Call them grape growers, winegrowers, winemakers, or vintners—the wine industry, above all, is an agricultural business.
But the most popular buzzwords surrounding actual farming practices today—“organic,” “biodynamic,” and the fairly nebulous “sustainable”—can be confusing. That’s why in 2020, California’s Sonoma County Winegrowers (SCW) plans to participate in the Climate Adaptation Certification Program, a new voluntary initiative aimed at quantifying, tracking, and reducing carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane emissions.
In September of 2019, Karissa Kruse, president of SCW, announced that 99% of the vineyards in Sonoma are now practicing certified sustainable farming and that the Climate Adaptation Certification will help bring a new level of transparency and understanding to sustainable farming practices.
“We believe that over the next couple years we’ll be able to equate the greenhouse gas savings with something much more tangible for the wine consumer,” she said, according to The San Francisco Chronicle. “We’ll be able to tell people if this farmer reduced greenhouse gases to the equivalent of taking five cars off the road for a year.”
The devastating Kincade Fire, which broke out on October 23, has affected over 76,000 acres in the region. Winery workers have been forced to evacuate, and over 130 homes in the county have been destroyed. Needless to say, it's a great time to support the area's wines.
Bearing all that in mind, here is a list of 25 amazing Sonoma County wines.
2018 Balletto Pinot Gris Russian River Valley ($20)
This under-the-radar vineyard, known mostly to locals, is off Occidental Road in Santa Rosa. Longtime Balletto winemaker Anthony Beckman, associate winemaker Ian Bearup, and cellarmaster Steven McCall are producing wines that deliver impressive quality at an unbeatable value, given their estate Russian River grape sources. This Pinot Gris comes from an eight-acre southwestern facing hillside in Sebastopol, near to a hotspot for Merry Edwards Pinot Noir. Tart green apple, mineral, and honey blossoms give way to a creamy mid-palate with baking spices—a colossal effort.
2017 Raeburn Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($19)
“The river where one goes to drink” is how you’d translate the Olde English term “raeburn,” and if that river is flowing with Pinot Noir, you’re going to have quite a party. You might just settle for several bottles of this soft, creamy wild strawberry-fruited, clove, allspice and subtly smoky gem.
2016 Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County ($20)
Produced from sustainably farmed vines, this full-bodied Cabernet is packed with red cherry compote, pie spices, and soft tannins, which are underscored by a chalky mineral finish. Also look for Benziger’s new Reserve tier of wines, and their 2017 Benziger Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve, a powerful, rich, dark-fruited rendition made from organically farmed grapes.
2018 Twomey Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, Napa and Sonoma County ($25)
I just don’t think it gets any better than a really well-polished, barrel-aged Sauvignon Blanc. There’s a superb creaminess that comes with aging this variety in a barrel, and it also imparts terrifically subtle oak or baking spices notes and of which is laden through this Twomey SB, not to mention tropical fruit, likely a result of sourcing about 44% Napa County fruit, while the rest comes from Sonoma delivering mineral-cut and precision. What a fun wine.
2016 MacMurray Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($25)
Situated on the ranch formerly owned by film and TV star Fred MacMurray, who appeared in movies alongside Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Today, E & J Gallo is shepherding this estate, and visitors might be quite lucky to spend time tasting with Kate MacMurray, the daughter of Fred and June Haver. The 2016 is round and elegant, overflowing with bright red-berry fruit, red cherry, purple florals and raspberry, cherry, and lavender.
2017 Sea Slopes (Fort Ross Winery) Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($27)
Fort Ross’s Jeff Pisoni, the son of Central Coast Pinot legend Gary Pisoni, is making fantastic wines from the extremely rugged, coastal terroir where Sea Slopes Chardonnay is grown. This Chardonnay delivers heady aromas that are fresh and vivid—about as close to standing on the California shoreline as you can get without actually being there. Citrus peel, poached pear, ripe melon, and creme brulee notes with a mouth-tingling acid zip.
2016 Gehricke Russian River Valley Zinfandel, California ($27)
Fourth-generation Sonoma vintner August Sebastiani launched 3 Badge Beverage Corp. in 2005 with a line of wine and spirits brands, and his Gehricke portfolio offers quality and value you just can’t beat. This Zin is fruit-forward with farmer’s market fresh ripe strawberries, vanilla and cinnamon, wrapped in a soft and silken textured package.
