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90+ point rated wines under $20
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MAY 2009 – Our Return to Sonoma – Was It Worth the Wait...or the Drive?

sonoma.jpgMy first visit to Sonoma was in the spring of 1999. I had only been drinking wine for about 2 years and the only things I knew were what I liked and what I didn't like. Merlot was fashionable and my red of choice. Though I had no palate to speak of, I tried not to embarrass my friends and tasted everything that was put in front of me. We had a great time and planned to go back, but it's not an easy proposition to get to that region from Southern California. It's a time-consuming drive or expensive flight away, so most of our wine trips have been to the Central Coast region, which is a mere 2-3 hours away.

When an old friend invited us to celebrate his birthday there, we jumped at the chance. Though I love Central Coast wines, I needed a change of wineries to visit and Sonoma seems to have an endless supply. I had wanted to visit both the Dry Creek Valley (home to Zinfandel) and the Russian River Valley (which makes world-class Pinot Noir), but there just wasn't enough time. I was hoping that the Sonoma tasting rooms would be as friendly and fun as I remembered...and I wasn't disappointed. The tasting fees were all around $5 and most places refunded if you purchased a bottle, a policy I'm wholeheartedly behind and took advantage of much to my husband's dismay. I told him we were buying memories and he should be glad my purchases were something he could enjoy too. Unlike shoes.

While I was pleased with the hospitality we encountered I have to say I was underwhelmed by the wine as a whole. Except for the 08 Sauvignon Blancs which were across the board lovely and priced to move. Each winery had their standouts reds, but I found the quality comparable to my favs from the Central Coast, especially Paso Robles, which cost at least 10-15% less for many varietals. Of course, I've only struck the tip of the iceberg and am already planning another visit. Nine wineries is too small a sample size and I know we missed some of the region's big guns. Still managed to purchase 28 bottles, which is enough damage for one weekend.

DAY 1: Dry Creek Valley

ridge-1.jpgRIDGE VINEYARDS: Tasting Fee – $5/6 tastes/2 tastes complimentary
With a longstanding reputation for producing very age-worthy Zinfandels, I felt this was a winery not to be missed. I normally like to support the smaller guys, but sometimes you just have to see what all the fuss is about. The tasting room is big and airy with a bar that can accomadate about 20pp comfortably. It seems they have a reputation around the Valley for not being very friendly if you're not club members, but we didn't have that experience. Maybe it was because I mentioned I was following them on Twitter. In any case, the wines were well-crafted, but only the 05 Pagani Ranch & 06 Lytton Springs Zins stood out for me. Should have sprung the $20 to taste the Monte Bello. Not the most memorable stop, but if you're into Zins it's a must.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

mazzocco.jpgMAZZOCCO VINEYARDS: Tasting Fee: $5
This winery was not initially on my list, but I'm sure glad our traveling companions convinced us to stop. Also known mostly for their Zinfandels, (we were in Dry Creek after all), the group really enjoyed their lineup from top to bottom and it was the clear tasting room experience winner. Ryan kept the wine and information flowing at just the right speed and obviously enjoyed his job. I would too if I got to pour those wines everyday. Though I'm not an oaked Chard lover, I was impressed by the Stuhlmuller Reserve, which was creamy & fruity with well-integrated oak notes. Don't know why they were blowing out their 06 Dry Creek Cab for half price if you purchased a case, because it was well-worth the $24 price tag. Was happy to take one of those cases off their hands. How could anyone resist paying $12 for a Sonoma Cab? Of the three Zinfandels we couldn't resist the 06 Lytton, which was elegant, fruity, spicy & fleshy. Everything a Zin should be. Also enjoyed the 05 Aguilera Petite Sirah and had to have a bottle of their 100% 05 Petit Verdot. This wine might convince more winemakers to single this varietal out instead of blending it away.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

Tasting Fee: $5/3 pours, $10/5
This was another one of our companions picks. I knew nothing about this winery before he mentioned them, but there lineup looked promising. Was also following them on Twitter, so I figured they had to be cool. The winery building itself is built in the California Mission style and is a lovely place to sit back and sip wine. The staff was friendly and informative and was in no hurry to hurry us along. All of their grapes are estate grown and organically farmed. The wines are crafted in a very French-style, i.e. reserved & earthy, that I really liked, but didn't overly impress the rest of the group. Their "La Brume" Chardonnay was my favorite of the day, being more fruit-forward and less of an oak-bomb than the others. Their Pinot Noir is the only one grown in Dry Creek and I would have bought a bottle, but the Man wasn't a fan. Not enough upfront fruit for him. If you like your wines to be ripe and fruity, this may not be a good stop for you. Beautiful rose garden in the back for the non-wine drinkers to enjoy.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

millcreek.jpgMILL CREEK WINERY: Tasting Fee: $5/5 pours
I have to admit that the main reason I wanted to visit this winery was because it was one of the ones we loved on our first trip to Sonoma. Obviously, my palate has changed in the ensuing decade, but I wanted to see just how much. Plus they were on the way to our last choice, so it was an easy pitstop. This is a family-owned, estate winery that has been making wine since 1972. Clancy was a master behind the bar and really made our experience memorable. The wines that stood out were the 07 Sauvignon Blanc (bought 2 bottles), the 07 Merlot (ripe plum and mocha), and the 06 Dry Creek Zin. We also got to taste their 99 Cabernet Sauvignon, which was in its prime, alongside the 05 vintage, which was just starting to show its potential. Solid wines at good prices. The bar is somewhat rustic and small for the area, but the view and the service were wonderful.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

