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Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A return to Sonoma's Wine Road: Merriam Vineyards, Soda Rock & Hanna Winery

You may recall last month I spent three days in Sonoma County's wine country as the invited guest on a Blogger's press tour of the Wine Road. The Wine Road isn't an actual road but the ultimate visitor's guide through the Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River Valleys. They are some of the country's most versatile, renowned and prolific wine growing regions or, as the locals call them, American Viticultural Areas or AVAs. Not only do they offer a free map that lists their 150+ participating winery members, they also offer supreme values with their "Ticket to the Wine Road" one and three day wine tasting tickets. With a ticket, many of the wineries waive their tasting fees and some offer additional perks and discounts as well.

The Wine Road's New Lumix GF2 Camera

After I published my posts in May, Tracy Logan (the Wine Road's official blogger) contacted me and asked what kind of camera was I shooting with? They loved my pics and she was thinking about upgarding her camera to the same as mine. I replied I use a Panasonic Lumix GF2, micro four thirds, digital camera and if she got one to let me know. I thought to myself helping Tracy learn how to use her new camera would be a fun reason to return to Healdsburg for a day. When she emailed me that the Wine Road had purchased the camera I was thrilled for her.

So, imagine my surprise when she told me that to return the favor of helping her with her new camera, the Wine Road wanted to offer me a one night stay at the B&B of my choice!

Merriam Vineyards Wine Tasting

It was such a coincidence that I had already planned a one night stay at Thomas George Estates! So, Tracy met me at 5:00 AM the next morning to photograph the sunrise on Baker Ridge. After, we dropped my car off at the Haydon Street Inn and headed out for a wine industry luncheon hosted by Merriam Vineyards in Healdsburg's Russian River Valley.

Merriam Vineyards Wine Tasting Room

I would describe the interior of Merriam's tasting room as modern with a coastal-country feel to it. The warm golden color of the walls creates a cozy environment that softens the large space and high ceiling. The tasting room is inviting and airy with a loft on the second floor.

Merriam Vineyards Loft

The Loft

Guests were treated to a Merriam Vineyards' Sauvignon Blanc and Rosé wines.

Empty Wine Glasses Merriam Winery

All you had to do was reach for a glass.

ZiN Restaurant, Appetizer, Ceviche

Hand passed hors d'oeuvres by ZiN Restaurant (now closed) included this Gulf Shrimp, Mango and Avocado Ceviche.

ZiN Restaurant, House Cured Ham Biscuit

And their House Cured Ham on ZiN Biscuits.

Merriam Winery, Healdsburg CA

After some meet and greet time we headed to the winery for a barrel tasting and lunch.

Jeff Mall, ZiN Restaurant, Wall of Fire BBQ

Being a foodie, I was sidetracked when I saw ZiN's co-owner and Executive Chef Jeff Mall out in the parking lot with his mobile, wood-fired, rotisserie oven. It's his own invention named "The Wall of Fire." He was cooking up the pork loins that would be served for lunch just a few minutes later.

Barrel Tasting, David Herzberg, Wine Maker

The rest of the group had moved on and were in the winery enjoying the barrel tasting with wine maker David Herzberg.

Merriam Winery, Hospitality Manager, Robert Conard

Leading the way was Merriam's Hospitality Manager Roberd Conard.

Robert confirmed what I had already suspected, Sonoma's winery hospitality managers are some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. Anywhere. They always make you feel welcomed and typically their personalities are down to earth and very friendly. I don't think you can "teach" someone how to have a genuine hospitality personality. You're either born with "it" or you're not.

Merriam Vineyards, Luncheon, ZiN Restaurant

After the barrel tasting we moved on to lunch. Three long tables had been set up for us.

Even with my annoying supertaster status that keeps me from being able to enjoy probably 98% of wines, I was still game to try the wines that afternoon.

Our first course was Grilled Local Goat Cheese Stuffed Grape Leaves served on a Farro Salad. It was so good. The farro and vegetables were perfectly prepared and the goat cheese was mild, creamy and warm. It was paired with a 2007 Windacre Merlot. It was my favorite of the three wines I sampled that day.

ZiN, Farro Salad, Corn Grits, Chard, Plum Chutney

Because I don't eat pork (or beef, or poultry, or shellfish, or mollusks, or lamb or goat or bison, or game meat, and all fish except wild, and preferably line caught, Alaskan and Pacific salmon and Pacific sardines LOL) I discreetly asked the server when she brought my first course if my entrée could be no meat with just a bit more of the side dishes in its place.

So here, instead of pork loin, you see the Farro Salad with a Fresh Plum Chutney, Sweet Corn Grits and Sauteed Swiss Chard (mine was minus ZiN's own bacon which I wanted to share with you because for you meat and bacon lovers I don't want to give the impression that ZiN is a vegetarian restaurant). The chard was topped with a few fresh, and very sweet, corn kernels. It was paired with a 2007 Windacre Cabernet Franc. I cleaned the plate. Every bite was delicious. I especially loved the plum chutney. I suspect it would be excellent alongside any poultry or pork dish.