2017 Siduri Pinot Noir Russian River Valley ($32)
In 1994, Texas natives Adam and Dianna Lee founded Siduri Wines. Today, their red-cap labels are a source of high-quality Pinots of extreme value. If you’re in Healdsburg, head to the Siduri Wine Lounge and take full advantage of these creations, like this rich, black-fruited, and juicy Pinot that reveals a silken medium-bodied texture with loads of deep earth notes and spice.
2016 Anaba Turbine White Sonoma Valley ($32)
The name “Anaba” comes from the Anabatic winds, which sweep through the Carneros region of Sonoma. Founded in 2006 by the father-son duo John Sweazey and John Michael Sweazey, they recently opened the Anaba Vintners House in Carneros. If you can’t get there any time soon, look for this Rhône-inspired white, a blend of 40% Viognier, 31% Grenache Blanc, 22% Roussanne, and 7% Marsanne. Bright and zippy with crisp stone fruit and orchard fruit tinged with citrus peel, jasmine, and crushed stone minerality.
2016 Flowers Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($50)
This Sonoma Coast staple recently opened a tasting room and hospitality center just outside Healdsburg dubbed the “House of Flowers.” Winemaker Chantal Forthun can’t seem to stop herself from making fabulously rich, mineral-driven, vivid expressions of Chardonnay (and dynamite Pinot) that is ready to drink upon release but capable of a long life in the cellar. This Chardonnay is brimming with Meyer lemon peel, salty-sea spray, and candied ginger.
2017 Benovia Chardonnay Russian River Valley Sonoma ($36)
Winemaker Mike Sullivan, formerly of Chateau St. Jean, Landmark Vineyards, and Chappellet, sources prized fruit from Benovia’s sustainably farmed Martaella Estate Vineyard which surrounds the winery. The result is a Burgundian-style Chardonnay that fills the mouth with lemon peel, lemon oil, jasmine, and profound layers of silky lemon-lime citrus fruit.
J Vineyards & Winery Cuvee 20 Brut Russian River Valley ($38)
The iconic yellow “J” set against the curvy green bottle should by now scream out to you from the aisle if you’re intending to drink a bubbly that always over-delivers. Bright, creamy, fresh, and loaded with tart green apple, pears, and white flowers, this is always a party in a bottle.
2018 Cline Sonoma Coast Pinot Gris ($18)
Fred and Nancy Cline started out making wine in a barn in 1982, and today they are a pillar of Sonoma, producing wine out of a 100% solar-powered winery and making wines like this satisfyingly fresh and structured Pinot Gris, with pear, guava, yellow apple, and spice flavors.
2017 Passalacqua “Lago di Merlo” Fiano Dry Creek Valley ($39)
Fiano is a grape that’s typically grown in Campania in Southern Italy, but winemaker Jessica Boone only has to go to a hillside site in Dry Creek called the Lago di Merlo Vineyard, where one tiny acre of Fiano is planted. They actually foot-tread two-thirds of the wine, and allow a little skin-contact, which lends a terrific orange blossom and honeysuckle note to this rich, orange citrus- and almond-skin-kissed white.
2016 Ramey Syrah Sonoma Coast ($40)
You may not realize just how much you love Syrah until you’ve tried one from David Ramey. No matter the grape, when “Ramey” is on the label, you can’t go wrong, and this Syrah proves it. Tasted blind, it’ll fool the best critics into thinking it’s a Northern Rhône classic, with its opulent satiny black and blueberry fruit aromas and flavors, a touch of smoky bacon fat, lofty brown spices, dark chocolate, violets, and gorgeous pops of cedar on a mouthwatering finish.
2017 Bennett Valley Cellars Pinot Noir, Bennett Valley Sonoma County ($40)
Head west of Sonoma Mountain, or southeast of Santa Rosa, and you’ll find yourself in Sonoma’s Bennett Valley, where cool Pacific marine air funnels inland from the Petaluma Gap to vineyards around 400-500 ft. in elevation. Bennett Valley Cellars was founded some 60 years ago by Emilio Zanin, who emigrated to America from a town in the Italian Alps. This is a great effort, showing silken black cherry notes, brown baking spices, clove, and cedar and is long and refreshing.
