Sonoma County’s wineries are often prized for their boutique and rustic charm. It’s largely this laid-back approach that separates Sonoma from the Napa Valley, which is (sometimes quite literally) dotted with wine castles. Here in Sonoma County, we prize the personal touch, and if we are able to get it from the winemaker or owner, even better.

But Sonoma County can also do grand opulence, wineries with expansive grounds and sweeping vistas. Though these wineries are breathtaking in scope, they are also focused on producing high quality, unique wines. More than anything else, exceptional wines will always be Sonoma County’s true calling card.

1474 Alexander Valley Rd., Healdsburg
Open by appointment only, Monday through Saturday, and also Sundays from mid-April to mid-November.

With its steeply-pitched dormer roof, ochre-yellow stucco walls crawling with ivy, stony courtyards and meticulously manicured lawns and hedges, a visit to Jordan Vineyard & Winery is like stepping onto the grounds of an ancient French chateau. Perched atop a vine-covered hill (another tradition borrowed from Bordeaux), the 38-year-old building was indeed inspired by founders Tom and Sally Jordan’s love of all things French.

The Jordan chateau is the cornerstone of the winery. Opened in 1976 in time to accept the winery’s first vintage, the Chateau serves as the winery’s label image, its working production facility and as the visual representation of the French-inspired winemaking philosophy.

Located in the heart of the Alexander Valley, Jordan produces just two wine varieties — the Bordeaux-inspired Cabernet Sauvignon and the Burgundian-style Chardonnay. Both are designed to be food-friendly and balanced, in the style of their Old World predecessors. For all of the French-tinged flourish, Jordan’s wines are also quintessentially Sonoma County, full and flavorful with rich fruit notes.
The winery, now managed by Tom and Sally’s son, John, is also deeply committed to sustainable farming practices. Of the estate’s 1,200 acres, less than 200 acres are planted to vines or orchards. Much of the rest of the property is left as an open-space wildlife preserve. Centuries-old oak trees are found throughout the property, even amidst vineyard blocks. The importance was placed not on maximizing vineyard production but on minimizing the impact these vines would have on the natural landscape.

It’s this directive that also guides the winery’s food sourcing for executive chef Todd Knoll. A three-season chef’s garden grows much of what Knoll uses for his daily food pairings. A chicken coop provides fresh eggs, while floral gardens are used for the fresh flowers used by hospitality staff. What the winery cannot produce itself, it partners with as many local purveyors as it can.

Visitors are welcomed to Jordan by appointment only, and only at pre-set times. There are three tasting experience options for guests. The first is a one-hour seated Library Tasting for $30. For visitors who have a bit more flexibility in time, there is a 90-minute Winery Tour and Library Tasting for $40, which adds on a 30-minute walking tour of the chateau and its terraces and gardens. For those looking to fully explore the Jordan estate, the winery offers a 3-hour Estate Tour & Tasting for $120 (mid-April to mid-November only).

Each of the three tasting experiences offers sips of not only the current vintages of both Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, but also one library selection of Cabernet Sauvignon. Estate Tour guests are also given a library selection of Chardonnay. This method of tasting highlights not only the differences between vintage years, but also demonstrates how the wines evolve through time.

The tastings also feature a small hors d’oeuvre created each day by executive chef Todd Knoll to pair with the wines. Jordan’s estate-grown olive oil is also offered for tasting. Service and presentation are key here. The plates are gorgeous, creative and delicious.

On my visit, I opted for the Estate Tour, which takes guests from the impressive historic tank room, where 23,000-liter oak tanks are used to age the wines, to the winery’s Vista Point tasting pavilion. At the property’s highest point, this spot offers a full, 360-degree view of the Alexander and Russian River valleys, the Mayacamas Mountains and more. In between, guests visit the chef’s garden, where you’re encouraged to wander and taste, and out to a stone tasting terrace overlooking the estate’s stocked fishing lake.

Because of the structure of Jordan’s tastings and tours, promptness is required. Late guests cannot disturb the in-progress tastings and tours of other visitors, and while the winery does try to be as accommodating as possible, tastings may not be able to be rescheduled for another time that day. While the rules may seem stringent at first glance, this preserves the elegance and integrity of their tasting experiences.

Ferrari-Carano Vineyards & Winery
8761 Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg. 800-831-0381
Open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Ferrari-Carano Vineyards and Winery has long been a tentpole winery in Healdsburg’s Dry Creek Valley. Originally founded in 1981, it is now one of the region’s most popular wineries. And when Don and Rhonda Carano opened their grand, Italian-inspired Villa Fiore Wine Shop & Tasting Room in 1997, the winery truly became one of the most opulent destinations in the region.

Literally meaning “House of Flowers,” Villa Fiore is a showcase for founder Rhonda Carano’s magnificent five acres of gardens surrounding the Villa. With more than 2,000 different species of plants, flowers, trees and shrubs growing at the estate, the gardens are an ever-changing kaleidoscope to explore.

As guests walk up the long, stone pathway to the Villa, they pass a large enclosed garden. At the Villa, the concierge can give you a pamphlet detailing the 36 marked plants along the self-guided garden tour. Centered around a meandering stream that looks as though it bubbled up from an underground spring, visitors can amble across footbridges or sit on a bench in the shade of a Portuguese cork oak tree, listening to the gentle gurgling of the stream. Further down the path, a Japanese pagoda overlooks one of the several waterfall features in the garden, surrounded by trees, flowers and shrubs native to Asia. On a quiet day, visitors may even find they have the garden to themselves, at least for a little while.

