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Barry Pollack's "Going Places"

Sonoma, California Wine Country

I can't think of a better holiday than one enriched by great scenery, food and wine, and good friends. And so, as a Valentine's present to ourselves and our friends, my wife and I met five other couples at Sacramento Airport, piled into a fifteen passenger van, and took off for Sonoma.
We had been to Napa Valley several times. We had never been to Sonoma. Napa is California's most famous wine growing region. Sonoma, just a dozen miles further east, also has a reputation for great wines. But while Napa is upscale, chic, nouveau riche, Sonoma is less touristy and still has a charming small town, old west feel.
I decided to stay in the heart of old town Sonoma. My grand plan was to bike ride from the town to several nearby wineries: Gundlach-Bundschu, Bartholomew Park, Buena-Vista, and Sebastiani. The roads are less heavily trafficked in Sonoma then those in Napa. But the vagaries of February weather and the infirmities of our group, led me to put that plan aside and drive to local wineries. Judging from the raucous good humor that soon arose after our "tasting" began; I think it was a wise decision. The country roads and vineyard covered rolling hills of Sonoma, however, are beautiful. So, if you're braver, younger, and can remain more sober than our group, call Doug or Penny at Goodtime Bicycles in Sonoma, (888-525-0453). They'll deliver bikes to wherever you're staying and either guide you through the valley or help you map your own trip.
The town of Sonoma is anchored by its town square. It's an enormous shaded plaza rimmed by historic adobe buildings - a former Mexican army barracks, the Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma - the northernmost of California's chain of 18th century Spanish missions, 19th century hotels, and boutiques and gourmet restaurants. Sonoma's City Hall sits in the center of the town plaza with its country charm underscored by the ducks and chickens strolling along its sidewalks and steps. At one corner of the plaza's park, there's a bronze statue of an early California settler holding the Bear Flag. The statue honors the events of 1846 when, for one month, Sonoma was the capital of another country. At that time American settlers declared themselves independent of Mexico and made Sonoma the capital of the new Republic of California. A month later, however, the American flag was raised and California became part of the United States.
We stayed at the Cottage Inn and Spa (800-944-1490) - a seven-room inn on First Street, just fifty yards from the Plaza. Rates start at $140/night but most rooms run from $200-300. You can easily walk to the Plaza or bike to nearby wineries from here. The inn sits almost hidden behind a high white stucco wall and can best be found on First Street by looking for its unique bell tower. Each room has its own private entrance with romantic gardens and fountain courtyards. There are fireplaces and spa tubs in most rooms, cathedral ceilings in several, and queen and king beds. But the Cottage Inn advertises itself as a bed & breakfast and a spa - and it is really neither. There's a small outdoor courtyard spa. But it is not very inviting. And breakfast is continental. In the evening, a table is set in your room for the next morning's breakfast. There's cereal on the table and milk and juice are stocked in the refrigerator. An assortment of rolls and pastries are placed on your door in the morning. The inn is a collection of private bungalows. The Cottage Inn does not have an inviting sitting room nor offer the home cooked breakfasts that I've come to love about most bed & breakfasts. But its rooms are spacious, the setting intimate, and it is perfectly located in the heart of downtown Sonoma.
Touring wineries is always an education - for mind and palate. We began our tour of Sonoma wineries at Gundlach-Bundschu, a small winery that lays claim to being "the oldest family owned winery in the United States," releasing their first vintage in 1858. At our next stop, Buena-Vista Winery, our guide announced it as "the oldest premium winery in the state of California," founded in 1857 by wine pioneer, Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy. And Sebastiani Winery lays claim to an even earlier heritage. Some of their wines will say vineyards established 1824, although the Sebastiani family didn't arrive until 1869. The renown of an ancient heritage is often in the eye of the vintner.
At every winery we visited, we had great guides. Their jobs may not have great pay or benefits, but I think they thoroughly enjoyed their work. Their job is sort of like being a teacher with a wine glass in hand all day. They get to stroll in beautiful surroundings, describe the history of their winery, and educate people about winemaking. All while sipping the local brew and encouraging guests to drink up. There cannot be many better jobs.
Our guide at Gundlach-Bundschu took us on a tour of their long tunneled caves. Once you get below ten meters underground, we were told, the temperature is pretty constant - 58 degrees all year round. A cave is cool and humid and keeps the evaporation of wine, stored there in wooden barrels, to about 2 percent. A cave is also more economical for storing wine than a warehouse. The cost of electricity to cool a warehouse is expensive and air-conditioned air is dryer. So, barrels stored in warehouse conditions lose 7-10% of their volume by evaporation. I enjoyed our tour of Gundlach-Bundschu. Strolling through their caves with the air filled with the vapors of wine, one exits with a little inebriated smile - and a little more educated.
