San Francisco Chronicle
Carneros Highways Dotted with Notable Wineries.
The gently winding, scenic Carneros wine trail — dubbed the Carneros Highway — is used by many as a convenient connection between Napa Valley’s Highway 29 and Highway 12, yet it is dotted with notable wineries, vineyards and even a brewery.
In fact, there are even more wineries if you are willing to take short excursions a mile or three off the main road.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the undisputed king and queen of the Los Carneros American Viticultural Area, or AVA.
Approved in 1983, the 90-square-mile Los Carneros wine region was one of the earlier AVAs approved in California and was the first defined by the character of its terroir rather than simple geography. It was also the first to span two counties. Its cool, moderate climate influenced by bay breezes and fog is similar to that of Burgundy and of Champagne, which are, not surprisingly, home to France’s finest expressions of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
Morning fog and the cooling San Pablo Bay winds that come up in the late afternoons slow the ripening of the grapes and naturally reduce the crop size, which helps concentrate fruit flavors. Also contributing to smaller crop size is the thin, poor-draining clay-based soils. The region’s cool climate maintains acidity, a hallmark of sparkling wine that is made primarily of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
As of this spring, nearly 7,500 acres were planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, 46 percent and 44 percent respectively, with 10 percent planted to other grape varieties such as Merlot and Syrah. Renowned Chardonnay/Pinot Noir vineyards include Hudson, Hyde, Sangiacomo and Stanly Ranch.
At the Sonoma side of the Carneros trail just north of the Sonoma Speedway, the first winery on the trail is Ram’s Gate, a high-end, 21-and-older tasting room that has three electric charging stations (two for Teslas) in its parking lot. An elegant, open-air, natural stone courtyard and “pavilion” patio informs the entry, which segues to a high, wood-ceilinged tasting hall and a sleek demonstration kitchen with an abundance of counter space. Ram’s Gate specializes in single-vineyard Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, such as the 2013 Hyde Vineyard Carneros Chardonnay and 2012 Ulysses Valdez Silver Eagle Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir.
28700 Arnold Drive, Sonoma. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday-Monday. There are many different tastings, including the seated bar ($40 for four wines), vineyard-designate tasting ($65 for five single-vineyard wines) and four pairings of wine and food ($90). Reservations required. (707) 721-8700. www.ramsgatewinery.com.
The compact tasting room in the 1850s farmhouse is supplemented by multiple outdoor tasting areas. Spacious, well-tended grounds are dotted with several picnic tables, and there is a free museum featuring historic models of the 21 California missions that were made for the 1939 World’s Fair on Treasure Island (10 a.m.-4 p.m. daily, donations accepted).
Zinfandel and Rhone varietals are the focus of the winery, which has 16 varieties growing in Carneros, including the
Syrah and Sangiovese planted in the early 1990s by founder Fred Cline.
24737 Arnold Drive, Sonoma. Open 10 a.m.-6 p.m. daily. Groups of six or less can taste up to five wines from the basic list, such as the 2013 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and 2013 Ancient Vines Contra Costa County Zinfandel at no charge (reservations needed for groups of seven or more with $10 per person); tour and tasting ($15); single-vineyard tasting ($20 for four wines, including cheese and crackers). (707) 940-4000. www.clinecellars.com.
The majestic 18th century, French-style chateau on a hill overlooking Highway 121/12 is Domaine Carneros, a sparkling wine house whose design was inspired by the historic chateau of Champagne Taittinger in Riems, France. All of the wine is made from organic, estate-grown fruit, including the Brut Rosé Carneros sparkling wine and 2012 Famous Gate Carneros Pinot Noir. Opt to taste on the outdoor terrace with its panoramic view and wrought iron furniture.
1240 Duhig Road, Napa. Open 10 a.m.-5:45 p.m. daily. Tastings are available by the glass, by the bottle or in flights ($12-$40); a limited menu is available until 5 p.m.; tour with tasting ($25); additional specialty tastings. Call or go online for reservations. (707) 257-0101. www.domainecarneros.com.
Cuvaison Estate Wines
Just across Duhig Road from Domaine Carneros is Cuvaison’s modern steel, glass and wood tasting room, which opened six years ago. The narrow patio overlooks a small lake and you can spy both Winery Lake, home of the di Rosa art collection and Artesa Winery, which is built into the distant hillside.
Tasting room hosts take the time to give the history of Steve Rogstad’s wines, such as the 2013 Kite Tail Carneros Chardonnay, named for the bird that makes its home on the windy bluff where the grapes are grown, and the 2012 Brandlin Estate Mount Veeder Cabernet Sauvignon, sourced from a small, historic vineyard.
1221 Duhig Road, Napa. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, last seated tasting at 4:30 p.m. Daily tasting ($20 for four wines); walking tour and tasting ($30) 9:30 a.m. Friday-Monday; three pairings of cheese and wine ($35) Monday-Thursday. Reservations required for all tastings. (707) 942-2455; www.cuvaison.com.
Established in 1922, Bartoluccis’ winery has been in the family for four generations. (The winery has also been called Mont St. John Cellars.) Most of the wines are made with organic fruit from dry-farmed estate vineyards in Carneros — try the 2012 Estate Carneros Pinot Noir. There are also varietals not usually found in Carneros such as a 2012 Estate Carneros Dolcetto.
5400 Old Sonoma Road, Napa. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, no reservations required; Reserve Room 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Thursday-Monday, reservations required. Tastings ($10 for four wines) from a menu of 12 estate options are offered in the unpretentious main tasting room. Reserve Room tasting only ($15, five wines; $25, tour and tasting); pairing of five wines and chocolate ($30). Picnic areas available. (707) 255-8864. www.madonnaestate.com.
Make it a weekend
Vineyard Inn Hotel: This small, family-owned and operated Vineyard Inn Hotel is a 22-room motor court built in 1941. The quaint, single story, red-tiled building has a grape motif that pops up in some headboards and in the naming of rooms after grape varieties; think Malbec and Marsanne. There are also two-room suites with mini refrigerators and microwaves, and all guests can use the common room’s microwave and full-size refrigerator 24/7. Continental breakfast on weekends.Rooms from $199. Open May-November. 23000 Arnold Drive, Sonoma; (707) 938-2350.www.vineyardinnsonoma.com.
Angelo’s Wine Country Deli: For grab-and-go provisions, stop at Angelo’s Wine Country Deli, where the thick sandwiches, cheese, charcuterie and must-have beef and turkey jerky will make picnicking effortless. Angelo’s Wine Country Deli, 23400 Arnold Drive Hwy. 121, Sonoma; (707) 938-3688. www.angelossmokehouse.com. Open daily.
Fremont Diner: If you have more time, the Fremont Diner is the place to stop for ice-cold beer and Southern-leaning fare. Try the fried oyster sandwich with bacon, arugula and pickled red onions and the house-cured hot pastrami on rye garnished with zucchini chow-chow and locally made Vella asiago. Or fortify yourself pre-wine tasting with a breakfast of shrimp and grits or biscuits and gravy.Fremont Diner, 2698 Fremont Drive, Sonoma; (707) 938-7370. www.thefremontdiner.com.Breakfast and lunch Monday-Wednesday; breakfast-dinner Thursday-Sunday; breakfast served all day.
Lynne Char Bennett is a freelance writer. E-mail: email@example.com