If you recall, we didn't come away that impressed the last time we went to Sonoma. We liked the downtown area, but the motorcycle riding and scenery were lackluster. We promised at the time that we would return soon, and an olive oil festival last weekend seemed the perfect opportunity.
Rather than heading straight to Sonoma, a 50-mile drive on boring highways, we devised our own route that took us through a valley over toward Point Reyes before cutting back to Petaluma and on to Sonoma (map at the bottom). The first part took us through suburbia, but before long we escaped the strip malls and stop lights and entered farm country. We have traversed this area several times now (see here and here) and the landscape doesn't change much: rolling hills, long winding curves and lots of cows and horses. But the scenery, rather than beckoning boredom, has a mesmerizing effect and keeps us coming back.
|Leaving the city|
|Nicasio Valley Road in Marin County|
Even better, it was a balmy 68 degrees outside and wildflowers have started to bloom in the fields, which made for a much prettier ride than the one we did in December. We arrived in downtown Sonoma for lunch, too hungry to continue to the olive oil event at one of the vineyards. Instead, we ate and decided to explore the town of Sonoma. (Any suggestions for favorite affordable hotels near the town? We would love to come back for a weekend, but not for $300/night.)
By chance we wandered into the Charles Creek Vineyards tasting room. This was our fourth California wine tasting and though we bought a bottle from each of the previous wineries, in none of those cases did we come away impressed by the entire flight of wines. That wasn't the case at Charles Creek, which was affordable, generous with its pours and, most importantly, delicious.
We started with a 2011 Rosé from Napa made with Syrah grapes. Our pourer described it as "dry to the bone, as rosé should be." Ben and I were both immediately impressed. (I like good rosés — I have fond memories of a day spent walking around Palermo capped off by a bottle of Bodega Caelum Rosé.) We then tried a 2009 Chardonnay from the Russian River Valley and a 2010 Chardonnay from Sonoma County. Interestingly, these two wines were made exactly the same — same fermentation process, same oak, same aging, etc. The only variation was the grapes themselves, which were grown in different regions, and the two wines could not have been more different. Finally, we ended the whites with a 2008 Chardonnay from Sangiacomo Vineyard. According to our pourer, this wine is designed to be aged, unlike most California Chardonnays, which are meant to be drank young, with minimal subtlety and strong tones of fruit and oak.
Over the course of the tasting, which also included three Cabernet Sauvignons and a port, we absorbed some interesting information about the wine industry. First, for a wine to be labeled as a certain varietal (Chardonnay, Cabernet, Malbec, etc.), only 75 percent of the grapes need to be that varietal; the rest can be anything else the winemaker chooses. There is no obligation to disclose what grapes contribute to the other 25 percent. Second, while the U.S. labels wines mainly according to the varietal, Europe classifies wines by vineyard, village and/or region, known as the appellation. A wine labeled Chablis, for example, is a white wine made from only Chardonnay grapes grown within Chablis, France. The region is given a prominent position on the label, and the grape usually isn't mentioned at all.
Below: Arnold Drive in Sonoma and a cow made out of wine corks at the Charles Creek tasting room.
P.S. We were amazed by the crowns on these ducks. I looked them up when we got home: "This crest is actually caused by a genetic mutation that duck breeders have selected for. This mutation causes a duck to be born with a gap in its skull, which is filled with a growth of fatty tissue. It's from this growth that the pouf of feathers sprouts." Now I just feel bad for exploiting them.