Buena-Vista Winery was our second stop. Here is perhaps the best place to relax and picnic in Sonoma. You can buy some meats and cheeses in their store or better yet, before beginning your sojourn of wineries, stop to pick up the fixings for a picnic lunch at one of the markets in town. On the Plaza is the Sonoma Cheese Market where you can first taste an assortment of cheeses and meats and then order a lunch for later.
With our tasting at Buena-Vista, we learned a little more about the process of winemaking. Wine is aged in oak barrels because oak "smoothes and softens" the texture of wine and adds its own flavors. The majority of the barrels are French oak, fewer are American. The choice is up to the winemaker. Wine generally sits in barrels for 1-2 years before their bottled. Barrels cost about $700 and are re-usable for about six years. Then they become junk and sell for ten bucks apiece.
Weather and soil shape the grape and the wines made from them, our guide explained, and because of those variations, acreage in a wine growing region is given special appellations. The Sonoma Valley has its Carneros region, Sonoma Valley region, and Sonoma Mountain. And, depending on the winery, you might find those appellations as part of a wine's name.
Wine growers pay for satellite over-flights of their vineyards. Infrared photos show which areas are growing appropriately - dark green areas that are overgrown and need to be pruned, brown areas that need irrigation. The winemaker will then choose the exact time to pick by based on a "flavor profile" that's part subjective, the taste of the juice of the grape, and part scientific, testing for the quantity of sugar in the grape. As picking season draws near, testing the "brix" of the grape becomes more intense. Brix is French for sugar. Winemakers send people out in the field with refractometer to measure "brix." When it's right, picking begins.
While the wine business is high tech, big business, it is still, bottom line, farming. A winemaker can make decisions based on science and experience but will always be dependent on the whim of Mother Nature.
Just 10 miles north of Sonoma's Plaza, along Highway 12, is the hamlet of Glen Ellen, a one block town center surrounded by several bed-and-breakfast inns, a few restaurants, and several wineries. The town seems centered around the memory of its most famous resident, Jack London, author of "Call of the Wild." There's a Jack London museum and a Jack London State Historical Park. Just past the park is Benzinger Family Winery, another perfect place for sipping or an outdoor picnic.
Our next stop was Arrowood Winery, a relatively new boutique winery (no "oldest" claims) founded by classic winemaker, Richard Arrowood. More tasting here and more education.
The flavor of the wine, our guide at Arrowood explained, is in the skin. You want to have a nice "skin to juice ratio." There's even an art to picking grapes so as to not to bruise them. The seeds and stems apparently put bitterness into wine you don't want to have. At the winery, grapes are put into a crusher where they are "ever so slightly" cracked. The best wine, we were told, comes from this "first press" where the grapes are crushed by their own weight. This is called "free run." The winemaker gets the highest quality but least amount of juice in this "first press." The less "dear" wines come from the second or third "mechanical" pressing of the grapes.
That's why there are so many nuances to wine. The soil matters, the climate matters, the sugar matters, the picking matters, the pressing matters, the barrels matter, and the aging matters. And all I cared about was the drinking.
Downtown Sonoma has several excellent restaurants: Maya serving spicy Yucatan; the Girl & the Fig, French country; La Haye, California cuisine, and La Poste, where our group dined, serving French cuisine in an intimate atmosphere.
The Bistrot La Poste, does a wonderful job of imitating a tiny Parisian bistro in the midst of country Sonoma. Our party of twelve was gently squeezed into a corner table, occupying half of the restaurant. Our reservation was late in the evening, and several of the entrees were "gone." But we were treated like guests in a family home, with humor and close attention. It seemed, everyone else dining there had a birthday or perhaps "Happy Birthday" is really a French ditty. By consensus, the main course choices, and we tried most, were all good. And while the cozy quarters made service somewhat difficult, it also made the meal and our friendships more intense.
At the tip of the Carneros Hills wine region, as one leaves Sonoma and enters Napa, sits Domaine Carneros with its landmark replica tasting rooms modeled after a grand 18th-century French chateau. This was our last stop. Here you can taste wines on a grand terrace overlooking the winery's gardens and vineyards or indoors in an elegant salon. On the day we visited, a string trio serenaded visitors on the terrace as we sipped Domaine Carneros' renowned champagnes. As friends toasted each other with the bubbly, I was too relaxed to learn much more about wine and winemaking. Six twists open a champagne bottle, I remember. But who really cares.
Perhaps my next adventure will be to head further north from Sonoma, to the Russian River Valley, to new terrain, with new vintages to experience.