Sunday, May 7, 2017

Explore Sonoma Valley's Wine Region in California


For someone who enjoys wine as much as I do (I even brew it at home!), a trip to California without visiting one of the more famous wine regions would be implausible. Luckily, I visited San Francisco in September of 2016 with several like-minded ladies, and we found ourselves embarking on a sunny road trip around Sonoma Valley in search of beautiful vineyards. We managed to hit quite a few in the time we had, discovering not only a plethora of delicious wines, but also olive oils, cheeses, and even some authentic Mexican cuisine.

We hit the road in our rental van (sexy, I know) at about 9:00 a.m. on a weekday morning so that we could make the most of our day and hit as many vineyards as possible. Most vineyards open to the public at around 10:00 a.m., and the drive from San Francisco to the heart of Sonoma is about 1 hour and 20 minutes. It was a little less for us, only a one hour drive, due to the fact that we were staying just north of San Francisco in a town called Corte Madera.

We were so determined to see as many wineries as possible that we stopped at the first one we saw, and then proceeded to vineyard-hop down the road whenever the scenery struck our fancy. There were a couple vineyards that we were specifically looking for, but overall, it was all luck and timing regarding the places we visited. So here's an overview of what we discovered, in case you'd like to embark on a similar adventure!

Viansa Sonoma


Viansa Sonoma vineyard was not one that I had ever heard of. However, as we approached the sprawling hilltop property, we knew that this vineyard would be a wonderful place to begin our tour of Sonoma. The structure that houses the wine tasting bar, gift shop, and event rooms perches on the top of a ridge boasting a beautiful vista, overlooking 33 acres of rolling estate vineyards and a grove of lovely olive trees.

The logo for Viansa Sonoma vineyards.

We puttered slowly up the long driveway, parked in the empty parking lot, and meandered through the olive grove pathway towards the main building. It wasn't quite 10:00 a.m. yet, so we enjoyed the peace and quiet of a tourist-free vineyard, resplendent in the early morning California sun.

It was a beautiful day when we visited Viansa Sonoma vineyards.
Viansa was full of beautiful, old-world touches such as these doors.

A little after 10:00 a.m., we approached the main doors, and found them still locked. After knocking a few times, a young woman opened the door, apologizing profusely. She ushered us inside, propping open the doors to welcome the fresh, warm outside air. The woman bustled behind the bar counter, while an older gentleman introduced himself, welcomed us to Viansa, and showed us around the gift shop / cafe. The wares being sold in the shop were elegant, many hand-crafted, and most would have looked great in my kitchen, although most I also could not afford.

Viansa Sonoma had a ton of beautiful items for sale, other than the wine of course.

After browsing through the gift shop, we decided to quit pretending about the real reason we were there, and headed up to the bar. Three of us were interested in tasting some of Viansa's wines, so we purchased one tasting between us, all white wines. I am not really a white wine fan, so I was happy to be sharing. The wine was good, but since I don't really enjoy whites, I am not the best person to speak for the true quality of Viansa's wine. I am sure it is great - I wish I'd had the chance to try some reds.

Cheers! We sip some white wine at Viansa Sonoma.

My favourite part about Viansa was not the wine, but the people working there. The woman pouring our wine was very friendly and knowledgable about the merchandise, while the man was funny and open and knew a lot about the Sonoma region. He recommended a few other vineyards worth visiting, which was nice since we had really no idea where we were headed next.

Plump grapes shining in the sun, waiting to be turned into wine.

After leaving the main building, we basked in the sun for a few more minutes and enjoyed the view of Viansa's sprawling estate before heading back to our mom van.

My friend Kerry and I model the amazing view at Viansa.

Jacuzzi Family Vineyards


Just a few minutes down the road from Viansa Sonoma was a more wealthy and well-known brandname: Jacuzzi Family Vineyards. And yes, that is the same Jacuzzi family that holds patents for hot tubs as well. While we didn't see any bubbling jet tubs on the premises, there was a lot to see and do at the Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

Ready to start our tour of the Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

The grounds of the Jacuzzi Family Vineyards are impressive. Although the land that the main Jacuzzi building is situated on does not have the same majestic view as Viansa Sonoma, the landscaping and attention to detail was extremely well done. The building, which had the outer appearance of being built by mortar and stones in the old European style, was outfitted with two end towers, vaulted windows, and little balconies filled with blossoming flower pots. Even the garden topiaries were designed to fit the theme, shaped into wine bottles!

