Sonoma County, California, has more soil types than the entire country of France. With 17 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas), you’ll find an amazing variety of tastes and terroirs. On one hand, no place could be more sophisticated and upscale. On the other, no place could be warmer, friendlier or more down-to-earth. Somehow, the area has managed to balance both sides into a beautiful blend. A lot like their wines – a perfect marriage of varietals into myriad bottles of viticultural magic. And no time is better to experience this piece of paradise than during Sonoma Wine Country Weekend 2016, coming up Sept. 2-4.
The three major events during the weekend couldn’t illustrate the range of experiences more clearly. On Friday night, Sept. 2, the spotlight’s on Sonoma Starlight at the Francis Ford Coppola Winery.
Inspired by Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen, the winery’s buildings and grounds set the mood for enjoyment. Grand steps lead up the hillside to the entry patio and the winery tasting room. To the right is a view of a vast public space and a magnificent swimming pool. Of course, on the night of Sonoma Starlight, the view is somewhat obstructed by all the guests, but they make an interesting sight, too.
The evening will be all about wine tasting. Around the huge outdoor deck, areas are set aside for different varietals and styles of wine – last year from 34 different wineries. Another dozen wineries were pouring in the Reserve Wine Room.
Sonoma is as noted for cuisine as for wine. Combine the local growing climate, the burgeoning locavore movement and a plethora of fine chefs and, voila, you are ready for an edible experience. Last year, a variety of vendors at Sonoma Starlight offered treats from Sonoma cheeses and charcuterie through house-cured ham, 14-hour smoked beef brisket, chili-butter roasted corn, blackberry port sorbet and so, so much more.
Guests chatted, danced, tasted, sipped, played bocce and still found time to tour the Coppola Movie Gallery in the tasting building. Golden Oscars stood on a shelf near Don Corleone’s desk from The Godfather movies. A red Tucker auto from Tucker: The Man and His Dream (1988) rotates slowly on the floor below. Other cases hold memorabilia including elaborate costumes from Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992). Sonoma Starlight tickets are $125 or $175 for reserve privileges.
For visitors to the winery during regular hours, the pool with its European changing-rooms is available to the public, and the restaurant serves lunch and dinner. It was Coppola’s intention to create a place for families, not just for adults.
(clockwise from left) Pinot Noir grapes at MacMurray vineyards are ready for harvest. | Different areas of the MacMurray vineyards give unique characteristics to different labels of Pinot Noir. | This view of part of the MacMurray property gives a hint at the variety in the landscape.
Taste of Sonoma
The huge, outdoor party known as Taste of Sonoma is held on the grounds of the MacMurray Estate Vineyards. (Those of a more mature vintage will remember actor Fred MacMurray, and his daughter Kate still has a close association with the vineyards.)
The event features approximately 200 Sonoma wineries and dozens of local chefs. Different tents representing particular AVAs feature wines and food pairings. In the marketplace, stock up on local coffees, sauces, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. Pop-up vendors feature items from duck tacos to paella.
When you purchase your tickets, you’ll have the opportunity to buy tickets to special sessions from cooking sessions to wine talks. At Pair with the Pros last year, Kendall-Jackson Winemaster Randy Ullom and Executive Chef Justin Wangler and their teams presented three dishes and appropriate wines, like a garden crudité with Green Goddess dressing paired with a 2013 Kendall-Jackson Winery Jackson Estate Chardonnay. The other two offerings were equally impressive. These carefully chosen combinations reveal subtle nuances in both wine and food.
This is a casual event calling for cool clothing and sun hats. Booking a shuttle is advised – the traffic’s fierce, and after all the tasting, drivers are hot targets for local police. Event tickets are $165 and $195. Taste of Sonoma sells out quickly – tickets went on sale in mid-May – so if you’re interested, order immediately.
Going, Going, Gone
The coda to the weekend is the Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction at Chateau St. Jean. The chateau grounds become a colorful fair with booths and tables of more wineries, vintners, sommeliers and chefs. The highlight of the afternoon, held in a huge, air-conditioned tent, is an elegant luncheon and auction that benefits local charities.
You will find wines among the auction lots, but items range from private dinners to European trips. This is a deep-pocket event, so unless you have thousands – maybe hundreds of thousands – of dollars to throw around, sit on your hands! Last year’s event raised $3.4 million in just a couple of hours. Tickets for this party are $500.
(clockwise from left) Lively bidding helped raise $3.4 billion for local charities at the Wine Auction. | The California Mission-style Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn was built in 1927. | Umbrellas and canopies shade pre-auction activities at the Wine Auction.
In Your Spare Time
Even if you attend all the events, you’re going to have a lot of time in the area. Take time to enjoy the wide variety of wineries and tasting rooms. At many of the boutique wineries, the owners are closely involved in the whole growing/winemaking process and will take time to discuss oenology philosophy with you.
The concierge at my host hotel, the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn and Spa, suggested three ways to visit the wineries: chauffeur service to the wineries of your choice; a wine host for a more exclusive private tour; or a group tour. The concierge can arrange all these services.
Although I recommend taking a shuttle to the big events, if you have your own car, you can see a lot easily. And try a number of the interesting restaurants in the area, too.
By the end of the weekend last year, I had been royally wined and dined. I’d sampled dozens of wines and tasted tidbits both beautiful and delicious. Best of all, I’d met people devoted to the land and to producing wines that could compete anywhere in the world. For wine-lovers, who could ask for anything more?
► Photo-Credits: Wine Auction by George Rose Photography; Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn by Elaine Warner