Sonoma Valley (& Napa Valley) Wine Region

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Sonoma, California

Sonoma Valley (& Napa Valley) Wine Region Reviews

Purdy Purdy
37 reviews
Jun 18, 2006
Back in September 2004, we spent sometime in California – to be precise in San Francisco. As part of our stay we decided that because we were in such close proximity to the famous Californian wine regions of the Napa and Sonoma valleys, we would be silly not do visit. Through our hotel we booked a day tour of the regions with a company called Tower Tours (who had a tour desk within Hilton San Francisco, and offices off Fisherman’s Wharf). You can check out their web site on www.towertours.netWhat was great about the day trip was that we were picked up at our hotel at 8am, ferried in an air-conditioned touring bus to the Fisherman’s Wharf offices. Here we had to spend sometime queuing to pay for the trip – this was mixed in amongst others going on various trips such as to Yosemite National Park, to the Muir Woods and so on. It would be fair to say that this was probably the only down side of the day trip – the queues! Once we paid our way ($50 each – around £27 per person) we were told to get on a specific bus and once the day-trippers were settled off we went!The itinerary for the day was to visit 3 wineries, one in the Napa Valley, the other 2 in Sonoma Valley. In Sonoma City itself (city although it really was a quaint town!) – we stopped off for lunch and some free shopping time. This was at our own expense and not included within the tour price.Our tour guide was excellent – Tony l think his name was – he was of Spanish/Mexican descent. His voice was heavily accented and somewhat difficult for my ear to understand at times, still he proved his worth. As we drove to our first stop – a journey of around an hour – he was full of quips and asides – pointing out places of interest, or local stories to keep us amused.The weather on the day of our trip was glorious which all added to the fun of the day trip. The crowd was a mixed group – mostly of American nationals and Europeans (mainly British). After the initial shyness was overcome there was a nice friendly atmosphere amongst the group.Our first stop off was at the Napa Winery of Madonna Estates – Mt St John 5400 Old Sonoma Road, Napa CA.Once gathered we were first of all lead outside to the vines – because it was September the grapes had been harvested already – so we not privy to any picking. The tour guide from Madonna Est. was very enthusiastic about the wine making process and took the group from the vine, through to the store and barrel room, and eventually let us at the wine tasting itself. Madonna Est. HistoryThe wine has been produced in the area by the Bartolucci family – and has been so for 80 years. The wine is organically dry farmed in the Carneros region. They are the 3rd oldest wine making family in the Napa Region To tour the winery appointment must be made and opening hours are from 10am until 5pm. Check out their web site on The Madonna Estate Winery was constructed in 1977.The Stats about Madonna EstatesWinery square footage is 15, 500 sq. ft.Daily crush capacity is 40 tons.Bottling capacity is 1,000 cases a day.Case storage is 30, 000 cases.Cooperage is 900 60-gallon French Oak barrels, and 100,000-gallon stainless steel tanksThe WinesPinot Grigio – we did not sample this oneChardonnay – l think this was my favourite – a lovely golden wine, with crisp sharp flavours (hark at me!)Pinot Noir – the dark wine has fruity tones – strawberry and cherryMerlot – not tasted – pity one of my favourite grapes to drinkCabernet Sauvignon – delicious – mmmm!Personally, this was the best winery we visited on the day – the guide explained the wine making, the importance of barrels – and how they are made (French ones are very popular), their sales, and most importantly how to taste the wines!We were lead into a large shop with what l could only describe as a bar l suppose, covered in lots of wine glasses. We were then lead through the wine tasting process – point to note to novice wine tasters (like me!) do not expect to go this wine tour to get squiffy! The amount of wine you are furnished with would barely fill an eggcup!So the wine tasting process – how to and how not too!How to hold your wine glass was the first all important lesson to be learned – by the stem not the base of the cup – this is a definite no no for white chilled wine, with your reds its not quite as bad as it should be drank at room temperature.After receiving our glasses we were firstly asked to hold the wine up to the light and take in the colours and tones and hues. Secondly, there is the “swishing and swirling” around the glass – to set the flavours free! You should do this with loose wrist action – not slop the wine back and forth in the glass. You need a steady circular movement!Next get your nose into it – appreciate the smell- forget the nonsense about smelling the cork that’s an old wives tale.Your first taste – this should be to clear your palette and prepare your taste bud – swirl the wine around your mouth – to ensure the relevant taste buds are prepared. The next mouthful (which will likely end your sample glass!) is your tasting – now you should be able to really appreciate the finer points to the wine – gently swirl the wine around your mouth and see what flavours your can decipher! Draw in air as well as you taste – this will open up the flavours even more.So the key to wine tasting is Look, Smell then Taste!The Madonna guides were great sales men – the wines could be imported around the states but not out of it – we could purchase on the day (we did not) and take a case home – the reason we didn’t purchase was you could not buy a single bottle – just cases. The wines were lovely, but don’t expect to see them on the shelf in Tescos – they mainly sell within the US and to the