Buena Vista Winery, California wine country, Domaine Carneros, Domaine Chandon, Gloria Ferrer, GunBun, Gundlach Bundschu, Moët et Chandon, recommendations, Schug Winery, Sonoma County, sparkling wine, Taittinger, wine, wine tasting
My friend Tania recently asked me for some Sonoma winery recommendations for a bachelorette party she’s attending this fall. Taking things to the extreme, as I usually do when it comes to wine (and weddings), I sent her a book-length email with tips and suggestions. It was a blog post in the making. Here is the even longer version, with photos!
Sonoma County is rather large (over 1700 square miles) and has multiple appellations within it, such as Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley, Carneros, etc. The southern portion of Sonoma County wine country is somewhat centered around the town of Sonoma. The northern portion centers around Healdsburg and Geyserville.
Today’s post will focus only on the southern portion of the county. I’ll do a future post for the rest of Sonoma. I have no shortage of winery recommendations.
If you’re planning a visit to Sonoma County, the Vintners’ Association website can be a great source of information. They even have a route planning tool to help you organize your day. With so many wineries so close together, it helps to have a plan if there are specific wineries you want to visit. Otherwise, you could easily get sidetracked and never get to them!
Also, if you have a Visa Signature card, check out this list of wineries where you can get deals, such as two-for-one tastings, discounts on purchases, and sometimes complimentary tastings. Some wineries have two-for-one tasting coupons on their websites. You can also download an app called Winery Finder (for both iOS and Android), which offers deals and coupons. And if you see a copy of Wine Country This Week or the Sonoma Visitor’s Guide at your hotel or elsewhere, they are worth picking up. Not only do they have exhaustive lists of wineries, restaurants, and other things to do, but there are coupons and deals in them as well. Lastly, the wineries sometimes post coupons to their websites, so check those out before you go.
Most wineries offer both “tours” and “tastings.” Tours cost more and take more time because it’s an actual tour of the cellars and a total description of how the wine is made. They’re very interesting, and if you’ve never done one they can be worth the time. But you don’t need to do more than one. They will be largely similar. Tours always end with a tasting of at least a few wines.
By just doing a “tasting” and skipping the tour you save money and time (and might get to try more wines). Most tasting menus offer between 3 and 8 different pours. Prices vary by winery and by level of tasting. Many wineries will offer a “library” or “private reserve” tasting menu in addition to their standard tasting menu. Those are going to be their higher end wines. It can be fun to taste them, but they usually cost a lot by the bottle (in excess of $100/bottle in many cases). We always buy a couple of bottles when we taste, so we like to taste the things we know we can actually afford to buy by the bottle. If you’re not going to be buying too much by the bottle, it can be fun to splurge on a library tasting.
Now, onto the winery recommendations! These are my six favorite southern Sonoma wineries to visit.
I love Gloria Ferrer so much, we served their Blanc de Noirs at our wedding. In addition to their delicious sparkling wines, they make a variety of still wines–Pinot Noir, Merlot, and Chardonnay. Their Pinot is simply outstanding.
They are open daily from 10 a.m. until 4:45 p.m., and reservations are only required for groups of 8 or more. Their tasting fees range from $13 to $33.* In addition to tasting flights, you can order a glass or a bottle and enjoy it inside or on their patio. They also have multiple tour options and a food and wine pairing.
Domaine Chandon is the California outpost of the famous French Champagne house Moët & Chandon. They are more well-known for their sparkling wines, but they make a variety of Pinot Noir still wines, as well as a Chardonnay and two Cabernet Sauvignons (the grapes for which actually come from Napa County).
One intriguing offering is their Pinot Meunier still wine, which you don’t often see. Pinot Meunier is one of the three traditional Champagne grapes (the other two are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). It is rarely used on its own in still wine. Their étoile Brut and Rosé are at the top end of their sparkling offering, and are well-worth a tasting if you have the opportunity.
They are open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and require reservations for groups of 10 or more.* Because Chandon is known for its sparkling wines, it is VERY popular with bachelorette parties. On a Saturday, you can expect to see multiple bridal groups. Chandon offers several tours and has a restaurant on-site.
