According to a legend passed down from indigenous people who migrated to the area from Asia over the Bering land bridge some 12,000 years ago, if one stands in a sacred spot in the basin of the Mayacama Mountains in California, the moon will rise and set seven times behind the peaks of the mountains. These natives named this area Sonoma, which translates into the “Valley of the Moon.”
In this “Valley of the Moon,” Russian colonists originally planted and cultivated grapes dating back to 1820s, but it was the Spanish Franciscan missionaries that began the wine industry in Sonoma, planting vineyards at their northernmost mission, whose cuttings were carried throughout the northern California region and gave birth to many new vineyards (sonomacountry.com). In 1855, the eccentric Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy took over the existing vineyards in the Sonoma Valley, renamed his vineyard “Buena Vista” and added more than 100,00 cuttings of prize grape varietals from France, Italy and Spain. The Count was the first to produce and promote fine table wines from California referring to his grapes “purple gold,” every bit as valuable as the gold mined in streams.
Although one might believe that Sonoma has a rich history in wine, indeed, the history of wine making and consumption dates back to the Stone Ages. According to an article published in National Geographic, the oldest evidence of winemaking was discovered in a village outside of Tbilisi, Georgia, where unearthed pottery jars dating back 8,000 years evidenced a “chemical fingerprint that shows wine residues were present.” Patrick McGovern, an expert in ancient wines at the University of Pennsylvania Museum, said that wine “became economically important” in ancient Eurasia Georgia “just like the wine culture of California” and “once these fermented beverages take hold of a society, they tend to become the heart of the society.” No truer words were ever spoken!
For the past six years, Larry and I and three other couples have traveled during the long Columbus Day weekend in October, and we have visited Riviera Maya, Napa Valley, Montego Bay, Key West, Punta Cana, and Cuba. This involves quite of bit of planning that we enjoyably accomplish through a series of Sunday board meetings and group meals, that generally begin and end with our favorite food . . . fermented grapes! Undoubtedly, our common love of wine inspired our travel plans this year, but since our group previously traveled to Napa Valley in 2014, we did not want to repeat that experience, so in celebration of Larry’s 50th birthday, we decided on a wine tasting trip to Sonoma Valley, California. We were particularly interested in comparing the landscape, lifestyle and wines of Napa Valley, with which we were familiar, with those of neighboring Sonoma Valley.
We booked a sprawling ranch in Sonoma proper on Airbnb, enough space for each couple and one visiting daughter who wanted to celebrate with her dad on his special day (although I think the promise of free food, wine and accommodations might have been the real incentive!) Jesse flew in from Boston and met the 8 of us at San Francisco airport. We rented a 12 passenger cargo van, and while the extra bouncy shocks made for an interesting ride for those of us in the rear seats, I sure did wish I packed my sports bra! We were delightfully surprised when the U.S. Navy Blue Angels zipped overhead as we were crossing over the Golden Gate Bridge in celebration of Fleet Week . . . timing is everything!
Our trip to Muir Woods was disappointing, as without prior reservations, there was no parking available so we could not hug a Redwood tree. The voyage up and over the mountain, however, proved to be quite entertaining, as Jesse squealed at every cliff turn and covered her eyes so that she would not have to see how close the van wheels came to the edge of the road (without any guardrail mind you!) Our friend Steve drove, proudly conquering his fears on the ascent, albeit white knuckled and sweaty, and Mark took over the wheel on the way down, brave from his regular navigation of the Autobahn in Heilbronn, however, he admitted that the spongy brakes gave him pause - yikes! Onto Sonoma, we were enthralled by a luminous harvest moon that hung low in the red-tinged sky over acres and acres of vines. The next morning, we were up bright and early and headed to our first winery, B.R. Cohn, which offered excellent wines, olive oil pressed from ancient olive trees on their estate, live acoustic entertainment in the garden and plenty of Doobie Brother memorabilia, which was to be expected since the owner of winery managed the group for 45 years! Sassy, Peter and I enjoyed BBQ native oysters harvested from Tomales Bay, and our gracious hostess, Shannon Shenanigans as she called herself, treated us to several wine tastings, but our favorite was the B.R. Cohn 2018 Russian River Valley Rose and a 2006 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon.
At Kendall-Jackson Estate, we toured the amazing vegetable and herbs gardens, of which their culinary team makes excellent use for their farm-to-table wine-pairing dinners. Our friend Donna, who is a fantastic gardener, marveled at the style and composition of their estate gardens, prodding her husband to create a similar version in their back yard back home. Our host helped us define our “wine nose” as he plucked various herbs in the garden for us to sniff and chew, while pouring us various wines, which helped bring out the flavors. We enjoyed delicious, overstuffed sandwiches that we picked up from Ike’s Sandwiches and Love in downtown Santa Rosa under a gazebo on the KJ grounds. We ended the day at Francis Ford Coppola winery, a Hollywood-inspired winery complete with sprawling staircases, fountain swimming pool and cabanas, movie memorabilia and a beautiful restaurant overlooking the Alexander Valley vineyards. We sipped several wines at the wine tasting bar, including Directors Cut Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir, but I must admit that the spark of the day was the perfect cappuccino served by the handsome bartender in the double-breasted coat. Our friend Anne was disappointed that the winery did not serve her favorite go-to wine, Coppola Pinot Grigio, but she did enjoy their Director’s Cut Chardonnay. We stayed for dinner and enjoyed house made pasta, roast lemon chicken and the estate Cabernet Sauvignon.
