Travel, Etc. --> Quick Stops
Sonoma and Napa Spring Break Tour 2005 Part V
Alexander Valley and Dinners at Sonoma Meritage and Della Santina's
Healdsburg and Beyond
Healdsburg is a very pretty little town filled withexclusive shops, fine restaurants and elegant accommodations and is the commercial center of Northern Sonoma County. It is also the center of one of California's largest growing regions, the Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valleys. There are more wineries in this area than you could visit in a month of Sundays, but once again we have a few recommendations for some stops along the way.
In downtown Healdsburg, a nice stop we made was the Rosenblum Winery tasting room. In case you have not been paying attention the last few years, Rosenblum is making some of the finest, and most highly acclaimed Zinfandels and Syrah in California. Since their vineyards are far to the south in Contra Costa and Solano Counties, they have opened up a tasting room in Healdsburg for some wine country exposure. Located just off the square next to the Oakville Grocery, (which is a great stop for gourmet groceries and a quick lunch), the Rosenblum tasting room is worth a visit.
(Tasting room now located in Alameda)
Alameda, CA 94501
Dry Creek Kitchen
A new addition to Healdsburg is the Dry Creek Kitchen, a restaurant on the square by renowned chef Charlie Palmer who is known for Aureole in New York City and Las Vegas. It was highly recommended by a number of people at wineries we visited, but they may have been influenced by the fact that Charlie doesn't charge a corkage fee if the wine you bring is from Sonoma County. We though about stopping, but were not prepared for a lunch that formal or lengthy, so you will have to find out for yourselves, but it certainly looked like a great place.
Dry Creek Kitchen
317 Healdsburg Ave.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Dry Creek Kitchen
The spot we did find was just perfect, a little California French bistro called Restaurant Charcuterie, just down the way from the Dry Creek Kitchen. Tiny and crowded with white butcher paper covering the tables, you knew it had to be good and it was. The lunch menu offered everything from Escargots Bourguignon to sandwiches, homemade soups and salads in the $8 to $12 dollar range.
The wine list was extensive and well priced and crisp glass of Chenin Blanc complemented the exquisite cream of asparagus soup. Tom, the ultimate carnivore, opted for the Charcuterie Plate, a selection of salamis, a duck rillette and a pork pate served with olives, cornichons and lots of French bread that he pronounced excellent. The house-cured grilled pork tenderloin was served on a baguette with a delicious concoction they called Mediterranean relish along with roasted potatoes and the wonderful asparagus soup. Linda tried something a bit closer to home with a blackened chicken Caesar salad that had plenty of tender chicken and very tasty homemade croutons. All in all, an excellent and necessary stop before an afternoon of wine tasting
335 Healdsburg Ave.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Just outside Healdsburg is the Simi winery. Founded in two Italian brothers, Giuseppe and Pietro Simi in 1876, it is the oldest winery in Sonoma County. Both brothers died suddenly in 1904 and the winery was taken over by Giuseppe's daughter Isabelle who became one of the most famous women in the wine business. She survived Prohibition by selling off land and continuing to make and cellar wine selling small amounts to the Catholic church as sacramental wine.
When Prohibition ended she had a cellar full of wine to sell and the winery once again prospered. To celebrate, she planted a redwood grove in front of the winery and the towering trees now almost completely hide the winery and tasting room. In 1934, she pioneered wine touring by opening California's first roadside tasting room made out of a 25,000 gallon wooden fermenting tank. She continued to personally run the winery until 1970, when at the age of 84, she retired and sold the winery. But she still came in every day to help in the tasting room well into her 90's.
Today Simi is owned by wine giant Constellation and while the original stone building the Simi brothers built in 1876 still houses part of the winery. Over the last few years, we have had some real winners from Simi - reasonably priced wines that really deliver the goods. Their latest winner was the 2001 Landslide Cabernet, a 94 point, $35 blockbuster that sold so fast I was never able take any home for myself.
They give a great group tour at 11:00 and 2:00 every day that showcases how the historic facility has been adapted to modern winemaking. And, there is plenty of good stuff to taste back at their Tasting Room.
16275 Healdsbury Ave.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Family Wineries Tasting Room - Dry Creek
Just north of Healdsburg is the famous Dry Creek and Alexander Valley growing region. It is the home to such notable vineyards as Lytton Springs and Chateau Souverain, but what really makes the area special is the number of small independent wineries to be found. Last year six of them got together and opened the Family Wineries Tasting Room at Timber Crest Farms along Dry Creek Road. The modest frame building showcases wines from Collier Farms, Duxoup, Fourt, Chateau Felice, Dashe Cellers and Lago di Merlo. Of the six, only one, Dashe Cellars, has ever made it into Indiana and some of the wineries are so small that they sell their entire production from the tasting room and a few local restaurants.
This tasting room is a great opportunity to try some interesting boutique wines that we will probably never see in Indiana. Over 36 wines were available for tasting and none were priced over $38 with most in the $15 to $25 dollar range. Some of the standouts were the Collier Fall Vineyard Cabernet, the Forth Vineyards All Boys (a reference to their children), Dry Creek Cabernet and any of the Dashe Cellars Zinfandels. It's a great chance to get a real taste of the Dry Creek and Alexander Valley without driving all day.
Family Wineries Tasting Room
4791 Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Sausal Vineyards and Winery
Just a few miles west of the Family Wineries Tasting Room is another small, family owned Winery whose wines I have always enjoyed. Sausal, like many of the wineries in Northern California, can trace its roots back to Italy. Manuel Demostene immigrated from Italy in 1901 and opened a shop manufacturing winemaking equipment. His son married into another winemaking Italian family and together, in 1956, they bought the 125 acre Sausal Ranch. The prize was acres of hundred year old Zinfandel vines, many dating back to before the first agricultural survey of Sonoma County in 1877. With the help of his four children, they established the small winery that still thrives under family ownership today.
