We talk a lot about Napa Valley – about the impressive wines, the beautiful scenery, the incredible restaurants. There’s so much greatness in such a small valley that we sometimes forget there’s another wine region worth exploring right next door.
Sonoma tends to get the unfair reputation as Napa’s little sister, still growing and, thus, getting far less attention than her fully-developed big sis. I have to admit, I’m guilty of overlooking her myself; I’ve lived six months in Napa and it was only this weekend that I took the time to venture over to “the other side,” which is truthfully not that far at all.
My excursion was prompted by a favor to a friend, which is really not much of a favor at all when it involves wine tasting. This friend works for a company that trains winery tasting room staff, and to evaluate their progress, they ask people to visit as “mystery tasters,” as if they had just walked in off the street (though, really, there’s a questionnaire waiting in the car to fill out about the experience).
I convinced another friend to come along for the visit (the keywords “wine” and “free” made for an easy persuasion). Our destination? Marimar Estate, hidden away in the hills of Green Valley, one of the many Sonoma sub-appellations that I’d never even thought to visit despite close proximity. How easy it has been to hole myself up in this Napa bubble I’ve created.
It was a rainy Sunday as we pulled up to the winery, welcomed by three giant dog sculptures on the hill leading up to the estate. The quick dash from the car (where we safely left the questionnaires) to the door left us drenched; the umbrella proved fruitless.
The tasting experience, however, proved more than worthwhile. Our host, Kyle, who we later learned had only been with the winery for two months, was incredibly knowledgeable and gracious – we were certain he had to have been with Marimar longer. He led us into the castle-like main tasting room, a glass of their very unique Chardonnay-Albarino (a Spanish white grape) blend in hand, while tapas pairings were specially prepared for us in the kitchen.
Marimar Estate was founded by Marimar Torres, of the Spanish Torres winemaking family, who began planting vines on this site in 1986. Her wines, in particular Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, have become well-known in the region. The estate vineyards, two in total, are completely European in style, and the winery itself is built in the style of Catalan farmhouse, drawing on Marimar’s roots in Barcelona.
We were the only guests, which wasn’t a surprise given the gloomy weather and the secluded location in the hills. Sundays are slow, Kyle told us, and many wineries in Green Valley now close on Sundays for this reason. I found that somewhat shocking coming from Napa, where I simply couldn’t imagine a winery tasting room being closed on a weekend day. But, they aren’t getting as much traffic in this region. That’s one of the charms about Sonoma, in particular Green Valley: it’s still a secret.
At Kyle’s suggestion, we next found ourselves at two back-to-back tasting rooms. Dutton-Goldfield opened a new winery facility and tasting room this past April in the small town of Graton. In addition to the wines available to taste (which include various Pinot, Chardonnay and Zinfandel offerings), the tasting room has local artists on display, and a fireplace to cozy up by in rainy weather (which had actually cleared up substantially when we arrived).
Next door, Red Car, a winery named after the historical LA trolley cars, has opened a tasting room where guests can try their three tiers of wines: boxcar, trolley and reserve. The wines themselves are powerful, but their labels alone could sell their products – they become more playful as you go up in level. We each left with a bottle of the 2007 Fight Syrah, their reserve Syrah, which features a cartoon-rendition of a boxing fight.
We ended our tasting experience at DeLoach Vineyards, on the way towards Santa Rosa. DeLoach is a biodynamic, organic and sustainable practicing winery, owned by French company Boisset Family Estates since 2003. They had the most diverse portfolio of wines available of all the places we’d visited that day, including a Port-style fortified wine that had my Port-bashing friend admitting to its deliciousness.
After all that wine, what we really needed was some food and so we stopped for a very early dinner (okay, we practically opened the kitchen) at Zazu, a Sonoma farm and restaurant staple. In addition to a seasonably changing menu made from local, fresh ingredients, the restaurant offers a “Blind Wine” each day, allowing you to guess the varietal and origin with clues from your server (which I failed miserably at after a full day of wine tasting – I was only slightly reassured when my server told me no one ever guesses right).
It was only across county lines, but I felt as though I’d spent a day on a completely different continent. I’d heard it before, but Sonoma County really struck me as more laid-back, less commercialized than its Napa neighbor. The wines and the tasting experience were a far cry from what you’d see across the county lines. I’ve been told that Sonoma is what Napa was like a generation ago. If that’s the case, I’ll drink a glass to preserving the Sonoma of today as the Napa of yesterday – it’s certainly a great escape.