11/07/06 – Sonoma (pt. 1)

By Jesse on November 5, 2006


Having just completed the Napa Valley, we now move on to Sonoma, traditionally known as Napa’s less-pretentious neighbor, but certainly still considered one of California’s premier wine regions — many would say equal to or just behind Napa in terms of quality.  If Napa is the Yankees (always really good, but too expensive and egotistical) then Sonoma is the Red Sox (also consistently good, not as expensive, occasionally pulls off an upset).  Sonoma is a beautiful place, and I’ve been fortunate enough to visit twice, most recently this past summer.  The county is known as California’s Provence, so-named after the French region known for its ideal climate, natural beauty, and the excellence of its locally-grown cuisine. I’ve attached a few photos from my two trips so that you can see what I mean.

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The first two pictures are Sonoma in the spring time… the leaves are just forming on the vines.  Check out the “old vines” in their rustic, gnarled state.  The third picture is this past summer; observe how much fuller and bushier the vines look after a few months.  Also observe how much fuller and bushier my hair was than it is now.

Unlike the ambiguity in Napa, there is no debate that the various AVAs within Sonoma have very different characteristics.  Sonoma County is more than twice as big as Napa Valley, and the climate varies significantly within it.  Certain AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) are much more well-known for certain varietals.  Therefore, when we’re exploring Sonoma over the next few weeks, we’re going to group the AVAs loosely by their grapes of choice.  Here’s the breakdown:

Alexander Valley (very warm)
–Cabernet Sauvignon

Russian River Valley, Green Valley, Chalk Hill (cooler)
–Pinot Noir
–some Zinfandel
–some Cabernet

Dry Creek Valley
–Rhone Blends: Syrah, Grenache, etc.
–Sauvignon Blanc

Sonoma Valley (and Sonoma Mountain)
–a little of everything

The last item, Sonoma Valley, is an AVA, not to be confused with the large Sonoma County, which includes all seven AVAs listed above (and a few obscure ones).  For a more detailed description of all of the AVAs in question, check out this website: Sonoma County on Appellation America.  It’s a great resource.

We’re going to break down the tasting into four Sonoma days: two days of reds, one of whites, and one final “catch-all” Sonoma meeting where we’ll hopefully have a sparkling wine or two.  I’d like to like to separate the reds by the very crude terms “warm” and “cool” as pursuant to the AVA list above (as well as the info on that website, for those who are bored at work today).  On Tuesday, we’ll start with warm… i.e., try to find wines from Alexander Valley and avoid those from Russian River or Dry Creek.  If you bring one from the Sonoma Valley AVA — or if your bottle doesn’t list a specific AVA and just says “Sonoma County” — then try to bring one of the warmer varietals, like Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, rather than Pinot Noir or Sangiovese.  These are guidelines, of course, and just do the best you can with whatever the store’s selection is, but I think it would be very informative to taste “warmer” Sonoma reds one week and then compare their overall profiles with those of some “cooler” bottles the next week.  (As always, you can opt to bring a donation, now back down to $10.)

We’ll be meeting at Mike’s place in Marina del Rey.  I thought it sounded far, but I just mapped it and it’s totally not.  It’s right off the 405, only a couple exits farther than we’d take to get to Leah’s or Amy’s house.  Piece of cake.  Find yourself one of those “warm weather” Sonoma reds, whether you’re going by region or by grape type, and put your game face on.  I have a feeling this week might get really tasty.  See you on Tuesday at 9 PM.