At the very top of Sonoma Valley Veterans Memorial Park, I had an epiphany — but not the kind where a spiritual being appeared in a bush and my hair turned gray. I sat on a stone in the shade, looked into the vista where San Francisco lurked somewhere in the distance, and texted a friend in Brooklyn, N.Y., with those eternal words as only Mick Jagger can sing them: “I’m the man on the mountain, come on up.”
And I thought, why do I need to wait for an occasion like an out-of-town guest or a 40th birthday weekend bash to go to Sonoma? It’s only an hour and a half from San Francisco to the town square, and that is staying within the speed limit.
While the area has gotten more crowded both with people and wineries, it only seems overrun some weekends and during the summer. Otherwise, it’s just a town where the gourmet store, The Epicurean Connection, has a 14-year-old cheese groupie and live local music twice a week.
Whether you drink cabernet sauvignon or pinot noir, are traveling in a pack or solo, want to learn or just kick back and taste, someone, somewhere in the town’s vicinity is waiting for you.
There are the old standbys such as Gundlach Bundschu and Ravenswood that are used to the hordes. If you head north on state Highway 12, you will find more like Benziger and Kunde Family Estate. I should not forget to mention St. Francis, as they put up with the toddlers we were toting several years ago when the Texas brood came for a visit. (Perhaps wineries to visit with children should be an upcoming column.)
In the town square and its two-block radius, you can find tasting rooms for several wineries if you prefer to limit or eliminate the need to get behind the wheel. Some are definitely catering to tourists, but a few — such as Sojourn Cellars, Walt Wines and Hawkes — ditch the Disneyland aspect and have wines that many will find appealing, on the palate if not always pricewise.
If you have more than a passing interest in wine, the real jewels of Sonoma are at places that require appointments. Hanzell Vineyards, which is historically important, probably makes the best aging pinot noir in the state, and its chardonnay also is among the most long-lived. These wines can seem deceptively simple when they are young, sometimes leaving those who are not terribly familiar with them wondering why they cost up to $75 a bottle. But just you wait … 20 years.
The new kid on the block is Stone Edge Farm Vineyards. Visitors are received at a magnificent property off Arnold Drive that was designed by acclaimed San Francisco landscape architect Andrea Cochran. Currently, two wines are made: Surround, a 50-50 cabernet sauvignon and merlot blend ($40), and a Sonoma Valley cabernet sauvignon ($75) that is the flagship of the estate.
Now in its third full vintage, it is hard to say that these wines will be as long-lived as Hanzell’s pinot noirs, but they are putting their best foot forward. A new facility is being opened to accommodate more visitors. Like Hanzell, visiting is strictly by appointment only.
Admittedly, having a connection to a place is going to bias one’s palate. We talk about terroir as if it is the magic that emanates from soil, yet perhaps there is another aspect to it — one that has to do with memory and personal association. Buy this or not, Sonoma is special and we are lucky to live as close as we do.
And that goes back to my epiphany: I really do need to get out of The City more often.
Pamela S. Busch is a wine writer and educator who has owned several wine bars in San Francisco, including Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bar & Kitchen.