Thirty-Six Hours in the Valleys of Sonoma County: A Commonwealth Club Travel/Bay Gourmet Weekend Getaway.

By Cathy Curtis

Neither drizzle nor downpour deterred the hardy group of foodies and oenophiles, ranging in age from 45 to 80, from enjoying the packed weekend of activities planned for them. Waterproof shoes and rain coats were de rigueur and umbrellas were always at the ready as we toured the historical sites of Sonoma, Healdsburg and the Valley of the Moon, sloshed through vineyards, and hopped on and off the bus to taste the luscious wines of the area.

Unfortunately, not so resilient to the constant rain were the grape vines themselves. The unseasonable early June downpours threatened the new blossoms springing from the vines, causing the farmers and winemakers to worry about crop yields for this year’s vintage. Thankfully, most didn’t expect the rain to affect the quality of the grapes and the wines that will be produced from them. To the veteran farmers and winemakers, weather is just part of the equation.

Garden at Cornerstone Gardens

The history of the area is fascinating and we paid homage to it by visiting the Sonoma Mission, General Vallejo’s house, The Jack London Museum, the Wolf House, and the lovely Queen Anne and Craftsman-style homes of Healdsburg’s historic district. We also made worthwhile stops at The Cornerstone Gardens complex  (don’t miss Zipper, a wonderful gift and home accessory shop) and Dry Creek Peach & Produce, a farm located in the heart of Dry Creek Valley, home to deliciously sweet peaches that are grown organically, tree-ripened, hand-picked and packed. Many of the peaches make their way to the plates of some of the finest restaurants in Northern California.

Not to downplay the many pleasures of the region (in addition to the above list we also enjoyed delicious meals at Barndiva, the Dry Creek Kitchen and picnic fare from the charming and historic  JimTown Store), but the highlight of the weekend was, of course, the wines―and the people who make and sell them:

MacLeod Family Vineyard, Valley of the Moon

George MacLeod and Cathy Curtis

George MacLeod and Cathy Curtis

George MacLeod, the charming 91-year-old “patrone” of the MacLeod Family Vineyard in the Valley of the Moon treated us to a discourse on grape growing and the importance of terroir to the taste of the wines. When he sips his glorious sauvignon blanc he says he can taste the rocky hillsides of his ranch. Marjorie Macleod―ranch vineyard manager and George’s outgoing daughter-in-law―and her husband John played the gracious hosts as they served us local cheeses, strawberries, raspberries and chocolate to pair with the superb MacLeod sauvignon blanc, merlot and zinfandel. MacLeod sells 70% of their grapes to other wineries and uses the rest to make their own wines. The ultimate goal, Marjorie told us, is to produce all their own wines from their lovingly cared for grapes. Good news indeed for wine lovers.

Michel-Schlumberger – Dry Creek Valley

Jim Morris of Michel-Schlumberger

Jim Morris, the gregarious vice president of consumer sales and marketing at the elegant mission-style Michel-Schlumberger winery enthusiastically led us on a wet trek up a rain-soaked slope to show us the beautiful vistas of the 100-acre property. We were all game, but glad to get back to the winery and the lunch prepared for us by Relish Catering of Sonoma, which we enjoyed while Jim led us through a tasting of Michel Schlumberger pinot blanc, chardonnay, malbec, syrah, merlot and cabernet sauvignon. The wines, which were truly delicious, are all made from grapes grown organically and sustainably. Jim was proud to talk about the pride that Michel-Schlumberger takes in being stewards of the land. This made the wines even more special.

Truett Hurst-Dry Creek Valley

Cindi Howley, Tasting room and Wine Club Manager

At Truett Hurst, we walked into a room filled with music and laughter. We were told it was a typical weekend day at the winery, where they feature jazz and free food for their wine-tasting guests.  Tall and handsome, Phil Hurst, a partner in the winery, greeted us warmly and led us to a private room for our tasting. Truett Hurst is all about zinfandel (although they do make chardonnay, rosé, and petite syrah as well). We tasted four different vintages. Phil was unapologetic about the high alcohol level in the wines―16.5%―and says he and his customers prefer it that way. And the

Garden at Truitt Hurst

zin’s really were quite delicious, if you don’t mind the buzz you’ll surely have after tasting a few! Truett Hurst’s vision is to create world-class wines using biodynamic farming principles.The grounds are lovingly cared for and feature the tasting room made from eco-friendly materials, a river filled with Coho Salmon and Steelhead trout, and flower, herb and vegetable gardens.

Queen Anne in Healdsburg

Sausal – Alexander Valley

Sausal is also known for their zinfandel, but their wines are quieter, just like their sedate tasting room. The winemaker believes that high alcohol levels produce a zinfandel that isn’t food friendly, doesn’t have a nice finish and doesn’t age well. Their finest estate zinfandel is produced from dry farmed wines that are over 100 years old.

Stuhlmuller Vineyards-AlexanderValley

We were lucky to find our way to Stuhmuller Vineyards, a small, family-owned winery in the Alexander Valley where Jacque Benton led us in a tasting of their fine estate chardonnay, reserve chardonnay, zinfandel and estate cabernet. As far as their zinfandel, Stuhlmuller is in the old-school camp of less is more in the alcohol department, producing a wine with balance. But most of their production is chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, taking full advantage of the unique terroir of their land.

J Vineyards and Winery – Russian River Valley

Winemaker Melissa Stackhouse at J Winery

Our final stop of the weekend was J Winery, which is known for its sparkling wine made in the méthode champenoise tradition and their superb Russian River Valley pinot noirs. J’s new winemaker, Melissa Stackhouse, was previously the winemaker at La Crema, also in the Russian River Valley. She told us she was thrilled to work at J Winery and with Judy Jordan, the winery’s founder and president and a second-generation vintner. The gorgeous grounds and sophisticated winery décor make his winery a must-stop when visiting the area.

If asked, “What was your favorite wine of the weekend?” I know I would have a hard time answering and so would many others on the tour. We simply tasted many truly delicious wines. The region, although populated with hundreds of wineries, is still serene and uncrowded, and the people, from the volunteers who led our tours to the winery staffs, were all unwaveringly gracious. I know I can’t wait to go back.

The next Commonwealth Club Travel/Bay Gourmet trip is to Burgundy, France from October 9 to October 14.  Click for details here.

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