There are two ways to approach wine in Sonoma County: with an open mind and an open palate. Translation: Leave your preconceptions and your keys at the door.
Known for a more boutique and artisan experience compared to the giant Napa neighbor, and also for being more aligned with white wines given its cooler coastal geography, Sonoma County caters to forward-thinking and intimate winemaking, naming and tasting. And the strip of wine abodes continues to leave a stain on locals and foreigners up and down the 101.
One particular palm size zip code in the mix is Healdsburg. Not only does the affluent town host a square full of tasting rooms, but Healdsburg also bears the household name and umbrella bon vivants of Kendall-Jackson. Brothers, sisters, lovers, children, ex’s, and the liking have vined out under the late Jess Jackson name and into thriving niche bottegas saturating the fruitful center at Healdsburg Avenue. So how do you approach what may whiff like an intimidating mission to taste the spectrum of reds of whites?
Once your mapped and morning-fed, get an early start and know your mood. Typically, a full day will transition from early reds into late noon whites, but leaving rules at the door is another great idea. Murphy-Goode, one of the Kendall-Jackson packs – with winemakers strapped in viking gear from Minnesota – is racked with dynamic Zinfandels and weighted Cabernets. Oh, and a seasoned lad from the outskirts of London who will pour not only your tastes but a barrel of knowledge about why wines in California have high alcoholic content, or why a Cabernet is spicy, or why a single swirl and sip can achieve the description of a Frost poem on amphetamines, or about the only vineyard in the UK.
So now you’ve tapped the reds, you are red, and the room is suddenly more illuminated. Time for more. If you don’t trip over to the adjacent sister room Edmeades for their Zin-only experience then hustle down the street to Roadhouse. New kids on the block, Eric and Eric will paint your face a deeper red with their spirited Pinot Noir. Design-heavy and docile to drink, Roadhouse bottles are face forward and full of modern flavors and some cutting edge experimentation.
You roll through round two and Eric has taught you something about his rockstar adventures with his blending to produce four different Pinot Noirs. From there you jet over for oysters at Willi’s Seafood and then your back on the trail for some clean whites.
Slipping into the Kendall-Jackson tasting room at this point for an immediate refresh is not bad idea, but don’t forget to trail back passed the square to La Crema for their award-winning 2008 Los Carneros Chardonnay, or break some rules and tip back more reds (you might want to do that here). If you are lucky, you will catch Austin and Betty for the pours and a bundle of laughs paired with synchronized adjectives as the two flavor mavens unravel a world of wine insights at your disposal.
By now you are fully equipped with white words and vine vernacular so you can storm the next set of flights with some clout. Topel. These masters hail from Chicago and keep their craft reserved for picky palates. Keep in mind that 90-100% of all the wines you are tasting are available to you only at these locations and via club memberships. With the exception of a few rooms, you won’t find these wines at BevMo nor Safeway, so hold tight to those sips and savor.
Topel wines are even further exclusive insofar that not a single bottle is available in any such store, rather only select restaurants, memberships, and of course their room on the square. Yielding as few as 30 cases for distribution (fact check that when you visit, thanks) and with a medley of reds and whites, if you choose to finish your tastes here, you are certainly ending on a high note with their Gold-Award Zephyr and Birdsong Chardonnays, and top shelf Bordeaux blend Le Mariage. The winemakers, a handsome couple, reach out to the Mendocino hills for their concoctions. The pourers, youthful and witty, are easy on the eye, and definitely all for sending you home with fresh flavors.
Now, if you are feeling really crazy (and at this point you should be) it is not a bad idea to go back and do it all over again but get some blueberry and cannabis undertones from new age thinkers over at the Thumbprint tasting room, or snazz up the eve with some bubbly off the square at fashion forward Jean-Charles Boisset.
Nearing stumble stage means you’re on the right track, so long as your laughing and hauling around some grand deals from a tipsy purchase of fruit-inflated libations. No regrets. You are packing new palates and soaking in new verbiage with a head held high (rosy and ripe). If you aren’t pillow surfing at the SoHo-esque H2H, then any local stay will do the job. You’ve kept your wallet plump with $5-10 tastings and some great bottle deals in between, so you are due for the real splurge, a plush and absorbing meal. And that is an entirely separate avenue to explore. Though it’s only a brink, the surface has been graced, and what seems like drip of tastes in a valley of vines, is actually a full-bodied day of some of California’s best liquid grapes. May the journey continue.