Norton Safeweb

Friday, July 26, 2013

Microclimates in Sonoma County

Or this could be called something like
"Reason Number 37 Sonoma County Wines are Special."

What is a microclimate?

People talk about the weather as what is happening now in terms of temperature, humidity, precipitation, wind, etc. Climate can be considered the average weather. That is, the weather over a long period of time is the climate. Microclimates are small regions with their own distinct weather patterns over time.

In most places in the world if the current weather is, say, 70 degrees and sunny with 10 mph winds from the south then if you go 50 miles in any direction it will be about the same. Within Sonoma County you can go 5 miles and have a distinct change in the weather. This is most pronounced during the warmer season, about May through October.

Sonoma County is a Mediterranean Climate with relatively mild, wet winters and warm dry summers. These are the only two real seasons. So it's dry and sunny during a large part of the year (during the grape growing season). Sonoma County would be much warmer if it wasn't for the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean lapping at its western shore. This means you have hot, dry air over the interior meeting up with cooler, moister, and heavier air over the ocean. With the coastal hills you have areas that get more influence from the cold waters and areas with much less. 

Some average high and low temps in Sonoma County for July 1st:  
Santa Rosa 82 / 53, Cloverdale 92 / 57, Bodega Bay 63 / 52. 
Not many places have this sort of "weather diversity."

What does this mean for grape growing?

The two biggest natural influences for wine grape growing are the weather and the soil. With the past volcanic activity, seismic activity, the ocean, river valleys, and mountains there is an amazing array of different soil types in the county--more than in all of France.

Some grapes like more heat, such as Cabernet and Zinfandel, some like less, such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Sonoma County is home to a high variety of premium wine grapes because everything can be grown successfully somewhere in the county. There aren't many places outside of certain parts of coastal California that can say this.

The other thing making Sonoma County's climate special is the warm, dry, sunny days followed by cool nights. "Warm, sunny, dry" is required for optimum grape growing. Too cold and the grapes won't ripen. Too hot and you get ripe red fruit, but lower acids (you need both in balance). Wet weather is bad because of mold issues. A dry growing season is ideal and most of California has that. "Cool nights" along with the warm days maintains that acidity and helps with flavor development. This is a reason people like mountains to grow grapes as you get cooler nights (and days) at higher elevations.

Sonoma County is a special place for wine grape growing.

Low clouds (aka ocean fog) are a common sight
What does this mean for the visitor?

Warmer and cooler microclimates and warm days with cool nights should tell you to pack so you can dress in layers. Bringing shorts, t-shirts, and sandals only isn't going to work. In the summer have clothes for 55 degrees and 90 degrees because you're likely to see both -- in the same day!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Ten Sonoma County Secrets

As a visitor to Sonoma County you want your trip to be as enjoyable as possible. Here are a few things you probably didn't know about that could enhance your visit. Call it "Tips from a local."

1. Free Wine Tasting

Some wineries offer complimentary tastings all the time. Check for a list of those in northern Sonoma County. Many have coupons they hand out to hotels and other wineries. Others show up on Groupon or other discount web sites. Many Sonoma County wineries give free tastings to Visa Signature card holders.

2. Buying Wine

You best selection will be at the winery tasting rooms, of course. A very good selection at excellent prices can be found at the Bottle Barn in Santa Rosa

Image from

3. Wine Flies Free

Alaska Air flies up and down the west coast from the Santa Rosa airport. You can check through a case of wine, packed in a shipper box, for free.  

4. Sparkling Wine (aka champagne)

Many don't think about sparkling wines when visiting Sonoma County, but there are lots available. Some of the major producers are Gloria Ferrer, Iron Horse, J, and Korbel. Korbel has a number of quality sparklers you don't find at home. Tasting and tours are free, but it will be crowded on weekend afternoons. Iron Horse has a great rustic, outdoor tasting area.

In Napa Schramsberg, Mumm, and Domaine Carneros are worth visiting.

Bubblies at Iron Horse

5. Driver's Roads

The Pacific Coast Highway is famous, and often crowded. There are a number of less-known roads to give you a thrill if you have the right vehicle. Some are Bohemian Highway, Coleman Valley, Green Valley, Lytton Springs, Skaggs Springs, Trinity/Oakville Grade, Westside, and many others.

6. Beer

There are several beer tasting events in Sonoma County with the June Beerfest being the largest.

Sonoma County has three of the top breweries in the country: Bear Republic, Lagunitas, and Russian River plus there are several others. There are a number of beer bars serving mostly west coast micro-brews such as Hopmonk and Sprenger's.

