poured at once): 2016 Avant-Garde, 2014 Estate, 2014 Le Ciel Serein, 2014 The Famous Gate. Plus, our fantastic host poured us a complimentary fifth: 2014 Lawler Ranch. Thank you!
The smoky chocolate cherry of the 2014 La Ciel Serein sips like a slow-motion back massage (I’m thinking holiday turkey and stuffing would be fantastic with this). The fruit forward 2014 Estate is probably the most economical with a full experience, but the extreme giant flavor and “best of the best grapes” certainly make the $80 bottle of 2014 The Famous Gate our personal favorite. Think Perfect Body Pinot. Rest assured – visiting Domaine Carneros is an excellent option to officially declare your Sonoma Strong Wine Tasting tour has begun. (Next time we come back, we’re definitely going to also get a Sparking Wine Sampler!)
EXPLORE ARTESA ESTATE VINEYARDS AND WINERY
The autumn variety and November colors of well-trained vines along the highway road range from vibrant green to dead brown – with thousands of shades of golden yellow, hot fudge, and brilliant bronze in between. Artesa Estate Vineyards and Winery was just a five minute drive before we began to ascend their private driveway. We kept wondering when we would we see real evidence of the recent Napa Valley fires because it wasn’t what we had expected. I was thinking purgatory, but instead, I kept finding sanctuary. When I realized of the true size of the Artesa underground facility and beautiful artistry of their modern tasting room, I forgot all about it. This place is gorgeous and elegant – have a seat!
Our first pour was the 2014 Sangiacomo Pinot Noir, Carneros. Cherry and raspberry surged from the glass almost exactly as our server had promised it would. (Oh, if we had some grilled or smoked salmon!) Then I savored the lush red fruit of the 2015 Estate Pinot while admiring the room designed like a secret billionaire hideout in a James Bond movie. Next up – 2014 Block 91D Pinot – made me look again at the view outside; imagining a fine cigar while philosophizing about the origins of this gorgeous valley. Finally, just when I thought I found my favorite, she poured us a 2013 Foss Valley Ranch Cabernet Franc. Outstanding! I could quaff this dark purple magic late (and forever) into the mysterious night…
SAVOR WINE HISTORY AT BUENA VISTA WINERY
As we continued our Sonoma Strong wine tasting tour, I really began to wonder if we’d ever really see what we’d been shown on T.V.? All I could find were patches of blackened tree trunks that were otherwise green with leaves among other random burnt areas of grass. Even at Buena Vista Winery (where the fire had come dangerously close), they were busy pruning the grounds with chainsaws – which filled the air with fresh Eucalyptus and flavorful woody aromas. I couldn’t detect anything out of the ordinary (other than a bunch of historical figures standing near the path as we approached the front door). That’s right! Buena Vista Winery is not just a wine tasting room – it’s a shrine. A delicious museum celebrating the winery’s incredibly innovative creator, Agoston Haraszthy, and his many years of roaming the United States in search of the perfect location for winemaking.
Our wine host, Brandon, began the tasting with 2014 Natalia’s Selection Chardonnay. Baked apple and hints of lemon swam laps around my gums before the light buttery oak plunged beyond the back of my gullet. Next was 2014 Ida’s Selection Pinot Noir, named after one of his daughter’s and leading into more education about Agoston Haraszthy. As more fruit and tobacco tied for finish within my taste buds, Brandon explained how Agoston had even made a journey with vines kept alive inside of potatoes during transit. As I closed my eyes while sipping 2015 Private Reserve Pinot Noir, Brandon described how regularly evening comfortably cool climate babysits this incredibly delicious varietal. And as we enjoyed the 2014 Private Reserve Cab, he told us how the firefighters had helped save this historic winery from the fast blowing October flames attempting to engulf the tasting room. By the time we reached our seventh taste, Buena Vista Port, we literally felt like well-informed ambassadors! Kimberly doesn’t usually like port, but that rich toasted caramel pour somehow disappeared way before she could ever refuse its silky sweet embrace.
STAY ENCHANTED AT AN INN 2 REMEMBER
As we found our way to the City of Sonoma, we noticed an influence of old Western-style architecture (a la Colorado homestead) interwoven with a laid back mix like a city on the coast. Even the city square had historical flair. And we admired the multitude of handmade signs thanking local firefighters, police and emergency volunteers for their dedication and rescue efforts that helped keep this tight-knit community safe.
At 171 W. Spain Street, we found our room for the night. The Corn Flower Room at An Inn 2 Remember truly felt just right. As I brought in our luggage and we freshened up for dinner, I snapped a few photos to keep safe with my memories. I bathed quietly in the tranquility thinking farmhouse bed and breakfast; like a beach house summer timeshare from which nobody ever wants to leave. Like a secret island treehouse out of reach from a nine-to-five ball and chain.
