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Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Short History of Wine in Sonoma County

Wine came with the European settlers. The Spanish and their series of missions up the California coast are credited with bringing wine to the state. The northernmost mission and the last one built was in the town of Sonoma.

The first vineyard planting in what is now Sonoma County was actually by Russians at Fort Ross on the Pacific coast around 1812. The Spanish mission in Sonoma came in the 1820s, no doubt to prevent any further expansion ideas by the Russians. Maria Carrillo received a land grant in what is now Santa Rosa and planted grapes in the 1840s making her California's first woman grape grower though her cattle ranch was the major part of the operation.

In the 1850s after gold was discovered in California the wine business took off, too, with plantings in Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley. Haraszthy, the "father of the California wine industry," arrived in Sonoma Valley at this time, bought existing vineyards, and founded Buena Vista Winery. He studied French wine making and passed his knowledge on to others. The former commander of the Sonoma Mission, General Vallejo, also gets credit for making table wines at this time.

Just as things really got going a root pest, Phylloxera, invaded the vineyards in the 1870s. Once a way to avoid the pest was found grape production took off again.

Around the turn of the 20th century wine grapes were big business in Sonoma County. Familiar names like Gundlach-Bundschu, Foppiano, Korbel, Sebastiani and Simi were going strong. As the railroads came to the region the county became one of the top ten agricultural areas in the country with dairy, poultry, apples, prunes and hops along with grapes going to market. (The county currently ranks 32nd in ag production).

Celebrating the end of Prohibition
When Prohibition took effect in 1920 there were over 250 wineries in the county (there were about 700 in the state). Sonoma had just passed Los Angeles County as the biggest grape growing area in California. Most wineries and grape growers did not survive Prohibition. With the Depression and WWII there wasn't much growth for some time. During the mid-20th century Italian Swiss Colony was the most well-known winery in Sonoma County.

The modern era of wine making in Sonoma County started slowly in the '60s, gained steam in the '70s, and really took off in the '80s. It took until 2005 to reach the 250 wineries mark again -- the same number we had 85 years earlier.

Some of the newcomers at the beginning of the boom were Alexander Valley Vineyards, Clos du Bois, Dry Creek Valley, Kenwood Vineyards, plus many more. Grape production became the largest agricultural crop in 1987 by passing dairy.

Today there are 370 wineries and 60,000 acres of wine grapes planted. Wine and tourism, both heavily intertwined, are top employers in the county.

Old hop drying kiln in the Russian River Valley

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

If this doesn't convince you to visit Sonoma ...

... then nothing will. 

A "Welcome to Sonoma Wine Country" video from Sonoma County Tourism. I couldn't say it better.

Welcome to Sonoma

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Healdsburg CA. Best small town in America?

Fodor's travel blog posted a list of the top ten small towns in America. First on the list is Healdsburg in Sonoma County. Why? It's wine country chic and still a locals town -- something that places like Yountville and St. Helena have lost, and Sonoma is on its way to losing.

It's quieter than those places mentioned above. It has lots for the visitor when it comes to lodging, shopping, eating and, yes, wine tasting. Some have called it "Mayberry with wine." Others just think it's cutesy.

A place where the locals can afford to eat
(with a wine tasting room right next door)!
Image from
Also on the list are more obvious towns like Sedona and St. Augustine.
The article from Fodor's

Monday, March 18, 2013

The Recession is over!

You heard it here first. Okay maybe not first. And maybe you'd rather hear it from someone who has had more than one macroeconomics class in school. Plus, I'm basing this strictly on personal observation. So now that the disclaimers are out of the way ...

Tourism is up in the tasting rooms. It's busier than last year at this time. Definitely busier than 2009. Ugh, what a year that was. More importantly sales are up. People are okay with spending money on luxury goods again.

Just like the experts saying the stock market often leads the rest of the recovery (like it is doing now) those of us on the front lines of interacting with visitors see the upswing. More jobs. More money being spent. That's how you fix the economy.

Heck, you can even buy wine on Amazon now and everybody knows those guys are geniuses at everything they do!

