After being gripped by unseasonably frigid temperatures for an unseasonably long time (apologies to residents of northern climes who would scoff at our wimpiness) it was a pleasure to step out into an early spring-like day during the 21st Annual Winter WINEland under clear, sunny skies—the picture-perfect California wine country weekend. Only the acres of dormant, bare vines reminded us that it was still winter.
One of three major annual events produced by the Wine Road, Northern Sonoma County, the Winter WINEland provides an opportunity to visit wineries during a relatively quiet time in the growing cycle, when winemakers and staff are relaxed and eager to share their love of the grape. We sketched out a rough plan, balancing our visits to some small, independent wineries with a couple of the many wineries that have been snapped up by corporate interests in a recent wave of consolidation.
After checking in at Simi Winery, owned by giant Constellation Brands, who had graciously set up a large screen TV and rows of seats to air the locally important NFL playoff game between the San Francisco 49ers vs. Atlanta Falcons, my husband settled in and jokingly said, “This is perfect. Just pick me up at the end of the day and I’ll sip wine and watch the game.” Luckily many of the venues had set up smaller TVs here and there for the sports fans. Occasionally cheers erupted. For a special wine? No, a key touchdown.
Though this wasn’t specifically a food and wine event several of the wineries provided luscious tidbits, and Simi Winery had created a unique version of the Quebec –inspired comfort food, poutine. Putting a Sonoma twist on it they substituted fingerling potatoes for French fries, and chicken, instead of brown, gravy topping the traditional curd cheese. The delicious fast-food snack paired well with Chardonnay, with bright, crisp flavors cutting through the rich food.
Our favorite winery of the day was the last one we visited, Ramazzotti Wines, located in Geyserville. Owners Joe (born Giuseppi in Ancona, Italy) and Norma Ramazzotti chatted easily with patrons, pouring wine while poring over a map of Italy describing where the Ramazzotti family originated. There wasn’t a wine of theirs that we didn’t think was stellar, including the 2008 Ricordo, a Zinfandel blend that stood up well to a hearty, spicy gumbo made by Sweet T’s of Santa Rosa. Wines not to miss included the buttery, creamy 2011 Chardonnay with a light touch of caramel, the dry 2011 White Riesling that tickled the palate with a hint of sweetness and the fruity 2009 Grenache Noir. The conversation was lively even as the sipping bunch competed with a lusty knot of people crowded around a small TV as the winning touchdown was scored by the 49ers. Now there was true cause for celebration and the wine flowed liberally as whoops and cheers filled the tasting room shared with the Mercury Winery. Ramazzotti wines were reasonably priced, ranging from $20-$38.
The most unusual theme was at Medlock Ames Winery, whose owners Chris James and Ames Morison, embraced the season with a true winter theme that might be expected in the Sierra, with toboggans and skis adorning the historic, century-old roadhouse on Alexander Valley Road. Both the 2009 and 2004 Cabernet Sauvignons were the highlights, demonstrating complex flavors, ample structure and acidity ($52-62).
In the charming town of Healdsburg, bustling with wine connoisseurs, one of our favorite stops was Portalupi. The 2011 Bianco, a crisp, floral blend of Charonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat Canelli was tasty, and the supple and flavorful 2009 Barbera paired well with a savory herbed pork slider prepared by chef/winemaker/owner Tim. Patrons spilled out of the tiny tasting room into the brilliant sunshine on North Street as they perused the tasting rooms, shops and eateries that line the streets around the plaza.
The best victuals of the day were at Stonestreet Alexander Mountain Estate, owned by regional powerhouse Jackson Family Wines, where a delectable lamb barley stew had people returning for seconds. The fork-tender lamb was juicy and succulent, created by KJ Chef Daniel Trudeau using Cabernet Sauvignon, hedgehog mushrooms, dried figs, and his secret weapon, housemade lamb stock. The complex flavors of the fruit-tinged, meaty stew were balanced by the robust mineral flavors of the rich 2009 Monument Ridge Cabernet Sauvignon. Wine highlights included a trio of Cabs: 2009 Bear Point, 2007 West Ledge and 2009 Rockfall.
The Wine Road, Northern Sonoma County is comprised of three well known wine regions: Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley. A small group of nine founding wineries started the organization 30 years ago, which has since mushroomed to more than 150 wineries and 50 inns throughout the three areas spanning the peaks and valleys of Northern Sonoma County. Wineries range from large multi-faceted wineries like Kendall Jackson near the 101 corridor to tiny, family owned vineyards nestled into the apple orchards of Graton. A variety of micro-climates include the cooling mists of the redwood groves near the Pacific Ocean, warmer grasslands near Cloverdale, and the wetlands around the Russian River. The wide-ranging area is known for producing excellent Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Merlot and Cabernet.
The 21st Annual Winter WINEland showcased some of the best that Northern Sonoma County wineries have to offer. The only problem is not having enough time to get to all of them.
21st Annual Winter WINEland
January 19-20, 2013 (Martin Luther King weekend)
Tickets: $45 for the weekend, $35 for Sunday only
For more information, check them out on Facebook
Other Wine Road events:
The Wine Road hosts several regional events throughout the year. Events coming up next year include the following:
- March 1-10, 2013: 35th Annual Barrel Tasting (first two weekends in March). Tickets are available for $30-50.
- November 2-3, 2013: 15th Annual A Wine and Food Affair. Tickets will go on sale September 1 for $-50-70.
Ticket to the Wine Road
If you can’t make it to one of the events you can create your own individual Wine Road by getting a Ticket to the Wine Road, available for $25 (1 day) or $50 (3 days), to receive complimentary tastings from 80 wineries, in addition to discounts off purchases and special deals from the participating wineries and 12 inns. The tickets are valid on non-event weekends and for small groups of no more than 7 people.
- Obtain the free Wine Road map
To reach Sonoma County from San Francisco by car (approximately 1 hour, depending on traffic):
- Take U.S. 101 North from the Golden Gate Bridge
- From Santa Rosa to Cloverdale the Wine Road wineries are located off of U.S. 101