One of the hardest things about visiting wine country is deciding where to visit. In a region like Sonoma that produces a wide variety of wines, I find that I’m especially torn. One of the things I’m always trying to avoid is zig-zagging back and forth and wasting precious time. Who wants to spend half the trip in a car? On my last trip, which was definitely focused on Pinot Noir and bubbly (mainly from the Russian River Valley) we spent almost a week in Healdsburg and were able to really take our time. Other Sonoma trips saw me hanging out in Carneros at the very south end of Sonoma. Make no mistake, Sonoma is BIG, so you definitely want to have a strategy when visiting. This is especially true if you’re doing a long weekend and only have a few days. In these instances, it almost always makes sense to choose a particular area and stick with it. So why not explore the versatility of the Alexander and Dry Creek Valley regions?
The inland Alexander Valley AVA (aka region) is the northernmost in Sonoma and home to 77 winegrowers and 33 wineries. Here Cab Sauv is king, but lovely examples of Chardonnay, Merlot, and Malbec can be had. Dry Creek Valley sits just west of Alexander Valley and north of the Russian River Valley. If there was a king of the region, it is definitely Zinfandel (many of which I got to experience during ZinEx), but with more than 150 winegrowers and 70 wineries, there is no shortage of variety here. Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, or even Rhône varietals are fair game. And let me just say it now – I had no idea such exquisite Sauvignon Blanc could be found here! Both regions are easily accessed from Healdsburg which sits just a few miles to the south.
As a self-professed “non-lover” of Sauvignon Blanc, I have to say I was not ready to be wowed by Hanna Winery. But that’s exactly what happened when my tasting began with their traditional method sparkling Sauvignon Blanc. Like who knew?! It was magic in the glass! And they are the only producer in California making such a wine. Hanna is actually renowned for its Sauv Blanc (it’s their flagship) so it makes sense that they could make someone like me enjoy it.
And as someone that has taken a sideways step into wine, I really appreciated founder Dr. Elias Hanna’s story. As a celebrated cardiac surgeon, Dr. Hanna was seeking a break from the city and found that in the Sonoma countryside. A 12-acre piece of land that started as a place to raise children, grow fruit and vegetables, raise chickens, and dabble in wine is now an iconic Sonoma winery.
Today, daughter Christine Hanna sits at the helm of the winery and has guided the winery’s strategic expansion. She recognized the potential of estate grown vineyards and made the decisions to move away from purchased fruit. And it was Chris that saw the potential for greatness from the winery’s Russian River Sauvignon Blanc when everyone else was focused on Chardonnay. In addition to Sauv Blanc, Hanna also crafts Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as some Bordeaux blends. I was also able to taste a really fun Nero d’Avola.
And y’all, their Alexander Valley tasting room is simply stunning! I have to say that I loved the property as much as the wines. The outdoor wraparound deck is definitely the place to hang out and enjoy some wine.
Fave Wine: Sparkling Sauvignon Blanc
A visit to Quivira Vineyards in Dry Creek is Iike visiting 2 wineries in one. Whether you want classic Dry Creek Valley wines like Cab Sauv, Zinfandel, Rhone varietals, or Sauv Blanc, or are more in a Burgundy state of mind and looking for Pinot and Chardonnay, they have you covered. They make Zinfandel and Bordeaux and Rhône varietals under the Quivira Vineyards brand, while their La Follette brand is all about crafting expressive, site specific Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Do a tasting of one or the other – or both!
And why not as Quivira’s 80 acres estate will definitely make you want to hang out for a while. Family owned since 1981, Quivira is sustainable through and through. Farming organically and practicing biodynamics where it makes sense is only the beginning. It was very cool learning about their restoration of the fish habitat on Grape Creek which allows salmon and steelhead to migrate upstream to spawning grounds. They’ve been solar since the 1990s, have a garden that features 100+ raised beds planted to heritage cultivars of all sorts of produce, limit off-farm inputs by composting winery pomace and estate livestock manure, reduced bottle weight – and so much more. The chickens were cute too, and yes they too serve a purpose. They are fed from the garden waste and enhance the estate’s biodiversity as well as provide eggs for their employees.
As for the wines, it was Sauv Blanc that put them on the map, followed by Rhône varietals and these are definitely the stars of the Quivira portfolio. I was amazed at how different each SB was with one giving a nod to Sancerre, another with a wink to Bordeaux, and yet another completely different from the 1st two.
When it came to the Rhone varietals, the Grenache absolutely stole the show. They promote it as an alternative to Pinot and this Pinot lover definitely approves. On the La Folette side, the Chardonnay and Pinot definitely gave me a vibes of both New World and Old World – which is where I like to be.
Fave Wine: Wines Creek Ranch Granache.
Imagine having the best of both worlds as a winemaker. You get to work with an amazing biodynamic property AND you get to work with some of the best Pinot and Chardonnay around. That’s exactly what Ross Reedy gets to do as the winemaker for both VML Wines and Truett-Hurst Winery. And lucky you, they are right next door to each other. At Truett-Hurst, the focus is on honing traditional, deeply rooted practices.
