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Sep 25, 2017

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Down Home in Sonoma County
by Brendan Eliason
Magazine Issue: U.S. Vol. 4.2

This is my second attempt at writing a travel piece for Wine X. The first was a little over a year ago, when I attacked the central coast of California. I'm happy to say that since that whirlwind tour, buildings have been repaired, vegetation has grown back and most of the animals from the local zoo have been returned.

Damage repaired, I guess my editors at Wine X figured it was okay to turn me loose again (as long as it was in my own backyard -- Sonoma County). The only major change this time 'round? I was unable to tour with my longtime compadre and resident Buddhist Mark "Swanky" Suwannakom. (Mark and I are no longer allowed within 100 meters of each other, by orders of the San Luis Obispo Police Department, the FBI, the United Nations Special Forum on International Terrorism, Greenpeace, the Audubon Society and the League of Women Voters.)

With a fanatical zeal that'd make even Richard Simmons blush, I compiled a detailed list of great wineries, best food and coolest places to visit in Sonoma County. I then set out to accurately report on a handful of my favorites. I assured my editors that I'd complete this task even if it meant drinking hundreds of fabulous wines, eating dozens of incredible meals and attending one raging party after another. I am, damn it, a dedicated journalist.

DAY 1
Southern Sonoma - Carneros

Breakfast, as everyone knows, is one of the four most important meals of the day. With this in mind, I stopped to visit a friend, Chris Sawyer, at a cool new restaurant in the town of Sonoma called Wild Thyme. Chris, being a wine devotee kinda guy and fellow Wine X employee, knew we needed some good I'm-about-to-spend-the-rest-of-the-day-drinking-wine food. (Never underestimate the benefit of a good base before a long day of wine tasting.)

After browsing the menu, I ordered a fresh bagel with cream cheese, a cafe mocha and the Quiche Lorraine. Okay, I know what you're thinking, "Quiche? Real men don't eat quiche!" Well, maybe I just like to live dangerously. It takes a real man, a dangerous man, a risk-taking man to eat quiche without feeling threatened. I'm proud to say I walk that thin line of thrilling excess that often leads to quiche consumption. Watch out, I am dangerous.

With breakfast safely inside us, Chris and I headed south to Carneros. Carneros is a cool (weather-wise) growing region in the southern tip of Sonoma County. It's best known for sparkling wines, pinot noir and chardonnay, but it's rapidly gaining a reputation (a good one) for other varieties such as merlot and syrah.

No trip to Carneros is complete without a stop at Cline. Pulling up to the tasting room reminded me of what my grandmother's house looked like -- simple but elegant, with a big porch surrounded by flowers and plants, and a small fish pond in back. (The 140,000 case winery is just grandma's little hobby.) The inside looks more like an old general store, which is exactly how they lull you into relaxation. Once you're lulled, the tasting room staff sneaks up and unleash a range of some of the most intense red wines that Sonoma County has to offer.

Tasting at Cline is like prizefighting: You start by playfully sparring with its delicious '98 California zinfandel (one of the greatest, most consistent values), take some serious punches from the '97 Ancient Vines zinfandel, and then take a serious glove to the head from its '97 Small Berry mourvedre. Just when you start to get your senses back, you get a mean one-two combination of spice and jam from the '97 Live Oak zin and, if you're still standing, a knockout blow from its '97 Bridgehead zin. (This last one's the Mohammed Ali of wine -- a unique combination of incredible power and finesse.) I knew I was in real trouble, however, when the burly '97 Big Break zin tried to bite my ear off!

I have a deep love for zinfandel (red, not pink) that'd get me 20 years to life in many bible belt states. I've collected 14,817 signatures to make zinfandel the "fifth food group." If (or when) I compete for the title of Mrs. America, and they ask me what I'd do to make the world a better place, I'll answer with gusto, "Encourage everyone to drink more zinfandel." (Then, because I'd slept with the judges, I'd wear the tiara proudly.) But now this analogy is just getting too weird. So in case the point wasn't clear, I LOVE ZIN!

It should come as no shock then that I've been a longtime admirer of Joel Peterson and Ravenswood winery, which, along with Ridge and Rosenblum, makes up the group known as the "three R's" of zin. Ravenswood's basically responsible for making zin the unique, wonderful and popular wine that it is today. For this reason, a trip to Ravenswood is as much a necessary pilgrimage as it is a fun place to visit.

