More On California

So with so many wineries to visit in Napa and Sonoma, how does one decide where to visit (and where not to visit.) We sought advice from friends and industry people and made our plans according to their recommendations. We also wanted a balance of wineries with equal treatment of Napa and Sonoma regions, and we were indeed able to achieve this goal. Before I reveal our favorites, though, a few thoughts on our overall experiences and how they compare to those in Virginia.

Our favorite wineries were those that focused on smaller quantities and fewer varieties. (Mind you, a 10,000 case production is considered small in California.) Hanzell Vineyards, for example, is almost laser-like in its focus on limited productions of high-quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. While we adhered to our list of recommended wineries, we also mixed in a couple of spontaneous visits to larger, more commercially driven producers. How did they compare? As you can imagine, the comparison was not very favorable toward the volume producers. There was one advantage to these tastings, though, and that was the price. On the whole, visiting a Gallo-type of winery was cheap with tasting fees usually no higher than $10 and wine prices at grocery store levels. The tasting menus were also more extensive. However, quality was our pursuit, and readers who share a similar agenda should be prepared to pay higher tasting fees that may range from $20 to $45. Needless to say they should also be prepared to pay higher prices for favorite wines. The investment, though, is worth it. We tasted amazing wines that cannot be found at local wine shops, and we found tasting room associates to be very knowledgeable and eager to answer our questions. We also encountered an interest in east coast wines, particularly from Virginia!

What does this have to do with Virginia wine experiences? Virginia wineries, especially the best ones, produce even smaller quantities of wines. Our best winemakers are likewise passionate about making terroir-driven wines that require diligence in the vineyards. As in Napa Valley or Sonoma, Virginia’s best vineyard managers and winemakers know what to grow and not grow in their particular micro-region, and this means a limited focus on growing only a few suitable varieties. The result? Higher fees to enjoy quality wines. Napa Valley and Sonoma wineries do hold one decisive edge, though, and that is consistent quality. Even the “meh” wines produced from the more commercial labels were void of obvious flaws such as volatile acids and full-blown brett. However, Ben Sessions at Hanzell Vineyards recalled that the California wine industry’s transition to world-class quality was preceded by a time in the 1950s and 1960s when wines were flawed and of inconsistent quality. More knowledgeable winemaking and vineyard practices gave way to more consistent quality, and this occurred over time. I believe that we are in a similar state of transition in Virginia as the quality of Virginia wines continues to improve.

Do Virginia wineries have an edge in other areas? Yes. For those who like the full winery experience with food, friends and entertainment, Virginia wineries by and large deliver. Not many of the wineries that we visited in California encouraged a stay beyond the tasting—friendly gatherings with a favorite bottle of wine and a picnic basket were not usually encouraged. Dog bowls for Fido? Kiddie Korners for the twins? Not in sight.

So without further ado, here is a list of our favorite wineries:

Napa Valley
Robert Sinskey: Old World winemaking here with lovely Pinot Noirs that reminded me of Burgundy. I also enjoyed the 2011 Abraxas, a crisp white blend that did not include Chardonnay!

Sawyer Cellars: Our first winery stop as we drove from the airport. (This may become a tradition—this was also our first stop during our last trip to Napa.) Expert wine tasting conducted by Candace, and these were well-balanced wines with red wines aged in French oak barrels. Paul favored the 2005 Merlot; I enjoyed the more complex 2008 Estate Bradford Meritage.

Silver Oak: Cabernet Sauvignon is the focus here. Chuck conducted our tasting, and he was very curious about Virginia wines since he lived in the area years ago. We made sure to update him on the exciting developments! My favorite was the 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon with its powerful dark fruit flavors, spicy elements and lengthy finish.

Twomey: I just had to sample the 2002 Merlot one more time since it was a favorite from our last trip. Guess what I did? I bought another bottle of it!

Audelssa: Nice tasting room with comfy sitting areas for those who do want to purchase a bottle to enjoy with friends. We both enjoyed the 2008 Tephra, a red blend. (I forgot to note what was in the blend—oops.) Tephra is a Greek word that means ash and reflects the volcanic soils at the vineyard. Fruity and medium bodied, it can be an easy sipper or something to enjoy with simple fare.

J Vineyards: Lots of favorites here. J is known for their Bruts; however, they also produce Chardonnay, Rose and Pinot Noir. I enjoyed the Old World style of the 2010 J Vineyards Chardonnay, and we both bubbled over the J Brut Rose made from Pinot Noir. Guess what I will be pouring for New Year’s Eve?

Limerick Lane: Another favorite from our last trip and a favorite this time around too. Limerick Lane focuses on Zinfandel and Pinot Noir with some vines dating back to 1910. The old vines still produce grapes! I preferred the expressive Pinot Noir 1934 made from vines planted in that year.

Least Favorite?
Yes, we’ll go there. Toad Hollow Vineyards was our least favorite. Mass producer of wine and apparently owned by comedian Robin Williams’ brother. The tasting room is located in Healdsburg, and the tastings are free. The term “fire water” best describes most of what we sampled.

