Sonoma County is a land of sprawling beauty. Vineyards and wineries abound, as do secret, forested hideaways with pot farms. It is a place of rivers and redwoods, mountains and warm inland valleys, and a rocky, rugged coastline where cool fog and winds blow in from the Pacific.
The view from Viansa Sonoma, at the gateway to the Sonoma Valley.
Less than an hour from San Francisco, it boasts a number of charming small towns of rural flavor—Sonoma itself, Glen Ellen, Petaluma, Sebastopol, Healdsburg, Bodega Bay—each with its own unique history and virtues. There are Michelin-starred restaurants, sidewalk cafés, hipster bistros, tasting rooms, brewpubs, organic fruit and flower marts, gardens galore, oak-laden parks, and lots of cute shopping streets filled with boutiques of every kind.
It’s an awesome place to spend a day, or a week, or however long you have. Here is a quick peek at a few of Sonoma’s many pleasures: Continue reading
BY KEVIN NELSON
Here we are, in a darkened dungeon deep underground, watching as our tour guide shines a flashlight on various torture devices and explains how they were used to spike, stretch, suffocate and inflict pain on sufferers in the Middle Ages. Not your typical Napa Valley winery tour, I’ll say.
Then again there is nothing typical or ho-hum about Castello di Amorosa, a spectacular $40 million Calistoga winery built in the style of a medieval Tuscan castle. Besides the dungeon it has 106 other rooms, a chapel, church, farmhouse, dry moat, drawbridge, hidden passageways, courtyards, massive stone walls and towers that rise in the center of picturesque hills and acres of grapevines.
It is not mandatory to take a tour of the castle when you go, if you go, although there are so many wonders and curiosities about the place you really don’t want to miss any of them. We are there as part of the Napa Valley Wine Train’s “Castle Winery Tour,” and our guide greets us in the chapel with an introduction you don’t hear every day.
“Hi,” he says. “I’m Mark. I’ll be your tour guide and bartender.” Continue reading
BY KEVIN NELSON
Many Napa Valley travelers begin their day with a stop at Domaine Carneros winery in Napa. Many travelers also end their day there. One reason for this is the winery’s strategic location almost equidistant between the twin capitals of northern California wine country—four miles from Napa and five miles from Sonoma.
There are, of course, many other reasons to stop at this lovely hillside winery built in the style of an ancient French chateau. Only the state’s second-smallest volume producer of champagne, Domaine Carneros nonetheless has a giant reputation in the world of quality sparkling wines, winning many awards for its products. For those who love Marilyn Monroe’s favorite drink, here are five things you must do when you visit Domaine Carneros:
The hilltop chateau of Domaine Carneros.
Robert and Margrit Mondavi.
They held the annual blessing of the grapes at Robert Mondavi Winery Wednesday, and it turned into a tribute in words and song to Margrit Mondavi, who died in early September at age 91.
Margrit was the wife of Robert Mondavi, the late founder of the landmark Napa Valley winery, an artist, and a cultural and artistic ambassador for Mondavi wines and Napa Valley for decades. Her passing added a special poignancy to the formal ceremony that marks the beginning of harvest.
Employees at the Oakville winery, the media and others gathered in the To Kalon Cellar as Mondavi’s General Manager Glenn Workman began the ceremony with a toast to her, noting how this was the first harvest in nearly a half-century in which Margrit did not participate.
“While it does bring sadness that she’s not here, we know how she loved to celebrate,” he said as he and the 75 other people who were there raised glasses in her memory. Small tastes of Fumé Blanc, Mondavi’s trademark version of Sauvignon Blanc, were handed out to celebrants as they arrived for the ceremony. Continue reading
Today the very popular international travel site, Dave’s Travel Corner, published a wine and travel piece of mine entitled, “7 Hidden Treasures of Napa Valley.” The treasures include the Bufano statues at Robert Mondavi Winery (one of which is at left, in the barrel room), a surprising find near the deli counter at Oakville Grocery, a leafy tribute to a wine master, a unique Abraham Lincoln bust, a schoolteacher’s legacy roses near the French Laundry in Yountville, and more. Click over here to the site if you’d like to see more.
Paso Robles is probably the hippest wine scene in California at the moment. Sunset, LA Weekly, Chicago Tribune and Wine Enthusiast have all recently blessed it with major raves. One reason for its appeal is that compared to say, Napa Valley, the gold standard of California winemaking, it’s relatively new and still being discovered. There’s an edgy, pioneering quality to Paso Robles wine and the people involved in it that adds to the hip vibe.
There’s also a cowboy and Western ranch feel to the place because, in fact, there are cowboys (the modern California version of them anyhow, gunning around in giant Chevy pickups) and Western ranches with horses grazing in pastures alongside acres of hillsides devoted to Bacchus’s favorite fruit.
One local we spoke to said that all the changes occurring in the central coast basically started about ten years ago. Google and Facebook millionaires from Silicon Valley are weekending in the area and buying up property, so you can expect more big changes to come over the next ten years. And wine—the allure and mystique and business of it—is the engine driving all these changes. Here are six things you need to know about Paso wine now:
1. Paso Robles is the next Healdsburg. Like Healdsburg and Sonoma, Paso has an historic downtown plaza. Its central area is a wide grass lawn with oak trees and other trees that provide benevolent shade on hot days. Nice spot for a picnic. Continue reading
BY KEVIN NELSON
Owning a vineyard and making your own wine is a dream shared by people in all walks of life, including professional athletes and coaches.