Even with my high expectations, I was still pleasantly surprised. Ravenswood was pouring two different cabernet sauvignons -- the Napa County cab, a 100 percent cabernet sauvignon, which is a full, intensely flavored wine that manages to be powerful yet smooth at the same time, and its cousin, the Sonoma County cab, which delivers finesse more than sheer power. The Sonoma cab's blended with cabernet franc and merlot, which also makes it deeper and more fruit-driven.

While at Ravenswood it's mandatory that you visit the final resting place of "The Last Wimpy Wine," a small gravesite/shrine behind the tasting room that memorializes the winery's motto: "No Wimpy Wines." Okay, it's not Graceland, but they don't let you into Elvis' cellar either, so I think it all balances out.

DAY 2
Sonoma Valley - Santa Rosa

Given that I'm a winemaker and that I live in Sonoma County, you'd think I'd have some idea what's going on around me (unless you know me, of course, in which case you know the truth -- I have no freakin' clue!). A classic example of this is my ignorance of the Glen Ellen tasting room. Although I'd heard great things about the place and driven by a million times, I'd never stopped and gone in.

Upon our arrival, Chris and I were met by Elizabeth McDermott, who volunteered to take us through the wines. Before pulling corks, however, Elizabeth took us on a quick detour of the winery's museum.

Adjacent to its tasting room, Glen Ellen Winery has put together a very interesting and educational collection of photographs and memorabilia that details the growth of the eponymous town. What really provides a great sense of historical perspective, however, is the fact that the museum's housed inside what used to be concrete fermentation vats for an old winery building. Each of these vats, constructed of foot-thick concrete, is the size of a small room, with each room providing a glimpse into the rich history of Sonoma Valley.

Imagining the tens of thousands of gallons of wine that used to literally fill the rooms made me thirsty, so we followed Elizabeth to the tasting bar. The focus of tasting at Glen Ellen is its Limited Release Series. This includes a wide range of wines like sangiovese, zinfandel, syrah, chardonnay, riesling and sauvignon blanc. The standout was the modestly titled California Red Wine. This was a unique blend of sangiovese, grenache, carignane, syrah, zin and lagrein. (I'd never heard of lagrein either, so don't feel bad.) The California Red is well structured, with bright raspberry, cherry and strawberry flavors. Even more impressive are the per-bottle prices for the Limited Release Series, which hover around $12 to $14. A great deal on some well made, limited-production vinos.

The key to any great wine tasting adventure is, of course, knowing where to go. Some people make the mistake of trying to cover too much territory in too little time. Always remember: It's not the number of wineries, it's who has the best juice. This thought occurred to me when I realized Chris and I were definitely having way too much fun. So we tried to not enjoy ourselves. Really. But any hope that we had of controlling our overwhelming hedonism was lost when we pulled into St. Francis Winery. Oh well.

Our excitement almost hit a snag when we stepped up to the tasting bar. The women working behind the counter seemed really, really impressed with their chardonnays, especially the '97 Reserve. This made me suspicious. I reluctantly admit my great aversion to chardonnay. I'm not proud of it, and as open-minded as I try to be, I just don't like chard. This is primarily due to the fact that most chardonnay today tastes like a two-by-four dipped in melted butter. Lumber and butter flavors just don't interest me. Even worse, "Reserve" on the label usually means the winery's done everything in its power to put the equivalent of a small condominium's worth of wood in the bottle. In fact, most people don't know that the word "Reserve" is Latin for "I want to taste splinters." This REALLY doesn't interest me.

Therefore, it was with great prejudice-drive reluctance that I tasted the two chardonnays set before me. As I sipped the wines, Hell froze over. Pigs learned to fly. And the world became a much happier place (even if only for a moment). They were good. They were really, really good. The first chard was the '98 Sonoma County. The moment I smelled it I could tell this was going to be a great wine. It actually smelled like fruit, not wood smoke. I was hooked. The taste was even better, with bright flavors of citrus, pears and apples leaping from the glass. (I mean this in a figurative sense.) If this chard was a surprise, then the '97 Reserve was outright mind-blowing. True to form, this wine had significantly more oak than the '98 Sonoma County and was put through 100 percent malolactic fermentation. Not true to form, the oak and butter did not overwhelm and destroy the wine. This reserve chard's got so much fruit and power that the new French oak doesn't stand a chance of overpowering the wine. Both of these chards are truly exceptional, and coming from me, that's a HUGE compliment.

