A marathon tour of Sonoma Plaza tasting rooms.
Photos: Steven Krause
Some people call it symbiosis—the relationship between alcohol, wine, tourism and the economic vitality of this globally recognized tourist destination called Sonoma.
Other people call it a curse, an economic monoculture, an alcoholic Disneyland, a traffic-congested nightmare and the death knell for authentic small-town community values.
What they’re talking about is tasting rooms, both the cause and the effect, they argue, of a town that is selling its soul for the almighty tourist dollar.
First, a few facts.
Sonoma has the largest Plaza in California and the only one where citizens can legally consume alcohol between 11:30 a.m. and dusk every day of the week.
Those facts alone guarantee a public, communal, conviviality that make Sonoma unusual if not unique in the state. Seeing families set up picnic tables on sunny summer afternoons beneath spreading Plaza oaks, with bottles of wine, plates of cheese and fresh loaves of bread—all purchased around the Plaza—is an iconic and (for many) highly appealing image. What’s not to like?
Second, at last count there were 33 tasting rooms (unless we missed one or two) scattered around the Plaza and within a one-block radius that constitutes the commercial zoning district. That’s about 30 percent more than in 2013, the last time this issue came to a public boil. Is that too many? And why?
Most of those tasting rooms are licensed for tastes only—meaning small pours—and a few are also licensed as wine bars that can sell by the full glass. Nowhere in police statistics is there any indication that the increase in tasting rooms correlates with more drunk driving or public intoxication.
And finally, while some tasting room critics complain the tourists they attract clog the Plaza and fill all the parking spaces, these are anecdotal impressions weak on specific facts.
Nostalgia for the Sonoma of 40, 30, 20 or even 10 years ago, when presumably life was slower, with less traffic, more parking and fewer crosswalk gawkers, ignores the fact that this city—even within the strict confines of its Urban Growth Boundary—has grown. And because housing is prohibitively expensive for many, people who work here more frequently have to drive from somewhere else, thus adding to traffic congestion.
Traffic congestion notwithstanding, what tasting room critics appear to be driven by are subjective impressions. Nothing wrong with that, but probably not the best basis for shaping municipal code.
The Sonoma City Council will address the tasting room issue in an open study session in the near future and that process may surface more hard data.
In the meantime, because some of us are short on our own subjective impressions (not having done much tasting room visitation of late) we decided to do a commando tour of the whole shebang—every tasting room we could find around the Plaza. What follows are our own impressions, including the basic facts, of all tasting rooms we could find to visit. It was a journey of discovery and one of the most powerful impressions we came away with was the wealth of rich stories, the broad diversity of wines and winemakers represented and the generous contributions many tasting rooms make to local causes.
35 East Napa Street
Pangloss is the Taj Mahal of Plaza tasting rooms. A century-old, restored dry-goods store with 23-foot ceilings, walls of stone and glass, a live olive tree behind the bar and sitting areas with soft furniture, it is hands down the most elegant place to drink wine in Sonoma. It’s also licensed as a wine bar, so you can buy both flights and a full glass. Walk-in and reserved tastings are offered, with small-plate food pairings. Wines are crushed and aged at Moon Mountain Vineyard. Tastings are $25-$50.
Kamen Estate Wines
111B East Napa Street
Most Sonomans know why the wall behind the bar in the Kamen tasting room has a quote reading, “Wax on wax off.” It’s a famous line from The Karate Kid, one of countless successful screenplays by Robert Kamen who lives on his vineyard at the top of Norrbom Road. Karate Kid and other Kamen films paid for the property where he and Phil Coturri conspire to produce world-class Bordeaux varietals. The tasting room offers a signature menu for $25 or a premier menu for $40, both waived with wine purchases. There is also a vineyard tour and tasting experience offered at Kamen’s private mountain vineyard.
498 First Street East
Laid-back, user-friendly and joint tenants with he Corner Store, where East Napa encounters First Street East, Highway 12 offers something fewer and fewer tasting rooms provide, and that’s complimentary (as in free) tastes. Founded by Michael Sebastiani (yes, that Sebastiani) and Paul Giusto, Highway 12 celebrates the mystique of Sonoma’s original wine road with surprisingly affordable gold medal wines.