Like Chandon, Domaine Carneros is the American offshoot of a famous French Champagne house, in this case, Taittinger. Their primary focus is sparkling wine, but they make a variety of Pinot Noirs, sometimes a Chardonnay, and currently have a Pinot Noir Rosé available. Again, because of the prevalence of sparklers, this winery is a magnet for bachelorette parties.
Their hours are 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily; they recommend reservations for all visitors, but require them only for groups of 8 or more.* Their tastings start at $30, which is pricey. But it’s a lot less expensive than going to France!
Moving away from wineries that specialize in sparkling wine and instead focus on still wine, Schug is one of my all-time favorites, especially their two Pinots. They offer Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Riesling. They also do a sparkling Pinot Noir, which is red, as opposed to a Blanc de Noirs, which is white, despite both of them being made from red Pinot Noir grapes. (The difference is in skin contact. All the color and tannins are in the skins, so if you remove the skins before pressing, you end up with a white wine made from red grapes. Rosé happens when you leave the skins in contact just for a short time.)
Schug is open daily from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m., and their tasting fee is $10.* Reservations are required for groups of 6 or more. If you have time, pick up their guide with points of interest marked on it so you can do the self-guided tour through the vines.
Buena Vista is another must-do, in my opinion. They make a variety of still wines, including Pinot Noir, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane, Zinfandel, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and more. They also make both a sparkling Brut with California grapes and a Brut Champagne in France with French grapes. They make several top-notch Pinot Noirs, which is sort of Sonoma’s specialty. The cool climate and ocean breezes coddle the finicky Pinot Noir grapes.
The tasting room is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and reservations are required.*
“GunBun“–as they call themselves–is another still wine producer with an impressive line-up. When we last visited in February 2013, the Tempranillo and Zinfandel were our two favorites. Tempranillo is a Spanish grape that usually likes a much hotter climate than Sonoma offers, but GunBun is doing great things with this grape.
They are open daily from 11 a.m. until 5:30 p.m (only until 4:30 p.m. October-May) and require reservations for groups of 8 or more. Their tasting fee is $10.*
It might seem crazy to start drinking wine at 10 a.m., but if you expect to fit in a serious day of tasting at multiple wineries, you need to start then. If you eat a satisfying breakfast, you can easily visit two wineries before breaking for a leisurely lunch, which still gives you time for two more wineries in the afternoon. (And a short nap before dinner!) The other advantage to starting early is that the crowds really pick up in the afternoon.
Despite being made by famous Champagne houses in the Méthode Champenoise (the Champagne Method), the sparkling wines in California are NOT called Champagne. That term is reserved only for sparkling wines made in the Champagne region of France. In California, they are “sparkling wines.” Or you can call them by their designation–Brut, Blanc de Blancs, Blanc de Noirs, etc.
Blanc de Blancs means “white from whites” and is a sparkling wine made with 100% Chardonnay grapes. Blanc de Noirs means “white from blacks” and is made with 100% Pinot Noir grapes. Brut is the most common designation of sparkling wine, and it is made with some combination of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and usually Pinot Meunier as well.
Sparkling wine very often does not have a vintage (year) designation because grapes from multiple vintages are blended together. If you see a sparkling wine with a vintage, it is usually a special wine (and more expensive) that they choose to make when a vintage is particularly good. Often they will be designated as Cuvée.
Tastings are offered in order of light to heavy, white to red. When transitioning from white to red, some wineries will offer you a bit of water to rinse your glass. Do not do this. It’s better to have a residue of white wine mixed in with your first red than to have a residue of water. (Serious tasters rinse with a bit of the red wine they’re moving onto, dump that out, then pour their taste of red wine. But you don’t usually have that option when you’re just a regular visitor.)
Sonoma County is fantastic, and the wineries are making spectacular wines. You can spend a day, a weekend, or an entire week and taste an outstanding variety. Cheers!
* All information was taken from individual winery websites and is subject to change at any time. Keep in mind that the last tasting is usually offered about half an hour before closing time, to allow time for you to enjoy the tasting experience.