Finding the best bottle of wine in California wine country is like searching for a needle in a haystack. So when we recently found ourselves in San Francisco for the annual ZAP Zinfandel Festival, we set out for a more modest goal: focusing on that varietal and heading north to Sonoma County, the region known for turning out world-class Zins.
Our first stop was a pilgrimage of sorts to Ravenswood, one of the top Zinfandel producers in the world. Its winery in Sonoma, set against acres and acres of grapevines, has an understated, rustic charm and a warm, welcoming staff. Winemaker Joel Peterson deserves praise for the cult-like following Zinfandel now enjoys due to Ravenswood’s ‘No More Wimpy Wines’ campaign. “Zinfandel, when done right, shows character and elegance,” he told us. After a vertical tasting of Ravenswood’s big, bold Zins, the fruity Big River and the spicy Old Hill emerged as our favorites.
We made our way to Cline Cellars. Nestled in rolling hills, the winery sits along Highway 121, the site of the last California Mission, circa 1823. An 1850s farmhouse serves as the tasting room, but our host, Charene Beltramo, treated us to a private tasting inside the hallowed walls of the Adobe Mission. She explained that while Zinfandel has undeniable characteristics, Sonoma County’s very distinct microclimates allow winemakers to create their own style. “We’re all telling our own stories with the wine,” she says. We gave top marks to Cline’s ripe, berry-tasting Live Oak and the minty, exotic Big Break Zins.
From Sonoma, we headed an hour’s drive north on historic Highway 101 to picturesque Healdsburg, a town that has seen tremendous growth over the past decade, with upscale boutiques, restaurants and art galleries giving its downtown chic appeal. But Healdsburg maintains its small-town charm from the historic square on the main strip to the select viticultural farmland surrounding it, namely Russian River, Dry Creek and Alexander valleys.
Our destination was Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, adjacent to Hotel Healdsburg. The menu is the epitome of California cuisine: locally grown, organic vegetables and dairy and meats creatively interpreted in our five-course meal. The highlights included lentil soup garnished with 50-year-old sherry vinegar crème fraiche and 60-hour short ribs.
The next morning, we vowed to pace ourselves. Experiencing the best of California cuisine and wines required our fullest attention, and we had to accept the fact that there was no way to visit each winery and sample every delicacy in a matter of days. Besides, we also wanted to take in the scenery. We made our way through Dry Creek Valley, considered the premier area for Zinfandel. Endless miles of vineyards along rough, stone-strewn terrain are at every turn, with acres of knotty old-vine Zinfandel branches eerily grotesque against the rolling hills.
We stopped at the scenic Hop Kiln Winery, inside a turn-of-the-century kiln. Spokeswoman Denise Gill estimates the winery receives 60,000 visitors a year. The 2006 Sonoma County Zinfandel here makes for a classic, robust and very food-friendly Zin.
We headed back to San Francisco that evening to Fort Mason Center for ZAP’s Good Eats and Zinfandel Pairing, one of several themed nights during the four-day festival. This event paired 50 wines with over-the-top creations from local chefs. One station had us tasting Moroccan- spiced beef short ribs with Rodney Strong 2005 Knotty Vines Sonoma County, another tempted us with Sausal Winery’s 2005 Private Reserve served with kumquat and duck crostini. Admission: $125.
Another day brought us back to the Dry Creek area where we visited sister wineries Wilson and Mazzoco. Wilson’s cozy tasting room is a local landmark: a 100-plus-year-old tin barn along Dry Creek Road that opens to a sigh-inducing vista of grapevine rows, endless hills and wide-open California sky. Minutes after we arrived, the staff got word that Wine Spectator gave its 2005 Sawyer Vineyard Zinfandel 91 points! Well, good news travels really fast, and we were treated to a celebratory tasting by manager Dee Ahlin. Indeed, Sawyer’s perfect balance of fruity raspberry, vanilla and spice merited the accolades.
Just down the road, Mazzoco offered a tasting room furnished sparingly, with plenty of glass and contemporary touches. French winemaker Antoine Favero uses the more time-consuming, labor-intensive natural yeast method to bring about fermentation. The 2005 Maple Zinfandel wowed us with its layers of wild berries, black cherry and that undeniable maple-tinged bouquet.
Still reeling from the day’s fabulous tastings, we cruised 10 minutes north of Healdsburg to the small town of Geyserville, just a speck on the map but well worth the trip to dine at Taverna Santi. The Old World Italian restaurant serves produce and herbs from its on-site garden and cures its own meats. Unable to resist, we ordered Affettati Nostrali, a selection of the chef’s signature salumi, paired with a grilled Caesar salad that is the talk of the town.
The big kahuna of tastings awaited us the next day: the 17th annual Zinfandel Tasting, the largest single-varietal event of its kind, attended by 13,000-plus wine lovers. At check-in, we each received a souvenir ZAP glass and a loaf of San Francisco sourdough to help absorb some of the potent potables that awaited us. More than 275 wineries in attendance, each offering a lineup of their best wines and of course, more food. We headed straight for the hard-to-find vintages and those from boutique wineries. If you’re a Zin lover, the $69 admission is a definite bargain.
We decided to take it easy the next two days. We stopped at F. Teldeschi Winery in Dry Creek and came face-to-face with owner/winemaker Dan Teldeschi, who also grows the grapes and mans the tasting room. He says the secret to making first-class wine is being blessed with good grapes. “Wine is already made in the vineyard, and mine are some of the best places to grow Zin.” Apparently, his fellow winemakers agree: Teldeschi grapes fetch top dollar, with Ravenswood buying 80 percent of the fruit. His own creation, the 2001 Reserve, is exquisite.
For dinner, we went to Sante, located inside the Fairmont Sonoma. The setting is truly romantic, with tables gazing out to the hotel’s hauntingly beautiful mineral pool. To cap off our blissful evening, we took a side trip to the Napa Valley Opera House for a rare treat: a sold-out Los Lobos concert. Artistic director Eva Warshawski, who still keeps in touch with friends in Ladue, once ran Washington University’s Edison Theatre.
The next day we stopped for brunch on the Sonoma square at The Girl & the Fig. As you may have guessed, figs in all forms are found on the inventive, French-inspired menu, including a Fig Royale aperitif and house-made fig cake served with local cheeses, fruit and cured meats. It’s also the place to celebrity-watch: Grey’s Anatomy’s T.R. Knight (Dr. George O’Malley) sat at the next table and came over to say hi!
California’s new tourism campaign is called ‘The Land of Wine and Food,’ and at least in the northern part of the state, it delivers: Our week-long epicurean odyssey challenged and delighted our palettes, and left us longing for the next time around.