matrix2.jpgMATRIX WINERY: Tasting Fee: $5/5 wines
This stop was a last minute change in the itinerary. Our friends had begun the day drinking at Siduri and the pourers at that winery highly recommended a visit. They hooked us up with Matt, the tasting room manager, who was a real pro and a joy to talk to. Owned by the Wilson family, which also runs Mazzocco with the same winemaker (Antoine Favero), we had a feeling we were going to enjoy the experience. The focus of this label is on Bordeaux blends and Pinot Noirs with the grapes coming from the Sonoma Coast and Russian River appellations. The tasting room is quite small, but it has a nice bar that you are encouraged to sit down at and sip at your leisure. Was most impressed with the Buoncristiani Pinots, the Francis Vineyard Zin and their simply named Bordeaux Blend. A nice place to visit on the road between the Russian River and Dry Creek Valleys. Our group loved the wines, but I thought the Mazzocco wines had better QPR value.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

foodpairing.jpgWe also attempted to go to Copain, but despite posting their tasting room hours as 11-5pm (and my confirming them), their gates were closed when we stopped by at 4:45. Pet peeve of mine. Be open for the time your signs/site claims. Driving all that way for nothing breeds ill will and loses you potential sales, especially at the end of day when people are slighthly tipsy. That being said, our hotel – The Doubletree in Sonoma/Rohnert Park – gets kudos for their special Internet deal, which got us a free food and wine pairing at their Bacchus restaurant. Not that we needed any more wine, but as you can see from the picture, it was nicely prepared and a good little pick-me-up while we waited for dinner.

DAY 2: Sonoma Valley

greystack.jpgGREY STACK CELLARS: By Appt. Only
This winery's 06 Marie's Block Syrah has been my favorite wine drunk this year, so when I knew we were going to Sonoma I just had to get more and wanted to try the rest of their lineup. Grey Stack is a very small operation and not open to the public, so we asked our friend who is a wine club memeber to see what he could do. Owner Peter Young could not have been more gracious, opening his doors on Mother's Day to our fairly large crew, to give us a tour of their Bennett Valley vineyard and tasting of their currant releases, including the sold out "The Fisherman" Pinot Noir, which comes from their Russian River vineyard. His dedication and passion for his land and wines is clearly evident in the bottle. I needed to join another wine club like I need a hole in the head, but the depth and structure of his wines left me no choice. Plus with a limited case production – under 1000 for everything – I wanted to make sure I was in line for the future. The best wines of the weekend.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

enkidu.jpgENKIDU WINES: Tasting Fee: $10/6 pours
Being a Rhone wine lover, it was sort of hard to find Sonoma wineries that fit my profile. Sure, there's plenty of Syrah around, but not much else. This is clearly Zinfandel & Pinot country. Enkidu had enough variety to peak my interest, including a couple of Petite Sirahs (another fav), so I decided to give them a chance since we like to support smaller ventures. The tasting room is in Kenwood off the Sonoma Hwy in a sort of upscale shopping center. The bar is small, but nice considering the limited space. We didn't get the name of the young woman working the bar and I wish I had because she was great. She knew not only the story behind all the names of the wines, which are derived from the ancient tale of Gilgamesh, but all about the wines themselves. She also gave us extra pours of the wines that were opened the previous day by the winemaker and not on the list. A gal after my own heart. I really liked the overall style of the wines and was most impressed with the 05 Odyssey Syrah (dark, fruity & meaty - if I didn't have a ton, I'd have bought a bottle) and the Diener Ranch Petite Sirah, which we had to have.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

IMAGERY WINERY: Tasting Fee: $10/5 pours
imagery2.jpgWe wouldn't normally stop at a place that's affiliated with such a big winery – Imagery is owned and run by Joe Benziger – but I was intrigued by their wine list which includes varietals most people don't make or blend away. I guess in the late 80s Joe got bored with the same old wines and began singling out lots that showed potential for more unique bottlings. He also hooked up with a local artist Bob Nugent, who agreed to paint a piece of artwork to be used as the label on his first Barbera. Since then hundreds on international artists have contributed one-of-a-kind artwork for their labels. It's a great concept that's played out in their large, well-appointed and very popular tasting room. It was certainly the most busy one we visited that day. The wines were good, but didn't knock my socks off, especially considering the prices (most in $27-$42 range). It was interesting tasting a 100% Cinsault, Malbec and Mourvedre, which are very uncommon in CA. For those looking to expand their palate, this is a great place to try some odd stuff. We left with the 06 Grenache (a steal at $19), the 06 Barbera (purchased partly because of the sock monkey label) and the 06 Sangiovese, which was my favorite. Fancy, yet still friendly. If you know what you're talking about you might get a few extra pours. We did.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

roshambo.jpgROSHAMBO WINERY: Tasting Fee: $5/5 pours
How can you resist visiting a winery who's name is derived from the West Coast slang for the game "Rock/Paper/Scissors"? The brainchild of Naomi Brilliant – granddaughter of the late, great Sonoma County grape grower Frank Johnson – this family-owned winery is trying to appeal to those tired of wine snobbery. Fun is the order of the day and reflected in their wines and tasting room, which is located in the new Cornerstone Place facility just south of Sonoma. Their focus is on Pinot Noirs and Rhone varietals sourced from the Frank Johnson Vineyards at the southern edge of the Dry Creek Valley. I thought I would like their wines more, but it's hard to judge their entire line-up from 5 tastes. Bought the 08 Sauvignon Blanc and thought the 07 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and 05 Borri Vineyard Syrah showed the best. The lack of pretension was refreshing and I wished I had the opportunity to taste more of their single vineyard wines. Maybe next time.
– For more information CLICK HERE.

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