2016 Chalk Hill Estate Chardonnay ($42)
Courtney Foley has taken on the winemaking at Chalk Hill, which is owned by her dad, Bill Foley, and “dad’s favorite wine,” is Chardonnay, “so no pressure,” she said of taking the reins. By the tastes of it—sumptuous candied lemon peel, sliced yellow apple, just-picked pear, and a high-toned cedar and creamy caramel finish—she’s doing just fine.
2016 Sosie Pinot Noir Spring Hill Vineyard Sonoma Coast ($43)
This tiny production wine comes from the Spring Hill Vineyard, which sits in the Petaluma Gap on a ranch that is home to Wagyu and Scottish Highland cattle. Luckily the cows aren’t much interested in the tiny berries of Pinot Noir that deliver this impressively fresh wine, packed with super dark berry aromas, brown spices, clove, and delivers juicy orange peel notes, along with creamy and fleshy fruit supported by powerful tannins that will soften with a few years of bottle age.
2017 Chappellet Grower Collection Calesa Vineyard Petaluma Gap Chardonnay ($45)
Phillip Corallo-Titus has produced every vintage of Chappellet since 1990, and some 25 of those have gone hand-in-hand with vineyard manager Dave Pirio. While Chappellet is based in Napa Valley, they leverage their longstanding relationships with growers in Sonoma to produce distinct single-vineyard Sonoma wines like this Calesa Vineyard Chardonnay from a site farmed by Oscar Renteria (they also produce a Pinot Noir from Calesa). As for the Chardonnay, in the glass, it’s all sea-shells and lemon citrus notes courtesy of the cool-climate site, along with sweet baking spices and medium-rich weight balanced by vivid acidity.
2017 Dutton Goldfield Pinot Noir Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley ($45)
Dan Goldfield has a real knack for producing delicious Pinot Noir from several single-vineyard Sonoma sites. Dutton Ranch combines all of his best sites throughout the Russian River into a fashionable package wrapped in ripe dark-berry fruit ribbons, redolent of black cherry, raspberry, and boysenberry fruit, framed by cedar-like tannins.
2016 Boheme Taylor Ridge Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Coast ($49)
Kurt Beitler, the grandson of Charlie Wagner, who was the founder of Caymus Vineyards, likes to host tastings of Boheme when time permits. His Boheme Wines is one of the best appointment-only experiences in Sonoma. Tylor Ridge sits just under five miles from the Pacific Ocean and the hand-harvested Wente Clone clusters deliver a rich, ripe Chardonnay with butterscotch toasty oak and tons of acidity through a bracing saline-like finish.
2017 Gary Farrell 2017 Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($35)
Theresa Heredia has helmed the wines at Gary Farrel (an alum of Joseph Phelps’ Freestone Vineyards) since 2012, and year after year the wines continue to impress. This is one of the finest Russian River Chardonnays you’ll find in this price range. The weighty white is laced with caramel and creme brûlée notes and a delicious thread of candied apricots, dried peaches, butterscotch, and intense baking spices. It finishes long with candied lemon peel and mouthwatering tension.
2016 Westwood Legend, Sonoma Valley ($53)
Napa Valley icon Philippe Melka crossed the pond to produce his inaugural Sonoma Valley wine, a red blend featuring Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre alongside a hefty dollop of Cabernet Sauvignon. Fleshy, soft and round, revealing black and blue fruit compote underscored by richly savory spices, cured meat, white pepper, and a hint of crushed violets.
2016 BR Cohn Cabernet Sauvignon Sonoma County ($60)
Winery founder Bruce Cohn was the Doobie Brothers’ manager, and that music history runs deep with their annual Sonoma Harvest Music Festival. So get out your favorite playlist and savor this creamy, layered Cabernet with its crushed blackberries, brambly spices, graphite, and subtle minty aromas atop silky, elongated tannins.
2016 AldenAlli Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($56)
This Pinot is hard to find, but worth the hunt online. It comes from former Kosta Browne owner Dan Kosta, who partnered with the Lagasse family (as in Chef Emeril Lagasse) to explore cool-climate Sonoma winemaking. Pinotfiles will recognize the vineyard sources—Campbell Ranch, Penngrove, and Sunchase. For everyone else, this offers a rare glimpse into Pinot perfection with loads of black cherry, cherry pit, rose petal, and wild crushed savory herbs with a subtle citrus-peel kiss.