My drive from Monterey to Sonoma was a slow one. It was a rainy day in NoCal, and I ended up in a traffic jam around the Oakland area. But eventually I made it to the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau in the historic Sonoma Plaza, which is an incredibly cute small town square that was like something out of a romantic indie movie.
I arrived in Sonoma without plans, which is really unlike me. But I thought I'd stop at the visitors bureau and get their recommendations for what to do for a few hours on a rainy day. And more importantly, I wanted to find out which wineries would be the best to visit out of the hundreds of wineries in the area. So I guess I did have a plan. Drink wine.
A sweet older lady greeted me at the bureau and showed me maps of Sonoma Valley. She said I could walk around the plaza and do tastings at different restaurants, but then she said if I wanted to do a full winery tour I should go to Benziger Family Winery, which is one of 15 (I think) out of a thousand wineries in the area that is a biodynamic winery/farm. It sounded like a great plan to me, so I thanked her for her help, made a little donation to the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau, grabbed an "I love Sonoma Valley" sticker for my jacket, hopped in my car, and drove to the Benziger farm.
The winery is in Glen Ellen, right outside of Sonoma, and it's also where Jack London State Historic Park is located. As I was driving, I saw an old building with a huge water wheel on the right side of the road, and it turned out to be a complex of restaurants and boutique stores. So I stopped at Jack London Village and decided to eat lunch in the building with the water wheel, which was called the Grist Mill.
The Grist Mill had a great menu of comfort foods. Perfect for the cloudy, rainy day. I was the only one in the restaurant, so I chose to sit at a big table facing the window that looked out over a big creek and into some woods. I was pretty hungry because I skipped breakfast, so I ordered a huge grilled pork chop with Tasso gravy and served with mashed red potatoes. Plus, I needed to fill up to get my body ready for several hours of wine drinking. :)
When the waitress brought out my food, I didn't realize how big of a meal it was going to be. And I also didn't think it was going to be as tasty as it was. I ate every last bit of that pork chop and sopped up all the Tasso gravy and cleaned out the bowl of mashed potatoes. *burp*
The dessert menu looked awesome, but there was no way I could fit any dessert in my belly and still have room for the all the wine I was hoping to drink. So I paid my bill, took a quick walk around the rest of Jack London Village, then headed to the winery.
In a few minutes, I turned onto London Ranch Road and found a narrow driveway with a sign for Benziger Family Winery tucked away to the side.
I drove up the driveway, and suddenly the road opened up to this amazing, autumnal, rolling landscape. It was quiet and peaceful, and I found that there were only a handful of cars in the parking lot.
I walked to the visitors office to see if I could join a tour, and I lucked out as there was one getting ready to leave in just a few minutes. There were only two other people on the tour with me, and we got to ride in a little tram around the vineyards while the guide explained the winemaking process -- from grapes to bottles. We learned about biodynamic/green farming at the Benziger winery and at Imagery (its sister winery, which I visited later in the day).
I took a peak at cabernet sauvignon grapes (my favorite) in a fermenter and checked out the barrel cave. It was great learning about the way oak barrels are toasted and how the toasting affects the flavor of the wine.
You learn so much about winemaking on the tour. (It sort of reminded me of the coffee plantation tours I took in Costa Rica.) Of course the best part of the tour is at the end when you get to taste the different wines. Yay!
I tried a little of everything. The chardonnay, the sauvignon blanc, the pinot grigio, the merlot... I probably tasted more wine than I should have. I also should have spit out some of the wine, but I think there were only a couple that I sipped and dumped. They were all so good. But I had two favorites. The Oonapais and Tribute. I love reds.
After the tasting, I couldn't help but join the Benziger wine club. I ordered a case that day and had it shipped to my home, and as part of the club I basically get a bottle of wine every month for the year. Two shipments of six bottles. There are plenty of perks of being in the wine club, including discounts on orders and free tastings and tours, but the best perk being luxury wine appearing on your doorstep.
And when you join the wine club, everyone shouts out, "Welcome to the family!" It's really sweet.
I left the Benziger Winery and drove about 12 miles down the road to Imagery, its sister winery. (The wine club works for Imagery, too!)
I was so impressed by the taste of Benziger wine and its green farming practices that I had to go taste Imagery wines (gotta love biodynamic wine!). Plus, Imagery is also focused on art, and the wine labels are commissioned pieces from artists all over the world. The tasting room at Imagery doubles as an amazing art gallery.
I met some lovely people in the Imagery tasting room, which was actually quite lively at that time in the late afternoon. One women told me to always ask a winery if they have any late harvest wines because late harvest wines have a great flavor. (My visit happened to be a week after the harvest was over.) So I tried Imagery's late harvest semillon/sauvignon blanc, and it was awesome. I felt like I was drinking super delicious apple juice.
But my favorite wine from Imagery (that evening) was Code Blue (made with Mendocino blueberries). Hello! The tasting room guy who was pouring my drinks told me that Code Blue was going to be his holiday wine. And after taking a sip I knew why. The blueberry taste was refreshing, but it still had a lot of body. It didn't feel light. And even though it was a fruity wine, it didn't taste too fruity. It was just right.
I had a pretty good day exploring the tasting rooms of Sonoma. I left the valley as a new member of the Benziger family with a case of wine on the way to my home in Tennessee, a bottle of Imagery's Code Blue and a bottle of the semillon in my back seat, and a huge goofy smile with red wine stained lips and teeth.