You have to stand in line to get this seasonal beer
after it was rated the best beer in the world

7. Food

There are quite a few famous restaurants that get a lot of Internet chatter, such as Dry Creek Kitchen, Farmhouse, Girl and the Fig, John Ash, and Zazu. These are all great, but here's a few you don't hear much about except amongst the locals.

Restaurants: In Santa Rosa, Chloe's (weekdays only), La Gare, Spinster Sisters, and Three Squares. Underwood Bar & Bistro in Graton. Ravenous in Healdsburg.
Bakeries: Costeaux, Scandia, and Wild Flour
Coffee: Forget Starbucks and find the nearest Flying Goat Coffee store.
Fruit products and more: Kozlawski Farms for jams, jellies, apple pies and cider, salad dressing, mustard, sauces, and a host of other products.
Groceries - If you are staying somewhere with a kitchen and in or near Santa Rosa then forget Safeway. Get your fresh produce at Imwalle Gardens. Do your other shopping at Oliver's Markets.

Image from

8. The Russian River

Everyone knows about the Pacific coast, but not many visitors use "the river" much. There are beaches and redwoods. You can rent a canoe or kayak.

9. Art

Sonoma County has a large artist community. Many wineries have art displays. There are numerous galleries in the county. ARTrails is a good place to start.

Image from

10. Late October-Early November

The last half of October through early November is the best time to visit. It's harvest still, the crowds are mostly gone (except in the weekend in Napa Valley), and the weather is usually great. The second best time to visit is late March to early April

Dry Creek Valley in early November

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Wine terror, not terroir

Terroir (tehr-whar) is a French term used for growing conditions of wine grapes. That is, the soil, climate, and topography where the grapes are grown.

But we're talking about wine terror here. Apparently a group of "wine militants" bombed a building used by France's ruling Socialist Party. They are unhappy with the cheap foreign imports. Hmm, I recall Detroit being unhappy with cheap foreign imports back in the 1970s, but I don't recall any bombings. I say, "Get bombed, don't plant bombs."


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Wine Tasting and Walking (instead of driving)

If you'd like to avoid the issues with sampling wines and driving there is an alternative -- you can walk.

Where to go
Healdsburg, Sonoma and Napa each have about 20 tasting rooms in their small downtown areas. They all have lots of restaurants, shopping, and lodging choices.

"Mayberry with wine" as it's called contains a town square and a top-of-the-line brewery (in case you get tired of wine). It's a very short drive to several other wineries such as Alderbrook, Davis Family, Holdredge, J, and Seghesio. For eats there's everything from Willi's Seafood Bar to the Wurst Grill.

There's a beautiful town plaza and lots of California history here. It's a short drive to some other wineries that shouldn't be missed, such as Buena Vista and Gundlach Bundschu. Check out Vella Cheese just a couple blocks off the plaza.

Some of the tasting rooms may qualify more as fancy wine bars. A decent nightlife scene. Don't miss Gott's Roadside for lunch in the Oxbow Market.

Healdsburg Plaza

Pluses of tasting in town

No DUI to worry about
You won't get lost
Usually very small producers
Some are open in the evening


You don't see the beauty of the vineyards.
No winery tours available
Carrying your purchases around

Friday, July 12, 2013

Summer in the Vineyards (photos)

Russian River Valley, July 12, 2013
Click on photos to enlarge



Sauvignon Blanc in foreground, Pinot Noir behind on the noll

Old farm truck

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sonoma County Nightlife

Let's say you've spent a day wine tasting. Now you want to do something else besides go back to your hotel room and stare at the TV screen. So what is there to do in Sonoma County in the evening?

Live professional entertainment

Broadway Under the Stars at Jack London State Park in Glen Ellen. (Seasonal).
Green Music Center
Image from

Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park. Symphony to jazz to lecture series.

Mystic Theatre in Petaluma has musical entertainment. It's mostly local, but some nationally known artists perform.

Phoenix Theater in Petaluma. A place for young, local rockers to play in front of their tattooed fans.

6th Street Playhouse. A community theater in Santa Rosa

Spreckels Performing Arts Center run by the city of Rohnert Park. Dance, music and theater.

Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa with everything from Kathy Griffin to Willie Nelson

Summer outdoor concerts with local entertainment
Cloverdale has a Friday night concert series.
Sunset at Paradise Ridge Winery
Healdsburg has Tuesday evening concerts in the town plaza.
Santa Rosa's Julliard Park (just south of downtown) has Sunday evening concerts.
Also in Santa Rosa, Paradise Ridge Winery has a food truck and live band on Wednesday evenings--admission fee.
Windsor has music in the town square on Thursdays.

