Sonoma is Sonoma

Sonoma is Sonoma

Every wine producing area has an image, but few make the successful jump into the realm of brands. Of all wine appellations, Champagne enjoys the clearest brand success. Is the stuff unique? I could debate that point over, say, a good Crémant de Loire, but why bother; in the marketplace, in the market-mind, Champagne is the idol to which we bow.

Is “Napa” a brand? In the minds of many, it is, if we mean big, explosive, high alcohol Cabernet Sauvignon. For many Napa producers the paradigm is perhaps a bit too restrictive. How do dedicated Napa producers of Syrah or Zinfandel (or even Bordeaux blends) plug into the brand price premium? All is not sunlight; brands cast shadows, they move markets, they funnel production.

It is impossible to understand market wine branding, I believe, without digging into its cultural underpinning. In Principles of Wine Science (2nd ed.), Professor Ron S. Jackson writes that the fact that so many international grape varieties are French “is undoubtedly a geographic or historical accident, with many other equally worthy cultivars being little recognized outside their homelands.”

France, Jackson writes, had the ideal cool climate for the “retention of subtle fragrances, complete fermentation, and long aging” combined with a position as a major cultural influence. This insight did not stun me—I am a Francophile—but the next premise did: “The long and frequent contacts between England and France, and the global extent of the British colonial influence, fostered the dispersal of French cultivars throughout much of the English-speaking world.” Both Napa and Sonoma qualify as parts of the English-speaking world, yet somehow Napa has managed to create brand equity out this cultural continuum (French Cabernet promoted by British connoisseurs) while Sonoma has not.

The French Larousse les Vins, somewhat to my shock, provides an important detail that hits rather close to home in any analysis of Sonoma and its relation to Napa. Docteur Gérard Debuigne, in the article on California, writes:

“Aujourd'hui, les grands vin rouges américains de Napa Valley font jeu égal avec les crus classes bordelais alors que les Chardonnays, issus de la même region, sont comparables aux plus grands Bourgognes. Ils coûtent le meme prix, parfois davantage.”

This is easy French, but for those who need the gist, Debuigne is writing that these days, the big Napa reds can be comparable to the best Bordeaux, the Napa Chardonnays to the best white Burgundy. Of course we pay as much, sometimes more.

In his entry on Sonoma, tellingly, Debuigne calls the county “le berceau de la viticulture moderne en Californie,” the cradle of the modern California wine industry. Napa, we know, came later to wine.

Sonoma County Wine Map I propose another axiom: from outer space, Napa and Sonoma appear to be neighbors, but you cannot drive from one to the other without having to tack diagonally like a sailing ship. Sonoma is topographically much more varied than its neighbor. It has twice the area and more than four times the population of Napa. According to Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson in their World Atlas of Wine (5th ed.), “the potential for planting in cooler, unexplored territory is significantly greater in Sonoma than in Napa.” Big Cabs do not thrive in such areas, but many of the world's finest wines most assuredly do. Johnson and Robinson call Napa “the world's most glamorous, most cosseted, and most heavily capitalized wine region.” Given the differences in climate, topography, and even in the sort of people who make the wine in these two places, comparing the two—ingrained habit to be sure—seems about as efficacious as comparing Texas barbecue with Moroccan couscous (I'll take both, please.) California is rich in wine.

Image maintenance can help any region, but the yoke of a Napa-like brand can only demote Sonoma. The market is restless, and often fickle. Jack Daniels enjoyed added popularity when Frank Sinatra made it his drink; cognac was rescued from serious market malaise when it became the hip-pocket beverage of choice for high profile rap entertainers; Merlot hit the stratosphere when reports of health benefits of red wine started to emerge (they never receded) only to skid, sputter and stumble in the face of a single remark in a movie about another varietal. Sonoma's strength is precisely in the breadth of its product mix, a strength that is in turn based on the richness and variety of both its natural element and its human capital. Sonoma's very lack of brand status may well be its greatest strength. “If it ain't broke,” the saying goes, “don't fix it.”

