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On the Pacific

Explore the Sights, Tastes & Tours of the West Coast

Wine Tasting in Sonoma Valley

This excursion was inspired by some fabulous wine dinners that we attended 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!

Gloria Ferrer, St. Francis & Santa Rosa

Over a period of about eighteen months or so, we had the good fortune to have enjoyed three outstanding wine dinners at Harvest Restaurant at Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Illinois.  Executive Chef at the time, Josef Yurisich was a master at creating bold and flavorful dinner selections; he was a genius at paring wines with his creations. Noting that the wines at those dinners were some of the best that I have tasted and were from the Sonoma Valley, the decision to visit the area was an easy one for me. The available window for the visit was unfortunately after the harvest was over -- actually late December -- but the trip, tours and tastings were nonetheless unforgettable.

If you have not yet taken the time to visit Sonoma Valley, make every effort to do so; for those who have been there, you must certainly know that I am not exaggerating when I tell you that this venue needs to be at the top of your "must visit" destinations.

Heading to wine country via the Golden GateFlight of sparking wine at  Gloria Ferrer

Departing Chicago's O'Hare and heading for warmer climes in mid-winter is a delight in itself; heading to California and wine country is sheer joy -- especially after an unusually cold and snowy start to December in Illinois. Touchdown at San Francisco International Airport brought bright and sunny skies and mid-fifty degree temperatures. The slick and fully-automated AirTrain people-mover system whisked us off to the rental car center and we were quickly headed north toward the Golden Gate Bridge and beyond to Sonoma Valley wine country.

Our flight was a tad late and traffic seemed heavy for a Thursday afternoon, but the air was clear and the view from the Golden Gate was breathtaking as we crossed the Great Bridge.  Heading north past Sausalito, Mill Valley and through San Rafael, we caught a brief glimpse of the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed Marin County Administrative Center, commenting on the bright blue roof and long, low lines of the structure that was built in 1938. More about the Marin County Civic Center can be found at

Marin County Civic CenterVineyards at Gloria Ferrer

Gloria Ferrer

The heavy traffic finally thinned and we turned east onto Route 37, skirting San Pablo Bay, and then headed north on Route 121 to our first stop: the Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards in the Carneros wine district (southern end) of Sonoma Valley. My sister had first brought me here over twenty-five years ago to taste what later became one of my favorite sparkling wines, the Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs. The long driveway up a slight rise led to a parking lot, and a quick walk up the expansive stone stairs presented us at heavy front doors that opened to a small gift shop and tasting room.

There were several tasting options available, from single glasses to flights of wines; we decided to select a flight of four sparkling wines that consisted of -- from driest to sweetest -- Gloria Ferrer Blanc de Noirs ("lush flavors of ripe strawberries, black cherries and vanilla"), a 2000 Royal Cuvee ("Mandarin orange, red apple, and toast flavors, coupled with a long finish"), a 2004 Brut Rose ("Vibrant flavors of wild strawberry, rosehip, and a crisp blood-orange character") and a 2004 Blanc de Blanc ("Ripe pineapple, juicy pear and lemon zest"). A 2003 Rust Rock Pinot Noir ("Plum, ripe berry, and toffee flavors through an extended finish") was also presented in the flight.

Although it was the view from the terrace and the reawakening of the memory of having been to the winery once before that had drawn me here today, just standing there with a glass of Gloria's best put a substantial exclamation point on the day. And although the terrace was chilled by the weakness and low angle of the setting winter sun, the view from it was as breathtaking as I had remembered; the sparkling wine and Pinot samples just as tasty as ever. (I prefer the drier sparkling wines, but all of our samples were excellent.) It was late afternoon; time was a factor today and we were unable to tarry, but we did depart with a bottle of Blanc de Noirs. Make no mistake -- Gloria makes an excellent sparkling wine!

St. Francis Winery

Daylight was fading, but I had remembered my sister mentioning the name St. Francis. Not much farther to the north along Highway 12 -- actually listed as being located in Santa Rosa -- we discovered the mission-style building of St. Francis Winery Vineyards and Visitors Center nestled alongside the road. Although we entered with only a half-hour remaining before closing time, Phillipe -- our "guide" to the wines of St. Francis -- was as gracious and accommodating as if it were the start of the day. We actually ended up sampling a total of eight wines, since the price of tasting includes any four wines on their list. Originally from France, Phillipe was the expert and we let him decide for us.

St Francis WinerySt Francis Winery

He suggested we try the 2005 Chardonnay, Wild Oak Sonoma County ("Citrus, pineapple, and toast"), and the 2005 Chardonnay, Behler Vineyard ("Ripe apple, tropical flavors, toasted oak, and vanilla"). Our favorite was the Chard from the Behler Vineyard and we purchased a bottle to take along. We also sampled a very nice 2004 Old Vines Zinfandel ("Cherry, pepper, and spice"), a 2004 Cabernet Franc, McCoy Vineyard ("Dark spice, black fruit, mineral"), a marvelously big and bold 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, King's Ridge, a dry but mellow Cabernet Sauvignon, Nuns Canyon and a peppery but smooth-finishing 2004 Zinfandel, Pagani Vineyard.

We were too late to partake of the Wine and Food Flights offered at St. Francis (~$25-$45 in November through April) from 10:00 to 4:00 daily, but we hope that another trip to Sonoma will be in the offing... this is an inviting venue with a beautiful campus, and the pairings we saw on the list would definitely make another stop worth our while. (Wine Dining is also available.) Thanks Phillipe and St. Francis for some excellent wines and a fun and informative stop! We were only a few miles from our first night's lodging at the Hilton Sonoma Wine Country, and after a long day of traveling -- we had actually been up since 2:30am California time -- I was more than ready to call it a day.

The Hilton Sonoma Wine Country in Santa Rosa was a great location from which to sortie to a large number of vineyards. The restaurant there also exhibited a menu chock-full of some tasty and long-awaited vittles; we sat at a small table in the bar area and enjoyed some excellent cuisine and -- of course -- a glass of Chardonnay before we headed back to our room. We literally collapsed into a cloud-like king bed; the softest of feather pillows soon sent Yvonne and me into a deep, relaxing and well-earned sleep.

The morning would bring more of the azure-blue skies and warm temperatures that we had looked forward to. The day ahead would involve visits the wineries that had supplied the nectar we had so enjoyed at the wine dinners: Chalk Hill and Sonoma Cutrer, and we eagerly looked forward to the visits. However, first things first; breakfast was solidly on my mind. I have never been disappointed by a breakfast at a Hilton Hotel and today would certainly be no exception. Available on the buffet were chilled and lean cuts of beef and ham, accompanied by some excellent smoked salmon -- complete with chopped tomatoes, onion and capers. There were champagne glasses filled with fresh fruit compote topped with yogurt, mouth-watering chunks of watermelon, cantaloupe, grapefruit and pineapple, and a large selection of healthy cereals. For those requiring a hot meal there were chaffing dishes filled with steaming scrambled eggs, hot bacon, sausage, potatoes and pancakes; fresh salsa was available too. We had a complete and very healthful breakfast, topped off by some fresh-squeezed orange juice and coffee before heading a few miles to the north and Chalk Hill.

Join me at Chalk Hill in Sonoma, Part II

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