Rodney Strong, a former professional dancer, opened this pioneering winery in 1959. Today, in addition to a traditional tasting room, the winery has added more sophisticated options on the Terrace, an outdoor lounge that looks out on vineyards. Here, the menu offers seated wine flights that incorporate the Davis Bynum, Upshot, and Rowen labels and seated wine-and-food pairings that include cheese and charcuterie and poached lobster. Pro tip: Be sure to ask your server for a special pour of single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon or some of the winery’s popular port. During the summer, Rodney Strong hosts a concert series and brings in food trucks to cater the events. The winery also offers free guided tours daily at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m.; these hour-long strolls take visitors from the vineyard into the production area and back again, providing a crash-course in everything from growing grapes to crush, fermentation, and bottling.
Pairings are everything at Ram’s Gate, one of the first wineries on the drive to wine country from San Francisco. First is the combination of sights: the wonders of architect Howard Backen’s open-concept tasting room in a refurbished barn and the panoramic vistas of Carneros and San Pablo Bay. Next is the marriage of wine and food—winemaker Jeff Gaffner’s single-vineyard designate Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs matched perfectly with seasonal small bites from executive chef Taylr Behnam Cuneo. The most popular tasting is called “Palate Play,” which marries five wines with five dishes from the kitchen. For a truly unparalleled afternoon, book the three-hour Vineyard Table experience, an immersion for four to 10 people that includes a glass of bubbly, a guided tour of the winery and on-site gardens, and a custom-designed meal with wine pairings served at a table in the vineyard. There are other, less involved ways to experience Ram’s Gate: seated wine tastings, stand-alone site tours, and picnics down by the pond. Whatever your fancy, just be sure to make a reservation before you go.
The perspective from Gary Farrell Winery, on the outskirts of Healdsburg, is distinctive. Perched high on a ridge above Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, you get a sense of the fog that makes this growing region so perfect—the clouds trap cool air and moisture down below, enabling Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes to mature slowly. This general understanding of the microclimate only enhances your enjoyment of the wine itself, which winemaker Theresa Heredia has made with a deft touch since 2012. After extensive renovations to the main tasting salons in 2017, the visitor experience at Gary Farrell now ranks as one of the best in the county, especially if you reserve a spot on the covered patio outside. All the tastings are seated; the Inspiration Tasting matches six wines with three small bites from chef Didier Ageorges, while the Exploration Tasting includes a tour, five wines, and a cheese-and-nuts plate. Both experiences take about 90 minutes and reservations are suggested. In case you’re wondering, although his name is still on the wine and the winery, Gary Farrell himself—a true pioneer of Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley—hasn’t been involved in day-to-day operations since he sold the winery to the Vincraft Group in 2004.
This small-production and boutique winery near downtown Sonoma has achieved cult status in recent years for the exclusivity of the experiences that owners (and brothers) Andrew and Adam Mariani have put together. Standard tastings run about 90 minutes and include four current-release wines paired with four food courses served family-style. On sunny days, the tastings unfold on open-air patios in the shade of big white umbrellas; when the weather is less than stellar, guests are greeted and served in one of the many rooms of the circa-1858 hacienda. Reservations are only accepted by phone and often book out weeks in advance, especially in summer. For an even more intimate experience, reserve seats for one of the many pop-up dinners pairing Scribe wines with multiple courses prepared by visiting chefs who come in for brief residencies. The Marianis espouse organic and biodynamic farming methods and non-interventionist winemaking techniques, which translates into distinct fruit-forward estate wines that rarely overpower. Pro tip: Most visits don’t include tours, but if you book an early morning tasting midweek, you might get the chance to explore the hacienda before the formal visit begins.
Entering the reservations-only Williams Selyem winery may feel like a walking into a wine barrel—and that’s by design. The architects incorporated wood from old redwood wine tanks for a more authentic feel. Wine lovers call the facility the “Palace of Pinot” because it’s where the label’s legendary Pinot Noir is blended. Williams Selyem is home to the first Wine Enthusiast 100-point Pinot Noir in North America; the winery also makes Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and a host of late-harvest wines as well. During a standard seated tasting, visitors sample at least five or six different wines from the cellar; there could be even more if hospitality associates have others open and are willing to share. Most tastings are preceded by a tour of the facility’s cellar, winemaking facilities, and tank rooms, showcasing the components of the architecture that make the place special. Technically, you have to join the winery’s list to schedule a visit, and in busy years it can take up to nine months to have the option to get on the calendar. But if you love the subtlety of Bordeaux-style wines, the upscale experience is well worth the wait.
Visitors to this modern Russian River Valley winery receive a personal greeting and a glass of sparkling wine as they walk up—an appropriate welcome for a relaxed-yet-sophisticated few hours. Most tastings take place in the comfortable and airy Estate House, where all guests enjoy seated tastings under soaring wood ceilings, or outside, on one of three patio terraces overlooking 13 acres of vineyards. Some tastings feature only wine; others incorporate a tour and food and chocolate pairings. Winemaker Heidi Bridenhagen specializes in Bordeaux-style varieties, which means she only makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Year after year, the wine earns high scores from experts, and the winery garners accolades for mixing estate-grown grapes with some of the best fruit the Russian River Valley has to offer from farming families such as the Duttons, Sangiacomos, Martinellis, and Bacigalupis. The highlight of the in-person experience is the view; the Estate House sits atop a hill, offering visitors panoramic vistas of Sonoma County in just about every direction. On a clear day, you can see all the way to Mount St. Helena, more than 40 miles east. On gray days, you can look into the fog—the natural feature responsible for keeping temperatures cool and making Russian River wines so good.
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