Sunday, July 6, 2008

California Wine Tour Day 2 - Russian River Valley

We started our first day in Sonoma overwhelmed, staring at the Russian River Valley winery brochure and its listing of over 100 wineries. We eliminated the wineries which were open by appointment only - but still had quite a few to choose from. We decided to start at the closest open winery to our hotel in Sebastopol: Martin Ray Winery. The winery is historically significant because it is the oldest winery in continuous operation in Sonoma County and one of the oldest wineries in California. The winery started in 1881 as the Twin Fir Winery, then changed ownership to the Martini family and operated as Martini & Prati from 1902. The winery remained operational during prohibition by shipping sacramental wine to New York. For during prohibition it was not illegal to drink wine, only to produce wine with a certain alcoholic content. And religious organizations received waivers. Thus Rabbis in New York would receive an allotment of sacramental wine and deliver it door to door for the sabbath. Sneaky. But it helped the winery continue operations. Five generations of Martinis ran the facility until Courtney Benham acquired the winery in July 2003 and renamed it Martin Ray Winery.

Martin Ray is also interesting because they obtain grapes from other vineyards even though there are hundreds of acres of vineyards surrounding the property. These vines are leased to other wineries. Instead the winery produces three series of wines from different appellations throughout California. On our visit, we stuck with predominately the Martin Ray and reserve series. For the white wines we tried the Mendocino County Pinot Gris, Angeline Winery Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc, and Russian River Valley Chardonnay. The Sauvignon Blanc was excellent with a citrus flavor from beginning to end. And priced at $14, this wine has great value. The Chardonnay was our favorite white, slightly creamy with vanilla flavors that doesn't overwhelm the fruit. For reds, we tried their regular offerings, which were good (Santa Barbara County Pinot Noir), but they quickly took a back seat to the reserve tasting. These wines were awesome, particularly the Diamond Mountain District Cabernet Sauvignon. The Stags Leap District and Santa Cruz Mountains Cabs were also extraordinary. When visiting Martin Ray, the additional $5 for this reserve tasting is well worth the cost. In Napa, you'll be paying 5 times that for equivalent wines.

During this tour we are also noting how friendly the wineries are towards adults visiting with children. And Martin Ray was more than friendly. A tasting room representative came out and played with our son and his blocks. This allowed us to taste without constantly looking over our shoulder. Thank you. On all accounts Martin Ray Winery was a perfect start to the day.

From Martin Ray we traveled a couple miles to Martinelli Vineyards for no other reason that it was close and open. We quickly learned that the Martinelli family has been growing grapes in Sonoma County since 1887. In that year Giuseppe and Luisa Martinelli planted a small vineyard on a 60 degree slope, which later became known as Jackass Hill vineyard, because only a jackass would plant on that steep of a slope. And today, this vineyard is still the steepest planted vineyard in Sonoma County. Their son Leno took over operations, followed by his son Lee Sr. In 1973 Lee Sr. and his wife Carolyn took the next step and starting producing wine from their highly sought after fruit. They converted two hop barns into a production facility and tasting room, and with the help of consulting winemaker Helen Turley, Martinelli Vineyards was operational. Lee Jr. and George Martinelli joined their parents as the fifth generation of the Martinellis working in the wine business.

During our visit we sampled several wines that were truly amazing. The "Tessa Lee" Sauvignon Blanc possess apple and citrus flavors and with the nice acidity, this is a refreshing drink. The chardonnays were even better. The Martinelli Road Chardonnay is awesome. The grapes are harvested from a vineyard just below the original Jackass Hill Vineyard and is one of the coolest sites in the Russian River Valley. Even though the wine is aged 10 months in new French oak, the wine remains fruity. At this point of our trip, this is the best Chardonnay we've tasted, ever. The Zio Tony Ranch Chardonnay was not too far behind - it has a similar fruit flavor with a spicy longer finish. The reds were equally impressive. The "Bella Vigna" Pinot Noir was fruity with strong cherry flavors and a slightly spicy tail; whereas the "Vigneto di Evo" Zinfandel is what all Zinfandel wines should taste like. Its fruity but not overly spicy. In fact there is very little spice, just layers of fruit. An excellent wine and visit.

Our final stop for the day before heading to Safari West, was Hook & Ladder Vineyards & Winery. In 1975 Cecil and Christine De Loach began producing wine after seeing other wineries produce award winning wines from their old vine Zinfandel. For the next thirty years they make wine under the De Loach label, which they sold a few years ago. Having also produced a wine under the trademarked Hook and Ladder label, the family started anew as the Hook & Ladder Vineyards & Winery. This name also honors Cecil De Loach's years as a San Francisco firefighter.

Upon entering the tasting room, we quickly saw that this venue is child friendly. A toy fire engine rested next to barrels and an open carpet awaited our toys. Now to examine the 15 wines available for tasting. Their selection is truly interesting from white and red blends to a dry Gewürztraminer and White-Zinfandel. The last two are very interesting wines. The Gewürztraminer has .7% residual sugar and contains the usual spiciness associated with the variety. We understood why it was the winery's second best seller. The White-Zinfandel is also made dry, with just a hint of sweetness. Otherwise, its just strawberry flavors. Hook & Ladder also makes two good chardonnays, The Estate Grown RRV aged half in oak and half in stainless steel. There is just a hint of vanilla in the finish as the chardonnay grape takes charge. The "Third Alarm" Estate Bottled RRV is creamier from aging in 100% French Oak.

The red wines were even better. The RRV Pinot Noir is made from the top 10% of grapes with the remaining grapes sold as juice. This wine is marketed as a food friendly wine, but we liked it solo. The Zinfandel Estate Grown is a blend from different vineyards and is smooth as any Zin we've tasted. It also has a slight chocolate aroma that makes it even more interesting. Then there is the "Third Alarm" Reserve Gambogi Ranch Zinfandel made from vines planted in 1909. Another good zin. Our favorite may have been the Station 10 Zinfandel a blend of Petite Sirah, Carignan, and Alicante Bouschet. The winery's best seller is "The Tillerman" a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Sangiovese. This is a smooth wine at a value price: $17. Our favorite red was the "Third Alarm" Cabernet Sauvignon, aged 22 months in French and American oak. Its big, but not overpowering. With this large selection, there is something for everyone - and for us - we liked it all.

See the Compass Tours section at for pictures.
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