Wine bottle topiaries at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

Once through the main doors, you could walk left and enjoy your complimentary wine tasting of five non-reserve wines while shopping in the gift shop, or turn right and do a little sampling of olive oils and tapenade, while shopping for fine cheeses and whimsical pasta. Naturally, we opted to enjoy the delicacies of the right room first, and headed to the tasting bar.

The Jacuzzi wine bar.

Mark, our server, was run-off-his-feet busy with two tour buses that had cruised into the parking lot behind us, but still managed to be attentive and funny. This time, because I didn't have to share my order with the other ladies, I ordered all reds and tried the whole rainbow from dry to sweet. They were all very good, and I surprised myself by liking one of the sweeter wines the most.

Mark, our entertaining and hard-working server.

When the wine bar became a little too cramped, the ladies and I moved into the second room where the food products were being sampled and sold. There was an entire olive oil bar, with flavoured oils of every combination and taste. Examples included chocolate olive oil, strawberry olive oil, mint olive oil, and so much more. Bowls of cubed baguette were available for patrons, who could stab a piece of bread with a toothpick, soak it in any oil of their choice from the olive oil bar, and sample the flavour.

Vibrant olive oils ready for tasting at Jacuzzi Family Vineyards.

We tried several flavoured oils, but my taste buds really enjoyed the delicious yet traditional black olive tapenade. I ended up buying a jar of it to take back to Canada.

Colorful pastas - yum!

We explored the grounds of Jacuzzi Family Vineyard only briefly, as the crowds created by the arriving tour buses made it difficult to just enjoy strolling around. Agreeing to find a less populous vineyard, we hopped back into the mom van and continued on our merry little way.

Gloria Ferrer Caves and Vineyard


As we drove down the road, away from Jacuzzi Family Vineyards, our stomachs started to collectively grumble. It was nearing lunch time, and we didn't want to keep tasting wines on empty stomachs. One of the biggest no-nos in wine tasting country is to get tipsy or even worse, outright drunk. That's why many people spit out their wine during a tasting - so they can get the aroma and flavour without compromising their sensibilities. (I figured if we were only sampling small bits of wine at a time, and leaving big gaps in between on account of traveling from vineyard to vineyard, I would be okay to just drink the wine and not waste it. Oh and also, we had a DD in case my readers were wondering what was going on there.)

All of us had heard of Gloria Ferrer sparkling wines, and since the name of the vineyard alluded to exploring some sort of cave, we all agreed to stop at this particular vineyard before moving on to find a restaurant for lunch.

At the Vista Terrace at the Gloria Ferrer Vineyards.

Upon reaching the main house at the vineyard, we discovered good news and bad news. The bad news: the cave tour was part of a vineyard tour that you had to purchase, at a cost of $25 per person and a tour length of at least 45 minutes. We did not want to spend either the extra money or the extra time, and so agreed that visiting the caves was out of the itinerary. I was sad about it, but we were all trying to be frugal. However, the good news was that we didn't have to keep searching for a restaurant, as the vineyard offered nibbles on their outdoor Vista Terrace.

Pooling our money (seriously, we were nearly spartan in our attempts to save cash) we all split a cheese and charcuterie platter and had one sample of sparkling wine to wash it all down. It wasn't a huge lunch, but it sure hit the spot and also felt a little glamorous in light of all the wine sipping. The Vista Terrace had a nice view of the Gloria Ferrer vineyards, and we even had a visit from a wee little hummingbird.

The Gloria Ferrer Vineyards.

Our next vineyard was not technically just down the road, but one of the ladies in our group really wanted to see it, so we made it our goal.

Kenwood Vineyards


The drive from Gloria Ferrer Vineyards to the Kenwood Vineyards was only about 25 minutes, which isn't a long drive at all. However, before that, we'd just been going on 5 to 10 minute jaunts down the road. So if you are following our journey, just be aware that the next stretch of driving is a bit longer than the last few.

Deep purple grapes warming in the sun at Kenwood Vineyards.

