Behold a photo gallery of fave wines from my afternoon spent at the 2015 Taste of Sonoma, part of the Sonoma Wine Country Weekend. A storied and epic wine event hosted by MacMurray Ranch in the heart of Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, it’s impossible to try all the wines poured. Most of these recommended wines hail from the Russian River Valley or Sonoma Valley tents where I spent the bulk of my time exploring. And explore I did! Found a few new wineries (or, at least, new to me) that are killing it: Attune Wines, Canihan Wines, Talisman Wines and Viluko Vineyards. And reminisced with old flames like Inman Family Wines, Three Sticks Wines and Dunstan Wines. These boutique bottles won’t be at a store down the street, but on a website near your mouse or finger. Taste of Sonoma is by far the premier tasting festival of the season and is very well organized. If you haven’t had the pleasure, put it on your bucket list.
Read more: Best wines I tasted at 2015 Taste of Sonoma Festival
The hills of El Dorado County are famed for the gold rush in the late 1800s. Hopeful prospectors arrived in the region, set up camp but also planted grapevines. So fun wine history is everywhere. Today, there are over 70 wineries to explore in the El Dorado American Viticultural Appellation (AVA). I found the area lush with earnest smiles, low-priced tasting fees and no attitude — a refreshing departure from the glitz and glam flourishing in, ahem, other wine regions close by. With over 30 different grape varieties growing there, it’s an enchanting place to explore Italian-origin varietals like Barbera and Sangiovese as well as Riesling, Viognier and Malbec.
Read more: Visit Sierra Foothills and El Dorado County: A Golden State wine destination
As someone who has been in the wine trade for many years, I’m privy to plenty of special experiences… wine dinners, library tastings, chef-prepared lunches, etc. Most of the time, these sweet gigs aren’t accessible to the general public. Which I’ve always thought a frickin’ shame. Why shouldn’t a winery provide as much fun to the evangelists who sing praises through social media as much as the guy who recommends the wine at a shop? But that’s how the game is played. At least for now. Exclusivity isn’t the case at Franciscan Estate Winery in Napa Valley.
Read more: Visit California wine country: Reserve Lunch at Franciscan Estate Winery
With over 7,000 U.S. wineries to choose from, figuring out where to visit in wine country can be a herculean vacation task. But it starts with one question: What do you to like to drink? Crazy about Cabernet? Napa Valley is your destination. Passionate for Pinot Noir? Sonoma County or Oregon’s Willamette Valley should be on the short list. Once you’ve figured that out, then the real fun begins: What wineries to visit? I receive innumerable inquiries into this question (got another one today – and I love it) and I’ve revealed some of my favorite destinations in a few posts. But wait… there are more decisions! Not all wineries are “open to the public” and have a tasting room where you can casually walk in and do the wine tasting boogie. Some locales require an appointment. Occasionally this is an intentional “scarcity” gimmick but mostly they’re appointment-only because the winery couldn’t get a permit. Not because they’re not hanging with the cool kids — reasons are myriad and mostly involve the government: bathroom ADA requirements, not enough square footage, or the wine region police feel there are enough tasting rooms already. Horrors, huh? A lot of hoops are jumped through to allow wine fans to taste a few sips of fermented juice. So like making sure you get a seat at the restaurant you’ve been drooling over, some forethought may be required when planning your day- or week-long wine country trip. There are pros and cons to walk-in tasting rooms versus appointment-only. And many wineries who are open to walk-in traffic offer reservations so you can look into those as well. Yes, lots to wade through but make sense of the options and walk proudly and confidently into this decision with these tips:
Read more: Wine Tasting Room Confessional: Reservations vs Walk ins
I have a confession to make: Although I live in the fortuitous California wine country, it’s pretty rare that I visit tasting rooms. I remember back before I relocated to Sonoma County from Florida, I would ask friends who lived here what tasting rooms I should visit. I sought out the small, the family-owned, the tasty… and many had no insight. At the time, I was like, “What?? You don’t go tasting on the weekends and loll in the vineyards?” I was aghast. I have a confession to make: Although I live in the fortuitous California wine country, it’s pretty rare that I visit tasting rooms. I remember back before I relocated to Sonoma County from Florida, I would ask friends who lived here what tasting rooms I should visit. I sought out the small, the family-owned, the tasty… and many had no insight. At the time, I was like, “What?? You don’t go tasting on the weekends and loll in the vineyards?” I was aghast.
Read more: Visiting Pinot Noir country in Sonoma County: The best in the Russian River Valley
I recently had a friend visit Sonoma County who just isn’t a fan of dry wines. Unsuccessfully exhausting all conversion tactics, I hunted down a few wineries who have a great dessert wine. But they were spread out all over the County. And who has time to drive to all those places for just one wine? So I dug a little deeper and found a veritable hive of the sweetest wines Sonoma County has to offer: Family Wineries of Dry Creek. Off the picturesque main road which winds through Dry Creek Valley in northern Sonoma County, you can miss the turn pretty easily if you’re not watching (or already tipsy). But climb the hill to this compound of small, family-owned wineries and you’ll think you’ve arrived at a place undiscovered by the crowds. It largely is.
Read more: Visit California wine country: Sweet wines in Sonoma County at Family Wineries of Dry Creek
J Vineyards and Winery in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley is pretty well known throughout the U.S. They’re one of the few domestically-produced (and family-owned) sparkling wine houses. Founded in 1986 by Judy Jordan, the ebullient sister of John Jordan at Jordan Winery, she has led this company to huge success, starting with sparkling wine but has recently expanded into producing stellar Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Read more: Visit California Wine Country: J Vineyards and Winery Bubble Room (Sonoma County)
As California wine country degenerates into adult Disneyland — and the number of rich guys’ “vanity” wineries sprout up like a conga line at a wedding — it’s becoming more difficult to uncover the “good” places. The places that 99% of the people ask me about. Visitors have over 700 wineries in Sonoma County and Napa Valley alone to choose from, all vying for their attention with tours, cheese pairings, beautiful vineyards, and sometimes even tasty wine. So how does a wine lover separate the wheat from the crap? I’m going to cough up the goods. I’ve been living in Sonoma County since March 2011 and get to trek out pretty often to discover new places in both Sonoma and Napa. And I’m not jaded or bored yet, so am uniquely qualified to give advice. My blog will now become a “travel” destination at least once per month so you can check it out when you’ve plane tickets in hand and a vacation in northern California wine country to plan.
Read more: Visiting California wine country: The cool stuff to do (the series)