A pilgrimage to Sonoma Valley Wine Country

For those of us who cling to all things related to the grape, a pilgrimage to California Wine Country is Nirvana. Rather than run the gauntlet of the high brow in Napa Valley, we chose Sonoma Valley, known for its more laid-back atmosphere.

Our journey took us to 17 wineries in roughly four days. This rigorous task entailed sampling various wines, some well beyond our means as well as more modestly priced offerings. The farms and tasting rooms varied greatly from warehouses to opulent Italian-style estates with palatial gardens.

Sonoma covers 1,576 square miles with more than 200 winemakers taking full advantage of the climate’s moist and typically cool temperatures. The region is rich with farmers — some grow grapes for vintners while others cultivate, harvest and make their own wines on site.

Meet Rick Davis, owner and winemaker for CalStar Cellars. He is also a leather-works craftsman, which helps make ends meet. With no distribution agreement in place, Davis is unable to expand much beyond the state of California. Relying mainly on wine festivals and word of mouth, Davis faces daunting odds, but a recent gold medal at a local wine festival for his 2008 Pinot Noir should help the CalStar brand.

Small vintners face overwhelming competition, fickle weather patterns, and a bad economy. Many, like Davis, have little market penetration and are relegated to vintner-direct sales, including over-the-counter and wine club sales.

We meet Davis at a warehouse complex in Santa Rosa, where numerous small winemakers process grapes to fuel their dreams. Sitting around a large table that doubles as a lunch/conference table, we sample four wines while Rick regales us with tales of his big adventure. He sweats the recent hard rains that postponed harvesting. Wet grapes dilute the product and can ruin the vintage.

On the other end of the spectrum the Ferrari Carrano winery is a Disneyland for wine drinkers. It sits amidst rolling hills near Healdsburg, surrounded by well-manicured gardens and grape vines as far as the eye can see.

Ferrari Carrano wines are tasted in the depths of a Tuscan villa resplendent with marble floors, paneled walls and soft ambient light. Tastings can take place in private rooms in soft chairs with attentive staff. Here, it is all about presentation. Twentysomething attendants pour from six different bottles and conjure olfactory nuances featuring apricots, chocolate, tobacco, and much more. The experience is as much about smell as taste. Wine tasting in this environment is big business and represents the rarefied air of high-end winemaking.

Sonoma Valley residents face some of the same issues we wrestle with in Larimer County. Land and water use are hotly debated. Preservationists embrace the centuries-old redwoods which help make the area so distinctive. Farmers, mostly grape growers, want to expand their tillable land and plant more vines.

Over and above irrigation requirements, an average of six gallons of water is needed to process one gallon of wine. And the valley suffers from serious run-off issues, so waste-water disposal is costly and an (obvious) strain on the environment.

Some winemakers use dryland farming techniques to save costs as well as a means of stressing the grapes — therefore enhancing the flavor.

The purchase of your favorite holiday wine seldom includes the consideration of the real-life drama acted out by those involved in its creation. So, when you pour a glass, make a toast to those who bring the bottle to your table. It will always be a business, but also a labor of love.

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