By Charlene S. Mixa
An Awesome Tour in Sonoma’s Wine Country
Like the stem of a wine glass, Santa Rosa sits at the base of the wine appellations of Sonoma County. A central location for exploring and experiencing the American Viticulture Areas of Russian River, Dry Creek, Alexander and Green Valleys, Santa Rosa welcomes visitors to Sonoma County’s Premier Wine Country. With over 250 award-winning wineries of Sonoma County, its largest city, Santa Rosa offers shopping, an upscale active downtown area and the Historic Railroad Square featuring outstanding restaurants and shops.
To get a real “taste” of Sonoma’s wine country and its amazing wineries, Platypus Tours’ Russian River/Healdsburg tour is the choice. Our driver and guide, Ken, picks us up at our hotel. Ken interviews us to determine our wine interests, places we have already visited and our goals for the day. Much more than a driver and tour guide, Ken is a wine aficionado tailoring the wine tour to meet the customer. Explaining to Ken that we are usually white wine drinkers, he quickly explains this is red wine country. Anxious to learn more and be educated on red wine, Ken plans the day. This is no ordinary bus tour! The goal is to visit the smaller local wineries and introduce us to the array of red and white wines offered in the Russian River area.
Ken shares the history of the Russian River Valley and how the appellations of Sonoma are perfect for growing grape varietals. Today’s goal is to experience the premium wines and meet the owners and winegrowers of the smaller wineries with a heritage of more than 200 years of wine growing.
Battaglini’s Estate Winery is just opening, as the owner Joseph (Giuseppe) Battaglini greets us. He opens the tasting room, explaining how he came to be a winegrower. Joe was raised in Lucca, Italy growing up among the vineyards of Tuscany. His wife Lucia, grew up around vineyards in Mendoza, Argentina. Each emigrated to the U. S. in late 1950, met and married, raising four children. Joe worked as an engineer for many years, with a dream of someday having a vineyard. Living their dream, they purchased a non-functioning winery in 1988. During the wine tasting, Ken smoothly brings in a delicious arrangement of various cheeses and crackers, encouraging us to compliment the wines with specific cheeses. The Zinfandels are excellent and have won many awards. Purchasing a double award winning bottle of Zinfandel, we learn that Battaglini’s Winery is less traditional. In the fall he has a “stomping party” where wine club members “stomp” the grapes just like the old days. Following the wine stomping, Lucia serves a wonderful meal for the wine “stompers” and then everyone participates in a Bocce ball contest. A FUN time!
Joe walks us to the vineyards pointing out the 124 year old Zinfandel and Petite Sirah vines. The vines have a large base often growing around the redwood stake from its original planting. Snapping a few photos, we leave Battaglini’s extremely impressed with this family winery and its rich history.
Sunce Winery and Vineyard is nearby with the entrance offering a serene, tranquil setting among the vineyards. Sunce is Croatian for “Sun”. Ken selected Sunce for its California/Italian wines. Before sampling the red wines, Ken recommends the Blue Cheese with tasting the Pinot Noir. Wow! What a difference! The combination brings out the flavor of the wine. Earlier in the tour, Richard said I would be the primary wine taster. Ken and I notice Richard doing more tasting. Sampling the 2004 Nebbiolo, St. Olof Vineyard, “The Noble Grape” is representative of the Italian grapes. It creates intense aromas and flavors of the Italian wines. Selecting the 2004 Nebbiolo as a gift for the newlyweds, we are off to the next winery.
Harvest Moon Estate and Winery is the third stop for the morning. In the tasting room, we sample the Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Gewürztraminer. Harvest Moon’s goal is to grow world class Russian River Valley Zinfandel. They have achieved their goal. Again, all the wines are exquisite with each having its uniqueness. Each winery brings its unique complex flavors to the red wines. The quality of wines from the smaller wineries is much better than the mass produced red wines we had tried in the past. We select a bottle of the handcrafted Gewürztraminer. Harvest Moon has a covered patio, a French-Themed Outdoor Kitchen and an Outdoor Bread/Pizza oven for hosting outdoor events. They have Pizza Parties on Friday’s by the pool. It is easy to see that Harvest Moon Winery does offer its guest a unique “Estate Experience”.
ARISTA Winery is found down a winding road along the hillsides of the Russian River Valley. Driving across the Russian River the discussion turns to the movie “Sideways” where Pinot Noir became a main focus in the film. Ken explains the movie had a dramatic impact on the wine industry. Following the movie’s success and the fame created for “Pinot Noir”, acres of merlot vines were ripped out and immediately replaced with Pinot grapes. Selecting ARISTA for its elegant Russian River Pinot Noir, Ken drives up the road into the hills of the Russian River. The winery was founded by the McWilliams family in 2002. In building the winery, the McWilliams family also had a Japanese Water Garden built along the hilltop by the winery. Walking through the gardens, we enjoy the serenity and tranquility. The view is breathtaking of Japanese water gardens, mountains and vineyards. Stepping into the inviting tasting room the focus is sampling the Pinot Noirs for which ARTISTA is noted. Magnificent! Richard and I love the Pinot Noir. With a smile Ken knows he is winning us over to the red wines of the Russian River. Even better, Richard is actively participating in all the wine tasting. Of course we had to get a bottle of Pinot Noir for ourselves and a special bottle for the newlyweds.