According to Jim Caudill of Brown-Foreman Wines, “The Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Grape Growers Commission, along with the Sonoma County Tourism folks, have banded together to sell 'Sonoma Country' as a brand, even as we emphasize our individuality.” Jim stressed that this “branding” is not the highly restrictive variety. “Labels that carry a broad Sonoma County appellation along with the sub-appellation give the best of both worlds…It does us no harm to have people think of Sonoma as a place with charming small towns with old-fashioned squares (Healdsburg and the town of Sonoma), the rugged Pacific coastline with breathtaking drives along Highway One, with world class wines wherever you look. If this is a brand it is a brand worth sharing.”

Sonoma in concept and Sonoma in the flesh coalesced for me just before Labor Day 2008. The 2008 Sonoma Wine Country Weekend heralded the unofficial end of summer with participating wineries and chefs from throughout the county. The Sonoma County Tourism Bureau had a special Thursday planned for journalists, with a first stop having nothing to do with wine. Dragonfly Farms in Healdsburg began some years ago by pulling out grapevines and growing a cornucopia of other plants instead, with literally thousands of flowers, a fine source for county events of all stripes. (Don't feel too bad about this; the grapes were French Colombard.) While I am not a garden person—allergies you know—the initial point hit home: Sonoma is more than wine.

I got the chance to muse on this point with several wines, all from Sonoma, when the small group enjoyed a lunch at Windsor's excellent Restaurant Mirepoix. Nick Frey, President of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, ordered a Dutton Estates 2005 Chardonnay, a Hauck 2006 Sauvignon Blanc, and a Keefer Ranch 2006 Pinot Noir, all Russian River Valley. Nick calls Sonoma “a country disguised as a county” based on the diverse range of grapes produced, with climates to match. But he is quick to stress it is not all just wine. “We also produce a range of wonderful food products: specialty meats like Liberty duck, CK lamb, Rocky the Range chicken; specialty cheeses from goat, sheep and cow's milk; organic vegetables; the famous Gravenstein apples; Dry Creek organic peaches; extra virgin olive oil.”

Tim Zahner, the Bureau's Director of Public Relations and Marketing, explained that “Sonoma doesn't exist by wine alone,” although grapes are the county's number one agricultural product. “We encourage overnight and recreational tourism, the aim being to offer a total experience. You can mountain bike here, see historic sites, hike among the redwoods.” Sonoma food, as spread before us, came up again and again as a source of “source-it-locally” pride. If you must have a beer in Sonoma you needn't reach for a can; the county has eight micro-breweries.

Rodney Strong Vineyards Sonoma, I have learned, has over 35 spas and wellness centers. So as not to be left to its word on this point, the Bureau brought us later that afternoon to the Hyatt Vineyard Creek Spa in Santa Rosa at which I opted for the Lavender Hydrating Massage Wrap. On the way to the spa, our small group stopped at Rodney Strong Vineyards in Healdsburg for a tour and tasting. Rodney Strong sources its grapes from nearly 1,000 acres of vineyards in the Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and Chalk Hill with an outpost, Sleepy Hollow Vineyards, near San Pablo Bay at the southern end of the long Sonoma Coast AVA. The 2007 Charlotte's Home Sonoma County Sauvignon Blanc is absolutely water-white, giving a punch of minerality, lemon, melon, peach and a crisp finish. The 2006 Russian River Valley Reserve Chardonnay brings exotic aromas of tropical fruit, apple, stones to the nose, a creamy mouthfeel with pineapple and I could swear coconut, although perhaps it was the heat making me crave a piña colada. The 2005 Reserve Alexander Valley Cabernet is smooth at every step; nothing shouts, but the chocolate at the finish lasts. The 2005 Alexander Valley Symmetry is a red Meritage blend, 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, rounded out with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec and graced with 24 months in French oak. Very smooth, with beautiful aromatics, baking spice, chocolate, mocha, blueberry and cassis.

