A Trip to Sonoma County

Exploring California's historic Cabernets


I recently visited Sonoma. I spent the better part of a week there, rushing around from winery visit to winery visit. I have to admit that doing all that rushing, which mostly consisted of cruising around at 35 mph on beautiful country roads, served to remind me of just how gorgeous Sonoma County is. Being gorgeous isn’t in and of itself a recipe for anything, but in this case that which make Sonoma so beautiful, the rolling hills and twisting valleys, are what make it such a fabulous place to grow grapes.

While Sonoma may best be known for Pinot Noir (Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast) or Zinfandel (Dry Creek Valley), the truth is that everywhere you look you can find Cabernet. Cabernet that is many times great, distinctive, delicious and affordable!

Photo courtesy Kenn Wilson via Flickr/CC

There is a lot of history here. My winery visits were planned based on who was producing Sonoma County Cabernet in the great 1978 vintage. It was an evenhanded way to approach the always-sticky question of who to visit.

I could have easily visited the hot wineries du jour, but of course then you run the risk of picking yesterday’s hot wineries du jour and finding yourself SOL, as they say.
I could have picked more of my favorite wineries, but many of them don’t produce Cabernet.

With the purpose of my trip being to check in on Cabernet (September is GTiCabernet on Snooth), I settled on wineries with history.

While some of these wineries may not be truly historic in the large scheme of things, they certainly make up the old guard of Sonoma. As is frequently the case, the old guard tend to not be among the hot wineries of the day. Changes generally come slowly to wineries of this age and scale. What is hot is generally disruptive, new, flashy and short-lived.

In hindsight, I’m glad that I went with these old geezers. Not only do they offer a unique perspective on the wines of Sonoma and how they’ve changed over the decades, they also offer a glimpse into Sonoma’s soul. The people and way of life that has long separated Sonoma from its neighbors.

So that’s why I picked the following wineries, though some outliers snuck in for fun.

I’ve compiled a list of top-rated, recently reviewed Sonoma County Cabernets, which can be found here, but I will be including all of the Sonoma Cabernets I tasted below. 

At some wineries I was under certain time constraints which allowed me to taste only briefly (late arrival, traffic getting to Sonoma and an over-ambitious plan on my part). At others, I enjoyed the leisure of time, tasting through all that was on offer.

There is a litany of great places for winemaking in Sonoma, and almost all varietals have found their ideal spot. Today I am focusing on Cabernet, so it’s not surprising to find many wines from the southern and western portion of the county. The Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley and Chalk Hill AVAs have certainly earned their reputation as unique and distinctive regions for producing premium Cabernet Sauvignon, but they are not the end all of Sonoma County.

Sonoma County is really a wine lover’s playground, and as such is ideal for an adventure of discovery. I found great Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and yes, Cabernet as well, from producers big and small, old and new. That is the beauty of a trip like this. Even after almost three decades of learning about wine, there is always something new to teach this old dog.

I’ll leave you with a thought that is becoming a conviction. A lot of California wine is becoming both over-priced and anonymous. This is true of both California and the rest of the wine-producing world. We do not need to suffer through this charade. Expensive wines are frequently expensive because of low yields and expensive barrel treatments, both of which, when taken to extreme, tend to reduce a wine’s unique character.

So what should we do? Well, looking at some less expensive alternatives would be a good place to start. Check out my top picks under $20 from this trip. I would be happy drinking any of these wines, and frankly both the prices and the friendly nature of these wines cause them to appear more frequently on my table. Big, intense, opulent wines have their price tags, and their place, but let’s face it, we’re all more likely to drink any of these value wines than the trophies!

See the Top 6 High-Scoring Sonoma Cabernet Slideshow

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