Sonoma Strong wine tasting at ENKIDU
OK, enough logistics; time for more wine tasting! As the smooth blanket of dusk began to lay upon California, we walked south on 1st Street West (along Sonoma Plaza). Walking by restaurant windows with tall stacks of wine racks, bottles prepared for corking and sets of wine glasses perfectly placed, I dreamed of all the inevitable and extravagant dinner tastings. (And thinking how excited we are about our three-course dinner plans Friday night at Thomas George Estates – near Healdsburg). This whole county is heaven for wine lovers! Quaint, romantic, and everywhere I look – more wine!
That’s when we discovered Enkidu Sonoma tasting room and our wine host and new friend, Paul. He started us on a 2014 Alder Springs Chardonnay, then took us to a 2014 Russian River Valley Pinot. Enkidu wine is unique and Paul’s presentation is exceptional. Like Brandon, Paul’s conversational-style hosting reinforced a real deep and animated appreciation for the marriage of the themes of the spirit of Enkidu and its profound meaning within the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s so cool! Live wild and drink like an ancient king! And right then the smoky, crushed blueberry of 2015 Humbaba Rhone Blend had me yearning to set camp in the woods and eat meat straight from the spit – with my bare hands. Sold! (And starved). We purchased our second bottle of the trip and took Paul’s recommendation to devour some tapas at Tasca Tasca located just up the street.
eat PORTUguese TAPAS in sonoma AT TASCA TASCA
We ordered 7 tapas for $32 (plus glasses of white and red Portuguese house wine). Port Reyes Blue Cheese with Apple, Portuguese Mac & Cheese, Dungeness Crab Empanadas, Pork Sliders with Port BBQ Sauce, Steak Tartare, Dry Cured Chourico and Rice Pudding w/ Cinnamon. (I bet everything is good here). While the menu is subject to change – the chef Manuel Azevedo is a locally renowned gem. Just another reason why Sonoma Strong Wine Tasting is a great place to bring the one you love. Satisfied (but not overstuffed) we called it a night and went back to our room.
Save Money and explore With A Winery Passport
Cozy and quiet, we woke early and fully rested – to find a pastry breakfast for two waiting just outside our door. With fresh coffee and the latest copy of Wine Country This Week, we took our time getting ready to be back on the road by eleven. Leafing through the magazine, I couldn’t help but imagine our own blog post – and sharing with you our pictures and recommendations. Telling you how Sonoma Strong wine tasting is easy in, easy out – such a great location with wonderful accommodations.
If you stay at An Inn 2 Remember, be sure to ask Allison for the complimentary Winery Passport. Save time and money while blazing your own wine trail! And the more we looked at it – the more we realized how much free wine tasting is available. Since we were headed to Santa Rosa, Allison gave us two strong recommendations to be sure to visit Imagery Estate Winery and stop for lunch at VJB Cellars.
CREATE Time TO Unwind At Imagery Estate Winery
Imagery Estate Winery invites you to “Broaden Your Palate”. Maybe that’s why, Dori (our friendly wine hostess) started us off with a 2016 Albarino – crisp with tropical notes, floral aromas and noticeable minerality. Then she stepped it up with their 2015 White Burgundy – where the pear and pineapple gracefully waltz together. Switching to red with a rinse of the glass, I savored the fruit explosion of the 2014 Grenache, the sweet tobacco of their 2014 Tempranillo, and the deep decadence of the 2013 Petite Sirah (served with dark chocolate). Admiring the artwork of the wine bottle labels as I sipped, an apparent theme of the ancient Greek Parthenon sparked an education about Imagery’s connection to its parent, Benziger Family Winery. Here, the Parthenon is everywhere you look. Reflecting on Enkidu the night before, I found myself again reflecting on the deep historical (and geographical) bonds formed between wine tasting and the humanities. Still pondering, our tasting dipped us into the old world with 2014 Tannat – and finally resting with 2014 Pallas Red. What a wonderful adventure for my tongue, nose and throat! Feeling replenished and alive, Kimberly began signing up for their wine club while I picked up my new #SonomaStrong hat.
“Where’s everybody at?” I had to ask. “This wine is fantastic!” “Actually, this is usually our busy season,” Dori softly replied. Then (somewhat apprehensively) Dori began to talk more about the real media impact of the recent Napa Valley fires on their winery and on their tourism: Negative Perception. No, the Napa Valley fires did not destroy all the wineries. Napa, Sonoma, Kenwood – they’re nearly all back open for business. But the nonstop images of charred remains of neighborhoods on T.V. are what people think of right now when they hear the word “Napa”. It’s really very sad and I wonder if the previous string of devastating hurricanes has us all teetering on the edge of high alert. “The strength of the wind was abnormal that night,” said Dori (I later learned more about Diablo wind). She described how the owner personally helped fight against the flames as Nunn’s fire attempted to consume their tasting room.
