Sonoma County is filled with unique cities and small towns. These enclaves may be bohemian and rustic, or bustling and busy, each with its own identity and charm.
Our region has also seen a maturing food culture that emphasizes fresh, local ingredients prepared in innovative new ways, as well as an expanding wine presence, often by independent growers and vintners who prize low-intervention winemaking techniques using fruit grown with the utmost respect for the land and environment that surrounds it.
Ideally, these elements develop in harmony, each new element complementing the ones that came before it, staying true to the identity of the community where they belong. In this issue, Discoveries visited three newer tasting rooms that we believe represent the changing faces of Sonoma County.
As it happens, all three are tasting lounges, opened within the last two years. These are places where visitors go to sit back and relax while talking to friends, where a taste of wine is to be savored rather than rushed. While it is easily possible to visit all three in a day, it is also possible to visit just one in a day, spending the rest of the afternoon exploring the fine restaurants and other amenities of the towns.
PAUL MATHEW VINEYARDS
About 20 years ago, Graton was a town in transition. The once-thriving farm town had become worn down, its downtown block of businesses largely closed or abandoned. But local developer Orrin Thiessen wanted to rejuvenate this West County town back to its roots. Using old photographs and long memories of locals as his guide, he revived the town. Now, in buildings largely either restored or rebuilt as first envisioned, Graton is a small but lively destination, with remarkable restaurants, art galleries and antique shops lining the streets.
At the far end of the street in a Victorian-esque gray clapboard building with white-trimmed windows, is the Paul Mathew Vineyards’ tasting room. The space is on the ground floor of the two-story Thiessen Building, built to emulate the former Graton Hotel that once stood in the area.
The tasting room space is large and open, with the sun reflecting off the warm, creamy-yellow walls. While guests can taste along the long tasting bar (with some wine-barrel-stave bar stools for seating), several large, cushy couches are available for chatting and lounging while you taste. The fee of $10 (or $20 with the logo glass) is waived if you purchase a bottle.
Paul Mathew Vineyards proprietors Mat and Barb Gustafson have combined their wine industry experience (he a winemaker, she a sommelier) to focus on small-lot, mostly single-vineyard Pinot Noir. Mat, who is also co-winemaker at Moshin Vineyards, sources nearly all his fruit from the Green Valley region that surrounds Graton. Gustafson favors a winemaking style that emphasizes the fruit’s natural qualities, using indigenous yeasts for fermentation (when possible) and opts against filtering the wines.
The result are wines that are distinct and clearly indicative of their location. It was particularly interesting to taste the Russian River Pinot Noir blend of two vineyard sites, Ruxton and TNT, then later the single-vineyard offerings that composed the blend. From the Ruxton Vineyard, you’ll find earthiness, woodsy spice and black currant notes; from TNT Vineyard, bright cinnamon and ripe red raspberry and cherry flavors.
Between the friendly staff (Barb herself is often found behind the tasting room bar) and local touches, there’s an easy familiarity when visiting. It’s almost as if you’re dropping into the kitchen of an old friend.
It’s fitting, then, that the winery also has an extensive food-and-wine pairing program, held regularly in the tasting room’s striking meeting space. The room is dominated by the chalkboard wall that’s largely covered by a mural designed by an artist friend of the Gustafsons. In the past, guests sat along the large, wood-slab table, dining and drinking along a seminar theme (such as oyster heaven, garden vegetables or artisan cheese). New concepts are being discussed for 2015, so check in at the winery’s website or with the tasting room for more information.
Opened just over a year ago, the Cartograph tasting room offers exceptionally friendly service amid a large, airy and thoroughly modern tasting room—in other words, it fits in perfectly with Healdsburg’s artistic and contemporary, but laid-back and historic aesthetic.
Cartography is the study and making of maps, a practice that requires artistry, imagination, attention to detail and technical skill. A cartograph, according to the winery, is a “visual marking of ideals over time or place.” It’s a natural moniker for a winery whose owners, Alan Baker and Serena Lourie, have shared their personal story of wine discovery and their path to Healdsburg in literally every bottle.
The Cartograph logo is what, upon first glance, appears to be a sort of stylized rendering of a constellation. However, it is itself a cartograph, one that traces a line between the significant points of each partner’s personal wine journey, the movements that led them to their wine passions. Hers moves from her family home in Pentrez, France to Washington, D.C. before moving to San Francisco. His begins in St. Paul, Minnesota, then to San Francisco where their paths met while making wine at Crushpad urban winery. Together, they moved to Healdsburg to create Cartograph, the last point on their journey.
This cartograph logo is represented as a large art piece on the wall behind the long, curved white tasting counter. Large windows overlooking Center Street bathe the large tasting room space in bright light, adding warmth to the cool gray walls and floors. Vibrant accents complete the space, such as the bright blue, contemporary sectional couch and the large aluminum-printed photographs by local artist Damon Mattson.
