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Simply Sonoma

Easy driving in a lovely region that's chockablock with vineyards

Daniel Sogg
Posted: July 23, 2002

 
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"You been touring around the wineries?" This would be a reasonable conversation starter in a tasting room, but it's unexpected at a Shell station on a cold, rainy night. The speaker, a guy dressed in jeans and a flannel work shirt, gnawed on a ratty cigar while filling up his pickup. And he wanted to talk wine.

That's Sonoma -- one friendly, wine-loving town. Practically everyone, it seems, has an opinion about the best local producers, and they'll want to hear your take.

This tour captures the diversity of southern Sonoma County by focusing on an assortment of wineries, beginning in Carneros, stopping for lunch at the Sonoma town plaza, then heading north through Glen Ellen to Kenwood. With an average of a mere seven minutes between each stop, there's not a lot of driving involved.

There's no need to rush out of San Francisco. Tasting rooms generally open at 10 a.m., and it's about a 40-minute drive beyond the Golden Gate to the first stops in Southern Carneros -- Viansa Winery and Cline Cellars.

Tourists throng to Viansa; they love the Tuscan theme and the market selling products such as pasta salads, cookbooks and ceramic plates. More than 1,000 olive trees and a vine-covered arbor evoke Italy, and there's a delightful picnic area overlooking a steep planting of Sangiovese vines and 90 acres of marshlands. Expect some kitsch at Viansa, but also expect quality wines, with the most extensive selection of Italian varieties in California.

For a dramatic contrast in style, don't miss nearby Cline Cellars. The best wines on offer in the modest tasting room, set in a simple 1850 farmhouse, are made from Zinfandel and Rhône varieties. These wines reflect the setting -- hearty, unpretentious and loaded with flavor.

The brief but lively vineyard tour delves into a geologic history of the area and outlines some of the basics of the vine growth cycle. Our tour guide, who clearly relished his work, couldn't resist a few digs at Sonoma Valley to the north and "that other" valley to the east. "Remember, Napa is a four-letter word," he admonished.

From Cline, it's about a 10-minute drive to the Sonoma central plaza, then another two minutes to Sebastiani Vineyards, the leading Sonoma winery through much of the last century. Nestled in a quiet residential area, Sebastiani was founded in 1904, and its tour outlines the history of the local industry while detailing the contributions of a pioneering family.

The formidable barrel-room, with massive old redwood vats, offers a glimpse into production methods of the past, with turn-of-the-century equipment once used by family patriarch Samuele Sebastiani. Guests can try about a dozen wines in the tasting area.

For lunch, go back to the plaza to The Girl and the Fig restaurant, which combines the welcoming ambience of a bistro with California country decor. Drink selections, such as Ricard and Dubonnet, are scrawled with wax crayon onto the mirror behind the bar, and there's an excellent selection of California Rhône varieties on the wine list, including 22 Syrahs and a Cline Mourvdre Ancient Vines 1999 that's hard to beat at $30. Try the steamed mussels, which come with a tasty broth of Pernod, leeks and celery that should be sopped up with bread from the local Basque Boulangerie.

After lunch, drive north out of town on Highway 12 into Glen Ellen, winding up into the Sonoma Mountains and onto the 65-acre property of Benziger Winery. This is a must-visit estate, not only for the 35 wines offered by the glass, but for the rugged beauty of the site, which is home to countless old oaks and an occasional gaggle of wild turkeys. The tram tour into the vineyard describes the geology of the site, as well as the rudiments of viticulture and biodynamic production methods. Notable curiosities include a peacock cage and an "insectory" housing the predator bugs that replace pesticides.

Visitors looking to spend the evening in the area shouldn't bypass Glen Ellen's Gaige House Inn, along the Calabasas Creek on 2.5 acres of oak, pine and magnolia-covered property. It's refined and subdued, with a sense of understatement that combines modern chic with Asian notes such as seagrass carpeting and tansu bureaus and sideboards.

Fifteen minutes' drive north, you'll find one of the best wineries in Sonoma: Chateau St. Jean, which specializes in Cabernet blends and Chardonnay. It's situated on one of the most formidable properties in all of Sonoma, with a château-style winery and tasting room, as well as grounds reminiscent of the Médoc. Horticulture lovers should get the map detailing all the species in the impeccably manicured garden. The wines are outstanding. There are two tasting rooms, one of which provides more modestly priced bottlings. For $10, the reserve tasting room offers three tastes of the estate's top tier, such as the 1997 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon. Enjoy a snack purchased from their deli on the expansive lawn shaded by magnolia, redwood and palm trees.

For an early dinner, return to the plaza and the cozy Café La Haye. It's a small place -- only 15 tables -- and the devoted local clientele keeps it bustling. The wine list has more than 60 choices, mostly from Sonoma. Try the flavorful, juicy pork chop, served over buttery herbed spaetzle with a whole-grain mustard sauce that hits the mark with the $40 Rafanelli Dry Creek Zin 1999.

From the restaurant, it's about a 50-minute drive back to the city. Which should -- so long as wine-talk at the gas station is kept to a minimum -- place you in prime position on the Golden Gate to admire the sunset.

Benziger Family Winery
1883 London Ranch Road, Glen Ellen
Telephone (707) 935-3000
Fax (707) 935-3016
Web site www.benziger.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Café La Haye
140 E. Napa St., Sonoma
Telephone (707) 935-5994
Open Dinner, Tuesday to Saturday; brunch, Sunday
Cost Entrées $13 to $22

Chateau St. Jean
8555 Sonoma Highway, Kenwood
Telephone (707) 833-4134
Fax (707) 833-5556
Web site www.chateaustjean.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Cline Cellars
24737 Arnold Drive, Sonoma
Telephone (707) 935-4310
Fax (707) 935-4319
Web site www.clinecellars .com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Gaige House Inn
13540 Arnold Drive, Glen Ellen
Telephone (707) 935-0237
Fax (707) 935-6411
Web site www.gaige.com
Rooms 9
Suites 6
Rates $150 to $575

Sebastiani Vineyards & Winery
389 Fourth St. E., Sonoma
Telephone (707) 933-3200
Fax (707) 933-3370
Web site www.sebastiani.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

The Girl and the Fig
110 W. Spain St., Sonoma
Telephone (707) 938-3634
Open Lunch and dinner, daily
Cost Entrées $11 to $21

Viansa Winery & Italian Marketplace
25200 Arnold Drive, Sonoma
Telephone (707) 935-4700
Fax (707) 996-4632
Web site www.viansa.com
Open Daily, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.

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