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On the Pacific

Explore the Sights, Tastes & Tours of the West Coast

Wine Tasting in Sonoma Valley

This trip was inspired by wine dinners in the midwest.  Join us as we travel to the vineyards and taste the wines first hand and learn more about the process of winemaking!

Chalk Hill, Microclimates and Korbel

There are about a dozen or so appellations (name of an area -- such as a region or vineyard -- under which a winegrower is authorized to identify and market wine) in the Sonoma Valley, and Chalk Hill Estate is one of them. We had taken notice yesterday in the fading light, but today as we turned east onto Chalk Hill Road, the scenery was even more obvious: vineyards and vines stretched as far as the eye could see; I am certain that the sight is even more impressive when the vines are green and bursting with fruit. A winding and narrow road led us to the imposing gates of the Chalk Hill Estate Vineyards and Winery in Healdsburg, California. The guard at the gate and the drive up the long road and through a beautiful valley that ended at the tasting room at the top of a hill were my first indications that this would not be an ordinary tasting. But then again, I was already aware that Chalk Hill did not produce ordinary wines.

Chalk Hill WineryGardens at Chalk Hill

Chalk Hill Estate

Our guide for this morning was Estate Tasting Room Concierge, Neal Coats. Neal seemed a veritable youngster for the amount of knowledge that he possessed; it was clear that he had enjoyed every minute of his education in viticulture. What impressed me most was that he smiled constantly as he spoke, alive with the joy of what he had learned and proud to be a part of the Chalk Hill Winery; never once did I feel as if Neal were talking down to us -- I am really a rookie when it comes to wines and wine tasting -- and he answered every question simply but professionally, with ease and with passion.

Owned by San Francisco antitrust attorney Fred Furth, the winery is a wonderful example of a family-owned business that truly pays attention to detail, and a quote from the Chalk Hill website: "Fred's own preference is 'to be the best, not the biggest' " aptly describes the results of his efforts. Born in Harvey, Illinois, the lawyer-viticulturist spotted what was later to become the Chalk Hill Winery when he flew over the rugged hillside in 1972. Liking what he saw, Furth purchased 242 of what is now close to 1500 acres of the estate... less than 400 of which will ever be devoted to growing grapes. But the planting methods, care with which the grapes are grown and attention to detail make the wines produced there some of the finest that you will ever taste. Broken into 60 distinct blocks that are all tended laboriously, meticulously and lovingly by hand, the vineyards have the ability to produce small yet very distinct batches of wine that express the individual characteristics of a particular terroir (a French term denoting the geographic characteristics such as soil type, weather conditions, etc).

We had the opportunity to tour the estate with Neal on that beautiful California morning. It was easy to see how Mr. Furth had fallen in love with the land; every turn in the road and every hill and valley provided different views, different breezes and different inspirations -- certainly different conditions for the different varietals growing there. On our tour of the estate, Neal proudly called our attention to the peak of the hill that inspired the Chalk Hill logo. Ponds, pastures and endless open space in peaceful harmonic coexistence, there was even a large organic garden that supplied fresh and seasonable vegetables used by Estate Chef Didier Ageorges in preparing unique dining experiences with a custom menu, designed to be paired with Chalk Hill Estate wines. I was now looking eagerly forward to tasting a few of those wines!

Back at the tasting room, Neal opened for us a buttery 2005 Estate Bottled Chardonnay with a hint of oak (a cool growing season in '05 created the essences of "ripe stone fruit—apricot, peach and pear—along with tropical notes of deliciously ripe banana and pineapple" ), a crisp, clean and spicy 2005 Estate Bottled Sauvignon Blanc (much of it aged in French Oak, the flavors were of lush, tropical fruit and the finish was long and deep), a wonderfully smooth 2003 Merlot that was big on spice and dark fruit, a 2003 Estate bottled Cabernet Sauvignon with slowly-opening multiple layers of flavor, hints of chocolate and a touch of tannin and lastly, a superior 2005 Chalk Hill Chairman's Club Semillon (a botrytised semillon that had the richness and smooth sweetness of honey -- and from the winemaker's notes on this wine: "Sipping this wine brings to mind liquid ambrosia"). Neal literally glowed when he opened and tasted this wine and after tasting it myself, it was easy to see why...

Our morning was winding down and it was unfortunately time to leave Chalk Hill. As we wound our way back down the long drive, a promise was made to return when we could observe the vineyard in its full glory -- hopefully during harvest. In the meantime, a world of thanks to Mr. Fred Furth for creating the opportunity for Chalk Hill to provide its truly excellent wines and also to Neal Coats for an informative and fun tour and tasting!

We had ample time before our 2:00pm appointment at Sonoma Cutrer, so we decided to head a bit farther west and along the Russian River. The scenery – and the geography – was immediately and noticeably different from the region we had just visited: giant redwood trees began to appear, along with ferns and other, lush vegetation in the lower-lying areas. Also entering another appellation, it was becoming clearer to me as to the reasons for wines from areas separated by as little as a few miles could have such vastly different characteristics. There are an amazing number of micro-climates here in Sonoma, and many geographic areas and soli types as well. The combinations are literally endless – adding to the complexities of wines produced at each location.

Korbel Winery

Before leaving Illinois, we had been given a heads-up to make sure to save some time to check out the source of what has been the exclusive champagne of the past five presidential inaugurations. It was a tip well worth heeding! Located approximately 20 minutes west of Route 101 on River Road near the town of Guerneville, is the home of Korbel Winery – vintner of excellent sparkling and still wines. Nestled beneath a trio of behemoth redwoods and across the street form the Russian River is a tiny little visitor center that, once upon a time, was a railroad stop for a train carrying cigar boxes -- made from the excellent local lumber -- back to San Francisco and points east.

Korbel Winery

The winery itself was started in 1882 and the time-honored French method of producing champagne, méthode champenoise, has produced champagne known the world 'round. The story of the Korbel Brothers is rich with history, and fortune-changing twists and turns; my suggestion would be to visit the winery, take the tour and hear the interesting story for yourself. I can tell you however, that we tasted many of the excellent champagnes and then had a tasty lunch at the deli there. The stop was brief but quite memorable and I strongly urge you to add it to your list of "must-see" venues when you visit the Sonoma Valley!

More Information

Part 1: Gloria Ferrer, St. Francis and the Hilton in Santa Rosa

Part 2: Chalk Hill, Micro-climates and Korbel

Part 3: Pruning Vines, Sonoma Cutrer and Hilton Sonoma