Getting Tipsy in Sonoma

By Andrej Mrevlje |
Russian River Valley, Photo: Andrej Mrevlje

“Oh, we are the biggest and the best, and do not forget that California has been producing wine for more than two-hundred years,” said Mike Duvall, a salesman at the tasting room of Truett-Hurst, the first winery I visited during my short trip to Sonoma. You have to get up early in order to get tipsy in Sonoma, or you risk dizziness from navigating through the swarms of tourists that migrate through the area wanting to do exactly the same thing you are doing: absorbing information about grape varieties and soil quality, and the wood used for making barrels; discovering whatever new technological innovation making wine crisper or airier or denser or darker; and becoming savvy about the winemakers, who combine these wild factors into a single bottle of that precious drink, wine.

The pilgrims of wine country must first be deluged with words and explanations–the science–before they can finally inhale the wine’s aroma and then sip the divine beverage, served in accordance with, and all the ceremony of, prescriptive worship. Something about God’s nectar might be fitting here.

But I was lucky. Mike Duvall is a tall and seasoned man. He radiates the confidence of his knowledge of wine, and he likes to entertain the people by telling them the stories about Californian vineyards, particularly Dry Creek Valley, the farmland on which the old wine shop is located. He does not like the adjectives a waiter in a restaurant might use to describe an expensive bottle of wine that he is trying to sell you. Mike likes to listen and engage in conversation, adding unpretentiously his ideas about and experience of the wine you are tasting. Ideally, there is no better way to learn about a place like this but by listening to the story of the winemaking. And Mike is an excellent guide.

Like, Truett Hurst does not sell the wine in the shops but online only. So having a taste of four different wines in the wine shop on the Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg, located in the heart of the beautiful countryside, is sort of a privilege if you do not want to spend $300 to $400 for a case of wine delivered to your home address. It’s rare, for instance, to be able to taste four to five different types of Zinfandel (the red that is the pride of the winery and considered the only Californian home breed).

Though there’s some debate here, to me, it does not really matter if the wine, with such a German name, has roots in Croatia and immigrated to the south of Italy before it landed in America. Whatever the provenance of the original grape, a Zinfandel made in Croatia, Puglia or California can never be the same or even similar. Because of microclimates, the Zinfandel can taste different even within a small area, like from one valley to another of Sonoma County. Often, the character of the wine that comes from the same grape depends on the skills, experience or even taste of a winemaker. And this, to my mind, is the best characteristic of the wines I was able to taste last weekend: they are different among themselves even when they belong to the same family. You can love or hate them, it depends also on your mood, palate and the time of day you are tasting it. It is inherently subjective. And you may thank God that globalization did not yet manage to destroy all that variety, all that subjectivity.


There is a catch. The wines I tasted in different wineries–less than half a dozen, with about 30 different varietals–are very hard to find on the market. As I said before, they’re not sold in retail shops and you can rarely find them on the wine lists of East Coast restaurants. And they are expensive, starting from $35 per bottle when sold by the producer. So the wineries then charge you for a wine tasting (a sip of four different wines ranges from $10 to $35 depending on the vineyard). Tasting in the wineries is, therefore, the only way to enjoy this kaleidoscope of Californian wines, and one should take the time to travel through those valleys that have nothing to envy of Tuscany, or the robust and foggy landscape of Piedmont, the homes of Brunello and Barolo.

The only unrivaled aspect, then, is the age and craft of French and Italian wineries, as the vineyards of California are much younger and are not man-made. But this is understandable. While viticulture in Europe has always been a family business, the growing of vineyards and making of wine in California goes back only forty years. It was in the late 70’s that wine drinking became a part of American Culture when Californian vintages blindly out-tasted the European legacies at the “Judgement of Paris,” a now-famous wine competition in 1976 that propelled California wine to the global market. It matured into the big business a decade later. But the whole thing happened in a different way in Europe, which took centuries to shape its taste and passion for the wine. As Chef Bikeski writes:

In Europe the “terroir” is defined as “the complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.” This sense of ‘place’ is critical to Italian and French winemakers, many of whom have been growing grapes in these same fields for hundreds of years. When visiting a winemaker in Italy, they can tell you precisely why they are growing this particular varietal in this specific plot of land, and what is unique about the microclimate here, versus the next plot of grapes grown on the slope around the corner.

Most of the California producers do not share an appreciation of the terroir and instead rely on advanced production techniques to develop and design the wine. But this is changing a lot, and quickly, and the experience in Sonoma shows that terroir is gaining ground in California. It is just happening on a different scale, and for a different much richer market, an exclusive market of the wealthiest in the world, a uniquely Californian market. That is Silicon Valley.

I have to stop here. I have no capacity to judge or value the nature of the wine. I am not a sommelier, and even less so a winemaker. I am a person who enjoys drinking wine particularly when it is accompanied by adequate food. I distinguish between them on an amateur level and enjoy getting it right. Like people, a wine has a personality one may or may not like. So far, my palate has never betrayed me. But the judgment of wine on the basis of its organoleptic characteristics I leave to others.

One of them seems to be Gianfranco Soldera, who decades ago stopped being insurance broker to start growing Brunello, one of the most renowned Italian red wines:  

In the last thirty years there have been epochal changes. However, the quality of the wines has improved, it is all to be demonstrated. Just consider the facts: in the seventies I produced 15,000 bottles on 700-800,000 Brunello totals. Today’s production of Brunello is more than 7 million bottles, and they would like to bring it up to 14 million while I still produce the same amount of wine. This gives you the measure of change. The wine market is in the hands of industries, not wine growers. On the other hand there is a clear decrease of the connoisseurs. The wine industry has developed because it controls the wine trade, while the small wineries has difficulty in reaching the consumer. A small wine grower does not have the quantity and image, necessary for the assault on the global market. I still believe in the short chain of daily products. The obstacle to it is the consumer’s culture and the mediatic and economic strength of those who do not want the consumer to have culture.  

We do not know if Soldera also had in mind Californian wine production. Probably not, but the fact is that Napa, Sonoma, and Oregon are producing almost 85 percent of American wine and are therefore dictating the trends of what has become the biggest wine market in the world, worth $34 billion a year. I agree that the industrialization of wine production in a sense destroys the surprise and passion one can feel for a bottle of wine. I have abandoned many wine producers in my life. But what the case of California demonstrates is that the wine we used to love is now accessible only to the people willing to spend at least a hundred dollars to feel a bit of its emotion and beauty. I have no idea, but a few sips in Sonoma was enough to make me happy for a day.

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