De La Montanya Estate Vineyards and Wineryis further north in the Russian River Valley in the Healdsburg area. Another family owned and operated winery, this is barreling day. During the wine tasting, Ken spreads out a scrumptious lunch in the picnic area among the apple trees. We take our wine with us and enjoy a relaxing lunch in the shade. Dennis De La Montanya, the owner stops for a visit. He proudly shares his dream of starting the winery in 1995 and the family’s involvement. All their wines are sold through the tasting room and the wine club. Dennis is fully involved in the winery, winemaking and the business, yet is also a true family man. He cuts his visit short to go watch his son play in a soccer game. Since it is barreling day, we go in back of the building where Tanya, the winemaker and Dennis’ sister-in-law, is removing the wines from the barrel. She explains this allows them to clean the barrels, removing any sediment, and refill the barrel with the wine. Our day of wine tasting is winding down. Leaving De La Montanya, Ken suggests one more stop.
Foppiano Vineyards is just across the Russian River and close to Route 101. Started by a young Italian immigrant, John Fappiano, who founded the winery in 1896. His descendents for six generations continue to grow grapes and make fine wine. We elect to taste the Petite Sirah wines for which Foppiano Vineyards is well known. Ken shares a post card depicting the day during prohibition when the Foppiano Winery had to pour their wine into the ditch. Word went out in town and people from all over the valley came to “partake” in the event. The post card depicts a ditch with men lying along the sides passed out from drinking the wine. Our final purchase of the day for the newlyweds is a reserve bottle of Petite Sirah.
Fun! Fantastic! Informative! Successful! Converts! These adjectives describe our day with Ken of Platypus Tours. With Ken’s knowledge of the wineries and areas, he connected us to wonderful locally family owned wineries. The education and pairing of cheeses with the wines helped to better appreciate the body, flavor and taste of the red wine varietals. We are converts! Now we better understand the red and white wines with the uniqueness and quality that are found in the smaller local wineries. Thank you, Ken!
Dropping off the wine purchases, we head to Vineyard Creek Spa for our couples massages. The Vineyard Creek Spa is located off a private garden courtyard of the Hyatt Vineyard Creek. At the spa we change into plush bathrobes and slippers, then meet in the Spa’s peaceful waiting area. Shortly, Dannelle and Jahna, our masseuses, welcome us for our Couple Pairing Massage and escort us to a suite where the massage tables are side-by-side. As our massages begin, we fully give into to total relaxation as the ladies work their magic on our muscles and bodies. We are both amazed at how good we feel after the massages.
Relaxed and rejuvenated! The Brasserie Restaurant adjacent to the Hyatt Vineyard Creek is perfect for a light dinner and, of course, a glass of local wine. Back at the Flamingo for a laid back evening, it is fun and share the events of the day and our wonderful, though short stay in Santa Rosa.
Accommodations: The Flamingo Conference Resort & Spa is a classic yet perfectly modern hotel. With its 170 rooms and suites it is equipped with amenities of voice mail, Internet, complimentary parking and a full service spa. Our room is spacious! While the couch, chair, TV and desk are all in the same room, the size of the room allows these to create separate areas. The pool is a focal point with the hotel buildings circling the pool, giving a luxuriant view of lush landscaping and the pool. Being health enthusiast we check-out the fitness center which is a “five-star” health club. The design, equipment, and service are first class.
If you go:
Flamingo Conference Resort and Spa, 2777 Fourth Street, Santa Rosa, CA 95405; 707.545.8530; www.flamingoresort.com
Platypus Tours, 707.253.2723; www.playtpustours.com (Great Tour! Lunch is included in the fee. Take your credit card and plan to buy some wine.)
Santa Rosa Convention & Visitors Bureau, 9 Fourth Street Santa Rosa, CA 95401; 707.577.8674; www.visitsantarosa.com (Pick up free tasting coupons and maps of local wineries.)
Sonoma County Tourism Bureau, 420 Aviation Blvd. #106; Santa Rosa, CA 95403; www.sonomacounty.com
Vineyard Creek Spa, 170 Railroad Street, Santa Rosa, CA 95401; www.ineyardscreekhyatt.com
Heaven Condensed – (a free wine road map with over 150 wineries and lodgings with n a 30 mile radius) of Wine Road Map for Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley. We found this very helpful for finding our way around these areas. www.wineroad.com