Wine 101: American Wine Regions: Sonoma Deep Dive

This episode of “Wine 101” is sponsored by J Vineyards & Winery, makers of small-batch, single-vineyard wines and acclaimed sparkling wine using the traditional method, meaning J makes sparkling wine by hand. J makes a portfolio of bubblies ranging from vibrant and crisp to creamy and graceful. If you’re not feeling bubbly, J Vineyards still wine is equally sublime. To fully experience J Wine paired with curated cuisine, visit J Vineyards & Winery Tasting Room in Sonoma County. 

On this episode of “Wine 101,” VinePair’s tastings director Keith Beavers recounts his recent trip to Sonoma, one of the largest wine regions in the country. Beavers talks about the vineyards he visited and the wines they produce, restaurants in nearby towns, and the sense of community throughout Sonoma. Tune in to learn more. 


Listen on Apple Podcasts

Listen on Spotify


Keith Beavers: My name is Keith Beavers and I know that every place in the country has its own specific thing that’s important. Like New Jersey, it has the best bagels ever. 

What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to VinePair’s “Wine 101” podcast. Adam Teeter, CEO of VinePair, and I went to Sonoma and Napa for a week to get a deep dive into these amazingly famous regions to see what it’s like being there and drinking there. Let’s deep dive. 

I know that we’ve done a Sonoma episode and I know that we’ve done a Napa episode. These are two of the most recognized appellations, not only in California but in the United States. Napa, of course, is famous. We all know it’s our fine wine region. Sonoma is just as famous because Sonoma is where it all started. This is where the wine industry of California and the United States really began. So what’s it like being in Sonoma? What’s it like visiting, drinking, and eating there? Gallo, who is the sponsor of this podcast, took me and Adam Teeter, CEO of VinePair, to these two regions for a week. They guided us through both of these regions and gave us a chance to just be there and experience it and see what it’s like to be in and around two of our most famous wine regions. We took some recording equipment out and we got some really awesome interviews and I want to share those with you. But we’ve got so much cool stuff that I’m going to have to share in another episode, which is next week. Right now I want to give you a sense of what we experienced in Sonoma so that when you go out there, you can have a sense of what you might experience. Here in “Wine 101” we always talk about, how are you going to feel comfortable in a wine shop? How are you going to feel comfortable with a wine list? How are you going to feel comfortable just knowing about wine? Well now, how do you feel comfortable about being in Sonoma? Let’s get into it. 

Brenae Royal: When a consumer is coming to Sonoma County, you’re not geared towards one area. You’re kind of like, “All right, I can’t hit Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley in the same street. I can’t go to Russian River.” 

K: That was Brenae Royal, the Monte Rosso winery relations and vineyard ops manager for Gallo. This is a little snippet of the interview you’re going to hear next week. There’s so much information in this interview and you guys are going to love it. But I wanted to share that one clip because when she said that, that right there kind of explains it all. Let me let me elaborate. We flew into San Francisco airport, rented a car, and started heading north on the 101 towards a town called Healdsburg. It’s about an hour and 45 minutes from San Francisco. You passed Novato, Petaluma, the big town of Santa Rosa. The awesome little town of Sebastopol, which I’ll talk about in a minute. And then you head into Healdsburg. Now Healdsburg is pretty far north in Sonoma County. Maybe an hour southeast, you will be in downtown Sonoma, the historical square that I talk about a lot in the American History of Wine series, as well as the Sonoma episode. But that kind of gives you a sense of how much geography we have here in Sonoma. If you haven’t been to the downtown area of Sonoma, you have to go. It’s a beautiful square. You have the fort there. The whole history is there. 

The thing about Healdsburg, which is really cool, is you are smack dab in wine country. Healdsburg is a very cool town. It’s got an old-school vibe and it has a lot of new school as well. There’s a lot of new development happening in Healdsburg and there’s a lot of old classic architecture there as well. It’s not quaint, but it’s a beautiful little town and the restaurants and the vibe there are awesome. We’ll talk about the restaurants in a second. Getting a sense of culture in the heart of Sonoma is very cool because Adam and I drove about 10 or 11 minutes north of Healdsburg to a little town called Geyserville, where they had this very old-school-looking American farm town Main Street downtown area. It’s very small, but they have amazing restaurants. 

