One thing about Sonoma ~ it’s convenient. You could be lying around your apartment in Oakland late one Saturday morning, decide you want to go taste some wine on the Plaza in Sonoma, call up a few friends, and be posing at the first bar checking out talent before 2:00 pm. Which is just about perfect timing. There are some 20 Tasting rooms within a block of the Sonoma Plaza. You probably want to hit four or five. They are all going to close between 5:00 and 6:00. Figure that’s about a bottle of wine per hour for your group of four people, and approximately $50 per person cost. Start by parking your car. You don’t want to see it again until late Sunday morning.
Chardonnay in old Hungarian wood for $20 is outstanding.
- BRYTER ESTATE
Fabulous 2011 ‘Cadeau’ Pinot Noir from Las Amigas Vyd in Carneros.
Try the Malbec.
- ERIC K. JAMES
Jazz until 10:00 pm. O’Maiolriain sings. Sings pretty damn well too.
STAY: Sonoma Valley Inn
LUNCH: Basque Bakery & Vella Cheese Co
DINNER: Della Santina
Now, if your group consists of two couples, that will change the dynamics. Strolling amongst the art galleries and clothing shops that festoon the Plaza will require more time because ‘cute’ merchandise needs hands-on examination. I understand that imperative. Same with babies and young dogs. Sonoma Plaza also has its share of eccentric old people, who may be more or less adorable depending on your own age. You might choose some modest exploration of the Mission Barracks (historically significant), and I personally recommend quite strongly a stroll to Vella Cheese Company (culinarily significant) one block away for a little aged Cheddar to eat on the Plaza with bread from the Basque Bakery. All these diversions serve to spread out the tasting experience (admittedly in a civilized manner), and therefore argue for a noon starting bell.
My point is this: don’t try to hit 20 tasting rooms just because they can all be seen from a single vantage point. Three or four hours visiting tasting rooms will be fun if you are with engaging people. But beware the law of diminishing returns. It’s too easy when the destinations are all right next door to each other. Out in the countryside, we say visiting three (even four) wineries is fun because they are interspersed with pretty drives, food, wildlife, cultural activities, etc. Someone though, has to remember to spit the wines out. On a Walking Tour the sobriety requirement is lowered, but you probably find you have about the same appetite for wine minutiae. After three or four total hours, it all starts running together. Plan accordingly. I suggest 7:30 pm dinner reservations. Fool around between 6:00 and 7:30. Swim, take a shower. After dinner, catch a bit of the New Orleans jazz Robt. O’Maoilriain puts on at his eclectic Erik James Tasting Room. Robert is quite unusual. And very entertaining. Drink his Syrah.
Different strokes for different folks. Everybody will have their own favorite Tasting Rooms. There are retail stores designed to sell wine accoutrement which also have tasting bars. There are restaurants, which also do tasting flights at their bars. Then there are real wineries, most of whom do not offer hospitality at their production facility. Some offer a real good time at their Plaza Tasting Room (that would be Two Amigos; be sure to try their excellent GlenLyon Syrah). Others feature very expensive, very exclusive wines (Kamen). Some are big wineries at modest prices (Hwy 12, Michael Sebastiani). Others specialize in small lots of certain varietals (R2 and Auteur make very interesting Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays). Some are prominent vineyardists who have been around for a long time (Peter Haywood’s original winery is the one occupied by Ravenswood today). Others have extremely knowledgeable or personable staff (Zeke at Walt, the Kathryn Hall Pinot Noir and Chardonnay project, is a good example). Then there are places where the location itself makes the experience ~ call it ambience (Roche’s backyard, or Westwood’s alleyway entrance).
We picked three places (Bryter, Hawkes, and Spann) to strongly recommend for a combination of reasons: (1) We liked their wines, and thought the price points were pretty damn reasonable; (2) they weren’t outrageously busy; (3) their staff delivered salient information without a lot of pretension; and (4) the environment was comfortable and relaxing. Soon we’re going to start demanding free WiFi, and decorative waterfall spittoons.