Here are six sports superstars and one coach—a Formula One world driving champion, Heisman Trophy-winning Pro Bowl NFL cornerback, four-time NASCAR Cup champion, Hall of Fame pitcher who led the New York Mets to their first World Series title, a Rose Bowl and Super Bowl-winning coach, another race car driver and an elite PGA golfer once ranked No. 1 in the world—that have turned their dreams into a reality by establishing wineries or wine brands.
Despite their varied backgrounds, all share one thing in common: a love of wine. Known mainly for their sports achievements, they would also like to be known as the makers of excellent Cabernets, Chardonnays or Pinot Noirs.
Mario Andretti looks every inch the consummate winemaker: hale, hearty, in robust good health. If you did not know better you would not suspect he was one of the fastest men to ever drive a racing car, the winner of the Indianapolis 500 and Formula One world racing crown, among many other titles. Long retired from racing, the 76-year-old oversees a Napa Valley winery that goes by his name. Andretti Winery’s Montona Reserve wines are named after the area in Italy where he was born and raised before immigrating to the U.S. as a teenager. Continue reading
When I was young and living in Lake Tahoe, California I drank my share of Coors beer and now, many years later, I had the pleasure the other day of visiting, and drinking the wine of Goosecross, a Napa Valley winery now owned and managed by Christi Coors Ficeli, the great great granddaughter of Adolph Coors. Below are some pictures of the winery from my visit there.—Kevin Nelson
The front door of Goosecross in Yountville.
Winemaker Bill Nancarrow draws Riesling from a wine ‘egg.’
By Kevin Nelson
Being a fan of wine and the movies, I headed with great anticipation up Highway 101 north into Sonoma past Santa Rosa and Healdsburg into the Alexander Valley. Just before the funky little wine country town of Geyserville, I turned off the highway and found what I was looking for: the gates leading me into the Francis Ford Coppola Winery.
Coppola is, of course, a big name for film fans and increasingly for wine and travel devotees as well. He is the five-time Academy Award director of such landmark films as The Godfather and Apocalypse Now. He is also a winery owner and winemaker and the owner of resorts in Argentina, Belize, Guatemala and Italy. Home base for him is California and one of his holdings is the historic Inglenook Winery in Napa Valley, where he lives. The Geyserville winery is about an hour and a half north of San Francisco.
Parking in a dirt lot with olive trees, I climbed a flight of steps up into the main buildings and saw something I can’t recall seeing in any other Sonoma or Napa Valley winery: a spectacular resort-style swimming pool that could fit in just fine with the best of Miami or Las Vegas.
Carmen Policy at his Casa Piena vineyards. Photos by Dave Nelson
By Dave Nelson
The proprietor of Policy Vineyards pours a glass of wine for me and says:
“Up here, I have the time to actually listen to what people have to say. I never knew I was capable of that. I’ve learned more here, kicking back, than I did when I was right there in the middle of everything.”
I should clarify the geography. “Up here” refers to Yountville in the Napa Valley. The “middle of everything” is where Carmen Policy has always managed to be.
“I have always been able to understand where people are going and how they’re going to get there,” Policy continues. “That enabled me to deal with both sides of the equation. There have been times when people on my side have thought I was disloyal because I was able to articulate the other side’s position.”
Skills like that would serve well if you were, say, a county prosecutor, a defense attorney, or an NFL executive. Policy has been all those things, of course. He is most famous for his work as President of the San Francisco 49ers in the golden era of the 1980’s. He is credited as the first executive to crack the NFL’s salary cap rules, enabling the Niners to horde the football talent that carried the team to five championships. Continue reading
By Jennifer Kaiser
Congratulations to the team at Carpe Diem for reopening their beautiful wine bar in downtown Napa. The building, located on the corner of 2nd and Brown Street, was badly damaged in the August 2014 earthquake. Exterior scaffolding reminds visitors that the work to rebuild Napa continues. While the wine bar was closed for repairs, Carpe Diem opened a pop-up in the nearby Oxbow Market. That spot has now closed. Continue reading
The first time I drank Starmont Chardonnay was at Merryvale Winery in St. Helena. I was sharing a table with Sean Foster, Merryvale’s chief winemaker, who was guiding us through a tasting of Starmont, Merryvale and Profile wines, all of which are Merryvale brands. We sat in the atmospheric Redwood Barrel Room next to the Cask Room.
The second time I had Starmont was also at Merryvale, this time for a party held during Premiere Napa Valley Week, the big annual charity auction extravaganza. I had just come from another party at Meadowood and had arranged to meet a travel editor there who was offering me an assignment reviewing restaurants in Wine Country. She never showed, the job fizzled out, but I had a fine time nonetheless, tasting barrel samples of a 2013 Stanly Ranch Estate Pinot Noir (pictured) and chatting with Starmont’s winemaker, Jeff Crawford. Later I ate wood-fired duck confit pizza and drank Merryvale’s Cab Sauvignon with an Arkansas wine distributor who had come to the valley on business for the weekend. Continue reading