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Saturday, May 12, 2012

Touring the Alexander Valley with the Wine Road

Earlier this week I, along with eight other bloggers, was invited by the Wine Road to head up to Healdsburg to embark on a three day wine tasting extravaganza. Our itinerary was action packed. We saw, sampled, ate, made new friends and had such a great time I want to go back again!

If you've read this blog in the past you'll know that I've struggled to find wines I like. So far I've only found four. They ranged from pretty to really to very sweet and include an Ice Wine, a Frost Wine, a Muscato and a particularly sweet Sauvignon Blanc. I thought what better way to discover a few more than to go on a wine tasting excursion!

When someone says "Wine Country" do you think "Napa?" I think a lot of people do. But what a many of us don't realize is that Sonoma has a thriving wine industry of its own. The Wine Road is a resource dedicated to helping people find everything from wineries to lodgings to restaurants, transportation, recreation, tours and where to have a meeting or wedding in Northern Sonoma County's Wine Country.

And let me share with you that even though I knew almost nothing about wines the winemakers and vineyard owners could not have been nicer. Seriously. All of that affectation and snobbery you read and hear about related to wine connoisseurs didn't exist anywhere we went for three days. People just said "Oh that's ok. You don't have to know about wine. Are there any questions I can answer for you?" So don't avoid going on a Sonoma wine tour because you feel like a clueless newbie. I guarantee you I was more clueless than you are. Not only did I survive three days of wine tours, I thoroughly enjoyed myself and learned a lot about wines, the wine making process and where to find cool wineries to visit.

On Day 1 we headed out to tour the Alexander Valley, one of the areas apellations. An appellation is a legally recognized, grape growing, geographic area.

After arriving in Healdsburg we set out for Williamson Wines Geyserville location for a private tasting. It's in town so there are no vineyards at this location. We were greeted by Jeff Hall (left) and Owner Dawn Williamson (right). As we sipped glasses of their sparkling wine, Dawn WIlliamson let us know that their tastings always include food because in her opinion there are three flavors to consider. The flavor of the wine, the flavor of the food and the flavor of both together. If you'd like to attend a complimentary tasting it's best to call ahead and make a reservation.

That day we had more than just nibbles. Catelli's restaurant catered lunch for us on Williamson Wines' back patio. We feasted on small sandwiches, melon wrapped in prosciutto, a vegetarian pasta salad, fresh fruit, sliced baguettes and an antipasto tray of meats, veggies and cheeses that included Brie. I was a very happy girl!

We tried both their Amourette Chardonnay 2009 with notes of passion fruit and peach and their Enchant Trinity a 2009 Châteauneuf-du-Pape style red wine blended predominantly with Grenache, Syrah (Shiraz) and Mourvèdre.

It wouldn't be until 24 hours later, and dozens of samples, that I would learn about my oversensitive palate, supertaster status. Which meant in the meantime, and even after, I still sampled dozens of wines on the off chance I would discover even one my problematic taste buds could love.

After lunch we stepped back into the tasting room for dessert and more wine. I sampled both the Caress Cuvée Blanc 2010, the Frolic Viognier 2010 and another I didn't catch the name or label of. I also ate one (I think it was a Marcona) cashew and two lemon tarts. I could have eaten 4 more tarts but I forced myself to step away from the bar. LOL

After lunch we boarded a Terrific Tours van. Our driver Travis was great. He was friendly, helpful and very knowledgable about the Alexander Valley, the area we were touring that day. Plus it was definitely fun traveling all together in a single vehicle. A nice touch was the ceiling air conditioning vents. There was a pair for each row so everyone could stay nice and cool. And there were seat belts which I readily used. Remember that vacation in Colorado where I fell off the 30 foot cliff without a seat belt? Yeah, seat belts are definitely the way this flirty girl prefers to roll :)

I will caution that access to the back rows of seats was tight. I think there was less than ten inches of space to make your way to the third and fourth rows. If wider access is important to you, I would recommend contacting them ahead of time to make sure you will be able to sit in the first or second rows so you'll be comfortable in their vehicles.

Our next stop was the Wetzel family's Alexander Valley Vineyards, a family run winery for three generations that produces 100,000 cases annually.