Baker and Lourie are deeply involved in the winery, from picking the grapes to crafting the wines to designing and manning the tasting room counter. Their energy and excitement about their brand is clearly evident: even the smallest details have a reason for being and a story that they will happily share. They are a Pinot Noir-focused brand, seeking to create wines of complexity and character, with hallmarks of balance and nuance rather than bold intensity.
Baker and Lourie also embody the best spirit of Healdsburg’s wine industry. Though neither is a native to the city, their love, appreciation and commitment to the region is no less evident than what’s found in the planter box outside the tasting room window. When Baker first arrived in Healdsburg a decade ago, he clipped a starter cutting of rosemary from the bush outside the downtown Post Office—somewhat of a Healdsburg tradition. He cultivated and carried this plant with him through several moves, from Healdsburg, through San Francisco and back again to Healdsburg when he and Lourie returned in 2009. After a fire destroyed the Post Office in 2010, the original rosemary bush was removed—but thanks to Baker, a piece still lives on just a few paces away in the planter box outside of the tasting room. Guests are invited now to carry on this piece of Healdsburg’s history and clip a starter of their own—there are even pruning shears available at the tasting bar.
Cartograph is a small-production winery, and many of the offerings number less than 200 cases. Much of the wine is sourced locally from vineyards in the Russian River Valley (the Floodgate Vineyard Pinot Noir, with supple red fruit notes, is a particular standout), though some wines are sourced from Mendocino’s cooler climate regions. Personally, I make a special trip yearly to stock up on the winery’s Rosé of Pinot Noir, a delicate yet decadent wine with flavors of strawberry, orange blossom and even a hint of cranberry at the finish. It’s perpetually one of my favorite Rosés of the year, and is only available for a short time in spring and summer.
Like many of Healdsburg’s downtown wineries, Cartograph is part-lounge, part-tasting room. For a $10 fee (refundable with two-bottle purchase), guests can taste through the selection of Pinot Noirs and Alsatian whites, or they can buy a glass, half-carafe or bottle, grab a seat on the couch or at the window and relax.
Between Nightingale Breads, Twist Eatery, Backyard restaurant and Canneti Roadhouse, downtown Forestville has become a destination for Sonoma County fine dining fans. Though the food is high-end, Forestville maintains its quirky and come-as-you-are attitude. Two years ago, Wine Guerrilla co-founder and current owner, Andy Railla, chose the small town for the decade-old winery’s first tasting room. Railla had made offers on sites in Healdsburg, but abandoned plans for the larger town when this unique, spacious and architectural space became available. As a Zinfandel-focused producer, Railla believed Wine Guerrilla offered a contrasting tasting experience for an area of the Russian River Valley that is generally more focused on Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and cool-climate varieties. More than that, he believed wholeheartedly in Forestville’s future as a food and wine destination.
The space is part art gallery, part tasting room and part coffeehouse-style lounge. Stark white walls, large windows and swooping walkways create an open, bright space, balanced by earthy rust-colored floors and an abundance of rich, caramel-colored wood accents. Through the back is a courtyard where guests can also sip and picnic.
Wine Guerrilla, whose tagline is “The Art and Soul of Zinfandel,” is known for its huge variety of wines—33 different wines in all, a majority of which are old-vine, single-vineyard Zinfandels. There are also a number of Zinfandel-based field blends, where a single block was planted to a number of different red varieties, which are all picked and fermented together. The winery produces just about 2,500 cases a year, so each wine is fairly limited.
On any given day, guests are invited to taste, for a $10 refundable fee, through the six or so wines being poured that day. The winery buys all its fruit from local growers (nearly all from the Russian River or Alexander valleys). Railla likened this method to a form of guerrilla tactics, which, of course, inspired the winery’s name.
The 2011 Clopton Vineyards old-vine Zinfandel, if available, is superb. Made from vineyards planted in the late 1800s, the wine is smooth and full, with abundant dark red fruit notes and hints of earthiness and mocha at the finish. It is concentrated and complex, with the maturity of aged vines and the freshness of new wine. Another interesting option is the 2012 Carreras Ranch old- vine Zinfandel field blend (harvested and fermented together with Alicante Bouchet, Petite Sirah, Napa Gamay and Chasselas Doré), a complex, fruity and floral style.
Label art for each wine is created by Southern California artist Sean Colgin. Many of the labels are centered around female figures or florals, done in a bold and colorful modern expressionism-meets-Art Nouveau style. Other Art Nouveau prints of Colgin’s line the walls as well as being emblazoned on t-shirts and even phone cases. Along other walls are works from other local artists. This is a tasting room that merits several visits, as each time is bound to lead to new experiences and tastes.