restaurant trade!We did buy bottle openers though – being conned by the professional sales patter!The trip then moved on to the Sonoma Valley – this is a lesser-known valley than Napa – but prettier in my mind!The surrounding countryside was green and lush – the sun was sparkling off the vines, which went as far as the eye could see. Buildings were built to fit in to the area – nothing modern or high-rise – think cottage, Italian villa and you’re on the right lines.Our next stop was lunch – we were taken to the town of Sonoma – and to put it bluntly – l loved it! There is a large square in the middle of the town, housing city hall and a green area – with a duck pond to boot! Around the four edges of the square there were craft stores, galleries or restaurants. We ate in the Sonoma Cheese Factory – they had great burgers and along with a small bottle of the local wine (what else!) it was bliss. The weather was scorching hot - and there was no better way to while away sometime. Inside the cheese factory you could pick up locally produced cheeses – or simply sample them. There were the usual tourist pieces and l got my must have for every destination l visit – fridge magnet!Once back on the bus with Tony the guide he took us off to our next winery – that of Vinasam Wineries.Out of all the 3 wineries visited this was the most ascetically pleasing – in fact we were told that weddings were often held there and l could see why. The area was big enough for a marquee, with an internal building – the local wines were ok (l preferred the Madonna Estate wines!) and they did a great range in deli products – all of which you could taste.The Sebastian family runs the Vinasam Winery – the name comes from a collaboration of Vicki and Sam – the husband and wife team who run the winery. They are relatively new to the area setting up in 1989, but apparently wanted to share their love of food and wine with people. Check it out at The setting of the tasting stop was Italian – really Tuscan. From the building to the wine style – reminisant of the Italian wines. What was great about the food hall/deli within the winery was you could sample all the products before buying. They did a great range in chuckneys, and the chocolate sauces were to die for!The wine tasting itself was more of a rushed affair – a mixture of white, red and blush wines were passed out for tasting – again no more than a thimble per person. There was less explanation given as to how to taste the wine. It was a nice wine as l said reminisant of the Italian wines we import – not a personal favourite of mine (l do prefer new world wines) – but nice all the same.After spending around 40 minutes at the Vinasam Winery we moved on to our final winery. Only a mere hop skip and jump from where we were and still within the Sonoma Valley, it was the Cline Cellars. The setting for this winery was amazing – it reminded me somewhat of Anne of Green Gables – they old house now used as the visitor store, there was a huge big pond all surrounded by magnificent mature trees and weeping willows trailing around.Know locally as Cline Cellars – we were taken a wander around the grounds, and into their barrel room – huge warehouse filled with barrels of wine – floor to ceiling. Again, the guide gave us a bit of history about the wine makers, took the group around the barrel room and then it was straight on to the wine tasting. This tasting took place outside – on a table (my mum uses one similar to wallpaper on!). This tasting was more haphazard – no one seemed to be in control and everyone was pushing to grab a glass. There were around 4 wines to taste. Again they were nice – the usual chardonnay and zinfandels were available. We did purchase 2 bottles this time – they were sold singly and were very reasonable – for the 2 bottles we brought home it cost around £18.After spending again approximately another hour at the Cline winery, Tony ushered us back onto our bus in the return journey back to San Fran. We were lucky enough to get brought back over the golden gate bridge – and having walked the bridge only the day before it was nice to see it from another view point.I must say l really enjoyed our day of boozy culture out in the wineries, it was interesting to learn about how to taste the wines, and the scenery in the Napa and Sonoma valleys was breath taking. If in California again l would definitely stop over in Sonoma – the atmosphere and picture box town really appealed to me. Most of the wineries will do private tastings although appointments will need to be made – and l should think if you were to do it in a small group the hard sell to buy wines would be a lot more forceful – therefore l am glad we carried out the tastings as part of an organised group. The tour was well worth the money, we were well looked after, at no time did l feel we were rushed and we were picked up and dropped off at our hotel.Hope you enjoyed my winery experience!
The Grapes
More Barrels!
encloser says:
Great review. Was just out in Sonoma a few months ago. My only comment is that I believe you meant Viansa Winnery ( as your first stop in Sonoma. Very beautiful and some great wines. Just had a glass of Zinfindel from Viansa last night. :)
Posted on: Sep 06, 2007
vvalenzuela says:
Thanks for the review! My fiance and I are traveling to Napa this August and Im just looking for interesting things to do. My fiance is more experienced at the wine thing, but with your tips, I can play the part as well! Thanks again!
Posted on: May 01, 2007
rideouts says:
Another fan of Sanoma valley! I like your picture of the wine barrels. If you go at the very end of the day before the wineries close, they are a little more liberal with the samples, since they finish the bottles anyway. Put up some more pictures if you don't mind, I love the area!
Posted on: Jun 22, 2006
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photo by: Vikram