On our tour, Robert Larsen, Rodney Strong Public Relations Director, used the word “green” a great deal, a word, along with “sustainability” I would hear often during my stay in Sonoma. Rodney Strong operates the largest solar panel array in the wine industry, for example, and boasts of earning a rebate from Pacific Gas and Electric of more than $2 million for its efforts. As Larsen explains, “sustainability in its truest form, considering ecologic, economic and community impact, is the most sensitive and sensible way of doing business, not just in farming, though that is very important since ours is an agricultural business, but all our business.”

For most Sonoma wine people, sustainability is more a given than an issue. As Jim Caudill told me, “Mendocino is more often cited as a hotbed of organics and sustainability than Sonoma County, but the truth is that Sonoma's agricultural heritage means that sustainability has always been a part of the county's DNA. Farmers have always been the foremost environmentalists, no matter what they grow, because their livelihood depends on protecting and caring for resources, and more often than not, they and their families live where they work. Sonoma County has a green certification program for business, and our Sonoma-Cutrer winery has been one of those certified green businesses for many years.” Windsor-based Sonoma-Cutrer is not alone. As Nick Frey points out, “Sonoma County has demonstrated a strong commitment to sustainable production. More than 275 growers, accounting for over 26,000 of the county's 61,000 grape acres, submitted their self-assessment results for inclusion in the California Sustainability Report.”

Kate MacMurray stimulates her listeners with a history of MacMurray Ranch I didn't realize it that first day, but sustainability would become a theme for the entire four days of my Sonoma stay. Of course by this time, I was thinking more sustainable me than sustainable viticulture, hence I was relieved when we arrived at the Vineyard Creek Spa for my Lavender Hydrating Massage Wrap. After several hours of body-bliss, I would experience several more of vino-bliss at an evening reception, tour and dinner at MacMurray Ranch hosted by Gallo. Actor Fred MacMurray bought the ranch as a country retreat, raised his children there, raised cattle and grew crops, little realizing that after his death the property would be converted to the grape under Gallo family auspices, and his daughter Kate MacMurray installed as spokesperson. MacMurray has nearly 500 acres under vine (Pinots Noir and Gris are the stars, though the ranch also grows Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and other varietals), reserving twice that acreage for animal habitat, watershed and forest land. After seeing a few more rows of Pinot than I'd every thought my retina could absorb, I joined the group atop a hill where Kate MacMurray and Jim Collins, Gallo's Senior Director of Coastal Wine Growing, explained the company's 50/50 Give Back plan, in essence a commitment to set aside an acre for nature for every acre devoted to viticulture.

At an outdoor dinner later that evening, the roll of the dice put Kate directly across from me at table; in addition to a number of stimulating celebrity stories, Kate spoke about the family connection: “The ranch provided sustenance for the Porter family (the original owners), then market crops for three more generations. My family farmed the ranch for 50 years in the same diversified fashion, balancing the use of the land, with an eye to support for the community around us. Now the Gallo family has stewardship, and they take the same long view—planning by generations. We've moved from plums to Pinot Noir, and the ranch sustains us.”

The wines we enjoyed at dinner that evening came from four of Gallo's Sonoma properties. The Gallo Family Vineyards Laguna Vineyard 2005 Chardonnay brought good cool-climate peach, pear, and green melon aromas and flavors with a vanilla creaminess in the mouth and some well-used wood. Good acidity through to a crisp finish. The MacMurray Ranch 2006 Pinot Noir has a nice perfumed nose of rose and cherry, dry with soft tannins, cherry, plum and raspberry on the palate, cedar touches, and candied fruit on the finish. This is a very well balanced wine, not too acidic, with a ripe finish. The Frei Brothers 2006 Reserve Syrah has black cherry, prune, chocolate and spice on the nose. The wine is dry, with fine-grained tannins, prune, plum jam, black cherry and mountain herb on the palate and tobacco on the finish. For my notes on the Rancho Zabaco Toreador 2005 Monte Rosso Vineyard Zinfandel, see below (since I was to visit that vineyard the next morning). All these wines were Russian River Valley AVA except the Monte Rosso, which is Sonoma Valley.

