Day 3: Dry Creek Valley
Despite its name, my time in the Dry Creek Valley was a wet one. But I appreciated getting to see the stygian side of Sonoma, as storm clouds lent the countryside a depth and richness wholly absent when the sun is shining.
Here are some of the highlights from my trip:
“This is the most understated winery in Sonoma,” or so said the lanky blonde guy standing next to me at the tasting counter. I could see the appeal. The David Coffaro Vineyard & Winery is full of vintage paraphernalia, like a boxing robe worn and signed by Muhammad Ali.
According to the vineyard’s namesake, they “do a lot of crazy things here” — like growing an astonishing 36 varietals on 20 acres for starters. Dave’s wine jungle juice, Zp2c (essentially leftovers from every barrel of each vintage blended together), is another example. The self-described stock-market flunky who nevertheless sells his wine in “futures” says his wines are fruit-driven, because that’s what he likes, and because he doesn’t believe in copying the French. “I make California wines and refuse to apologize for it,” he said.
Winery in the Clouds
Gustafson Vineyards, which used to be a sheep ranch, is home to great wines…and a great mascot. With a width of 11 feet, the 300-year-old madrone tree that graces the property is the oldest of its kind in Sonoma, and possibly all of California. Things were far from dreary on this drizzly day, thanks to the heart-and-hearth-warming fire in what reminded me of a cutting-edge hunting chalet.
Despite my disdain for rosés (see Day 1), Emmet and Kaitlin, the exuberant brother-and-sister team who run this beautiful winery, had me reconsidering with their 2011 Estate Rosé of Syrah. Kaitlin said that despite having “been bastardized in the U.S.,” rosés, when done correctly, are actually versatile, full bodied wines that don’t compete with food flavors.
At the start of my day, I’d walked down the street from the h2hotel and picked up a boxed picnic lunch from Costeaux, a French bakery known for its artisanal breads, meats, and cheeses. Despite the rain I enjoyed a delicious turkey croissant sandwich while overlooking Lake Sonoma.
It’s a quick and delicious option when you want to power through a non-stop day of wine tasting.
Salt of the Earth
If Sonoma is a place where the winemaker still wears multiple hats, Lou Preston is the county’s poster child, and he certainly knows how to give a tour. This should be no surprise as he has a lot to show off at Preston Vineyards, from the bread oven and hand-pressed olive oil, to the colorful chicken coop and rustic farm store where they sell walnuts, chili peppers, prunes, and a rainbow of fruits and veggies. And, naturally, there’s the winery itself.
As we toured the grounds, Lou said the “B” word: Biodynamics. Having heard this term several times in Sonoma, I had done a little research on the subject. Between abiding by the lunar calendar and implementing “preparations” that include burying a lactating cow’s horn filled with manure in the ground for weeks at a time, I had decided that it sounded like a bunch of hokum. That was until Lou showed me the light.
“Organics is what you don’t add,” he said. “Biodynamics is what you do add, which I find even more important.” In addition to the ritual aspect of biodynamics, planting a diversity of crops and allowing animals to graze the vineyards helps keep everything aligned. “The sheep graze, adding their particular nutrients, then the chickens graze behind them, feasting on the insects and pests the bovines have kicked up.”
Lou next mentioned “Family Night” on Sundays where they sell wine by the jug for $2 and talk story about the history of the vineyard and of winemaking in general. “It’s not about selling the wine,” he said, “it’s about telling the story of an earlier time.”
Italian Living Room
When I walked through the door at SCOPA, I thought I’d stumbled into a private party, but I was soon reassured by several friendly women that it was indeed the entryway. The sign above the door reading “Barber Shop” had added to my confusion (I later learned that the relic had been discovered during renovations and left in place). After being shown to my table, I was soon greeted by Ari, the owner and chef who’s behind the restaurant’s casual elegance and warmth (it was his idea to build the walls out of local river rock).
As I popped Lupini beans into my mouth, Ari told me that his Italian friends laughed when he told them he’d put the old-school card-playing snack on the menu, likening it to putting popcorn on the menu of a 5-star American eatery. But guests love them, and it keeps the restaurant centered around family.” For my main course, I polished off one of their specials: housemade “shoestring” pasta (tagliolini) dyed with squid ink and served with Dungeness crab.
When I asked Ari about the “Winemaker Wednesday” sign I’d seen on the wall. He told me that he sets the wine list for the entire year each April, and that to make the cut, winemakers must commit to being a guest server for two nights throughout the year during which only their wines are on the menu. “It’s way more fun than just having them come in and do a traditional tasting,” he said. “Plus it keeps the community connected.”
For more information about the Wine Road in Sonoma check out the Wine Road Association, which was instrumental in helping me plan my trip.