Summer outdoor movie nights

These aren't weekly, but happen occasionally  
At St. Francis Winery just east of Santa Rosa on Thursday evening. 
On the Windsor Town Green on Tuesday night.
"Moshin picture" nights at Moshin Winery outside of Healdsburg.

Evening Farmer's Markets

Healdsburg on Wednesday
Santa Rosa's is the biggest and it's on Wednesday evening though it's gone from a farmer's market to more of a flea market, but with lots of good "street eats."  
Rohnert Park and Occidental on Friday
Sonoma on Tuesday  
Windsor on Thursday


The Santa Rosa Junior College Planetarium puts on interesting shows. If you've been wine tasting all day remember not to fall asleep when you lean back your chair and they turn out the lights (at least don't snore). 

The Redwood Empire Ice Arena has adult hockey league play on many evenings.

Sunset on the beach. Pick a not-too-foggy evening, grab a blanket, or at least a jacket, and head over to the coast to watch the sun go down.

Dive Bars
John & Zeke's in Healdsburg

Okay, you want real local flavor plus you don't have to plan for a specific night because every night provides lots of entertainment.
In Sonoma, The Blue Moon Saloon. In Santa Rosa, Fiorino's and The Wagon Wheel. In Healdsburg, John & Zekes and B & B Saloon. In Guerneville, Stumptown Brewery.
Petaluma also seems to have a pretty good bar scene in that it occasionally gets rowdy and makes the news.

A Little Less "Divey"

In Sonoma Steiner's Tavern and Hopmonk (there's also a Hopmonk in Sebastopol). Belvedere and Toad in the Hole Pub in Santa Rosa. The town of Petaluma has a pretty good downtown bar scene.

Trendy Bars

So you didn't bring the right clothes for the dive bar scene and you want to go somewhere nicer for some reason. Some of the happenin' places around:
In Healdsburg Spoonbar is probably the newest, trendiest bar in the county.
Popular happy hour spots are Stark's Steakhouse, Jack & Tony's, Jackson's Bar, and John Ash, all in Santa Rosa. 
Clubs? Beats me. Ask someone younger. :)

Beer Bars

You might just get tired of wine. Some of these have the occasional evening entertainment.
In Santa Rosa Heritage House, Russian River Brewery, Sprenger's Tap Room, and Third Street Aleworks. In Healdsburg Bear Republic Brewery. In Sebastopol and Sonoma Hopmonk Tavern. In Petaluma Dempsey's and Lagunitas Brewery.

Gay Bars

Sonoma County was rated the 2nd "gayest" area in the country (behind SF, of course). The gay bar scene is concentrated in Guerneville along the river.

Current happenings

From the Santa Rosa Press Democrat

Disclaimer: I work for one of the above establishments (no, not one of the dive bars).

Monday, July 8, 2013

Wine across America

The number of U.S. wineries has grown exponentially in many states in the past couple decades.

See the story and check out the cool interactive map from the New York Times.

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Sonoma County pronounciation guide

When you're traveling through the area you hate to make a faux pas by saying something like, "How do I get to Heldsburg?" because there isn't any "heldsburg." This is why I won't go to Massachusetts -- how the heck am I supposed to say, "Mattapoisett" or "Leicester?"

Here are a few Sonoma County places I've heard mispronounced:

Towns of Bodega and Bodega Bay - boh-day-gah. Not BoDEEga. It's a Spanish word that apparently means "cold and foggy."

Town of Cotati - cah-tah-tee. It'll be an exit on the freeway as you head towards the wine.

Town of Graton - gray-tun. I mention this one because someone actually pronounced it gray-TAW with a French nasally accent once. We aren't that fancy around here.

Town of Gualala - gwa-lah-lah. Not that it matters; no one ever goes there.

Town of Guerneville - gurn-vil. It is not gurnee-vil. Let's get that straight! Some call it Groinville. I let you discover why on your own.

Town of Healdsburg - heelds-burg. Or just call it Mayberry with Wine and people will know where you are talking about.

Mount St. Helena - hel-ee-nah. The highest peak around. There's also a town of St. Helena in Napa Valley.

Mayacamas Mountains - Mie-ah-cahm-ahs. Those Natives have a difficult language.