Gallo has put significant investment into Sonoma, and it has done so since the 1970s, though Sonoma being Sonoma, even a large player will necessarily be dwarfed by the sheer number of wineries and vineyards that challenge the eye in every direction, down every byway. Gallo, remember, may be a giant, but like so many of Sonoma's smaller wineries, it is run by a family. Gallo's Sonoma commitments range, north to south, from Barrelli Creek in the hot-climate Alexander Valley, to Dry Creek's Chiotti Vineyard, Stefani Vineyard and Frei Ranch (where the Gallo of Sonoma's winery is located), to Russian River Valley's Del Rio Vineyard, MacMurray Ranch and Laguna Vineyard, on through the Two Rock Vineyard (Sonoma Coast) and Sonoma Valley's unique Monte Rosso Vineyard. I stayed that night at the Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate in Dry Creek, itself a small family winery, just down the road from the Frei Ranch.

Jim Collins, Gallo Senior Director of Coastal Wine
Growing Bright and early Friday morning I trucked through Frei Ranch with Jim Collins. Jim is a big man: tall, hefty, and hugely committed to his role as Senior Director of Coastal Wine Growing: the 19 ranches he oversees stretch from Sonoma and Napa through Monterey, Paso Robles and down the Central Coast through the Santa Ynez Valley. Frei, with 630 acres under vine, is the largest. It has a history. The original Frei brothers were the sons of Swiss immigrant Andrew Frei, who first farmed the land in the late nineteenth century. In the 1930s, Julio Gallo first began to purchase grapes from Frei; more than 40 years later, in 1978, the E. & J. Gallo Winery bought the full property; its high reaches became one of Julio's favorite personal retreats. Despite its impressive vine acreage, Jim Collins explained, the property maintains large stretches of land dedicated to nature and sustainable viticulture. At the foot of the hills, capacious ponds collect water for irrigation; another series of ponds treats winery waste water for reuse. “We give the vine 70% of the water it really wants,” Collins explains; in sustainable viticulture, after all, you cannot coddle the vines.

In the vineyard, five nesting pairs of hawks control the rodent population while goats graze to reduce the danger of fire and sheep do the weeding. Just outside the winery, a rather impressive pile of vines and winery pomace generates compost. Native grasses are used for alternate between-row cover. Lignin, a lumber byproduct, is sprayed on the roads to reduce dust and discourage mites, which inhibit photosynthesis in the vines.

“I first started making wine in the Texas Hill Country,” this native Texan relates. “It's a tough place to make wine,” he sighs, “as opposed to a climate like Sonoma's. Here in California we are really getting to a true sense of place, of terroir. We also have, truly, the best team in the world.” Collins uses that team not only to farm staple varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, but to experiment with the possibilities of less mainstream grapes like the Portuguese varieties Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cão and even the Georgian grape Rkatsiteli. After a jolting ride to the top vista in the hills overlooking the property, we opened and enjoyed a bottle of Gallo Family Vineyards Single Vineyard 2004 Dry Creek Valley Frei Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The $30 wine has 3% Petit Verdot and spends 17 months in French oak. I don't know if I can separate the drinking experience from the fact that it occurred at the place of origin, with clear air filling my lungs, but my notes praise the energetic acidity, black fruit and very toasty oak.

Later in the morning, an hour south of Frei Ranch, I was welcomed to Monte Rosso Vineyard by Eric Cinnamon, Chief Winemaker for Rancho Zabaco. The vineyard was first planted in the 1880s and came into the hands of the Louis P. Martini family in 1938. The Martinis created a careful block numbering system to keep the vineyard's grape varieties and various micro-climates straight. The name Monte Rosso is Italian, meaning “Red Mountain,” a reference to its unique volcanic soils. This vineyard has a mind of its own. Its mountaintop setting gives it access to no flowing water; that substance comes either from the sky (begrudgingly this season) or from a water truck (expensive). Dry-farming here is a necessity.

