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The wines in Sonoma County are world-class, and each year more than 7.5 million tourists visit what locals call simply “the North Bay”—the rural and still magical wine country less than an hour north of San Francisco. And everyone knows, of course, that wine tasting is a serious business. Swirl, sniff, taste. There is nothing wrong with classiness and expertise and the love of a fine wine. This is the stuff la dolce vita is made of.
But the wine country is also, increasingly, big business. Many tasting rooms are slick retail operations run by corporate managers living somewhere a long way from Sonoma, offering wines that you can buy just as readily (and often less expensively) on the shelves of your local grocery store. Often, these are beautiful places, and I am not recommending that you pass them by entirely. A part of the California wine tasting experience is sitting on marbled Italianate terraces overlooking acres of perfectly pruned vineyards, basking in the warm sun and the intense loveliness of it all.
But you don’t need a guidebook to see this part of the North Bay wine country. Highway 101 is plastered with billboards, and you would be hard-pressed to miss the big-name tasting rooms clustered around the central plazas of quaint towns like Sonoma, Healdsburg, or Glen Ellen (all worth a leisurely visit).
Just as exciting and often far more difficult to spot, however, are the small, back lane wineries of Sonoma, places that the critics, industry professionals, and locals revere but few visitors ever see. These are wineries run by the same people who grow the grapes and make the wines, and they are geared toward curious travelers looking to discover what it is about Sonoma County that makes everyone who lives here swear it is paradise.
This is a guide to those back lane wineries of Sonoma County. Places where you can find excellent handcrafted wines made by on-site proprietors, often with only a local or regional distribution and a limited case production. The vast majority of the wineries included in this book make fewer than ten thousand cases of wine a year, and the smallest produce only a hundred or two. The very largest make fewer than thirty-five thousand cases, and, in a county where some of the big commercial operations churn out five million cases of wine a year, this is still a small operation. Off the beaten path there are few marbled terraces or stucco palaces, but often these wineries are in the midst of striking beauty—overlooking a hundred acres of a wildlife preserve, on the edge of an ancient redwood forest, or tucked along a rural side road in the middle of open fields, where the proprietors are happy to watch you settle down for a picnic with a bottle or two of wine.
Best of all, in my mind, these are places where wine tasting gets down to earth. These are places where no one needs to show off how developed his or her palate is and where the winemakers welcome questions, from beginners and experts alike. Often, you will also find that these are the wineries where sustainable and organic viticulture is being pioneered. And, above all, these are wines that are likely to be a new experience, with names that you won’t find in big retail outlets back home. Amid the back lane wineries of Sonoma, you can still make secret discoveries.