If you visit Sausal, you had better enjoy Zinfandel, because that is what they do best. They only produce five wines "Cellar Cat" Zinfandel, named for the real owner of the winery, who greeted us upon arrival. The "Family Zinfandel" is made from 50 to 60 year old vines and the "Century Vin" Zinfandel is made from some extremly gnarled 126 year old vines. The selection is rounded out by a Zinfandel-Sangiovese blend called Sogno Della Famiglia and an Alexander Valley Cabernet. They are all reasonably priced in the $12 to $30 dollar range and there is not a loser in the lot. The Zinfandels are simply magnificent, but unfortunately they have never been distributed in Indiana. We had a nice visit with the tasting room manager, but like the cat, she was unable to talk to us about their distribution plans. The sales director had gone into town, so I left a card and we went on to Calistoga for lunch, which, by the way, is a great way to swing back into Napa without having to go back to the Oakville Grade. Just outside of Calistoga, the Sausal sales manager caught me on my cell phone and within five minutes we had the wheels in motion to bring Sausal Zinfandels into Indiana. You will find the reviews of both the "Family" Zin and the "Century Vine" Zin just below.
7370 Highway 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Sausal Old Vine Zinfandel 2002 Alexander Valley, California $16
A Wine Guy Selection What We Thought: I don't bring in many wines without a strong score in one of the wine magazines, this wine is so good for $16 that it is an exception This elegant Zin presents aromas of brambly berries, ripe plum and hints of tobacco The palate is more delicate than the nose implies, with soft, round, blackberry and plum flavors in a medium-bodied package with tannins so soft they seem to melt away on the finish.
Sausal Century Vine Zinfandel 2002 Alexander Valley, California $26
A Wine Guy Selection What We Thought: Tasting these two wines side by side really highlights the difference in concentration that 100 year old vines and their super- low yields can make. This wine has a much fuller almost late-harvest quality that almost delivers the illusion of sweetness at the first sip. Soft and very smooth this beautiful Zin has no rough edges and plenty of rich, ripe fruit.
Dining in Sonoma
Our second night in Sonoma found us at a little more elegant establishment decorated with lovely Venetian style blown glass created by a local artist.
Sonoma-Meritâge Martini Oyster Bar & Grille
Chef and Proprietor Carlo-Alessandro Cavallo specializes in Southern French and Italian Regional cuisine. He has recently moved from his original location on the square that we visited for lunch eight years ago to a larger, very elegantly decorated location just a block west. The service was attentive in spite of a large Monday night crowd and while the menu was extensive, none of us could resist the $45 Chef's Tasting Menu. We began with a little white wine by the glass and we almost immediately served a Trio of Oysters with Champagne Mignonette, featuring a light sauce made with Champagne, chives, ginger, shallots, sugar and a little vinegar. A small but exquisite starter. The next course was more substantial with a trio of grilled sea scallops atop a bed of fennel basil salad. Again, a real winner. The courses kept coming, each better than the last. The next was a wonderful Risotto with Manila clams made with a saffron tomato broth that seemed to have absorbed the essence of the tiny tender clams. It was about then that our wine made an appearance, an old friend, the 2000 Zenato Rippasa from Veneto. It is a very robust Italian red that was just about perfect with the tender venison loin, served a perfectly rare over a bed of garlic mashed potatoes with a balsamic reduction. All in all, an excellent dinner. We had all ready identified ourselves as being in the wine business, so while the dishes were cleared Tom asked for a copy of the menu so we could include something about the restaurant in our newsletter. We were immediately comped four decadent desserts including an apple tart, a tiramisu, molten chocloate cake and a free form cream brulee. What a system we seemed to have stumbled on, ask for a menu... get free deserts.
Sonoma-Meritâge (Just steps off the Plaza)
165 West Napa St.
Sonoma, CA 95476
Our third night found us looking for something just a little more casual, so we tried Della Santina's, an Italian restaurant that had been recommended by the folks at Sebastiani...
We found Della Santina just off the square in downtown Sonoma. A little tight, a little noisy and packed on a Tuesday night, Della Santina is the epitome of a traditional Italian Trattoria. This is an informal family-run Italian eatery with small a dining room filled with starched white linen or a lovely rustic patio garden. The real feature here is the rosticceria where a mouth-watering selection of meats are spit roasted over a wood fire.
We mixed up the starters with a Caesar salad, fresh tomatoes with buffalo mozzarella and an excellent appetizer of shaved roast pork with a mustard, lemon, caper dressing served over mixed greens finding their way to the table. Every one of them was delicious and Tom and I were so inspired by the pork appetizer that we chose an entree that featured a combination of any three roasted meats. After reviewing what was on the spit that evening, we both chose a combination of duck, rabbit and pork. It had been roasted with herbs, basted with natural juices and each tender portion was a study in simplicity. They were accompanied by oven roasted potatoes and fresh lightly steamed asparagus. Less carnivorous, Linda and Suzanne opted for the pasta. Linda chose spinach ravioli stuffed with ground veal and porcini mushrooms with marinara sauce while Suzanne went for the cannelloni served with a light cream sauce. Both were pronounced excellent. In honor of the folks who recommended the restaurant we accompanied the meal with the Sebastini 2001 Cabernet , an excellent choice, and finished with a round of homemade gelato. All in all, an excellent Italian interlude especially in light of the fact that the bill came to less than $100 a couple including wine and tip.
133 East Napa Street
June 8, 2005