Scott Mansfield took us on a tour of the caves. At Alexander Valley Vineyards, winery and cave tours are complimentary. Tastings have a nominal fee and it's best to make a reservation if you would like to sample their award winning wines. On their website they describe just some of the wines they produce: "Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon constitute roughly half of total production. Other varietals include Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Gewurztraminer, Syrah, Sangiovese, Viognier, and Cabernet Franc."

As we headed into the caves I couldn't figure out why the bottom of my photo was distorted. Suddenly I realized it was the empty wineglass I as holding in my hand as I used the same hand to steady my camera for this shot. LOL

Inside Scott explained to us the different types of oak used to make wines. We first tried a barrel tasting from French oak, then a sample from a barrel made from American oak.

Then we had a barrel tasting. A barrel tasting is sampling an unfinished wine that hasn't matured. I'm not sure if it takes experience and/or intuition to be able to recognize what a flavor is going to become in the future but the annual Wine Road Barrel Tasting event has existed for over three decades and is, at some wineries, a chance to purchase a "future" meaning you pay now, often at a discounted price, for a wine that needs more time to mature before bottling.

When you go wine tasting you basically have three options: Drink every sample in it's entirety at which point you'll probably get at least a little schnockered, take a small sip for flavor, or fill your mouth with the wine, allow it to work your tastebuds then spit it out in a spit bucket.

I opted to sip one small sip that I swallowed. Which meant I threw a lot of wine away. In the Alexander Valley Vineyard caves there are two areas near the barrel tastings where you can dump out your excess directly into a floor drain.

Back in the tasting room I sampled a 2010 Chardonnay, Redemption a 2008 Zinfandel, a 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon, and Gewürz a 2011 Gewürztraminer.

A spit bucket you can pour or spit into.

Our next stop was White Oak Winery. This is a modern Mediterranean-style Villa surrounded by acres of vineyards, some of which date back to1929. Owner and winemaker Bill Myer's vintage car sits in the driveway. Bill began making wine back in the 70's. Their website says White Oak Winery produces Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, their legendary old vine Zinfandel and two Reserve Bordeaux style blends which are only sold in the tasting room.

We kicked off our tasting with a Sauvignon Blanc. 

Tours are by appointment only. Their tasting room and picnic grounds are open 7 days a week. There is a tasting fee that is refunded with a taster's purchase. You can use the contact page on their website for links to make a reservation for a tasting or tour.

Just across from the tasting room bar is this Library room with a private tasting area.

Upstairs you'll find paintings by local artists available to purchase on the second level. The bean, seed and petal dinosaur sculpture was given to the winery after winning a competition. It was one of my favorite things I saw that day! On the third floor is a comfortable living room styled meeting room with sweeping views of the vineyards below.

Nancy and Anita admire the blackened salmon.

Next, we moved outside to one of the most amazing outdoor kitchens I've ever seen. A chilled bottle of Rose and bottles of water awaited us along with some super hospitality.

Amy has Winemaker Bill Parker (top right) all smiles.

Bill Myers was going to cook blackened salmon for us! That's him plating the salmon and squeezing fresh lemon on the chunks of fish he caught himself.

The process was so neat to photograph I created a step-by-step montage for you. Cut the fish up into chunks. Dip in hot melted butter. Roll in spices on a flat plate and drop into a very hot, cast iron, frying pan.

This is one of my favorite pictures from our three day excursion. Bill cooking for us was a pretty spectacular way to take a nice visit and turn it into something really special.

We got back into our Terrific Tours van and headed back to downtown Healdsburg.

Marcy told us Scopa is a fantastic restaurant I'll have to try someday.

Before dinner and our final tasting we had a 45 minutes break so Marcy gave us a tour around downtown Healdsburg. It was just after 5:00 PM but most businesses were already closed so it was mostly window shopping and just stretching our legs.

This is another favorite picture I took on the trip. This is the palette of artist Bradford Brenner. his gallery/studio is definitely dreamy. It's a small space where he can hang his work and paint. I would love to have a similar set up someday after I begin painting again.

It was time for our final stop at Relish Culinary Adventures. Here we would enjoy a cooking demo, a four course dinner, a welcome glass of wine and two wine samples with each course.