Bennett Valley Cellars
Bennett Valley Cellars
127 East Napa Street
With fourth-generation Italian roots and a gold medal pinot noir for its first vintage in 2008, Bennett Valley Cellars has some good rootstock. They also have an inviting, dog-friendly (with organic dog treats), sit-down tasting room, where manager Lilliana Lubrano invites visitors to “take your time.” A tasting flight covers five wines for $25, you can by it by the glass, and the 2013 Bin 6410 pinot got gold at the 2016 Sonoma County Harvest Fair.
Victor Hill Wines
Victor Hill Wines
109 East Napa Street
After 35 years, Vic McWilliams (former owner of Castle Winery) never quits making wine. Victor Hill is his latest project, specializing in ultra small lots covering 11 varietals. His Plaza tasting room is also an art gallery for the delightfully Sonoman paintings of Caroline Hipkiss that cover most of the wall space. A flight of any six tastings is $20, which is waived with a two-bottle purchase. All the fruit is sourced in Sonoma County, much of it from Sangiacomo and Durrell. A 10 percent local discount is offered.
29 East Napa Street, Suite C
Falcor is a bit of a Plaza anomaly, in that the Sonoma tasting room, in Vine Alley, is an adjunct to the Napa Winery, which is located in a Napa city industrial park, along with the primary tasting room. The winery is owned by two West Virginia law partners who have been highly successful developing premium-quality, small-lot varietals. Tasting flights are $25 – $30 and hours are Wednesday-Sunday 12 to 5.
27 East Napa Street, Suite E
MacLaren is a family-owned, small-lot winery sourcing fruit from across Sonoma County to make cool-climate syrah, pinot noir and sauvignon blanc. Scottish winemaker Steve Law is one-third of the entire workforce who manage the contracted vineyards, crush, age and bottle the grapes, and then sit down with you in the tasting room to talk about it. Total volume is about 1,500 cases, and tasting flights are $20, refundable with purchase. Assistant winemaker Kyle Altomare extends a hearty invitation to Sonomans: “We love locals.”
25 East Napa St, Suite C
Sonoma, CA 95476
Passagio makes a few red wines, but the focus is on stainless-steel-fermented, terroir-driven, food-friendly whites. Winemaker Cindy Cosco has an unusual backstory, in that she spent 15 years in law enforcement in Manassas,Virginia, before ditching police work at the age of 43 and moving to California. She landed a job at Chateau St. Jean, where she was trained, educated and inspired to make wine of her own, initially an unoaked chardonnay. Passagio is now over 1,000 cases celebrating its 10th anniversary. A tasting flight is $20, waived with purchase.
25 East Napa Street, Suite D
Fulcrum is one of the more improbable stories fermenting around the Sonoma Plaza. It is the product of former home winemaker David Rossi’s unstoppable obsession. Rossi is from an Arizona restaurant family, but he lives in New Jersey, buys grapes from all over California, crushes, blends, ages and bottles his wine in Napa, and pours tastes in Sonoma. His focus is fundamentally on pinot noir and he wins top scores routinely. It’s a story, and a portfolio of pinots, not to be missed.
25 East Napa Street, Suite E
Another outside-the-box wine project, Galatea Effect (a term defining the power of self-expectation to improve performance) is owned by the president of an Arizona medical finances firm whose self-expectation is to produce, among other things, “the pinnacle expression of syrah in California, a California super syrah.” Galatea Effect may be doing just that. Their 2011 “Conception of Giants” syrah got 95 points from The Wine Advocate, and sells for $175.
Westwood Estate Wines
11 East Napa Street, Suite 3
This is another unique and fascinating wine project, bringing together acclaimed consulting winemaker David Ramey, winemaker Ben Cane, a now legendary biodynamic vineyard – Annadel Gap – and a close-knit group of equity partners to build riveting estate-grown pinot noir, syrah and red blend masterpieces. The results are exceptional and surprisingly affordable. Tastings include a five-wine flight for $25, and the tasting room is hidden down a tiny alley off East Napa Street, a true hidden gem.