Monte Rosso Vineyard “The spring rains are it,” Cinnamon tells me, and I see a thoughtful spot of worry on his face I have come to associate with people of the grape. The plus side of Monte Rosso's aridity is important, however. “We get very small berries, more concentrated, and low yields, particularly on some of the Zin that may be more than a hundred years old. We're closer to the sun than the vineyards on the valley floor, out of the fog off San Pablo Bay but with some cooling winds, so we get photosynthesis earlier in the year. The red soil gives our Cabs and Zins a very distinctive mouthfeel.”

Monte Rosso, at just over 200 acres, yields Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Sangiovese, Sémillon, Folle Blanche, Malbec and Petite Syrah in addition to the big two (though these account for 90% of the harvest). I tasted a number of these grapes off the vine, the Cabernet sweeter than those I had tasted at Frei, the Zinfandel meaty and punchy, the 110-year-old Sémillon an aromatic joy. “These old vines pretty much manage themselves,” Eric explained. “We need to do minimal shoot thinning, fruit thinning, leaf thinning. They have spent generations evolving into their core structure. We hand-pick every grape, looking for a balance between ripeness and over-ripeness, then sort at our micro-winery.”

Eric and I shared a box lunch high atop this mountain accompanied by a 2005 Rancho Zabaco Toreador Monte Rosso Zinfandel, a wine I had previously enjoyed. The $60 wine includes 2% co-fermented Petite Syrah (the house style calls for up to 5% Petite Syrah, depending on vintage). My notes then indicated a dry wine, middling acidity, tannins in control, “strawberry, black plum, brambly wild blackberry, red licorice and some fairly toothsome chocolate” (quoting myself). Today's test had an additional element: olives. I picked and tasted an uncured olive right off the tree. It was horribly bitter of course, but the Zin mollified that, melded with it, and so I had a double moment of land-specificity in a location Cinnamon calls “the most terroir-specific vineyard in the state.”

I would see Eric again the next day in rather cooler circumstances as the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend officially began with the 29th Annual Tastes of Sonoma event held at MacMurray Ranch. As is typical in Sonoma, choice and variety were the reigning themes. Chef demonstrations went on all day, a number of sommelier-led wine tours were offered, a “crushpad” allowed attendees to make their own wine, and of course over 200 wineries and food purveyors had their own displays. Having had a bit too much sun the day before, however, I spent most of the event in the wine barn (originally Fred MacMurray's horse stable) at a number of the “wine dialogues.” Kate MacMurray drew a large admiring crowd as she gave the history of the ranch, showing slides of the property as it looked when her father acquired it in the 1940s, and ending the talk with a tribute to her dad on what would have been the actor's 100th birthday. Eric Cinnamon was one of the panelists in “Extreme Winegrowing: Growing Grapes and Making Wines in Extreme Locations,” which gave me another shot at that Zin without the influence of the olive. Sonoma Pinot Noirs were contrasted in another workshop, Cabernets in yet another, and the Riedel Wine Glass Company had us tasting Sauvignon Blanc from correct and incorrect glasses just to show that there really is a difference.

Having already had a full slate of activities and plenty to write about, I later indulged in a bit of planned truancy and took myself to dinner that evening at Cyrus in Healdsburg where I ordered the Crispy Poussin with Cornbread Stuffing and Nardello Peppers and committed my only sin of the stay: I ordered, and thoroughly enjoyed a non-Sonoma wine. I freely admit this, and stand ready for any retribution I may incur though in my defense I need to stress that it was not a….well, not from that “N” place; it was a true French Chablis and I loved every refreshing drop.

My final treat, Sunday, was a tour and wine tasting at the Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate, the Dry Creek Valley property at which I had been staying in some degree of luxury. Brooke Herron, Manager of Hospitality and Winery Relations, took me on foot through the property. The stress, once again, was on green farming and sustainability. “Our mantra is feed the soil and not the vines,” Brooke explained. Founded in 1979 by Swiss investor Jean-Jacques Michel, the property took its hyphenated name in 1993 when present proprietor Jacques Schlumberger came on the scene. Mike Brunson is winemaker.