Founded in 2004 as a roving culinary center Relish opened its doors at its culinary and event center in 2008. Monday evening the room was set up classroom style so we could easily watch Chef Ciara Meany cook.

Owner Donna Del Ray chatted with Carl during the demo by Chef and Instructor Ciara Meany. As our evening was about to begin Donna said something I'll never forget. She said "Don't hesitate to get up and take pictures. It's all part of the fun." WOW. I didn't expect that. Usually I try to take photos as unobtrusively as possible. To be given free reign to stand up, and wander around to get my shots was a dream situation.

We began with this Warm Goat Cheese & Asparagus Tartlets as an hors d'oeuvre. It was paired with a  2011 Dutcher Crossing Winery Sauvignon Blanc and a 2009 Optima Winery Dry Riesling.

Carl's first course was a Rock Shrimp & Avocado Salad with Lemon Aioli and Baby Greens. It was served with Dashe Cellars Vin Gis, Grenache Rosé and Cellars of Sonoma Joseph Jewel Pinot Noir Rosé.

Because I'm vegetarian I received this delectable tower of green goodness. The same avocado and baby greens everyone else had but instead of shrimp I received fresh baby artichokes grown by Kathy Wetzel Murphy over at Alexander Valley Vineyards. It was so pretty Carl was jealous before I even let him taste it. One bite of the lightly flavored artichoke hearts and his envy was complete. LOL

Our main course was a Crispy Duck and Wild Mushroom Risotto served with a Phillip Staley Vineyards Vino Tinto and an Amista Vineyards Syrah. As a pescatarian (Carl) and a vegetarian (me), Carl and I received more mushrooms in place of the duck confit. Since mushrooms are my least favorite food, pretty much ever, I gave Carl my mushrooms. Even then I was so full I could barely eat a third of the delicious wine infused risotto.

By now I was full and so exhausted I was struggling to keep my eyes open. It was pitiful really. I think it was the combination of not enough sleep the night before, the Dramamine I took for the tour bus, a lot of wine and a very warm day that did me in. All I could do was try to force my eyes open and keep telling Carl how tired I was, which I know was annoying but when I'm that tired it's the only thing I can do. My brain can't process an actual conversation so I just repeat myself over and over saying "I'm tired," "Boy am I tired," "I can't believe how tired I am," and "I am so tired." LOL

But when our fourth course was ready to be served I suddenly perked right up which cracked Carl up. Earlier I'd moved up to the counter to get shots of the Strawbery and Rhubarb Galette, a free form pie crust, both before and after baking. Now it was time to eat it!

Our final course, dessert, was paired with Forth Vineyards Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc and Balletto Vineyards Vin de Paille.

And that was it. The end to Day 1 on the Wine Road. I had a blast and was eager to see where we would go the next day.

When I arrived at the Haydon Street Inn I literally passed out. Remember that post from the other day?

I slept very well that night. Come back tomorrow to see where we went, what we drank and ate and who we met on Day 2 which included a ten winery speed tasting!

Wine Road - Northern Sonoma County
"Founded more than 30 years ago, Wine Road is an association of wineries and lodgings in the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys of Northern Sonoma County. From its modest beginning as an organization of nine wineries, it has grown into a spirited constellation of more than 150 wineries and 50 lodgings." Read more. . .


Williamson Wines
Geyserville Location:
21001 Geyserville Ave.
Geyserville, CA, 95441

Healdsburg Location:
134 Matheson Street
Healdsburg, CA, 95448

Alexander Valley Vineyards
8644 Highway 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448

White Oak Vineyards
7505 Hwy 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448


321 Haydon Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448


Catelli's Restaurant
21047 Geyserville Ave.
Geyserville, CA 95441

Relish Culinary Adventures
14 Matheson Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448


Terrific Tours
800-506-5096 (toll free)

Additional posts from this trip include:

Wineries, tasting rooms and the beauty of nature in Dry Creek Valley

The Wine Road Russian River Valley Wine Tour

Touring the Alexander Valley with the Wine Road

The B&B to stay at while touring Sonoma's Wine Road Featuring the Haydon Street Inn

I went on a Sonoma County Wine Country Adventure! Includes the list of bloggers I was on the Wine Road with for three days.

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