Undiscovered Napa and Sonoma

Jun 302014

Are you searching for a personal winery experience? The old days when you met in a casual setting with the owner and/or winemaker can still be found. You just have to get off the beaten path, but not all that far. There are plenty of small boutique producers who more than willing to share their passion and wine in a small and sometimes very personal setting. This is also an opportunity to add some interesting hand-crafted wines to your collection since most are only available online or locally in Sonoma County. Here’s a few off the beaten path wineries in Sonoma we love for both the wine and personalities. Stay tuned to this list as we will add to it when we discover more fantastic and novel experiences.

Russian River Valley – Near Healdsburg, CA
Best Boutique Winery Experiences - Sonoma County

John and Diane Bucher

Bucher Vineyards John and Diane Bucher have a 38 acre sustainable vineyard of premium Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The vineyard sits next to their 360 acre organic dairy farm. While most of their grapes are sold to outstanding wineries like C. Donatiello and Willams Selyem, they hold back some of their favorite blocks of grapes to make Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and a Pinot Rose’ under the Bucher label. Expect to meet the Buchers at their home with expansive views of the Russian River Valley. You will sit with John and Diane on their patio as you sample their wines; learn about the vineyards and dairy farm. John and Diane enjoy taking their guests on a tour of the vineyards and explain their meticulous planting and clone selection concepts. This experience is like stepping back to those early hands-on days of the Sonoma wine pioneers. Appointment Required


Ryan Kunde

DRNK Wines Pronounced Drink Wines; this is a true family project. Headed by fifth generation winemaker Ryan Kunde, the family partnership includes Ryan, his wife, Katie and his wife’s parents, Dale, Ryan, Nancy and Katie, hence the name. DRNK is tucked away off a dirt road near Sebastopol. The signage is small and easy to miss but the wines, view and the time spent with Ryan is all worth the effort. Before DRNK, the property was an abandoned wine cave with a small production area.

With offices in an Airstream trailer sitting outside the cave, Ryan will greet you at the cave’s entrance; walk with you back to his “tasting room” which consists of two old wine barrels spanned by a length of board. Ryan specializes in Pinot Noir but also has an excellent Chardonnay and Viognier. You will find young Mr. Kune to be soft-spoken yet very engaging. He is not only a wealth of wine knowledge, but also very knowledgeable regarding Sonoma history and the local wine families. Be sure to ask Ryan about his pioneering use of flying drones for vineyard management and observation. BTW their 2012 “Caver’s Cuvee” was just awarded a whopping 97 point score. Appointment Required

Best Boutique Winery Experiences - Sonoma County

Three Generations

Bacigalupi Vineyards Originally purchased in 1956 by Helen and Charles Bacigalupi, Bacigalupi Vineyards is a multi-generational masterpiece. The new farm-house style tasting room is surrounded by vineyards, While Bacigalupi does offer a traditional tasting experience, there is so much more to discover and enjoy. It is very likely you will be greeted by one or both of the third generation Bacigalupi twins, Katey and Nicole. Both cut their teeth at other area wineries before teaming up to open the tasting room in 2011. In addition to a traditional tasting, join one of the twins on the vineyard patio and hear tales of growing up in Sonoma wine country. The patio is a perfect spot to slow down and simply enjoy a great bottle of wine and take in the view.

A little known fact is that the now famous Chateau Montelena Chardonnay surprise winner of the 1976 Tasting of Paris, depicted in the movie Bottle Shock, was made in part by Bacigalupi grapes. The actual hand-typed sales receipt hangs in the tasting room. The vineyard sits on the hill above the tasting room and has not been replanted. Needless to say, those grapes are in high demand. The folks at Bacigalupi are happy to arrange a walking tour of this historic Sonoma vineyard that ironically put Napa Valley on the world stage of wine. No Appointment Necessary

Inman Family Wines

The Winemaker is In

Inman Family Wines As you approach the quaint barn-style winery, below the winery sign you may see a smaller sign stating “The Winemaker is in.” Kathleen Inman produces extraordinary Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that consistently score big. The winery is compact and Kathleen prides herself in the eco-friendly approach she takes to winemaking, vineyards and even packaging. Tucked off to side of the winery, near her organically farmed Olivet Grange Vineyard are a few tables and seating, creating a perfect spot to enjoy a glass of wine while taking in the vineyard view. Try her delicious Endless Crush Pinot Noir Rose. The first vintage was created as an anniversary gift for her husband, Simon.

Kathleen is a third generation Napan who came to Sonoma to make the wines she loves. She runs a very lean staff at Inman Family Wines, so it often seem like Kathleen is a one woman show. When “The Winemaker is In” sign is out, most likely Kathleen will serving your tasting, personally. This is a great opportunity to meet and chat with one of Russian River’s most respected winemakers.

Hint: Kathleen has a farmhouse to rent, right in the vineyard. Billed as a “Bed and Get Your Own Breakfast,” the three bedroom, one bath home is perfect for those who want an authentic taste of wine country life. No Appointment Necessary

Petaluma Gap – Near Petaluma, CA
Best Boutique Winery Experiences - Sonoma County

Kaveh Azari

Azari Vineyards Take a series of winding roads beyond the town of Petaluma up into the hills of the Petaluma Gap and you may find yourself at an unmarked gate. The gate serves as the entrance to the Azari family estate, vineyards and winery. Appointment only and well worth the effort. Founders Kamal and Pari Azari, Persian immigrants, still live on the property and are generous hosts. Their son, Kaveh, a self-proclaimed refugee from the “boring” high tech world, has now taken over the winery reigns so his parents can slow down.