After this epiphany I was almost reluctant to taste the reds. The key word here however is "almost." Visiting St. Francis and not tasting the reds - in particular, the '97 Sonoma County merlot and Pagani Ranch zinfandel rock - would be like visiting Hawaii and not going to the beach. The Pagani Ranch vineyard is legendary among zin aficionados, and St. Francis is one of a few wineries that has access to these grapes. By now the winery's well practiced in turning these grapes into huge, robust zins.

After leaving St. Francis, Chris and I headed up to Santa Rosa for dinner. There's never really a question of where to go. A long day of driving and tasting through the gorgeous countryside of Sonoma just seems naturally to lead to Cafe Lolo. After looking at the menu, Chris and I decided to start the evening with a nice glass of white wine and an appetizer. Chris opted to run with the Dry Creek Vineyard sauvignon blanc (an old favorite). I was struggling with two wines. Luckily, when I asked our waitress for a recommendation, she brought samples of each for me to try. For those of you who dine out regularly, you know this is a rare occurrence.

The appetizer choice was much easier. Just reading the description of "Omega Three Smoked Salmon with a potato gravenstein apple cake, Dijon mascarpone and osetra caviar" made us both drool. (NOTE: Many fine restaurants look down upon overt drooling at the dinner table. Cafe Lolo, however, takes it in stride. After all, it's a common problem there.)

For dinner I ordered the lamb tenderloin special. Chris got the sauteed medallions of lamb with risotto. Both were exceptional, and the tenderloin was served perfectly - bloody rare, as I had requested. You should never overcook good lamb tenderloin. Shine a flashlight over both sides and call it done.

We wrapped up the evening with a nice creme brulee. My theory is that you can accurately rate any restaurant by the quality of its bread and creme brulee. Cafe Lolo's bread (crusty, fresh baked, with olives and roasted garlic cloves) was perfect; the creme brulee was very good. Overall, a very high recommendation.

DAY 3
Northern Sonoma - Dry Creek-Russian River - Alexander Valley

It was our final day of touring, and Chris and I wanted to feel truly connected to Sonoma. I knew that this goal of "oneness" was only possible if we started at the Flaky Cream Do-Nut Shop.

You can have breakfast at some wonderful places in Healdsburg. There's certainly no shortage of restaurants where you can sip latte, talk on your cell phone, admire your Range Rover and be seen in your newly pressed Dockers. If these are the things that make you happy, then more power to you. However, if you want coffee instead of a latte, a CB radio instead of a cell phone, a work truck instead of a Range Rover and beat-up Levi's instead of Dockers, then the Flaky Cream Do-Nut Shop's for you.

The place is a classic diner where the true old-time locals hang out. It's one of the last remaining restaurants on earth that serves REAL breakfasts; the type of place that takes biscuits and gravy seriously (FYI: only $2.95). It's located in the true heart of Healdsburg and serves as a constant, needed reminder that winemaking is first and foremost about down-to-earth, straightforward agriculture. (In addition to this spiritual justification, Flaky Cream also makes some of the world's greatest donuts. Not just any donuts, Flaky Cream donuts.)

Without actually tasting a Flaky Cream donut, it's difficult to describe how they compare to normal donuts. It's like eating normal cereal your entire life, then one day experiencing Captain Crunch with Crunch Berries. Suddenly, normal cereal seems plain and boring. After having a Flaky Cream donut, your view of breakfast confections can never be the same again. (Unbeknownst to Chris and me, Flaky Cream was going to set the theme for the day.)

Healdsburg IS Sonoma wine country. It sits at the crux of four major wine appellations: Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley. These appellations stretch in every direction and represent remarkably different growing regions. It was our goal for the day to drink our way through each of these areas.

