Vines, winery and guesthouse surrounded by preserved open space
My cup of tea… is wine. So naturally when Gustafson Family Vineyards’ winemaker Emmett Reed poured a glass of their Estate Rose of Syrah and offered it to me before heading out on a tour of the property, I graciously accepted a glass of the dry, pink-colored beverage.
In fact, had time allowed, I may have asked to sit down inside the intimate tasting room—that intentionally seats just eight—to sample several more of the winery’s varieties, which include its flagship wine, Petite Syrah, and also Syrah, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, a Bordeaux-style blend, a port made with a Petite Syrah and Zinfandel blend, a Riesling, and a Sauvignon Blanc.
And while the wine itself is always an integral part of a tasting room experience, I have to say the palate isn’t the only thing being tended to on this 247-acre picturesque piece of property, with almost 360-degree views back-dropping 20 acres of vineyards and hundreds of madrone trees (including one with a base spanning 11-feet wide) standing amongst an array of redwoods, Douglas firs and oaks. Reportedly, less than 35 acres of the 247 have been developed; the balance is preserved.
As one of the highest-elevation wineries in Sonoma County, it’s not surprising, but nonetheless awe-inspiring, that you can see Mount St. Helena from the guesthouse and Lake Sonoma from the picnic area, both located adjacent to the tasting room.
As a landscape architect, it was no accident that owner Dan Gustafson patterned it that way, when in 2002 he purchased the Stewarts’ Point-Skaggs Springs Road property on which the vineyard and winery were planted and constructed.
“I enjoyed working with the land, whether it was designing and planting the vineyard, or designing and integrating the house on this amazing property,” Gustafson said in a recent phone interview from his primary residence in Minneapolis. (He has a second home in Healdsburg.) “Situated above the fog, summer and fall are the best time to visit (the estate), but a rainy winter day can be enjoyable when sitting by the fire in our vacation rental,” he said.
The vacation rental, included in the tour during Sonoma Discoveries’ recent visit, might possibly be as impressive as the rural property it’s built on, with a large stone fireplace and floor-to-ceiling windows in the living room offering breathtaking views and a telescope set up for that purpose.
“Guests either come here with a Costco wagon of supplies and hunker down or they go out wine tasting for the day and come back for dinner,” Reed said, as he paused in front of the chef’s kitchen, clearly designed for entertaining with two ovens, two sinks and two dishwashers. Three bedrooms, each set up like hotels with their own bathrooms and private access to an outdoor pool, are also housed inside this masculine structure with steel, stone and glass elements throughout.
Asked how a landscape architect got into the wine industry, Gustafson chuckled and said, “I don’t play golf.”
Then on a more serious note, he said he grew up in the country and has always been in love with nature. “I lived in a wooded area of southern Minnesota. In the summer my mom would pack me a lunch and I would go off into the woods for the whole day. Sometimes my Irish Setter would join me. When I entered college I originally wanted to teach at a college level, world religions and philosophy, but I realized that I really enjoyed the natural world more than the academic world and so I transferred to the University of Minnesota and completed studies in landscape architecture,” he said.
Gustafson became a registered landscape architect in 1972. For the next 30 years he designed, developed and contracted residential housing in Minnesota. Then, in the mid-1990s he visited Sonoma County and the wine country, because like many of those living here, he enjoyed wine.
Several years later he purchased a house at The Sea Ranch, renovated it and turned it into a vacation rental, but that didn’t keep him busy enough.
“I needed something to do. So I decided to plant a vineyard. I wanted to start everything from scratch. I wanted the opportunity to select the rootstocks, the clones, the varietals. I tended some short courses at UC Davis and read a lot,” he said.
In 2002 he purchased the land for what has since been transformed into Gustafson vineyards, winery and vacation rental. The first vines—5 acres of Zinfandel and Petite Syrah—were planted in 2004. In 2005, another 7 acres of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc were planted. Then, in 2008, the vineyard was expanded to 20 acres with the addition of Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as additional Zinfandel and Petite Syrah. The winery and the house were completed in 2007.
Reed came on board that same year. “My favorite spot is right out here,” Reed said, now standing outside in the picnic area. “The trees frame [the view],” he said, looking out over the hills, vineyards and still more trees, that seemingly lead your gaze to Lake Sonoma.
“I really like winemaking because it’s a great balance between science, agriculture and hard work,” Reed said. “You get to work in the vineyards and with your hands… the winemaking process is also very hands-on and there’s a lot of science in winemaking as well. And, the finished product is very sexy,” he added, as we headed from the picnic area back down the hill.
“At the end of the day we farm the property; the fermentation and winemaking process is a very small component. A grape is grown for a whole year in the vineyard.”
Gustafson Family Vineyards produces about 4,000 cases a year. Its 2013 vintage of Riesling just received a Double Gold medal from the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. Gustafson Family Vineyards also earned seven Gold and Silver awards at the 2015 Sonoma County Harvest Fair and nice scores from the Wine Enthusiast on several of their wines.
The owner said he has no plans to expand but simply wants to “continue to improve on what we do year after year.”
Gustafson said he likes the fact that all of the grapes are estate-grown or within a 10-minute walk of the winery. “It allows us to really understand the land and learn from every vintage,” Gustafson said.
Gustafson Family Vineyards Estate Winery is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. by appointment only on Fridays, Sundays and Mondays. Take Dry Creek Road past Lake Sonoma dam, turn left on Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road and go about five miles up the hill. The winery is on your right. 707-433-2371. The vacation rental can be booked online at gfvineyard.com. Cost is $1,100 per night. A two-night minimum stay is required.
Tasters who don’t want to go the extra mile can also sample Gustafson wines at its downtown Healdsburg tasting room, located at 34 North St. No appointment is necessary at this tasting room, which is open daily from noon to 7 p.m. SD
Gustafson Family Vineyards