Some events in wine country come and go but Barrel Tasting sponsored by the Wine Road, is not one of them. Last weekend (2-4 March) and again next weekend (9-11 March) are the 34th Annual Northern Sonoma County barrel tasting weekends and they are absolutely worth the price of admission. With over 100 wineries from the Wine Road’s three American Viticulture Areas (AVAs – Alexander Valley, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley) participating, no single event in the north county can compete for adventure, fun and great wine deals.
Barrel tasting is an opportunity, typically, to taste the most recent harvest after a few months in barrel. Why would one want to do that if it is not finished, labeled and in the bottle? The main reason is to get an opportunity to take a gamble (not much of one) to purchase the wine as “futures” at a deeply discounted price based upon ones sense of what the wine will taste like in 6-18 months when it is in the bottle and released. Another reason would be that many wines are so limited; buying futures is your only chance to purchase them. Finally, it’s a great reason to get out in the wine country and enjoy the life, people and fruits of the growers and winemakers labor! Perhaps the best reason when the temperatures are in the 70’s as they were last weekend.
Realizing that it is impossible, even if one participated all 6 days (the event for many wineries is Friday through Sunday each weekend) it would be impossible, irresponsible and just no fun to visit more than 100 wineries, most discerning folks select about 4-6 wineries that they would like to visit each day. It helps to use the Wine Road map to do a route plan that avoids running back and forth between the 3 AVAs or back tracking.
Planning should include lunch somewhere as the event extends from 11AM – 4PM each day and although many wineries offer some food it is mostly lighter fare. This is not a wine and food event so be forewarned. Picnics are possible at many of the wineries and there is always the Oakville Grocery Co., or Dry Creek General Store to purchase picnic supplies or alternatively Bovolo, Willi’s Seafood and Raw Bar or Bear Republic Brewing Company for a casual quick bite in Healdsburg.
Now that the wineries are selected, route is planned and lunch is covered let’s hit the wineries!
Mark and Donnis Topel of Topel Winery began, as so many vintners do, as growers. Mark, a successful trial attorney and Donnis, a passionate dancer and respected pastry chef, purchased their land in Mendocino County in the late 1980s. Based upon advice from some Napa vintners, their first plantings were Cabernet Sauvignon. Over time, they added Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah. Their home vineyards are located on Duncan Peak in the southern most part of Mendocino County 1400 feet above sea level high above Sanel Valley and looking down on the quaint little town of Hopland. Mark and Donnis released their first Cabernet in 1996 and as they say the rest is history. They have also purchased grapes from time-to-time from Napa, Monterey and other California AVAs. The barrel samples were the 09 Reserve Cabernet from the Battuello Vineyard, St. Helena in Napa and the 09 Topel Meritage – Le Mariage from their estate grapes. Both were well structured and complex while easy on the palate! Their wines are serious and have received numerous accolades but the tasting room is fun and conveniently located just off the Healdsburg Plaza at 125 Matheson Street, across from the Oakville Grocery.
Williamson Wines primary tasting room is just off the Plaza in Healdsburg although W2 tasting room in Geyserville is a 2nd option. The home ranch estate vineyards are located on West Dry Creek road in Healdsburg and the winery is in Hopland. Although Bill and Dawn Williamson are Australian, Bill is a devotee of Bordeaux styled wines. A grower as well as vintner, Bill’s ranch enjoys three micro-climates and grows nine different grape varieties: one Burgundy, six Bordeaux and two Rhône. The tasting room featured three Cabs and a Merlot and all were excellent. The Cabs included Indulge, Inspire and Seduce. The wines are not inexpensive but they are a joy to experience. The tasting room almost always has food to pair with the wines so be ready!!!
Mazzocco Winery has been owned by the Wilson Artisan Wineries since 2005. Its history, however, reaches back at least to the mid 1980s when the winemaking was accomplished in a garage like facility off of Lytton Springs Road. The parties held during Passport Weekends always demonstrated great creativity and a fun-loving spirit. Nearly all the wines produced, and there are many, are made from grapes from the Dry Creek Valley, with 1 or 2 exceptions from the Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley for specific varietals like Chardonnay that do not grow as well in Dry Creek. The house specialty is clearly Dry Creek Zinfandels and the barrel sample that seemed most promising was the 2011 Zinfandel Reserve from Smith Orchard. Great Zinfandel characteristics of luscious fruit flavors. A special tasting of the 2009 Maple Vineyard Zinfandel Reserve was a real treat. Barrel weekends are about wine education as well and David Press at Mazzocco is a gem who gladly shares his knowledge.
Three other wineries were included in Saturday’s tasting but did not merit special attention from this humble scribbler. That is not to say that their wines were not worthy but more so that the experience was not as exceptional as those selected and described here in.
Having said that, day 2, Sunday, will chart 3 or 4 additional wineries deemed exciting, fresh and worth getting off the beaten path at Wine Road’s 34th Annual Barrel tasting Event. Stay tuned!