The first stop brought us to the newly opened J tasting room, which straddles Chalk Hill and Russian River Valley. The Russian River Valley is primarily known for its cool climate and unique affinity for chardonnay and pinot noir. And J is the perfect place to experience these varieties. J's specialty is sparkling wine, but recently it's put a significant amount of effort into developing still white and red wines. After tasting two sparkling wines there, we were presented with two pinot noirs, a chardonnay and a pinot gris. I was amazed at how elegant these wines were. (I hate to describe wine with amorphous emotional descriptors. People get the strangest, glazed looks on their faces if you tell them a wine is elegant, temperamental, conservative, jubilant, etc.) Unfortunately, after a great amount of thought and reflection, I was still stuck with elegant. No other term seemed to quite fit.

All of the wines shared a common feeling of understated power that I find absolutely intriguing but have difficulty describing. So I guess I'll just have to stick with elegant (and yummy)!

In addition to great wines, J also offers a totally unique wine/food experience. For $8 you can get a tasting flight of four wines (sparkling, pinot gris, chardonnay and pinot noir) paired with a custom selection of foods. This is not your standard bread-cubes and cheese. We started with a pairing of 1995 sparkling wine with Osetra caviar on shrimp. The crispness and flavor of the wine matched perfectly with the slightly salty flavor of the caviar, and integrated well with the shrimp. Next came the 1998 pinot gris paired with wasabi tobiko on daikon radish, then the 1997 chardonnay with salmon gravlax. The experience peaked with the 1996 Russian River pinot noir with duck rillette, which absolutely melted in our mouths.

Not only was the food delicious and well paired with the wines, it was also presented and decorated on individual plates. So for $8 you get a decadent wine and food experience which, as far as I've ever seen, is totally unique for any tasting room in California and beyond. Hopefully J will inspire other wineries to offer something in addition to the standard, predictable and often boring tasting room routine.

Chris and I left and traveled northeast to Alexander Valley for the final wine stop of the trip. A couple of side roads and a few twists and turns took us to Geyser Peak Winery, located on a hillside overlooking Highway 101 and acres of vineyards. Few other wineries have better demonstrated the potential of Alexander Valley. This region is primarily known for its cabernet sauvignon and other hearty reds. Geyser Peak's tribute to the best Alexander Valley can produce is the Reserve Alexandre Meritage. This wine's deep. I mean DEEP. I mean contemplating-Nietzsche-in-a-submarine deep. It's filled with layer after layer of concentrated flavors and aromas. It's what cabernet grapes aspire to when they grow up.

Geyser Peak's tasting room offers an interesting (although expensive) Meritage package that includes the Meritage wine along with bottles of the individual components that went into the blend. The package'll set you back a couple hundred bucks, but it's an interesting and unique experience to taste how the individual components can be blended together to form an incredible finished wine.

After spending our final afternoon driving around the edges of Healdsburg, Chris and I came back to home base for dinner. Given the wide variety of great restaurants in Healdsburg, it was difficult to narrow down our choices. Curiosity finally got the best of us, and we decided on the town's newest restaurant and wine bar: ZIN. (My interest in the restaurant should be self-evident.) The ZIN wine list boasted 70 different zinfandels, mostly from the local area. In addition, it offered a great variety of wines at very reasonable markups.

Before I get into the specific meal I must jump to the end and say that ZIN's one of the best overall dining experiences you can find anywhere in California. It has creative, unique food combinations, great wines, reasonable prices and a casual atmosphere. When I talked with manager/proprietor, Scott Silva, he told me that, "The last thing that we [Scott and chef/proprietor Jeff Mall] wanted was to be another 'attitude' restaurant." No attitude here.

The menu at ZIN really is the shining centerpiece of the restaurant. I could fumble for elaborate descriptions of the dishes, but I honestly think that a quick reference is easier. Highlights of the appetizers include Mexican beer battered green beans with persimmon chutney, and fried butternut squash won tons with lemon-sage dipping sauce. For the main course, I really loved the lemon, garlic and rosemary roasted 1/2 chicken, sautéed chard with applewood bacon and crispy cheddar grits, and the wasabi encrusted Atlantic salmon with Asian slaw and Chinese noodles in ginger broth. ZIN also makes some of the world's best French fries, which are accompanied by homemade ZIN catsup.

Oh well. Another weekend lost to senseless hedonism. Three more days of my life forever gone in exchange for casual, nonproductive fun. When will I learn?

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