Day 3, Sonoma County. This is one of the most important and diverse of California’s wine regions. We headed over to David Ramey’s cellar in Healdsburg for a regional overview tasting. In addition to David Ramey himself, the other winemakers present were Nate Weis (Silver Oak), Mike Sullivan (Benovia) and Andy Robinson (Seghesio). They took us through flights of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon to illustrate what Sonoma can do.
It was a good tasting, well organized, and it didn’t drag. Things have changed in Sonoma, and with the development of newer, cooler sites Chardonnay (15 000 acres) and Pinot Noir (12 000 acres) are now the most widely planted varieties. Both flights were really good. Then comes Cabernet Sauvignon at 11 000 acres, and Zinfandel at 5800 acres. Cabernet was the weakest flight: but this is a grape that’s still in great demand. The Zinfandel flight was a surprise: some lovely, balanced wines. But it was pointed out to us that this wasn’t necessary a typical flight of Zinfandel.
After this it was off to Iron Horse, where we had lunch with Joy Sterling (CEO), and her charming parents Audrey and Barry. They came to Green Valley in western Sonoma back in the 1970s to start a vineyard. ‘It is hard to remember how pioneering it was to be this far west in 1976,’ says Barry. They decided to plant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay because it was what they loved to drink. When the family relocated to California after spending time in France, they found that of their significant wine collection which they had shipped back, there was lots of Bordeaux left but very little Burgundy. Iron Horse are known for their sparkling wines. ‘Making sparkling wine was an accident,’ says Barry. They were friends with Daniel Carasso, who founded Danone, but also had a Champagne house. In 1979, they served Carasso a Pinot Noir saignee rose that they’d made and Carasso commented that it reminded him of Champagne vin clair. A year later the Sterlings made their first sparkling wine.
Barry was born in 1929, on the weekend of the great crash. ‘When my mother went into the hospital she could afford me,’ he says, ‘but when I came out she couldn’t.’ Barry was an attorney with a law firm. Audrey had taken him to Paris when he was 30, and he fell in love with it. Then, when Reagan became governor of California, they decided it was time to leave. So he merged his law firm with one that wanted to open in Paris, and took his family there. ‘A lot of people dream, and a lot of people talk,’ says Joy, ‘but they do,’ referring to her parents and their pioneering spirit.
After lunch, it was off to Sebastopol, to the Wind Gap winery and tasting room. Pax Mahle was out of town, but assistant winemaker Jaimee Motley gave us a really good tasting, in the lovely cellar door wine bar space, which is super cool and has vinyl. I just love these wines: they’re fresh, elegant, detailed and precise.
Pax’s approach is to work with cool sites, picking early, using lots of whole cluster, and elevage in neutral oak or concrete. Chenin, Trousseau Gris, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Chardonnay all excel. You can’t go wrong here: everything is good.
This was followed up with a visit to Arnot Roberts, with Duncan and Nathan. They’ve been friends since third grade elementary school (I have no idea about the American school system, but this sounds like a long, long time ago). Their wines are breathtaking. Chardonnay, Trousseau Noir, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon – all compelling. Again: you can’t go wrong here. If you see these wines, buy all that you can, because availability will be the issue. There’s certainly freshness here, but also a silky elegance to the reds. We were all quite blown away.
We finished the day at Rodney Strong. This is a totally different operation: large, more commercial, with 1350 acres of vines across several sites. Back in the day, Rodney Strong was a pioneering figure in Sonoma – the Mondavi of Sonoma, if you will. The winery was purchased by the current owner, Tom Klein, in 1989.
Winemaker Justin Seidenfeld showed us the remarkable cellar that he’d designed, with square tanks, to maximize the use of space. They’re made from thicker steel, which is needed because cylindrical tanks are structurally stronger. But this extra thickness allows the tanks to be polished in such a way that they can be cleaned much more easily, without chemicals – the water saving in one vintage alone is 4 million gallons, which is around six Olympic-sized swimming pools.The wines are sleek and polished, and well made.