The next morning, we ventured back to Napa Valley to return to Larry’s most favorite California winery, Caymus Vineyards. We were seated at the outdoor tasting patio before the sun had a chance to warm up the air, so the staff brought us luxurious fleece and wool blankets to keep as cozy, as we sipped wines poured by our excellent and informative host, Bill Biehl. We not only tasted superb wines, but we learned so much about the wine-making process, the Wagner family of wines, and their upcoming expansion. We absolutely loved the Mer Soleil Chardonnay fermented in steel barrels, the Mer Soleil Pinot Noir and the 2017 Caymus Special Select Cabernet Sauvignon. Once again, an exquisite experience, from the education to the wines.
After Caymus, we returned to Sassy’s favorite winery, Hoenig (“hoenig” is the German word for “honey” and their logo is a bee). We were fortunate to get in without a reservation! Turns out that Caymus Bill’s wife Claudia works at Hoenig, so he made a call. Talk about a wine-connected couple! It is hard to say who was more fun or knowledgeable, as both were experts in the wines they served, and the wine making process of their respective wineries. We had a wonderful tasting of 2017 Reserve Sauvignon Blanc and 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon under the umbrella-covered patio, but the star of the show was the 2018 Late Harvest Hoenig Sauvignon Blanc – sweet as the winery name, a perfect dessert wine. As you can imagine, all that wine tasting does work up a voracious appetite, so for lunch, we headed to Chef Thomas Keller’s La Calenda (of French Laundry fame) in Yountville, where we ate Tamal de Pollo in corn husks, Tacos de Carnitas, and Pescado Zarandeado Verde, a grilled Bronzino fish with garden greens, tail and all. Notable were the delicious house margaritas served in mezcal cups made from traditional Oaxacan pottery. Not sure how our livers had the stamina, but on the way back home, we stopped at Domaine Chandon and sipped on bubbly on a scenic tree-shaded stone patio overlooking ponds and foot bridges to the beautiful grounds. That evening, we had reservations at The Girl and the Fig in downtown Sonoma for Larry’s 50th birthday. We were treated to a complimentary cheese and charcuterie tower that featured their signature fig cake, fresh figs from local gardens, fig jam, local cheeses, local olives and shaved prosciutto. The grass-fed burgers and steak frites were stellar.
The next morning, we fell in love with Cuvaison Vineyard, with its ultra sleek concrete and glass tasting studio located in Los Carneros overlooking rolling acres of grapes. Rishann, our hostess, poured us several wines to taste, notably a 2018 Estate Sauvignon Blanc aged in concrete, providing a crisp, mineral feel in the mouth, and a superb 2017 Adda Pinot Noir. That afternoon, we explored the historic areas of downtown Sonoma, including the Toscano Hotel, the Sonoma Barracks and the Sonoma Mission, before heading to the historic Sebastiani Winery, which is one of the oldest family owned wineries in California, dating back to 1904. We marveled at the antique carved wine barrels and couldn’t help but notice that the huge redwood barrel that sat front and center of the barrel room looked very familiar to the Heidelberg Tun that we visited this past March when celebrating Sassy’s 50th birthday in Germany. As it turns out, the barrels are sisters, both having been crafted from ancient Redwood at the Sebastiani winery according to our hostess!
After Sebastiani, we ventured to Count Haraszthy’s Buena Vista winery that was founded in in 1857, and marveled at the interesting and unusual furnishings, and the beautiful stone castle in which they are housed. We were unable to visit the wine cellar, as the staff was busy in that building with production, but we did enjoy several wines and the Transylvania-like vibe of the tasting room.
Our last day in Sonoma we decided to forego the wineries and take a ride to Bodega Bay along the California coast, although we did briefly stop at Dutton Goldfield Tasting Room in Sebastopol along the way to sample several Pinot Noirs (2016 Fox Den Vineyard Pinot Noir) and a very notable Zinfandel (2016 Morelli Lane Vineyard Zinfandel) which are produced from grapes from the cooler regions in the Northern California Russian River Valley. From there, we cruised over to hug a few Redwood trees at the Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve, an 805 acre preserve shaded by ancient coast redwoods, a must see if in California. The scenery along the curvy cliffs of the California coastal highway are absolutely stunning, abutting the road to the left were miles and miles of hilly farms dotted with cows, horses and goats, and to our immediate right were staggering, 1000+ foot cliff drops to powerful, swirling ocean waves. We particularly enjoyed the Bodega Bay Seafood Chowder at the Tides Wharf and Restaurant overlooking the bay, and we were entertained by the quirky pelicans diving into the waves for their own snacks.
On the way back, we quietly observed the amazing natural scenery of the Petaluma hills, which became covered by night shadows that danced by the light of the looming harvest moon. There is one constant in the night, and although not always visible, it looms quietly overhead, sometimes not more than a slight shaving, other times lush and full, the moon elicits a somber but reassuring feeling of connection. No matter where we live on this planet, no matter how distant we may be from loved ones, no matter how culturally diverse our world may be, there is a single point where we connect. At night, when the veil of darkness can sometimes be isolating, the moon is the pinnacle that connects two separate points, and in that regard, the moon, in its humble way, is a great unifier. One might say that in addition to the moon, wine is also a great unifier, bringing together ancient centuries with modern society, connecting cultures, people, traditions and economies over thousands of years. In Sonoma, the Valley of the Moons, those two constants offer visitors an experience that will never be forgotten.
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