With the estate vineyard planted with old vine Zinfandel cuttings, Zin is certainly a star here. To be sure, TH has an amazing selection of Zin in its portfolio that showcases how multifaceted and nuanced Zin can be. And while Zin is king, I loved the Petite Sirah (some of which is old vines), which also figures prominently at the winery. Whether an estate bottling, one from the famed Rockpile vineyard, or included in their “GPS” blend of Grenache, Petite Sirah, and Sirah, it’s worth seeing out.
While the reds dominate, I will share that I also got to enjoy their Sauv Blanc and brut sparkling and really enjoyed! Certified organic and Biodynamic today, things were not always like this. When they purchased the estate, it had been conventionally farmed for decades. Even the topsoil had been sold off and what “soil” was left was quite depleted, with virtually no life. But they kept their eyes on the prize and today have a vibrant estate that is full of life (including all the animals).
Between the gardens, goats, sheep, chickens, hawks, and the endangered fish habitat, I loved seeing all the pieces of the whole.
Fave wine: Estate Petite Sirah
While Truett-Hurst is about tradition, VML Wines next door is about flexibility and having the chance to play a little. Here, it’s all about Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which are sourced from boutique farms throughout the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast. According to them, their passion is Pinot Noir and I can attest that these folks are true Pinot Whisperers. These wines were absolutely exquisite!
The initial goal was just to work with the Truett-Hurst estate, but Ross’ predecessor begged the owners to make Pinot Noir and a side project was born. It’s grown from that one wine to about 5,000 cases today. On average, they make around 12 single vineyard wines and 4-5 vineyard blends each year. Y’all knows I loves me some Pinot and Chardonnay and these were ah-mazing. For me, the Chardonnay stole the show and was lean, linear, and so bright. And I’m just in love with their artistic labels.
Fave wine: All the Chardonnay
Armida Winery is a locally owned family winery and one of Dry Creek Valley’s few remaining legacy wineries where the original owners run the daily winery and vineyard operations. Whether you’re all about ‘serious wine business’ or want a little fun with your wines, Armida is the place for you. I love that they have put such an emphasis on making wine approachable and fun, which is evident with their PoiZin wine – “The wine to die for” – a Zinfandel you’ll never forget.
Fun side, make no mistake, they make seriously good wine. Zinfandel is the star of the portfolio followed by Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. This is a place where you could hang out all day as Armida is renowned for its picturesque vineyard setting, exceptional wine selection, and welcoming atmosphere.
Whether enjoying one of their multiple seating areas and enjoying spectacular views, trying your hand at bocce ball, or enjoying the wine (of course), you’ll want to stay a while.
Fave wine: Il Campo Estate Red Blend
Tongue Dancer Wines
Tongue Dancer was last stop during my trip and I couldn’t think of a better ending. A small boutique winery brought to life by James & Kerry MacPhail (who are just so dang cute together!) this was one of those places where I literally just wanted one of everything. I mean, there’s a reason for the name – the wines literally dance on your tongue! Hell, I just wanted to get up and actually dance given how happy I was to be drinking these wines.
Now this winery is all about Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, so don’t go looking for Can Sauv or Zin. Heck, even if you THINK you aren’t a Pinot or Chard fan, I defy you to taste these wines and not come away swooning like I did. At Tongue Dancer, winemaker James MacPhail has a true reverence and devotion to learning about and crafting Pinot and Chardonnay. As they are a VERY small producer (and they very much intend to keep it that way), tastings are done by reservation only. It will truly be a educational and intimate tasting experience. Plus you’ll get to enjoy wines that dance on your tongue!
Fave wine: I know it’s a cop-out to say all of them (but I want to!), but since I have to choose, I’m going to go with ‘The Sly One’ Dry Creek Valley Chardonnay.
Where to Stay
On any of these trips, one goal is the ability to enjoy the town of Healdsburg, particularly in the evenings, without having to drive anywhere. On my previous trip, I enjoyed the charm and romance of luxury French country living at Hotel Les Mars.
This time around, I went to the other end of the spectrum and stayed at the very trendy, modern, minimalist – and sustainable – h2 Hotel. Like sustainable for real as they are LEED NC 2.2 Gold Certified Green, which means that every aspect of the hotel is designed to use less energy, water, and natural resources while creating less waste.
And what a super cute place it was. I love the thoughtful touches like water stations (you get a glass carafe in your room)throughout, loaner bikes, and free yoga on Sundays. Plus, it’s in walking distance to everything.
Where to Eat
Located inside of the h2 Hotel, Spoonbar was an easy place to pop down to from the room, but worthy of a visit wherever you’re staying. Like the hotel, it has more modern tendencies with wide open spaces and floor to ceiling windows but such a laid back, causal vibe.
Chalkboard is the ultimate in hominess. I loved the little chalk board with the day’s specials as a nod to the restaurant’s name. And the food is warming to the soul. I don’t know that I could ever visit and not have the porcini pasta!
Dry Creek Kitchen
I haven’t to Dry Creek Kitchen been since the new chef and renovated dining room that occurred a couple of months ago, but if it’s as wonderful as my past experience, it’s hard to go wrong here. The essence of farm to fork Cali cuisine.
After such a long hiatus from Sonoma, I have to say that these last couple of trips have whet my appetite for more Sonoma deliciousness. There’s definitely so much more to explore in Alexander and Dry Creek Valley. Where to go next…