This is California, this is Sonoma. This is where Alice Waters was getting all of her farm-to-table ingredients for Chez Panisse back in the day. We go to an awesome Italian restaurant. I say Italian restaurant, it’s an Italian family called Catelli’s. It’s just wild that you have an Italian restaurant that’s utilizing the fresh farm-to-table ingredients of California. The Catellis have been in this area since 1936. It’s run by the third generation of the family. When you’re there, you’re basically like family. You’re enjoying food, you’re enjoying wine. The owner and chef, Dominica Cattelli, is walking around talking to people. People are asking how their kids are. It’s just a very cool vibe. 

I’m mentioning this just because I want to give a sense of the community here. The next day, we headed over to J Vineyards. J, which was started by Judy Jordan in 1985 at 26 years old, is mostly known for its sparkling wine. They have a very wide range of sparkling. But also very unique to J Vineyards, is they also have a very long line of still wines. This is something you don’t really see often in Sonoma. So we met up with the head winemaker for J Vineyards, Nicole Hitchcock. She was awesome enough to bring us around to multiple vineyards. What’s really wild about Sonoma in 2022 is that you are driving around and you’re losing cell service. That’s how diverse the geography is. There are so many hills, it’s insane. We ended up on one of these hills, one of these hill vineyards, called East Side Knoll. When you’re standing on East Side Knoll and you’re looking around, it’s a Pinot Noir vineyard. And we were actually drinking the East Side Knoll Pinot Noir while we’re in the vineyard. It’s a beautiful Pinot Noir if you guys have a chance to try it. But you’re standing on this hill and you’re looking around and you just cannot. It’s just undeniable how diverse this region is just standing on this one little plot, and get a sense of why this large wine region of 18 AVAs exists because people just are searching around and trying to find the best little plots to make wine. They keep on doing it. And just the name of this vineyard, East Side Knoll, is not just a really cool name. It’s a location, saying this is the East Side Knoll because this is the sun exposure here in this particular kind of soil. This is why we like it here. And it’s why the vineyard’s here. It’s the East Side Knoll, it’s kind of great. Also being an East Side Knoll, it’s all hand-harvested, which is even more awesome because it’s Pinot Noir. 

We then get a chance to go to a very large winery in Sonoma called Frei Brothers Ranch, and it is an absolute testament to how the wine industry can adapt itself. It is a winery that is one of the largest in California. It’s the Gallo Premium winemaking facility. And again, all these grapes that are brought to this particular vineyard or winery are all picked by hand. I got to see all the vineyards around it. But what’s amazing about this, is when you’re staring at this facility, you see three decades’ worth of equipment in that every generation builds on this property and improves the way wine can be made. A lot of the cool things that are happening here, is they were utilizing technologies from other industries to apply to the winery here. For example, there was this one piece of equipment that would take the grapes, and the grapes were on an arm and the arm would move and bring grapes to a different place. This is something that had to happen. They didn’t know how to do this, but one of the people that worked there at the time saw this happening at a quarry and took the technology of the quarry and applied it to wine. That kind of innovation harkens back to an early pioneer of the wine industry in Sonoma, Charles Krug, who, if you remember in the American Wine History series, was the guy who used different equipment for things. For example, he used a cider press to press grapes. He was one of the first to do that and was like, “Oh, that’s a good idea.”. 

We had lunch at the Dry Creek General Store. Wine lovers, if you’re in Sonoma, it would behoove you to go to the Dry Creek General Store. This thing has been around since 1881. It’s survived all kinds of things, from Prohibition to world wars. It’s changed hands many times, but everyone that has owned it has made it better. It became a landmark in 1979. The food there is out of this world. The sandwiches are amazing. You get a little lunch box with a sandwich and a kale salad and a little cookie, it’s incredible. We were there for lunch, but also to meet Scott Johnson, who’s the director of grower relations for Gallo. This was an opportunity for us to meet actual growers, the people that are, that have been out there for generations in the vineyards, making it happen. There’s something about meeting growers and listening to their stories. I keep on mentioning that the general store was from 1881. We’re kind of a young country. So the generational stories, even though they don’t go back too far, it’s really amazing still to hear that these families are still there after generations still doing it there in Sonoma. It’s a wine region, but it is still a community and they’re making great stuff. 