“We planted these vineyards with the goal of creating an environmental system that would almost manage itself,” Brooke told me. “We favor the use of natural predators—certain birds, lady bugs, wasps—and protect their habitats.” Indeed, this winery has a few tricks up its sleeve, including minimal tilling (for minimal habitat disruption), electrostatic spraying of the vines to increase their ability to absorb nutrients, timed-release of pest predators like lacewings and ladybugs, a supply of pest-eating chickens, and a flock of Southdown Baby Doll sheep whose diminutive size allows them to eat the weeds between vine rows without molesting the grapes they cannot reach.

“Our property is on a unique part of the Dry Creek Valley we call Benchland,” Brooke related. “Long ago the river wore off big clumps of the land and hence we have a very special topography, in addition to being closer to the ocean than most of Dry Creek.” The winery sells most of its products (the wines, olive oil and a few tasteful wine accessories) to members of its wine club and visitors who take its vineyard and winery tours. In many ways, Michel-Schlumberger represents a Sonoma paradigm since, according to the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, most vineyards are small and are owned privately, many by family corporations, with 40% of the growers farming less than 20 acres and a full 80% less than 100 acres. The vast majority of wineries sell fewer than 25,000 cases a year, with direct sales as their bread and butter.

Michel-Schlumberger produces eight wines from 13 varietals: Pinot Blanc, Chardonnay, Syrah, Viognier, Petite Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petite Verdot, Malbec, Carmenere and Sémillon, and yes, you notice these are all French. Though the property is built in a modified California mission style, I felt a solid French-ness as soon as entered the gate off Wine Creek Road. There is, after all, a pétanque court in the garden and I found plenty of French books in my room.

I began my tasting with the 2006 La Brume Chardonnay (la brume means “mist” or “fog” in French, and note that in that language the noun for this softening effect is feminine). The $32 wine is barrel-fermented using some wild yeasts. Though aged eight months in French oak it shows little, nor did I experience butter, with key lime and orange blossom on the nose and stone on the palate. It was, in fact, much like the Chablis I had enjoyed at Cyrus the night before but with greater acidity, “food acidity” in my notes. I moved to the 2005 Estate Pinot Noir, also $32, a wine with great visual transparency and clarity, red cherry, raspberry and ripe strawberry on the nose, cedar, walnut, oak and some good dirt on the palate. This wine shows a bit of chocolate just at the end.

The Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were, not surprising for a French-inspired winery, each 100% single varietals as they would be in Burgundy, the Syrah and two Cabernets that followed judicious blends. The 2005 Estate Syrah is co-fermented with 3% Viognier in Côte Rôtie style, aged 16 months in French oak. The $32 wine has got a lot of meat, with wood and a bit of smoke on the nose, concentrated blackberries, pepper and slow-cooked meat on the palate. The 2004 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, at $38, is a deep ruby, with a pronounced nose bringing clove, nutmeg, sweet toasted oak, black cherry and cassis. The acidity is absolutely “there,” matched by fine-grained tannins, a classic Cabernet weight and a true Bordeaux feel. The finish is elegant. You can guess I enjoyed this one; took home a bottle in fact. The 80% Cabernet Sauvignon is blended with Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Malbec, and Carmenere.

At $75 (and in an edition of only 384 cases), the 2002 Deux Terres Cabernet Sauvignon owes its name (literally, “two earths”) to “two rare heritage clones of cabernet grown in our close spaced hillside vineyards with a little Malbec (1%) for flare,” according to the spec sheet. The wine sees 24 months of French oak, 60-70% new. I could sense this oak in the chocolate and vanilla nose, with additional aromas of candied fruit and candied cherry. The wine is decidedly dry, with red fruit, cocoa, mocha and some meat (a tender tournedos) on the palate. I did not isolate tannins with this one, but I did write the word “grip” in rather large letters. Despite the oak, the meat, and the kernel notes throughout, the long finish is all ripe red fruit.

