Article By: David Singer
This past August I spent my vacation in Sonoma, California. It was the first time I'd spent any serious amount of time exploring and tasting in that region. It was also my first vacation with my infant daughter, which was quite an experience, but I won't go into that here except that I'm proud to say that a look of joy crossed her face when she tasted a drop of a fine white wine.
Going to a wine region is more than just tasting wine; it's about truly getting to know the region. (Not that tasting wine isn't fun!) Being a member of the trade - membership certainly has its privileges - at pretty much every single winery that I visited, the treatment that I received was significantly better than the average consumers around me. For example, winery employees spent a lot more time with me discussing their wines and what is going on with the winery and upcoming releases. And they often shared wines that they had under the counter that they weren't pouring for anyone else, such as reserve bottling or single vineyards not being made available to consumers around me.
Beyond these perks, I personally find when I actually go to the region it is so much easier to remember appellations - where they are geographically, climate conditions and the like - because I'm experiencing it first-hand by being there. This, in turn, makes it easier for me to convey the qualities of wines to my clientele.
This is what I will always remember about Sonoma: The climate and geography are highly varied. You can read that in a textbook, but I was amazed by the reality. I awoke to morning fog that lasts until early afternoon in Bodega Bay on the Sonoma coast, then drove to the Russian River Valley where it was totally clears. You can feel a fifteen degree Fahrenheit difference. As for geography, the difference was equally amazing. We started our days at a house rented on the Pacific coast of Bodega Bay, then ventured into the rolling mountains on windy roads with deer bouncing around all over the place out of surrounding woods and popped out into civilization in Sebastopol (civilization being defined as having a Whole Foods instead of Toby the fish guy at the dock). Beyond Sebastopol were rich rolling plains next to the highway, and then back to windy roads in a much more lush and green landscape.
And you see this variation in the wine as well. Take Hartford Court's Seascape Vineyard Pinot Noir, located on the Sonoma Coast at 1OOO feet - high enough to be above the coastal fog - and then taste their Arrendell Vineyard from right in the heart of the Russian River Valley. Hartford Court's wine has more subtle fruit notes and firmer tannins; the Valley wine has more supple and darker fruit notes and richer tannins.
I also discovered that the people are wonderfully laid back - not something a textbook generally references. Specifically, I was reminded over and over again of the much more relaxed and laid back philosophy of the people and winemakers of Sonoma compared to a certain neighboring region. It reminded me of the contrast when tasting in Burgundy compared to Bordeaux. Like the Burgundians, Sonoma had more of the passionate farmer mentality, compared to the often business-like attitude you find in Napa and Bordeaux. For example, when tasting in a small winery, a consumer to the left of me pulled out his wallet and asks how much the tasting cost. The gentleman serving wine said, "This is Sonoma. We don't charge here."
This difference in attitude seeps into the wines. I find Sonoma wines have more understated elegance. Don't get me wrong, I like wines from both regions, but they're different in ways that go beyond just climate and terroir. Generally speaking, there are more small vineyards in Sonoma, more of the smaller farmer/artisan producer compared to the medium to large producers in Napa who have been around for a long time and have commercially established themselves.
One of my favorite parts of exploring a region is finding small "unknown" wineries, making Sonoma a goldmine. While having lunch in the quaint town of Windsor, I was chatting up the owner of the local wine shop and asked him to recommend some wineries that were off the radar to the wine world at large. With a smile on his face, he asked me what particular varietals I was after. I told him to just tell me what has turned him on lately from wineries nearby. He rattled off a few, called ahead to let them know I'd be on my way and drew me a map by hand. Two of the three were exceptional, one of which was the essence of that artisan farmer mentality with production of no more than 5OOO cases. The tasting room was the size of a middle manager's office, with just one guy pouring. And yet most of the time, the bar was two to three deep.
Mike, the guy behind the tasting bar, seemed to enjoy talking to someone in the trade, being able to really discuss the wines, while keeping in check his annoyance level at the well-dressed couple to my left who had the audacity to compare the wines they were tasting to others which they thought they were superior to what Mike was pouring. Even worse, they went on to ask for a little more of the zinfandel because they were considering buying it. You could see the annoyance on Mike's face - not quite as polished a reaction as one might find in Napa. And I was secretly cheering him on.
I'd encourage everyone in the trade to visit a wine region every year, if you can. Not only is a great way to mix business and pleasure, it's certainly better than any textbook out there. And don't spend all your time comparing every wine to every other wine you've ever tasted - spend time driving the countryside and getting to know the townspeople. Get to know the aspects of the region that don't make it into textbooks and yet influence the wine in wonderful ways.