“The fire was ten feet from the front door,” she added. As soon as staff were allowed to return, they began immediately the hours of intense clean up required to reopen as soon as possible. Even so, Dori added that, “people from back east canceled their tours at Benziger. The phone lines are down and they can’t get through – so they don’t know we’re open.” Even if they did, what about all those images of burning ash scorched in their minds? “Lodi is overcrowded,” says Dori. So probably they still would’t have come. Folks, I’ve been here – so I’m here to tell you. The vines are not gone. The tasting rooms are open. Napa Valley and Sonoma County are still beautiful – and ready for you to reschedule your tour and come back to this incredible wine country. Don’t miss your chance to enjoy Sonoma Strong wine tasting before everyone else finds out!
ITALIAN lunch and Old world wine AT VJB CELLARS
See the bottle open, watch the delicious pour, and inhale the beautiful aroma. First the tip of the tongue; then the rest of your mouth. Yes, our anticipation was rising even before we parked at what would become our last winery visit before arriving in Santa Rosa. Upon a strong Winery Passport recommendation as a local hotspot for wine tasting and lunch, VJB Cellars is conveniently located off Sonoma Highway 12. From the street view, we kind of wondered if we took a wrong turn south of Glen Ellen and somehow ended up in Tuscany. We excitedly walked past an old stack of wine barrels resting on an old horse drawn cart, through the stone tile courtyard, then opened the front door and found a big display of artisan cheeses and imported Italian specialties. Immediately, we knew we would have to eat here. VJB Cellars might be the busiest wine tasting room we had seen so far (yet still not at capacity) which could also be a result of the culinary delights of La Cucina. So we picked an open spot at the end of the tasting room counter by the windows where Ernie warmly welcomed us to a healthy six-wine tasting.
He started us off with a 2016 Gabriella Ranch Chardonnay demonstrating a crisp green apple taste with a pleasant lemony background. After one white, the tasting went to red with 2015 Rosso Family Blend. An Italian family favorite – great for snacking on bites of French charcuterie. Next up, a Croatian influence – 2015 Primitivo with a deep cherry nose, taste, and body that had me wishing for a big plate of meatballs and pasta! The VJB wine tasting list follows Primitivo with a big 2015 Estate Sangiovese – from which the incredibly smooth cherry finish sent this Midwest wine tasting couple tumbling right through the Cal-Italian time portal. And for a soft landing, our final taste was a Chardonnay Port (18% ABV). Although we laughed about how many Italian wines contain lower than average alcohol content (because you’re drinking that instead of water) we soon tipped and thanked Ernie because it was way past time for us to eat.
La Cucina is connected to the VJB Cellars tasting room and there’s plenty of seating outside in the courtyard. Their menu is fantastic; featuring wood-fired pizzas, flatbreads, fresh salads and (my favorite) hand-crafted panini sandwiches. We ordered the Salmon & Brie and Bresaola (salted beef) and found an umbrella covered table outside in the courtyard. As we ate, we could feel just a hint of rain – nearly imperceptible – like the dream mist of a cloud resting gently on the ground. It is so beautiful here! I know there was a raging fire here recently but only because I saw that on the news. If I had no T.V., I probably wouldn’t even have known the difference. And after talking to nearly every wine host today about the now infamous 2017 Napa fires, my thoughts and prayers are with these folks. In great times of emergency, we find our own personal stories are interconnected and how similar we all really are. And it’s important that people know that the only way Kenwood has changed is that now it’s #KenwoodStrong.
“Well, my dear,” I said, looking at Kimberly. “We have to get back on the road. It’s time to head to Santa Rosa.” Our Sonoma Strong wine tasting experience had been mind-altering, but we didn’t want to miss a single minute of Wine Bloggers Conference 2017. As we drove back listening to our “Fifty Shades of Grey” soundtrack (yes, I actually really like it when in wine country) we thought more about the wine, about the people we had met, and about the images of the fire damage on T.V. It was hard to reconcile what we thought before we got here and what we knew now. As the trees drifted by, I felt lighter. And before we knew it, we were parking in the lot at the Hyatt Regency Sonoma Wine Country hotel. After condensing our luggage into conference materials vs. clothing for the Airbnb later in Sebastopol, we believed we were ready for the next chapter. Excited to spend the entire weekend learning more about Napa and Sonoma and how we can help spread the good word, we strolled into the hotel lobby searching for signs directing us to our wine blending workshop (little did we know that we were in for the biggest of surprises). We hope you will join us for Part Two of our Sonoma Strong Wine Tasting Adventure. Thank you for spending some time with us.