Town and historic figure Vallejo - val-lay-ho. Okay, a proper Spanish pronunciation should be something like vah-yay-hoe, but it's been Americanized so we can pronounce it without tripping over our tongues. Vallejo was a Mexican general responsible for laying out much of the county, including deeding the original Santa Rosa site to Maria Carrillo - cah-ree-yoh

And a few wine terms you'll hear tossed around:

Appellation - Sounds like the Appalachian Mountains, but it's a legal region defined for wine grape growing, as Russian River Valley.

Cuvée (koo-vay) - It just means a blend of different grapes usually referring to sparkling wine, as in "this Brut is a cuvee of pinot noir and chardonnay."

Malolactic fermentation (mal-oh-lak-tic) - A secondary fermentation (after the primary where the grape sugars are converted to alcohol). This one converts the natural tart acids to softer buttery acids. This term is usually used in reference to chardonnay.

Phylloxera (fill-ox-ur-ah) - A vine pest that destroyed vineyards in the late 19th century then made a nasty recurrence in the 1980s. In other places they may define major time frames around pre-war, post-war, or after the great blizzard of 1978, or whatever.  In coastal California major epochs are before and after Phylloxera invasions and earthquakes.

Viticulture (vit-i-cul-chur) - Wine grape growing. As opposed to enology (ee-nol-oh-jee) which is winemaking. One gets your hands dirty, the other turns them purple.

Now if someone can tell me how to pronounce Kissimmee, Florida so I don't look like a dumb tourist...

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Napa or Sonoma?

When people plan a trip centered around wine, especially if they are from outside California, they think Napa first then maybe Sonoma County second. So where should you go? Which is better?

First off, look at a map and you see that Napa and Sonoma Counties are right next to each other. They share a common border that's defined mostly by the Mayacamas Mountains. Actaully, they are "mountains" if you are from Iowa, but are "large bumps" if you are from Colorado.

Image from

Getting to Napa and Sonoma

Either is a similar drive from the Bay Area, such as San Francisco or Oakland Airports. 

Getting around

Napa Valley is defined by one major road running the length of the valley, Highway 29, that goes from the town of Napa through Yountville, St. Helena, and Calistoga. There's a second road, the Silverado Trail, that parallels Highway 29 to the east. There are a number of crossroads between the two. This all makes navigation fairly easy. With only one main road there can be a lot of traffic to  impede your travel.

Sonoma County has a freeway, US 101 that runs north-south. Otherwise, it's a mishmash of usually winding roads that occasionally change their name for no apparent reason. Expect to get lost, but that doesn't mean you won't run into new winery finds while you're lost.

The atmosphere

Napa Valley is wine nirvana. You will drive right by Mondavi, Beringer, Heitz, and all those famous names associated with domestic wine. Napa Valley is the birthplace of American wine culture. Napa is is to wine geeks what Washington DC is to history geeks.

Sonoma will seem more casual, more laid back, not so stuffy. Napa can seem a little uppity about their wine and food.There's a lot of money floating around Napa and it shows.

Western Sonoma County
Image from

Spending money 

You will spend more in Napa. In general, wine tasting fees and the bottles of wine will be significantly more expensive in Napa. Restaurants and lodging will be somewhat higher.

The wine

Napa Valley = Cabernet Sauvignon for a reason. Napa produces some damn fantastic Cabs. Sonoma, mostly because of micro-climates, has a much broader range of wines available. This doesn't mean you'll only find Cabernet at Napa wineries, just that you'll find a lot more variety in Sonoma. For instance, there are numerous Russian River Valley wineries that will make a dozen different Pinot Noirs. Ten miles away you'll find that Zinfandel is king. That's not something you'll find in Napa Valley.

The wineries

Famous names, famous architecture, infamous crowds are all in Napa Valley. Though you'll find plenty of recognizable names in Sonoma, too, with folks like Kendall-Jackson, Chateau St. Jean, Kenwood, and Clos du Bois.

Napa has castles and palaces that double as wineries. Sonoma has warehouse wineries.

The people

Napa Valley is a tough place to work on the front lines where you're dealing with hordes of visitors every day. People who were jazzed to move to Napa to follow their dream of getting in the wine business can suffer "Napa Valley burnout" after a couple summers. This means that sometimes people don't seem quite as friendly on the Napa side.


Yes, I've totally generalized here and maybe I'm a bit prejudiced towards Sonoma County cuz that's where I live. (I've worked at wineries in both places). Maybe it comes down to if you're a Disneyland person then Napa Valley is for you. If you're a Yosemite National Park person then Sonoma may be for you.

Since Napa and Sonoma Counties are right next door to each other check 'em both out. It doesn't have to be a "Napa OR Sonoma," it can be "Napa AND Sonoma."