Entering the Kenwood Vineyards was a bit like stepping out of Sonoma and into a mountain wine region - there were more pine trees, less yellow grasses, and even a shift in the air temperature towards cooler numbers. It felt weird that just 25 minutes down the road, the entire landscape seemed to have morphed.

The ladies and I outside Kenwood's main building.

The interior of the Kenwood Vineyards main building reflected this shift. The decor was darker, with a cabin-in-the-woods feel, somehow more masculine than the last few 'trendier' vineyards, which worked hard to achieve either light and airy, or old-world European. Everything at Kenwood was wooden, from the wine tasting bar, to the display shelves, to the thick dark beams supporting the ceiling high above us.

The wine wall at Kenwood's wine bar.

We split a tasting here, opting to try some of their reds. After our samples, the friendly staff at Kenwood offered to take me back into one of the storage rooms so I could see their immense oak barrels. They were massive! I was duly impressed.

Demonstrating how large the barrels are at Kenwood Vineyards.

By this point, we were winding down a little in our journey, and decided to turn around and begin heading back to San Francisco so we could rejoin the rest of our group (two had decided not to explore Sonoma with us, and had gone shopping in San Francisco instead).

Deerfield Ranch Winery

Doesn't it always seem to happen? The last place you decide to go, or the place that you were most skeptical about, often turns out to be the best part of your day. This was exactly the case with Deerfield Ranch Winery.

As we were making our way back to San Francisco, looking for a specific Mexican restaurant along the way that one lady's father had recommended, we decided, "Let's do one LAST vineyard." There were several small ones advertised along the side of the road, none of them very impressive, and so we just randomly turned at a corner and drove up a driveway. This driveway led us to Deerfield Ranch Winery.

I model the Deerfield Ranch Winery entrance.

And out of all the vineyards we visited, this one was by far my favourite. Although Viansa had the best view (and also the advantage of the early morning sunlight hitting the vineyards at just the right time), Deerfield Ranch Winery had the coolest underground set-up I have ever seen. Basically the entire 'main building' is underground: the wine tasting bar, all of the storage barrels and casks filled with fermenting wine, even the washrooms. The whole atmosphere of the Deerfield Ranch Winery was unique, eclectic, even a little medieval.

When we first parked, it was a little under-whelming. There was a house off to the right hand side, and to the left a large covered frame, much like a carport but about five times bigger. Inside the frame were several parked pieces of wine-making equipment, some folding tables, and on a puddle on the ground, remnants of some crushed grapes covered in buzzing flies. It looked like people had been hard at work crushing grapes, but had recently stopped for a break. Everything was frozen in time. No one greeted us, no one waved hello. It felt a smidgen post-apocalyptic.

I may have tried a little grape-smashing of my own while at Deerfield.

But we bravely followed the signs posted, promising us a wine-tasting experience, into a pair of double doors embedded in the side of a hill. And here is where it got really cool.

It was like being in an underground bunker, designed to store all the wine for the world. A long tunnel led us to a four-way intersection, and down each branch were rows upon rows of wine barrels stored against the walls. We continued straight through the intersection and found ourselves in a spacious, vaulted room with couches, end tables, and best of all, the wine bar. Sinking into chairs around a table, we looked around in awe.

In the underground tasting room at Deerfield Ranch Winery.

A waitress sidled up to us and handed us a sampling menu. This being our last tasting of the day, we each ordered our own so we could try exactly what we wanted. We knew we'd be lingering in this place for a little while. Naturally, I tried some reds.

The washrooms were even located in this underground fortress, and so we were able to explore the tunnels a little bit. No one at Deerfield seemed to mind us traipsing around the halls, posing with the barrels and pretending we were James Bond. They are probably quite used to it, to be honest.

Tunnels filled with wine barrels at Deerfield Ranch Winery.

I was so glad we had stopped at Deerfield Ranch Wineries as it was very surreal experience. All of the vineyards had something special to offer, in fact. Viansa had its beautiful view, Jacuzzi had its olive oil tastings and free samples, Gloria Ferrer had that delicious charcuterie platter and outdoor terrace, Kenwood had the towering oak barrels and unique decor, and Deerfield had the bunker scene nailed down.

We had such a great time exploring Sonoma! Who else has been, and what vineyards did you see?

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