Chances are, if you know about the Napa Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), then you know about it’s bigger brother (in size, not number of wineries) right next door, Sonoma County. Encompassing 60,065 acres of planted vineyards (compared to the 40,000 of Napa Valley) across over 250 wineries in seventeen different AVAs (Check out our guide to Napa Valley for a definition of what AVAs are).
While Napa Valley is known for its Cabernet Sauvignons, the Sonoma Valley—at least originally—was known for it’s Zinfandels, America’s “heritage vine.” It’s not hard to find Zinfandel vines that date back fifty, sixty, or even one hundred years. Because of its size, though, and the diversity of the land—ranging from high mountains to coastal plains—the variety of grapes grown in Sonoma began to, well, grow. Cabernet Sauvignon appeared and persists, as have Merlot, Chardonnay, and a wide variety of other grapes.
Just as in Napa, there are a number of immediately recognizable names, such as Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates, Korbel Champagne Cellars, and Ravenswood (more on them in a bit). Just as in Napa, too, there are literally hundreds of quality wineries. To start, we’re going to offer five wineries we think you should check out as you start your Sonoma County journey.
It’s important to remember that each winery has different times that they are open to the public and, on top of that, different tasting packages (ranging from simple varietal tastings to intimate one-on-ones with leaders at the winery). It’s important to check out the wineries’ websites to double check on all information before heading out.
Wineries, like people, come in all shapes and sizes. Some are massive, international corporations while others, like Bella, are small, family-run operations. Bella works with century-old Zinfandel vines planted on the property now occupied by the winery to produce high-quality wines. If you’re in it to win it, it’s suggested you preregister for the “Mixing It Up” session, which offers a 90-minute tour and tasting, plus a barrel tasting and the chance to make a blend yourself. If you’re just looking to taste some vino, check out the 2014 Lily Hill Zinfandel, the 2013 Pinot Noir Ru’s Hill, and the 2013 Zin Hills & Benches.
When it comes to historic wineries, there are literally none that can beat Buena Vista. The oldest winery in California was started in 1857 by the self-proclaimed Count of Buena Vista, Agoston Haraszthy (a name which, we can only imagine, gets easier to pronounce the more wine one drinks), was reinvigorated by the Boisset family, who have continued the quality winemaking tradition. The 2014 Private Reserve Chardonnay is sourced from a vineyard on Sonoma Mountain offers up a rich wine experience, as does the 2012 Chateau Buena Vista Grand Reserve (a bold Cabernet Sauvignon only available at the winery). For those looking for something a little lighter, the 2014 Carneros Chardonnay is the way to go.
If you’re looking for a picturesque venue (beyond Buena Vista, which also lives up to its name), Ferrari-Carano Winery is the place to go. There five acres of beautiful gardens to take in in addition to the vineyard views around the winery. Ferrari-Carano, in an effort to produce high quality wines, has two winemaking operations. The white wines are all made at the Estate Winery while all the reds are made nearby at the Mountain Winery. With many to choose from, it might seem hard to choose, but the 2014 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, the 2012 Trésor (a blend of multiple Bordeaux varietals), and the 2016 Fumé Blanc (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc grapes from three different Sonoma AVAs) are all must-tries.
Located in Kenwood in the Sonoma Valley AVA, Landmark was founded in 1974 by a group that included Damaris Deere Ford, the great-great granddaughter of John Deere. Ford moved the vineyard to the present—and beautiful—location in 1989 with the intent on producing the finest Chardonnays possible (and if you ask us, mission accomplished). You can’t go to Landmark and not try their flagship Overlook Chardonnay (go with the 2014), but the 2014 Hilliard Bruce Chardonnay (made from grapes from the winery’s southernmost vineyard, creating a silky, age-able wine) is also a great option. For the red lovers, the 2015 Overlook Pinot Noir is balanced and full of ripe cherry and tobacco flavors.
Credited with being the winery to bring Zinfandel back to predominance, Ravenswood Winery prides themselves on their motto, “No wimpy wines.” In fact, at the winery there is a tombstone that reads “To err is human/ to Zin is d’vine/ Here lies the last wimpy wine/ R.I.P.” The winemakers won’t say what is buried down there, but they assure visitors that there is indeed a bottle buried underneath. While Ravenswood does make a variety of other wines—all deserving attention—the real treat here are the Zinfandels, if you haven’t pick up on that yet. The 2012 Old Hill Vineyard Zinfandel Sonoma Valley is a treat, as are the 2013 Teldeschi Vineyard Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley and the 2014 Big River Vineyard Zinfandel Alexander Valley. Better yet? Buy multiple single vineyard Zins and do a side-by-side to really see the differences.