Sonoma feels rugged. Roads are windy, hilly, and trees plentiful. The vistas, when you find them, are lush shades of green. The fog from the Pacific happens frequent in the mornings. The vibe is relaxed. It feels small. Personal. A place you can quickly feel at home. We think its because the people of Sonoma make it that way. The connections in Sonoma are many and can come quickly if you open up and engage. We’ve split our time in Sonoma by geographic area, beginning north of Healdsburg then south and finishing our weekend in Sonoma.
NORTH OF HEALDSBURG
Driving further north from Healdsburg along Dry Creek, time begins to slow and each passing vineyard feels more and more rustic. In fact, we’re the only ones on the road. It’s just before noon and we pull up to a closed gate at the end of a drive way and after pushing the intercom, we’re in.
A. Rafanelli. Set on a hillside, the grounds of A. Rafanelli are gorgeous and bucolic. Wide swaths of lavender are pollinated by locals bees. The air is fresh. This feels luxurious. We’re the only ones here for a tasting at noon. We are invited to walk the grounds and to make ourselves comfortable. There is no rush. When we get our fill of the hillside, the view of the vineyards, the tasting room is in the main barn. As we enter we’re struck by the smell of oak and fermented grape juice. It’s us and hundreds of barrels of wine and a small gift shop as we sip and taste the estate wines. Here the focus is quality and not quantity. The number of wines are limited by varietal: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, or the Estate Blend. This is one of the only vineyards we have been where everything feels vintage and they made us feel like family. Given that the family has made wine here since the early 1900s, this shouldn’t be a surprise, but it is. After an hour or so of sipping and talking, we buy several bottles of Zinfandel. It happens.
Unti. In agriculture — especially viniculture — everyone knows everyone. We ask our friends at A. Rafanelli for another vineyard to visit. Our only requirements are that it be small, family-owned, and offer something unique. The folks at A. Rafanelli recommend their neighbors at Unti. Just 10-minutes away, George and Mick Unti have 60 acres of land where they grow Mediterranean grape varietals including Grenache, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, and Barbera. We don’t have an appointment, but the tasting room accommodates us, along with several dogs. We’re surprised and happy by this, so much so we buy a few bottles for later. But first it’s lunchtime.
El Farolito. Steps off of Healdsburg Plaza, a small plaza with a gazebo and benches amid grass and trees. No doubt the plaza plays host to Friday night concerts and farmer’s markets but we keep hearing recommendations about the Mexican food in Sonoma County and need to try it. Highly recommended by locals is El Farolito, a hip Oaxacan-Mexican joint. Between the decor and Mezcal selection, we feel like this is going to be authentic and El Farolito does not disappoint. Fueled by chips and guac, carnitas and enchiladas, we get back into the car and drive out of Healdsburg to Lytton Springs.
Ridge. Surrounded by beautiful 115-year-old vines, the eco-sustainable Lytton Springs Winery is breathtaking. Just a stones-throw from the local airport, the views are expansive. The facility is sustainable, built of straw bales and vineyard clay, and primarily solar-powered. We arrive for our 3:30pm appointment and are warmly greeted by our host. Slightly different than our earlier tastings, this feels professional and it is. From 1991, Ridge at Lytton Springs has made some of the best Zinfandels in California.
SOUTH OF HEALDSBURG
Driving south from Healdsburg takes us along the famous Russian River. On the west side of the river, the wineries begin to line up one after the other after the other. Some are new, some are old. We could reasonably begin our day by stopping into any of these, but “any” just will not do. We’re here to experience estate-grown Rochioli.
J. Rochioli. Rochioli Vineyards & Winery is situated just ten minutes south of Healdsburg, in the Russian River Valley. Here again, we need to buzz ourselves in. Name and appointment. Again, this feels bespoke and curated just for us. We’re the only ones here. The small parking lot is empty. We walk through a lush garden to the tasting room. We’re asked whether we want a seat on the patio or in the tasting room and we opt for patio. The patio overlooks the renowned Rochioli Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir vineyards as they tumble toward the Russian River in the distance at the tree line.
Bacigalupi. In 1973 the Bacigalupi family sold their Chardonnay to Chateau Montelana, a winery in Napa Valley. The winemaker at the time was Mike Grgich. He made 1,800 cases of the 1973 Chardonnay. The famed 1976 Paris tasting was arranged by Steven Spurrier, an Englishman who ran a wine-shop for tourists and Frenchman in Paris. Today, the vineyard still produces that Chardonnay. We did not have an appointment, but as soon as we entered the vineyard we felt welcomed. Bacigalupi maintains a modest tasting room, but the wines are superb. From here we decide to head to the hills.
Square Peg. 30 minutes south of Healdsburg and into the mountains near Occidental, the Square Peg tasting room beckons. The tasting room and vineyard offer stunning views, warm hospitality and award winning wines. By appointment only, the proprietor Alex takes us on a four-wheel tour of the vineyard, showing off its views. Here we could feel the influence of the Pacific Ocean on the organically farmed vineyard. Alex made our visit so personal. We tried amazing wine and were gifted a bottle for dinner that night. In addition to great wine, the tasting room houses a fine art and sculpture gallery featuring work by Artist in Residence Alanna Roth.
Glen Ellen Star. For dinner, we head to the small unincorporated town of Glen Ellen, where it feels like cafes, wine stores, and restaurants outpace the population. Glen Ellen Star is lively on a Saturday evening. The open kitchen is firing on all cylinders and the two dining rooms, one modern and the other rustic, are busy. This is wood-fired new American cuisine at its best. The cauliflower with tahini and sumac is bright. The pasta with duck confit is just how it sounds. And the wood fired pizza is a “must have.”
Hamel. Getting to see what private equity buys in Sonoma is a “must do.” Hamel Family has an uncanny ability to combine rustic with luxury. Farmed with organic and biodynamic practices, the wines reflect a true sense of the terroir. We embark on a tour of the grounds, which is nothing short of amazing. From the vistas to the wine cave to the private tasting room, Hamel Family really hits this out of the park.
Three Sticks. Working closely with the City of Sonoma, Bill and Eva Price gathered a team of local designers, architects, contractors and archaeologists to preserve The Adobe’s identify and protect which aspects were of the most historic significance. The Adobe is a fantastic location to taste wine and Three Sticks produces really great wine. Family-owned and boutique, this winery hit it out of the park with its Pinot Noir.
the girl & the fig. For one of our final meals in Sonoma, we went to the girl & the fig, a French bistro in downtown Sonoma just steps from the main plaza. This feels farm-to-table French without hitting you over the head. We dined al fresco as the sun set and the temperatures decreased dramatically and we sipped on a “Frankenstein” Square Peg blend we made when touring the vineyard with Alex. The food was fantastic. The scenery serene.
* * *
As we walked the mile from Sonoma Plaza to the Lodge at Sonoma Resort, we thought of all of the new relationships we built here in Sonoma. We had been those people who felt they knew Napa Valley and were uninformed about Sonoma. But after a few days and dozens of meaningful conversations, we felt a connection here and a breath of relaxation amid the push-pull of the real world. Sonoma welcomed us and we embraced it. And for that, we will be back. But in the meantime, we’ll taste Sonoma in each bottle of wine we open. Some today and tomorrow and some years from now.