California wine sales continued to grow through most of the recession. The predictions seem to be for slower growth this year, but it looks to me like the wine train is just gettin' rolling!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Aging wine is a crapshoot

Supposedly 90% of us drink a bottle of wine on the same day we purchased it. Typically you stop at the market on Friday after work to pick up dinner and a wine to go with it. I think these people are on to something.

Last night's routine went like this:

Pulled out a 1993 Dry Creek Vineyards Reserve Cabernet. Okay, I had a real good idea this one was over-the-hill. It was. Past being enjoyable to drink. Down the drain. I bet this wine was really good ten years ago.

Next a 2006 Lake Sonoma Dry Creek Zinfandel. Corked. Ugh. Of course, if I'd bought this wine yesterday at the market I could just take it back.

Third was a 2005 Kenwood Vineyards Jack London Ranch Zinfandel. Not terrible, but I'd guess two or three years past its prime. I managed a glass of this before dumping the rest.

Almost a "perfect" oh-for-three. I don't know why I do this to myself.   LOL

Friday, March 15, 2013

Jim Barrett

Credit for Napa Valley's (and California's) success with premium wine over the past few decades is often given to Robert Mondavi. And he was instrumental in the success. His was more of a long term plan to make Napa a center for wine.

Another man is perhaps more important in putting Napa Valley on the map and it was by chance with probably not a lot of thought going into it.

Napa lost another icon and pioneer last night as Jim Barrett, the founder of Chateau Montelena Winery, passed away at 86 years old.
A bottle of the '76 winning wine
This one auctioned off for charity
by Chateau Montelena for $11,000
Image from

It was his Chardonnay in what's become known as the Judgement in Paris in 1976 that shocked the French by beating them at their own game. All of a sudden Americans knew about Napa Valley and started looking for Napa wines. And the wine boom started.

Article from the Napa Valley Register

White wine for red wine drinkers

There are a lot of folks, and it seems to be mostly males for some reason, that proclaim to only drink red wine. They just don't like whites. By a big margin Chardonnay is the biggest selling white wine. Could it be that these people belong to the ABC club (Anything But Chardonnay) and apply it to all white wines?

Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Gris/Grigio are very popular, but can seem a little simplistic if you're used to something like a full-bodied Cabernet.


Way down the list in popularity in American wines is Viognier (vee-oh-nyay).  It's a big, rich wine of intense flavors. The grape is from the Rhone region of France. In the U.S. the largest concentration of Viognier is in the central coast region of California. It is a floral grape, much like Riesling and Muscat, so it has a sweet aroma, but is a dry white table wine. It tends to be soft (lower acid) and rich and full-bodied.

Some California Viogniers you may want to check out:
Arrowood, Cline (cheap), Hawley, Iron Horse, Miner, Pride Mountain (expensive), Tablas Creek

And there are many more. Oregon and Virginia are big on Viognier, too. It is often blended with other Rhone varietals, usually Roussanne and Marsanne. You can also find late harvest Viognier. 

"Naked" Chardonnay

Many just don't go for the oak and buttery flavors of the typical New World-style Chardonnay, including me. The only Chard I've bought in the last couple years was a lightly oaked one that had no malolactic fermentation. This secondary fermentation is what turns those crisp, apple-like acids into milky acids. This might be needed for some of the cold climate French Chards that are too tart otherwise. It probably isn't needed in California, but we've done it because the French do it.

Usually the unoaked Chardonnays are labeled as such. I don't know of anyone labeling their wine as "No MLF" (no malolactic fermentation). And your preference might be for something lightly oaked or with light ML rather than none at all.

Dry Rosé

Rosés are reds made like whites. Some can be syrupy sweet, but the good ones are crisp and flavorful. Try one made from Sangiovese or Grenache. Check out Kokomo, Quivira, and Valley of the Moon.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

An inexpensive visit to Sonoma County

Wine country travel is fun. It's "Disneyland for adults." It can also be expensive as in $25 tasting fees per person, $50-up bottles of wine, $300/night lodging, and $100 dinners. I'm talking about Napa Valley here as any other region of California tends to be less expensive -- which brings us to Sonoma County.