We go to this place called Kokomo Winery. You might remember Kokomo Winery if you’ve read our Top 25 Pinot Noir list of 2022 when they absolutely made that list. But we had a chance to sit down with Randy Peters, who’s the grape grower for Kokomo Winery, and his family’s been there since the beginning of all this wine stuff in Sonoma. It was great to hear his family history and how they’re still doing that to this day. If you guys ever get a chance to go to Kokomo Winery’s tasting room and Eric Miller is there, please talk to him. This man knows how to make wine. We tasted almost all the Kokomo Winery wines, but something very interesting happened that I thought was pretty fascinating and very American. We also tasted the Kokomo Winery Muscat Blanc. In addition to that, Eric Miller has a second label called Breaking Bread, where he does more natural-leaning ideas. But he makes very clean, very sound wine where he actually did a skin contact with Muscat Blanc. So what we did is, we sat there and compared these two, the non-skin contact and the skin contact. And then we drank this beautiful carbonic Zinfandel that was absolutely wonderful and ended up talking a lot about Zinfandel and how they love it out there. But they can’t make it as much because Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are dominant. But they’re still out there planting and working with Zinfandel and Moscato Blanc. I guess what I’m saying here is there’s a beautiful connection to the history here, even though we’re in a region that is primarily Pinot Noir and primarily Chardonnay. 

There’s a lot of different stuff going on in Sonoma, and that’s the thing about Sonoma. In that clip you heard in the beginning with Brenae, I feel the beauty of Sonoma. It’s about exploring it and going to the different wine regions. I don’t know how long you have to stay in Sonoma to hit all 18, which is just a lot. But there are tasting rooms and we’ll talk about in a second. Sonoma is hilly, it’s beautiful, it’s geographically diverse. And there’s actually a lot of other stuff going on that you can enjoy while you’re playing around with the wine. One day after lunch just outside of Healdsburg and one of the most amazing sushi places I’ve ever been in my life, we ended up going to a little town called Guerneville, which is on its way to the coast along the Russian River towards the Pacific. 

I went to my first redwood forests. It was absolutely out of control. I’d never seen a redwood before. I’m looking at these and they’re like dinosaurs, but like trees. I mean, there was a 1,400-year-old tree. That’s great, but they also keep legit stuff near the centers. Just outside of Healdsburg, there’s this brand new beautiful hacienda-looking facility with a courtyard in the middle and there’s bocce and there are five tasting rooms and there are little stores with local fare. It’s called Bacchus Landing. It’s owned and run by a wine family, the Lopez family, who has a winery. Well, they actually have a tasting room in the facility as well, called Aldina Winery. “Aldina” is “Al” and “Dina” Lopez, the parents of the family. And it’s mostly run by Francisco and Monica, the children of the family. What’s cool about this is it’s showing the newer, younger winemakers coming up in Sonoma. Sonoma is the beginning of our wine industry in America, pretty much. And to have a place that can showcase the newer winemakers of the area, the next generation of the winemakers, is very cool. 

So Sonoma has a lot to offer. I didn’t realize it until I went. I’ve touched Sonoma every once in a while. You dip your toe in and you’re like, “Wow, that was really crazy.” But to be there for a few days and to really just be in it and enjoy it, you get a sense that this is one of the most famous wine regions we have besides Napa. But man, it’s still a community. It’s still got a lot of the American story here. There’s just something so cool about being in a wine region and going to a restaurant and the wine list is all the wines that are around the area. When we started this wine thing in America, these people that came from Europe came here and they wanted to emulate what they had. And here it is. You can go to Sonoma and be in this place and then you got these nice restaurants. There’s a really wonderful restaurant I went to in downtown Healdsburg called Valette, and the wine list is just Sonoma wine. It’s so cool. So you’re bopping around all day long, going to wineries, doing your thing and you come back, have dinner in Healdsburg and you’re drinking the wine of all the places you saw or know are around. I don’t know. There’s something so beautiful about that. 