Wine, Dessert, Susan and Jeff Mall, ZiN

And then came dessert, a Chocolate Pound Cake with Brandied Cherries paired with a Late Harvest Cabernet Franc. I should have taken an after picture of my plate. It looked like I licked it clean. But I swear, I didn't :)

And that's ZiN's Chef Susan Mall and Executive Chef Jeff Mall who came out to receive our appreciative applause for the delightful lunch. Sadly the picture quality isn't as good as it could have been because my macro lens was still on the camera from shooting the chocolate cake so I had to hurriedly change back to my zoom and get the camera up in a jiffy to get any shot at all.

ZiN Restaurant and Wine Bar, Storefront

This is ZiN Restaurant and Wine Bar in downtown Healdsburg. I almost went there for dinner that night, I literally stood in front of the restaurant and contemplated going in and ordering three deserts for dinner. I especially wanted the Chocolate Pound Cake again. But it didn't seem like the most nutritious or healthful course of action so I forced myself to walk away. LOL

Truffle Salt

Just one last thing I wanted to point out. Back in the tasting room there are souvenir and gift items along with Merriam's wines. I couldn't help but notice one of the gift items is my beloved Truffle Salt. So far the most perfect use I've found for it is on freshly popped popcorn with a little butter. The way the essence of truffle and salt meld with the butter is just YUM! It's so good!

After lunch Tracy took me on a few mini site tours. We made a quick stop at what would be our destination the following day then moved on to Soda Rock.

Soda Rock Winery
Soda Rock has a unique Old meets New World appearance.

The history of the site that was once Alexander Valley's original General Store and Post Office is both long and rich. It first became a winery in 1880. In 1904 a new owner made improvements to the winery before he sold it when prohibition passed. The third owners took possession of the property in 1923 and grew grapes until prohibition was repealed at which time they revived wine production until 1973 when they moved to a new location, closing Soda Rock in the process. Another new owner revived the winery in the 1980's but then moved on. In 2000 the winery's current owners, Ken and Diane Wilson, purchased the property and for the past decade have worked to restore Soda Rock to its former glory.

As you walk into the tasting room the first thing you'll notice is the almost floor to ceiling portrait of a beautiful woman on the side wall.

Tasting Room, Soda Rock Winery

As you break her gaze you'll notice one of two things next: The long, dark wood bar with stained glass, wine country motifs or the stuffed, white and black spotted pig (with no name) standing in the front window. In a strange way he looks as if he's greeting you as you walk in the door.

Soda Rock's wine tasting room has a cool and eclectic vibe. The bar was given a new life when it was brought here after its career at a local tavern had come to an end.

Soda Rock, Tasting Room, Interior

In the expansive tasting room one can sit at the elegant bar, in a cozy modern living room style lounge or at the rustic high table, an old basket press. There was also what appeared to be an antique bottling machine on display.

The winery offers both indoor and outdoor event areas so it makes sense that at the end of the row of connected buildings the former water tower is now known as "The Honeymoon Suite." Newlywed couples will find a full kitchen and bath on the ground level. Ascend the spiraling staircase and they'll arrive on the third floor to find an elegantly appointed bedroom surrounded by a 360º view of the vineyards and valley below.

Soda Rock, Artist's Suite, Guest House

Beside the Water Tower is a ground level guest house called the "Artist's Suite." Immediately I noticed the paintings within. They were serene, almost meditative, and set a vibe that this is a place to clear your head and relax. Tracy told me the artist has a studio at Soda Rock. We even took a little peek inside. I Googled painter+soda+rock+healdsburg and learned the artist's name is Wade Hoefer. I love the tranquility his pictures evoke.

Hanna Winery, Tasting Room, Vineyards

Our final stop that day was Hanna Winery. My favorite part? The long lavender bordered driveway. It made me wish we had a long driveway so that I could do the same thing at my house. Hm, I could tear out some of our lawn to create a similar border along our front walk. It was so lovely and smelled so good. Everywhere we went that day were lavender plants. I told Tracy if it isn't the official city flower of Healdsburg it should be!

Hanna Winery, Wines

We stopped in for just a few minutes as the tasting room was busy. But it gave me time to get a few shots just to show you a bit of the property.

Hanna Winery, vineyards

I couldn't help but notice there were owl boxes around Hanna's vineyards. Perhaps someday I can try to photograph their owls which are welcome predators at many of the wineries as they help to keep the vineyards free of rodents that could damage the vines and crops.

Hanna also has an outdoor, white rose arbor that can be used for weddings. For now their vineyard makes for a classic, wine country backdrop. In the future, the small redwoods behind the arbor will grow to create a more dramatic ceremony area.

5:00 PM was approaching and with that our 12 hour day of shooting was coming to an end. Tracy took me back to the Haydon Street Inn where we continued on with her day of camera 101 coaching just a bit longer. Tomorrow I'll blog about my stay where I had fun meeting the other guests, wandered around Healdsburg looking for dinner, then enjoyed a restorative night of rest.

To be continued. . .

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. . .


Merriam Vineyards Winery
11650-11654 Los Amigos Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
707-433 4034

Soda Rock Winery
8015 Highway 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448

HANNA Winery
9280 Highway 128
Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 431-4310


ZiN Restaurant and Wine Bar (now closed)
344 Center Street
Healdsburg , CA 95448

Past posts from Healdsburg 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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