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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.

Sonoma is a truly scenic experience

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 winery

The wines

Fume 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

Rows of Chardonnay awaiting harvest


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.

Loading grapes onto the destemmer, Ravenswood

The wines

Colombard 1996 ($8.50) Simple unoaked style with light flavours of peaches and pears. 67/100
Chardonnay, Vintners Blend 1996 ($9.75) Unoaked, fresh Chardonnay, with a sweet nose of peardrops. Overpriced. 75/100
Zinfandel, Vintners Blend 1995 ($9.75) Bright red with a port-like nose. Sweet pepper notes, good concentration. Berries and spice are also there. I liked it. 80/100
Zinfandel, Napa Valley 1995 Similar flavours to the vintners blend, but with more of a tannic structure. Good. 82/100
Zinfandel, Sonoma County Old Vine 1995 ($15.25) Bright red with a brick red edge. Loads of pepper spice with a strong tannic structure. Berry fruits in abundance. Yum. 85/100
Cabernet Sauvignon 1995 94% Cabernet, with some Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Good berry nose (blackcurrants). Concentrated palate with some complexity, and strong tannic structure. 83/100

Grapes being crushed at Ravenswood


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.

The wines

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
Carignane 1995 ($18) Lifted nose, with spice and concentrated fruit. Good rustic-style wine. 80/100
Syrah 1995 ($18) Pepper spice and good tannins. A fine wine. 82/100
Mourvedre 1995 ($18) Really unusual nose of herbs and spice. Excellent. Hot finish. 84/100
Ancient vines Zinfandel 1995 Light brick red colour. Tasty, spicy wine. 80/100

The tasting room at Cline