Just a short drive north of San Francisco, and adjacent to Napa, Sonoma is a world-class wine region with almost 150 wineries. Of the 90 or so that welcome visitors, we had to choose just three. This was a real shame. We were also unfortunate in that the only day we had spare for tasting was a Saturday, which meant crowded tasting rooms and inattentive, hassled staff. Not a good environment for assessing wines. Nonetheless, the three wineries we did get to see were all well worth visiting.
Chateau St Jean
Located on highway 12, just out of Santa Rosa, Chateau St Jean is an imposing winery that has obviously had a lot of money spent on it in its 20 year history. The tasting rooms are pleasant and well laid out, and when we visited it wasn't too crowded, despite it being the weekend, and the staff were well informed and helpful. Incidentally, this was the first winery at which we were asked our age before tasting: despite the fact that we'll soon be 30, we found this to be a common occurrence throughout California. As for the wines, despite the fact that Parker slates them, I think its a fine but slightly overpriced range.
The winesFume Blanc Sonoma County 1995 ($8) Pale yellow. Dry, a little oak. Not masses of fruit. 75/100
Pinot Blanc, Robert Young Vineyards 1994 ($14) Again, not a lot of fruit: I wouldn't have guessed it as a Pinot Blanc. Nonetheless, delicious textured flavour, with bags of savoury vanilla oak. 81/100
Chardonnay, Sonoma County 1995 ($11 - purchased later from a bottle shop) Bone dry with vanilla oak and bitter apple/citrus fruit. Too lean to drink on its own, but might make a nice foil for some foods. 76/100
Chardonnay, Robert Young Vineyards 1995 ($22) A concentrated Chardonnay with lots of new oak. Bone dry with slightly bitter finish. Very savoury: a tasty wine. Made to age? 85/100
Merlot, Sonoma County 1994 ($18) Bright red. Slightly herbaceous nose. Sweet new oak balances the medium acidity on the palate. Firmish tannins. Moreish. 82/100
Johannisberg Riesling 1996 ($?) Late harvest style wine with powerful nose of boiled sweets: intense. Notes of melon and tropical fruit. Fine acidity balances sweetness well: non-cloying. 82/100
Beautifully situated on a hill just outside the town of Sonoma, this winery specializes in Zinfandels, of which they produce 11 different bottlings. Overall, a good range of wines spoiled only by the fact that it was really too busy for tasting, and the impression I got was that (perhaps because of this) the tasting room staff weren't too interested in enthusiasts with lots of questions who didn't smell of money. I'm sure it would be a different story midweek.
Colombard 1996 ($8.50) Simple unoaked style with light
flavours of peaches and pears. 67/100
One of the Southernmost Sonoma wineries, located on highway 121, this winery produces an excellent range of Rhone-clone varietals. Again, it really was too busy to make tasting an enjoyable experience, and the staff were just too busy to be helpful. Great wines, shame about the prices.
Marsanne 1995 ($16.20) Enormous nose of boiled sweets
suggests it is going to be a very sweet wine. However, high acid levels compensate and
there's a bone dry finish. 81/100