Following our spa morning, we began our afternoon at Merry Edwards Winery, just around the corner from our house. It was here that we learned about the Russian River valley, its wines (primarily Pinot Noir and Chardonnay), and more about the history of winemaking in this region. All of this was fascinating, but how were the wines? At ME, we tasted several Pinot Noirs, a couple Chardonnays, and a Sauvignon Blanc. I don’t have the best palate; it’s hard for me to pick up specific notes and nuances of wine. But I know what I like. These wines were refined and elegant, all of them drinkable. We all made purchases. I took home a bottle of Pinot, which is set aside for Thanksgiving.
We drove southeast through rolling hills and farmlands to the Glen Ellen region. One of my sisters was interested in seeing the Benziger Winery, a family-run winery that grows many of its grapes using biodynamic practices, which are even stricter than organic standards.
We hopped on a tractor and took a tour of the Benziger estate, learning so much about the wine-making process from vines to bottling. The tour was capped off with an extensive tasting, and this time, I took home two bottles.
We finished off the afternoon at the Mayo Family Winery, which was fun. One of the Mayos poured our wine, and she taught us how to properly taste wine – how to swish the initial sip around our mouths first, how to “feel” the different tastes and textures of each wine.
Most wineries close between 4:30 and 5:00; Mayo remains open until 6:30 PM. Following our tasting, we drove back to Sebastopol and enjoyed a delicious meal at the French Garden restaurant.
We anticipated more crowds on the weekend, and indeed, we saw more people out and about. Our plan was to start in the Armstrong Woods, about a half hour north of Sebastopol, then continue northeast towards Healdsburg. Our guide at Benziger had recommended both a winery and a good place for lunch, and we were eager to try both. But first, some redwoods.
These trees were amazing. The forest was simply beautiful – dark, ancient, cedar-scented. If you’re in Sonoma, don’t bother with Muir Woods. Head to Armstrong. Even though the parking lot was about half full when we arrived, there were times when we were the only people on the trail. It was awesome.
We continued the day trying wines in the Healdsburg area (Russian River, Dry Creek, and Chalk Hill). Rather than try to describe each winery individually, I’ll list them here, along with a few notes or impressions. We ended up going to five wineries that day – probably a few too many, but we had a great afternoon.
- Mill Creek Vineyards & Winery: Our Benziger guide recommended we stop here. Some lovely wines, including some sweeter white wines, and a cozy tasting room.
- La Crema: Known for their Chardonnays. They have a tasting room in downtown Healdsburg.
- Rodney Strong Vineyards: A little bit more commercial than places like Mill Creek or Merry Edwards, but still a great tasting with a friendly and knowledgeable wine pourer. I took home a Sauvignon Blanc.
- J Vineyards & Winery: Conveniently sharing a parking lot with Rodney Strong, we stopped in to J following our RS tasting. It was busy with end-of-the-day visitors. My sister and I shared a tasting, including one of delicious sparkling wine.
- Deux Amis Winery/Mutt Lynch: Both wines can be tasted at the Tasting Room on the Green in downtown Windsor. This was a fun way to finish off the day! We had the tasting room to ourselves, and our host was witty and knowledgeable about both wines and Sonoma in general. She even recommended another good day spa for a future visit.
We had lunch at Campo Fina and ice cream at Noble Folk, both in downtown Healdsburg. Dinner was at Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol.
It was time for me to return to Florida, but my sisters had one more night in California, which they spent in San Francisco. We departed Sebastopol around 5:00 AM, and I was soon on my way back home. My bottles of wine survived the trip, and it was back to work on Monday.
Final Thoughts, Etc.
It had been years since I was in California, and I had never visited Sonoma before – and I was honestly concerned that five days (travel included) would be not enough time to really savor the experience. It ended up being the perfect get-away, and such a great way to relax with my sisters and also able to do something we all love (eat amazing food and drink good wine). I was surprised by how many wineries there are – I could have spent five weeks exploring our little corner of Sonoma, never mind getting over to nearby Napa. There are a lot of recognizable wineries on the wine trail, but there are so many smaller places whose names you won’t see in your local wine shop. Try those first.