Following are some ideas for saving a few bucks on your travel.

Getting to Sonoma County

The most convenient for West Coasters outside of the Bay Area might be Alaska Airlines as they fly directly into Sonoma County from San Diego, LA, Portland and Seattle. In case you're thirsty after you land the nearest winery tasting room is about a half mile from the end of the runway!

San Francisco and Oakland airports are 1-1/2 hours away. Oakland doesn't offer as many choices for air travelers, but is often less expensive than SFO.


Santa Rosa is probably your best bet as it's the largest city so it has more choices.  There are the big chains like Hilton, Hyatt, and Marriott plus some independents like the Flamingo and Fountaingrove Inn. I would recommend not staying at the Travelodge Downtown, the Golden Coin, or the Motel 6. Some of the big one do offer occasional discounts. In the smaller towns of Healdsburg and Sonoma getting budget lodging become a bit tougher--try America's Best Value Budget Inn in Healdsburg. The towns of Rohnert Park and Petaluma may offer some deals, but are farther away from the wineries.

There are a few campgrounds in the area: Spring Lake, Sugarloaf Ridge, KOAs in Petaluma and Cloverdale, plus some privately owned campgrounds.

Eating cheap
Image from


You can spend well over a hundred dollars on dinner for a couple especially with drinks. You may want to do this once or twice to experience wine country cuisine, but when you want to be cheap there are alternatives to the chain restaurants like Olive Garden or Denny's. Try Asian food restaurants and taquerias, for instance, as there are a number of good Thai, Chinese, and Mexican food restaurants. Check the online reviews.

Some other ideas:

Get a burger at Carmen's, Phyllis', Ausiello's Fifth Street Grill, or Flipside in Santa Rosa. In Healdsburg the Healdsburg Bar and Grill, Wurst Grill or the Bear Republic Brewery. In Sonoma The Black Bear Diner. For pizza in Santa Rosa: La Vera or Mary's Pizza Shack. In Kenwood at Cafe Citti you can get a big plate of pasta for a bit over ten bucks.

A way to get into some of the many nicer restaurants in Sonoma County while trying to control costs is to have your main meal at lunchtime in one of these establishments then have a lighter, less expensive dinner.

Wine Tasting
Korbel still has free tours and tastings

In northern Sonoma (Russian River, Dry Creek, Alexander Valleys) the local winery association lists wineries that still don't charge for tasting or at least refund if you purchase. Most Sonoma County wineries, unlike Napa Valley wineries, fall into one of these categories. See and search by Amenity. Also, the Wine Road sells one and three-day passes that pay for your tasting fees.

If you have a Visa Signature card there are dozens of Sonoma County wineries that offer free tasting and some also offer discounts on purchases. Visa Signature  website. Check livingsocial and groupon websites for deals, too.

Some wineries that offer good bang-for-the-buck wine prices: Cline, Kenwood, Korbel, Pedroncelli, and Sebastiani.

Getting your bottles of wine home

If you are flying there's the issue with transporting your wine home since you aren't allowed to carry it on the airplane. Wineries will, of course, ship their wine for you, but note that the per bottle price is high if you're only shipping a bottle or two. For instance, you may find shipping one bottle home from a winery costs over $20 while you can ship a case (12 bottles) for about $45. Another option is gather up your purchases, take them to a UPS store, and let them pack and ship it. Your hotel may offer this service.

You can check wine as baggage on the airplane. This is probably less expensive than shipping depending on the airline. Note that if you are flying on Alaska Air out of Sonoma County you can check a case of wine for free. Just be sure it's packed in a shipping box.

Sonoma Coast
Free or cheap entertainment

Sonoma County has an abundance of coastal beaches on the Pacific Ocean with free access.
Armstrong Redwoods State Park is free if you park and walk in.
Speaking of walking you can stroll some interesting downtown areas: Sonoma, Petaluma, Santa Rosa's Railroad Square, and Healdsburg.
For ten bucks or less: Charles Schulz (of Peanuts fame) Museum and the Pacific Coast Air Museum.
During the summer there are various farmers markets, outdoor movies, and concerts.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What your wine choice says about you

Someone had the time and money to study what your wine choices mean and came up with this:

Red wine drinkers - Wealthier and well-educated, ambitious.
White wine drinker - The casual wine drinker. They are content with their lot in life (not so ambitious, I guess).
Rosé wine drinker - Social types--they're apparently either at parties or on Facebook.

