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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!

Pruning Vines, Sonoma Cutrer & Hilton Sonoma

Our final stop for the day was to be at Sonoma-Cutrer, a winery that is unfortunately not open to the general public. It was our good fortune to not only have tasted Sonoma-Cutrer at a wine dinner (Harvest Restaurant at Pheasant Run Resort), but to have known a friend in the industry who agreed to see if he could get us an appointment at the winery. Sonoma-Cutrer graciously agreed, and on that very sunny and beautiful California blue-sky day we entered the estate: approximately 1500 acres divided into six Ranches, each with a distinctive terroir -- vineyard character -- that is at the beginning of a process that produces world-class chardonnay. Soil types range from those with origin as ocean floor to those resulting from the volcanic eruptions of Mt. St. Helena to sandy loam and gravel to clay; the micro climates are equally as varied.

Sonoma Cutrer entranceSonoma Cutrer aging wine

We met our hostess, Beth Ghashghai, at the massive oak doors at the front of the winery. She was as personable as anyone I have met and her knowledge of all things wine and Sonoma-Cutrer seemed endless. It was going to be an incredibly interesting afternoon. Our first stop was in the vineyards where Beth demonstrated the art of vine pruning, informing us that the entire vineyard is pruned in such a fashion... by hand! Asking if we had remembered what we had just learned, she then handed the pruning shears first to me and then to Yvonne and asked us to replicate the task she had just demonstrated! Instructive as it was fun, the act of pruning was almost addictive; I quickly realized that actually performing a task is always the best way to learn it. Informed that we has passed the test, Beth also added that all vines thus pruned were left on the ground, later to be chipped/mulched and returned to the soil; nothing here was burned or wasted. Even the pomace from the winemaking process is piled under huge black tarps, allowed to decompose and become compost to be added to the vineyards.

Pruning vines at Sonoma Cutrer The wines of Sonoma Cutrer

There is good reason that, for many wine consumers, the name Sonoma-Cutrer is synonymous with superb Chardonnay. What began as a company that planted and grew several wine varieties, a decision was made in the late 1970's to create a cutting-edge winery that focused on a single wine: Chardonnay. The extremely close attention paid to what might seem like minute details, and the willingness to spare no expenses to produce world-class wines definitely set Sonoma-Cutrer apart from the rest. One example I recall vividly is Beth sharing with us the fact that each barrel of wine -- and there are many thousands of them -- is stirred by hand once every week.

Each stirring results in flavor particles that continually filter through the barrel, creating the multiple, subtle nuances of flavor in the wines. From hand-pruning to hand-harvesting to the temperature and humidity-controlled, earthen-floor 20,000 square-foot cellar beneath the surface of the land, the special attention provided by a unique philosophy produces very special wines. As a small but very instructive example: oak that will to season for three years to allow undesirable elements to leach from the wood, hand-selected trees are hand-split into the staves that will ultimately impart the subtle complexities of the 100% French oak barrels.

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I was truly beginning to understand and appreciate how complex the winemaking process can be; it was at the same time easy to see how proud Sonoma-Cutrer and winemaker Terry Adams can be of the results of their efforts. Terry by the way, returns to France every four years to enhance his knowledge and blend his wisdom right along with his award winning Chardonnays. Speaking of which, we were now more than ready to sample some of Sonoma-Cutrer's best.

Beth led us back inside where four of the vineyard's six premier wines awaited us. We sampled the Russian River Ranches Chardonnay (a cuvée crafted from a combination of all six ranches), the Sonoma Coast Chardonnay (representing vines from the Cutrer and Vine Hill Ranches), the Les Pierres Chardonnay (from the "gravelly clay loam in an ancient riverbed thick with cobblestones" in the Les Pierres Ranch) and The Cutrer Chardonnay ("Planted on what was once an ocean floor, The Cutrer vineyard stands hardly a dozen miles from the Pacific shore"). Each of the four exhibited subtle, yet unique and wonderful flavors of various fruits, some clean and crisp and others soft and sensual. almost impossible to pick a favorite, they all had attributes that would allow for one to enjoy them paired with a wide variety of foods.

Although the Sonoma Coast is the only Chardonnay in the group available at retail, one can dine out and enjoy Sonoma-Cutrer's flagship wine, Russian River Ranches: the number-one-selling Chardonnay in America's finest restaurants according to the annual Wine & Spirits magazine 15th annual Restaurant Poll, April 2004. Although we didn't taste it there, we purchased a bottle of Pinot Noir to bring to my sister's house for Christmas dinner. Loaded with dark berry flavors and a balanced acidity, this was indeed an amazing wine coming from a winery that specializes in Chardonnay. Available only to Club Cutrer members, the wine is well worth joining for.

It was time to head back to our hotel for some well-deserved rest, although there was much to think about -- everything from microclimates, soils and terroirs to appellations, varietals, oak barrels and blending... and more. My head was spinning, but not from the tastings!. The sun was beginning to move behind the Coast Range as we said our goodbyes, thanking Beth and Sonoma-Cutrer for a great day. A typical chill had begun to creep in with the setting sun, and it was now much easier to imagine how the cool Pacific air and at times heavy fog would enhance next year's crop of Chardonnay grapes. Route 101 and Rohnert Park were not far away and we both smiled at the memories recently created. Thanks much to Sonoma-Cutrer for the opportunity to visit and to Beth Ghashghai for the tour, tasting and knowledge imparted. Thanks also to Fred Tragemann at Judge and Dolph, Ltd. for setting up the tour.

A bite and a sip in Sausalito Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge

Our lodging that evening was to be at the DoubleTree by Hilton Sonoma, just off Route 101 and pretty much at the doorstep of Sonoma Valley and wine country. Just an hour away from the San Francisco Bay area and very close to dozens of award-winning wineries, it was the perfect place to end our wine country excursion. Before enjoying a sumptuous meal at Bacchus Restaurant & Wine Bar within the hotel, we were surprised to learn of a wine tasting in the lobby area of the hotel presented by Randy Pitts of Harvest Moon Estate and Winery, located just off River Road and minutes from the hotel. The wines were young but very tasty and, along with some excellent aged cheeses, they were a perfect segue to our dinner. After our meal, we were tempted to enjoy a short dip in the heated Jacuzzi outside. But it was later than we thought. Sated and very tired, the comfort of the king bed called more loudly and sleep came quickly to a couple of tired travelers.

Perhaps not amazingly, another perfect -- albeit quite chilly by California standards -- day awaited us the following morning. A leisurely breakfast was followed by an easy trip back across the Golden Gate and on to the airport and rental car facility. (We did stop in Sausalito for some pictures and a snack by the Bay, but that is a story for another day...) The San Francisco AirTrain swiftly shuttled us to the CalTran station and from there it was but a five minute ride to another train that would whisk us to Atherton -- our destination for Christmas. The weather would continue to cooperate effortlessly for the remainder of our time on the coast, and a sizzling jet stream would cut our flight time back to Chicago by forty-five minutes.

Relaxing on the plane and taking time to savor the highlights of the trip, the seven-day excursion seemed almost short. But the memories of perfect weather, accommodating hosts, exquisite cuisine and some phenomenally excellent wines would linger long after the cold air of the Midwest had added a fresh chill to my temporarily-warmed bones. And whether you live near enough to Sonoma to make the trip occasionally (even regularly) or you are planning a trip to northern California, make certain that you add enough time to visit Sonoma Valley. I can promise that you will not regret it!

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