At the entrance plaza of Villa Fiore, Carano and head gardener Pat Patin have created an intricate, formal parterre-style garden. Originating from 15th-century French Renaissance trends, a parterre is a garden set upon a flat surface using symmetrical, stylized planting beds. The Ferrari-Carano interpretation is of an Italian/French style, with tightly cropped raised hedges gently curving around a circular central focal point. Rather than the traditional gravel pathways, here the garden is connected by a verdant green lawn.

The Villa itself is done in a commanding Roman Italianite style, with a red tile roof, covered archways held up by Tuscan columns and an abundance of large paneled windows divided by muntin bars. Out in the back, a spacious lawn is divided by a large reflecting pool and fountain, with decorative archways beyond that.

All this, and we still haven’t even talked about the wine! Ferrari-Carano is a large-scale producer, and many examples of their wines can be found in grocery stores, wine shops or other locations. However, the winery has a portfolio of 25 different wines from the winery’s 1,400 acres of grapes, mostly within Sonoma County.

There are two walk-in tasting options available. A $5 tasting of four wines is conducted in the lively and bright, though retail-focused, Villa Fiore Tasting Bar overlooking the vineyards and reflecting pool. The wines here are mostly from their entry-level Classics segment. For $15, you are invited to go to their underground Enoteca wine cellar, where you can taste four wines from the winery’s full portfolio, including many that can only be found there. The Enoteca space is richer, a bit darker and far more sumptuous. Catch a view of the winery’s massive oak aging cellar on your way to the tasting bar, decorated with several ornate black crystal chandeliers, with heavy wood tables for larger groups and seated tastings, or find a space and a stool at the black granite tasting bar.

I was particularly intrigued by the winery’s PreVail label, especially the Back Forty Cabernet Sauvignon from mountain vineyards in Alexander Valley. Though pricey at $85 per bottle, it was a dark, fruit-forward version of Cabernet Sauvignon, with little of the typical leather or spice one might expect from the variety.

For those looking to have a more formal introduction to Ferrari-Carano’s wines, they have seven private, appointment-only tasting experiences available Tuesday through Saturday. Most are $35 per person, accommodating groups up to six people. Details can be found on the winery’s website, but the Scentiments tasting looks particularly fun and educational. Here, guests are familiarized with 12 different aromas found in wine, then look to identify these notes in five wines poured for the tasting.

Chalk Hill
10300 Chalk Hill Rd.
Open daily, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Founded in the early 1970s by Fred and Peggy Furth, Chalk Hill winery is a perfect encapsulation of the entire district, offering both the elegant white wines that are the hallmark of the region and the robust reds that thrive on the warmer Mayacamas Mountain vineyards that divide Sonoma and Napa counties.

Though Chalk Hill overlaps the fog-shrouded Russian River Valley to the west, its higher elevations mean warmer temperatures. Yet, Chalk Hill is still cooler than the Alexander Valley or Knight’s Valley districts to the north and east, respectively. Chalk Hill’s most distinctive geographic feature, though, is the ashy, chalk-colored volcanic soils that give the region its name.

As one of Sonoma County’s oldest wineries, Chalk Hill sits on an idyllic 1,300-acre property, two-thirds of which has been left as uncultivated wilderness. The winery’s production facility and hospitality center are set upon one of the property’s many rolling hills, facing eastward toward the Mayacamas Mountains and some of Chalk Hill’s 300 acres of estate vineyards. The property also includes stables, a stunning equestrian pavilion, several ponds, a chapel and a pair of culinary gardens that are used by head chef Didier Ageorges for the winery’s culinary programs.

Bought in 2010 by financial services mogul Bill Foley, who lives part-time in a residence on the property, Chalk Hill is now within the Foley Family Wines portfolio. Previously open by appointment only, Chalk Hill is now open daily to drop-in visitors for either the one-hour $20 Estate tasting or the 75-minute $30 Reserve tasting, each featuring four wines from Chalk Hill’s portfolio. Groups of six or more require a reservation. More extensive tours of the property are available by appointment.

The hospitality center was remodeled last year to take better advantage of the site. Stones sourced from the property were used to create the exterior walkways and staircase that ascends to the tasting room. Rather than standing at a traditional tasting room bar, guests are invited to have a seated tasting, either on the large patio overlooking the property or inside the well-appointed tasting room.

The tasting room décor has a contemporary take on traditional luxury. The effect is light, airy and inviting. Contemporary accents like hammered-metal orb chandeliers and mid-century modern gold sunburst mirrors complement traditional elements like beige leather settees, dark wood tables and tufted couches. Little space is allocated toward retail, bringing the focus squarely to the wines and the vineyards beyond.

The best way for guests to truly understand the Chalk Hill estate is to join one of their regular property tours. The $50 Estate Tour is a 90-minute foray into the site-specific viticulture and wines that define the Chalk Hill style. The itinerary is loose and can be somewhat adapted to the interests of the group. The tour winds through the estate’s hillside vineyards and includes a stop at the culinary gardens in the shadow of the equestrian pavilion.

The more extensive Culinary Lunch Tour takes guests on an extensive visit to the organic culinary gardens, where one of Chalk Hill’s gardeners will explain their sustainable philosophy and commitment to year-round harvesting. Following the garden visit, guests will visit the equestrian pavilion for a sit-down tasting of Chalk Hill’s wines, paired with food crafted by Chef Didier Ageorges. The pavilion, an Alaskan golden cedar homage to horsemanship, includes an Olympic-sized dressage arena and a multi-level indoor space that has a 21-foot Louis XIII-style fireplace at its focal point. Starting at $100, this tour is available only on Tuesdays and Wednesdays by appointment.

The Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay, a more subtle approach to the classic oak-and-vanilla California Chardonnay, is owner Bill Foley’s favorite. Approachable and balanced, it’s a pleasing take on a well-loved wine.   SD

Photo by Sarah Bradbury