After an afternoon drive through the Alexander Valley (at which I made the obligatory stop at the iconic Jimtown Store for a sandwich), I later found myself hungry in Petaluma where I enjoyed, that evening, as my final salute to Sonoma sensuality, a double-double In-N-Out Burger with fries than ran me all of $4.32, though on my return to Michel-Schlumberger for my final evening I washed it down with more of the Cabernet. If I came away from Sonoma with anything other than a sense of wonder, it was with a deep respect for the spirit of cooperation that is evident among Sonoma's 350 wineries and 1800 growers. As Nick Frey points out, “Sonoma growers share their knowledge and experience with each other and winemakers do the same, hosting wine people from around the county and around the world to trade concepts.” Jim Caudill adds, “while our growing regions each have distinct personalities, and while each is justly proud of its unique accomplishments, the resulting feeling is much more a collective sense of awe at how good our wines can be than a 'mine is better than yours' show.” Rodney Strong's Robert Larsen relates proudly that “Sonoma is unique because it is so diverse in its crops and communities. The connection people have to the land is somewhat spiritual and the points of view that lead to that shared spirituality are as diverse as the people who farm the land. The beautiful thing is that there is a shared, almost unspoken understanding of this that Sonoma people seem to wear like clothing.”

When asked about Sonoma the brand, Larsen becomes thoughtful. “Having the immediate recognition that comes with 'branding' is nice, but incorporating all of what Sonoma is into a brand is difficult, which is why there isn't the same kind of branding as Napa, which of course itself is more than Cabernet, but is often simply and quickly understood as just that. How it resonates with consumers, since Cab is king, is oversimplified too, resulting in Napa being seen as just a wine-growing region, though with strong branding, and Sonoma being thought of as multitude of things, all good, but not with the strength of the singular.”

Indeed, I reflect, Sonoma is the strength of the many. As Kate MacMurray puts it, “There are so many Sonomas, not just the place names of town, county, mountain, valley, but so many facets to the communities here. I'm not sure what 'branding' Sonoma would get for Sonoma. The name and image has been used to promote everything from kitchen knives to cars. You should see some of the old ads that ran in San Francisco papers in the 1800s and early 20th century. Everybody was selling something about Sonoma. So, it's hard to understand what Sonoma in itself has to gain from someone trying to 'package' it again today. Nobody owns Sonoma, and that's part of the glory of it.”

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Sonoma and wine: infinity.

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award
James Beard Award Nominee Elliot Essman

food writer Elliot Essman James Beard Foundation Journalism Award


Sonoma County vineyards

Sonoma County speaks “wine” every which way you look. The author was hosted for four nights here at the Michel-Schlumberger Wine Estate in Dry Creek Valley.

The tasting room at Michel-Schlumberger offers the winery's olive oil in addition
to its French-style wines.

The tasting room at Michel-Schlumberger offers the winery's olive oil in addition to its French-style wines. The olive harvest occurs long after the last grape has been picked, so the staff has time to press and bottle this additional artisanal product.

The lovely inner court outside the Michel-Schlumberger tasting room.

The lovely inner court outside the Michel-Schlumberger tasting room provided this author with some quality repose during a busy few days.

A rather sensible warning sign at Ravenswood Winery.

A rather sensible warning sign at Ravenswood Winery. Given that the temperature at the time was over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, only the author and several other humans were foolish enough to remain outside; the snakes kept themselves well hidden.

The flowers at Dragonfly Floral in Healdsburg

The flowers at Dragonfly Floral in Healdsburg, one of the many signs that Sonoma is much more than wine.

Gravenstein Apple Fair

Even more proof that wine is not the whole story, though wine grapes now make up two-thirds of Sonoma's agricultural output

Some of the wine offerings at Chef Matthew Bousquet's Restaurant Mirepoix in

Some of the wine offerings at Chef Matthew Bousquet's Restaurant Mirepoix in Windsor. In addition to three Sonoma wines, the author enjoyed the Liberty Farms duck confit with celery, oranges, blue cheese, mizuna (a rather delicate Japanese salad green), and a ginger vinaigrette.