But this needs further work to break it down. After all, you are what you drink:

Pinot Grigio drinker
A trend follower. "Chardonnay is sooo over." Most don't realize it's the same as Pinot Gris and that it's not pronounced "griss."
A trendsetter. Maybe. See "Syrah" below.
Pinot Noir
Trendy, a fanboy of the movie Sideways. "Everybody" who knows wine is drinking it so you should too.
Thought they were a trendsetter ten years ago, but realized they were wrong. They still drink it in the hope they will be right someday.
Doesn't give a damn about trends, just wants the alcohol.
Rhone blends
Early adopter
An early adopter who wants to talk in code. They also like comic books and software.
Still unhappy you can't just order a "chablis" in a restaurant and get a slightly sweet, fruity white wine for five bucks.
Chenin Blanc
Huh? The '70s are over, man.
Sparkling wine aka Champagne
A blonde or wanna-be blonde that wants every day to be a party.
Sauvignon Blanc
Knows they are not supposed to drink Chardonnay any more, won't jump on the Pinot Gris bandwagon, so they're stuck with Sauv Blanc because they can't pronounce Viognier.
The '90s are over, dude. Time to step up to a Cab.
Cabernet Sauvignon
Sees himself as a manly man (unless he's a girl).
Petite Sirah
Is a manly man. Doesn't give a damn about the color of their teeth. May have sucked on gym socks when they were teething as a baby.
Sorry, grandma, there just aren't that many sweet wines available any more.
Loves those sweet white wines like Riesling, but is more adventurous and has taken on the task of trying to pronounce "gah-wurts-trah-meener," "geh-verz-trammin-er," whatever.
You are a grandma OR you are a wanna-be hip, young urbanite. At least you have something in common with your grandparents now.

"I'm all dressed up and out in public
so I can't be seen with a beer."
Image from

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The draw of Napa Valley

  It's where wine geeks not only want to visit, but want to live. Their dream is to make a good living at a winery in Napa, live in St. Helena, and dine in Yountville.

  Napa draws wine people like Hollywood draws would-be actors, New York draws chefs, and Washington DC draws those interested in politics.

  The reality, of course, is likely to be a bit different. Several years ago when I ran a tasting room in Napa Valley I'd get lots of unsolicited resumés. The majority were from people from the eastern U.S. looking for any winery job and they wanted $45,000 annually. I don't know where the $45k salary came from, but almost everyone asked for this amount. We were paying $11/hr for tasting room help.

  Many people working in Napa Valley have to find somewhere less expensive to live and commute. The town of Napa in the southern end of Napa Valley used to be the inexpensive place to live because it was still a farm town, but it's now transitioned to a tourist destination and the cost-of-living is getting high there, too. Many of the homes are owned by investors who rent them or people using them for a second home. Who wouldn't want a second home in St. Helena? Personally, I'd take one in Kona, Hawaii, but that's out of the question just like Napa Valley is for most.

Headin' home after a tough day in the vineyards
Image from
  The good news is that if you really want to get into the wine business you can probably still do it. Just don't expect to start at some middle income wage right away. There are lots of lower paying jobs. From there you'll have to work your way into marketing, selling, making wine, whatever you want to do.

  If you think you want to make wine or maybe grow grapes a good place to start is as a harvest intern. Wineries need lots of extra help in the autumn when the grapes ripen. It's hard work and long hours for just a few months. If you want to be on the marketing side the good news is that it's at least a whole lot easier to sell a wine that says Napa on the label than almost anything else.

  The other bit of good news is Napa weathered the recession pretty well and the speculation for premium wine sales is quite optimistic for the coming years.

  Almost any other US wine region will be less expensive to live in compared to Napa Valley, but Yakima and Templeton ain't Napa.