Planning a trip to Napa Valley and Sonoma? Try some of the wineries listed here. Please mention to your tasting associate that Virginia Wine Time made the recommendation.


We are back from our trip to California wine country specifically Napa and Sonoma. This time around we focused our tasting experiences on smaller-production wineries that were recommended to us by others. Our friend Susan McHenry suggested an appointment to Hanzell Vineyards. Readers may recall that we featured Susan’s impressive wine cellar in a video piece, and the mural in her cellar depicts the breathtaking view of Hanzell Vineyards. Susan is also a member of Hanzell’s Ambassador’s Club, and she is an avid collector of Hanzell wines. We trusted her expertise and made an appointment at Hanzell Vineyards; it was hands-down the “Wow” experience of our trip.

Hanzell Vineyards is located in Sonoma, and James Zellerbach planted the first vineyard on what is now called the Ambassador’s Vineyard in 1953. Zellerbach served as the ambassador to Italy under President Eisenhower; hence, the name of the vineyard. In fact, Zellerbach’s interest in wine was piqued during visits to European wine destinations particularly Burgundy. He returned to his Sonoma property determined to make quality wines with a focus on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and named his vineyards Hanzell, a combination of his wife’s first name, Hana, and Zellerbach.

Our tasting included a tour of the grounds and facility, and this was conducted by Ben Sessions, son of former winemaker Bob Sessions. Ben gave us a driving tour of the vineyards including the oldest Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyards, and in the process filled us in on particular features that allowed Hanzell to produce focused, terroir-driven wines. Higher elevations allow for perfect aeration and drainage while volcanic soils provide a minerality that is a hallmark of Hanzell wines. Vines are planted in either west-facing or east-facing slopes so that they benefit from optimal amounts of sun, air flow, and morning moisture; in particular, the Ramos Vineyard is exposed to morning fog that rolls in from San Francisco Bay. In all, Hanzell Vineyards includes 44 acres of planted vines with a maximum production of 6000 cases per year.

A tour of the facility followed our vineyard tour. Talk about rooms with views! Hanzell Vineyards is located on the mountain slopes of the Mayacamas Range, so most opened windows and double doors offer gorgeous views of mountain landscapes. Wine barrels, though, are stored in a cave. A wine library warehouses vintages that date at least as old as 1965, and a sort of museum exhibits the winemaking equipment, including the tanks, from the 1950s.

However, the ultimate part of the tour concluded in the tasting room with its lofty wood-beamed ceiling. We were given a seated tasting at a dining table, and the three currently released wines were offered for sampling. These included 2010 Sebella Chardonnay, the 2009 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay, and the 2009 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir. In addition, two older vintages were included in the tasting: a 2004 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay, and a 2001 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir. All were excellent. The 2010 Sebella Chardonnay was fresh and almost playful with elements of pear, citrus and mineral; aged for six months in French oak barrels, it presented a refreshing mouth feel. It’s older sibling, the 2009 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay was produced from 34 year-old vines and offered more complexity. We noted aromas of pear and lemon zest with similar flavors in the mouth. 30% barrel fermentation and then twelve months aging in 30% new French oak barrels provided a fuller mouth feel. (An interesting side note—Ben suggested decanting the older Hanzell Chardonnays at least two hours prior to serving.) The 2009 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir was likewise complex with full-on aromatic experience—strawberry and cherry notes were complemented by earthy/spicy aromas of sweet tobacco, anise, cloves and bay leaf. Similar fruit and spicy flavors were observed along with the minerality that characterized the other Hanzell wines. This Pinot Noir spends time in 50% new and 50% one year French oak barrels.

Not to be outdone were the older vintages, and these were indeed quite special. The 2004 Hanzell Vineyards Chardonnay was probably my favorite with its whiff of honeysuckle and elements of pineapple and butterscotch. The 2001 Hanzell Vineyards Pinot Noir possessed a faint floral aroma with notes of tobacco and spice; plum and blackberry flavors were savored.

The seated tasting allowed us to proceed at a more leisurely pace, and Ben was more than patient in answering our questions (you know how pesky those bloggers can be.) Ben’s father, Bob, retired from winemaking at Hanzell Vineyards in 2002 and is now the Winemaker Emeritus. Michael Terrien is the current winemaker, and future plans include the production of Cabernet Sauvignon. Hanzell Vineyards did at one point make Cabernet Sauvignon; in fact, I spied a bottle from the early 1990s in the wine library. We also learned that Hanzell Vineyards was the earliest winery in California to use only French oak barrels, and this practice continues today.

Focused vineyard practices along with judicious use of oak barrels resulted in the balanced, exquisite wines that we tasted at Hanzell Vineyards. With our tour and tastings done, we made certain to purchase our favorites Hanzell wines. Ben Sessions was a very gracious host, and thank him for time and attention. Planning a trip to Sonoma? Reserve a tasting at Hanzell Vineyards, and mention that Virginia Wine Time sent you.