The winery focuses on Pinot Noir and Shiraz. They choose to refer to their Syrah as Shiraz in honor of their Iranian homeland. Their winemaker, Nico moved to Sonoma only three years ago from his native France. A visit to Azari includes a stroll through the vineyards and estate grounds, a tasting in the wine cave and homemade pizza from their wood fired oven. Azari offers two labels, Azari which is their premium wines and Corkscrew, more affordable yet still delicious.

On our visit we were greeted by Keveh and Nico who showed us around and fired up the pizza oven. While tasting in the caves, we were joined by Kamal and Pari for a lovely afternoon which in addition to the amazing pizzas included hand-made cheeses from the elder Azaris. This is a fascinating family with much to offer in conversation, in addition to the wines. We easily could have spent the afternoon taking in the views, enjoying the wine and fellowship. Isn’t this what wine is all about anyway? Appointment Required

Oct 282013

Jericho Canyon 2The drive north of Calistoga along the Old Lawley Toll Road toward Jericho Canyon Vineyard really feels like undiscovered Napa. Even with a GPS the tiny entrance is easy to miss. We arrived on a sunny Sunday morning and were greeted by Paul, the winery mechanic (really, that’s his title) as he walked from his tomato garden. He pointed down the dirt road around the modest home, once occupied by the whole Bleecher clan, but now the abode of son, Nick. We came to a red barn which serves as both a tasting room and the façade to their remarkable wine caves.

Here we were greeted by second generation vintner Nick Bleecher and Tara Hole. The experience to be had at Jericho Canyon other that their blockbuster wines, is the Polaris Tour and tasting ($75). With Nick and Tara we jumped into a Polaris 4-wheeler for a truly unique tour along the steep vineyard trails of Jericho Canyon Vineyard. With 40 acres planted on the 140 acre site before the restrictive 1991 Hillside Ordinance, the vineyards cling to the steep hillsides and offer spectacular views. The tour is an education in vineyard management and winegrowing with plenty of fun thrown in. Be sure to bring a camera for the hillside vineyards and vista shots of the Palisades and Mt. St. Helena. Check out the photo gallery. Continue reading »

Oct 202013

Sonoma WineriesI miss the bygone days of Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Those days before fanciful wineries, hospitality directors, rock star winemakers, iPhone wine apps and glossy winery maps with hundreds of tiny dots. Some of my favorite memories date back to our travels in the early 1980’s  when we would drive up back roads and cross roads never knowing what tiny winery would be around the next curve.

But what I miss most are the unexpected and hands-on experiences that today seem rare, indeed. I recall fondly meeting  Charlie Wagner, Founder of Caymus Vineyards, who tried to discourage us from a tasting by demanding we spend time touring his post-harvest, rain-soaked muddy vineyard. The stop turned into hours of education and a new respect for the farming aspect of winemaking. I miss moments like the time we randomly stopped into the new (now corporately owned) Folie à Deux Winery only to be asked by the founders (two slightly crazy psychiatrists) to help press the last of what became their 1983 vintage.

And then there was the ponytailed cannabis-aromaed gardener who found himself the winemaker of a now defunct Sonoma winery after the previous winemaker had quit mid-harvest. We barrel tasted through his wines; all barely drinkable. Then we got to one last Chardonnay barrel. The gardener-turned-winemaker said, “Dude…now this one I forgot about and didn’t do nothing, no yeast or anything and a couple of months later, shit, it was wine. I guess they forgot to teach him about native yeast fermentation in the “crash crush” course he had taken a few months earlier. And yes, Dude…it was his best wine.

So we are on a quest over the next year to find intimate winery experiences that hearken back to the essence of those earlier days when a trip to wine country was a journey rather than a destination. For those who wish to explore, learn and maybe on occasion even get a little dirty, these will be the stops for you. For those who want a wine country experience filled with “notch your bedpost” names like Opus One and Harlan in an effort to make your friends envious; stop reading now. Most of the boutique wineries we will explore together you will have never heard of (some I had not heard of before my visit) and your friends won’t get excited until they taste the wine you pour from your newly discovered winery gem.

The wineries we are set to explore most likely will not have a public tasting room and you will need to make an appointment, especially in Napa Valley. This is due mainly to the 1990 Winery Definition Ordinance that among other things, restricted wineries opening after its inception to be “by appointment only.” However, in some cases the winery’s production is so small and the wines so well regarded there is no need for a full time tasting room. Some of the wines from these boutique producers will be quite affordable while some will be expensive. The one thing they will all have in common is an intimate and unique experience with folks passionate about the wines they produce.

So join us on our intimate journey of undiscovered Napa and Sonoma… Here are the blog posts from best boutique winery experiences we’ve had so far…

Best Boutique Winery Experiences – Sonoma County

Experience Bucher Vineyard – Exceptional Wines and Vines from Extraordinary People

Jericho Canyon Vineyard – A Unique Vineyard Adventure

Smith-Madrone Vineyards and Winery – The Real Deal

Kelly Fleming – Living the Wine Country Dream

Meet Winemaker Cathy Corison of Corison Winery