Sonoma's Russian River.

The Russian River starts in Mendocino County then cuts its way down and then across Sonoma on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The river is named for Russian trappers who explored the area in the early 19th century. The Russians called it the Slavyanka River, but we have yet to see this nomenclature on a wine label.

Russian River Valley's MacMurray Ranch.

Russian River Valley's MacMurray Ranch.

Susan Doyle winemaker Russian River Valley's MacMurray Ranch.

Susan Doyle, Winemaker at MacMurray Ranch.

Gallo rewards employees with their own vineyard rows, and often the wine
therefrom; Frei Ranch in Dry Creek.

Gallo rewards employees with their own vineyard rows, and often the wine therefrom; here, Frei Ranch in Dry Creek.

The Gallo of Sonoma Winery adjacent to Frei Ranch recycles pomace into

The Gallo of Sonoma Winery adjacent to Frei Ranch recycles pomace into compost by piling it onto uprooted vines and vine prunings.

Jim Collins, Gallo's Senior Director of Coastal Wine Growing, explains some of
the water management efforts at Frei Ranch.

Jim Collins, Gallo's Senior Director of Coastal Wine Growing, explains some of the water management efforts at Frei Ranch.

Frei Ranch.

Frei Ranch has more than 600 acres under vine.

Frei Ranch.

Vista from the hills overlooking Frei Ranch.

Old vine Zinfandel at Monte Rosso Vineyard.

Old vine Zinfandel on Rattlesnake Ridge at Monte Rosso Vineyard.

Monte Rosso Vineyard.

The distinctive red earth at Monte Rosso Vineyard.

Monte Rosso Vineyards.

The original nineteenth century winery at Monte Rosso was completely gravity fed.

Wineries set up their tables for the 2008 Taste of Sonoma event held at
MacMurray Ranch.

Wineries and food purveyors set up their tables for the 2008 Taste of Sonoma event held at MacMurray Ranch.

The Riedel Glass table at Taste of Sonoma.

The Riedel Glass table at Taste of Sonoma. Riedel also gave a taste comparison workshop that highlighted the importance of wineglass choice.

Chef Ken Tominaga

Chef Ken Tominaga from Hana Japanese Restaurant demonstrates his skills at Taste of Sonoma. The mirror above allows viewers to appreciate Tominaga's lightning-fast knife work.

Visitors to Taste of Sonoma need directional guidance.

Visitors to Taste of Sonoma need directional guidance.

Rodney Strong.

The Rodney Strong table at Taste of Sonoma.

Frei Brothers.

The Frei Brothers team displays their wines.

Rancho Zabaco's winemaker Eric Cinnamon ready to pour at Taste of Sonoma.

Rancho Zabaco's winemaker Eric Cinnamon ready to pour his Zin at Taste of Sonoma.

Michel-Schlumberger's Brooke Herron pours out a taste of the winery's excellent
2004 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

Michel-Schlumberger's Brooke Herron pours out a taste of the winery's excellent 2004 Dry Creek Valley Cabernet Sauvignon at Taste of Sonoma.

The growers at Michel-Schlumberger know how to improvise to coddle their
young vines. They are also watching their fat intake.

The growers at Michel-Schlumberger know how to improvise to coddle their young vines. They also seem dedicated to watching their own fat intake.

A solar panel powers this protective fence at Michel-Schlumberger.

A solar panel powers this protective fence at Michel-Schlumberger. The winery, like so many others, large and small, is committed to sustainable viticulture.

Michel-Schlumberger has a strong French heritage, so of course it has a pétanque

Michel-Schlumberger has a strong French heritage, so of course it has a pétanque court. The author's guest room (one of only two), featured a potpourri of French-language books, Parisian street signs, and other things French. Stands to reason, considering the origin of most of the grapes.

In-N-Out Burger.

A double-double In-N-Out Burger with fries capped off the author's culinary experience on his final evening in Sonoma. A glass of Michel-Schlumberger Cabernet would later put this baby to rest.

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