What I saw in Sonoma that was very cool, whether it was Nicole Hitchcock at J Vineyards or Francisco and Monica at Bacchus Landing, there is a shift happening. Even with Eric Miller from Kokomo Winery. And Randy Peters, even though he is a third- or fourth-generation grower, you could see there’s a new generation happening in Sonoma. It’s very exciting. 

One of the most exciting examples of this for me was being able to get to tour one of the most revered vineyards in Sonoma, the Monte Rosso Vineyard. It’s been there for a very long time, and it’s a legacy vineyard. It’s very big and it’s a vineyard that has multiple varieties in it. Some of them *are very old. There are 136-year-old Sémillon wines. There are 82-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon vines, I think some of the oldest in California. And it is managed and run by Brenae Royal, the vineyard ops manager you heard a clip of in the beginning of this episode. Gallo brought her on almost 10 years ago now, and she didn’t just maintain a vineyard. She saw an opportunity to take something that was historic and bring it into the future. Her goal was to take this historic vineyard and lift it up and utilize her skills to bring this property and these vines into the future by allowing more people to buy the fruit and make wine from it. So that they may put Monte Rosso or even the Moon Mountain AVA on the label, just to actually add to the legacy of Sonoma. To build on the legacy, that’s better. 

So that’s what Sonoma is. It’s an incredibly geographically diverse place. It’s very large, it has a lot of wine regions, but every single wine region that is in all 18 of them are there for a reason. And the wines that come out of these AVAs are special because of that. To be in Sonoma is to actually bop around and kind of explore the place. Sonoma, the downtown area, the square, the famous square is almost an hour southeast of Healdsburg. That kind of gives you a sense of how big this place is. But this is where it all began. Before we left Sonoma, I was really adamant that I wanted to go to Buena Vista Winery, the winery that Agaston Haraszathy began all the way back in the day, beginning this whole thing. And I must say, when you go to Buena Vista, a lot of people call it the biggest tourist attraction in Sonoma. It is a tourist attraction. His land is there. His topiary that he built for his wife is there. The buildings are there. There’s a guy walking around with a red sash and he looks a little bit like Agaston Haraszathy. I bought a bobblehead of Agaston Haraszathy in the gift shop. But that doesn’t matter because if you go to Buena Vista Winery, which is just a little bit off the square in Sonoma, you’re standing in the beginnings of American wine history. So it doesn’t matter if it’s cheesy or not. It’s amazing. 

That’s Sonoma the way I saw it. It’s the beginning of our wine industry that has established itself over a long period of time over decades. I think that now, the region is ready for its next phase, and it’s a very exciting time for Sonoma. It’s a very exciting time for one of our first wine regions. And as of this year, Sonoma County is 99 percent sustainable. Talk about a community coming together to make something awesome happen. So next week, I am going to publish a vineyard tour that Adam and I took with Brenae Royal at Monte Rosso. It is going to blow your mind. She’s going to talk about how she got there, she’s going to talk about the history of the vineyard itself. She’s talking about what she’s doing to bring it into the future. And this entire conversation is literally showing us the past, the present, and the future of Sonoma. We’ll talk next week, 

B: I’ll say, Keith, look around. There’s zero uniformity.

@VinePairKeith is my Insta. Rate and review this podcast wherever you get your podcasts from. It really helps get the word out there.

And now, for some totally awesome credits. “Wine 101” was produced, recorded, and edited by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big ol’ shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin for creating VinePair. Big shout-out to Danielle Grinberg, the art director of VinePair, for creating the most awesome logo for this podcast. Also, Darbi Cicci for the theme song. Listen to this. And I want to thank the entire VinePair staff for helping me learn something new every day. See you next week.

Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.