27 East Napa Street
Slip down to the end of Vine Alley and you’re face-to-face with the Sonoma Loeb tasting room, a name that harkens back to the vineyard’s founding owner, John Loeb, former ambassador to Denmark and a U.N. delegate. Loeb’s legacy is well and good in a portfolio of vineyard-designate wines of pinot, chardonnay and viognier. Those wines are sourced exclusively from Sangiacomo and Dutton family vineyards. If you visit, ask AJ for a taste of the Sangiacomo chardonnay.
Cochon Tasting Bar
531 First Street East
Cochon is an umbrella site for three labels – Big Vino, Odisea and Cochon. The actual wines are products of a partnership between Adam Webb and Mike Kuenz, marrying their respective passions for wines from Iberia and the Rhône Valley. The Cochon moniker evolved from the tradition of calling French oak barrels “hogsheads.” Cochon, of course, is French for “hog.”
Named for the steward, sidekick, protector and friend of Gilgamesh, from the epic poem, Enkidu defines the qualities winemaker Phillip Staehle brings to his creations. “I was taught to respect the fruit and have attention for detail,” he writes. “Balance and complexity are at the core of my winemaking philosophy.” Enkidu produces Burgundy, Bordeaux and Rhône varietals, and the tasting fee is $15, waived on purchase.
Bump Wine Cellars
Bump Wine Cellars
There is a sulfuric hot springs full of nasty mud pots in Lassen National Park called Bumpass Hell. Which is a tangential link to Bump Cellars, named for winemaker/owner Geordie Carr’s mother’s maiden name, which was shortened from Bumpass. There is nothing sulfuric about Bump wines, which are small lot, single-vineyard gems. And the tasting room doubles as an inspired art gallery and lecture hall where poetry readings vie with artist receptions at least once a month. Tasting flights are $15, and wine is available by the glass.
Black Knight Vineyards
Geology is a big part of the backstory for Black Night Vineyards, founded by management consultant and turnaround specialist Mitch Black who came here from Philadelphia with his family. That’s because the Rodgers Creek Fault runs through their vineyard on Taylor Mountain and will, if USGS experts are correct, rupture any day now. Samples of volcanic ash and petrified wood season the property that is planted to pinot and chardonnay and benefit from the volcanic minerality and excellent drainage. Standard tastings are $20.
103 West Napa Street
Corner 103 is the product of Lloyd Davis, a New York transplant who previously served as managing partner of Viansa Sonoma before establishing his own wine brand in 2013. Davis is devoted to teaching consumers that they are their own best wine experts, and his mission is to coach them in how to taste. His three guided tasting options include two food pairings that illuminate the food-wine interface with his limited production, terroir-driven wines. Tastings run from $20 to $40 by appointment.
120 West Napa Street
Sonoma’s only bubble bar, Sigh serves sparkling wine (you can’t say “Champagne” unless it’s French, and the penalty is minor embarrassment) in its new quarters on West Napa Street, where you can buy real Champagne, sparkling wine, still wine and even beer by the bottle, the flight or the glass. The decor is mirrors, metal and chrome, with sparkly chandeliers and a second-floor viewing lounge. Proprietor Jayme Powers has a hit on her hands, and she seems to know what to do with it.
Winery Sixteen 600
Winery Sixteen 600
589 First Street West
You can’t get more Sonoma than this. The tasting room is a house, a tasting house. The wines are all organic or biodynamic. The vineyard manager and winemaker is Phil Coturri, the godfather of organic grape growing and the vineyards have never been kissed by chemicals. The label was painted by rock artist and former Sonoma resident Stanley Mouse, who is still a friend of Phil’s, even though he moved to Sebastopol. The winery is run by Phil’s son Sam, and the by-appointment tastings cost $35 for an experience that will last at least an hour. What’s not to love?
The Zina Lounge
480 First Street East
Zina Lounge is a European anomaly right on the Sonoma Plaza. The ground floor of the Ledson Hotel, Zina Lounge offers European-style sidewalk tables for sampling the wine of Zina Hyde Cunningham and Ledson Wineries. Those inclined for a more in-depth experience can book a four- or six-course gourmet food and wine dinner, prepared by chef Yoshiharu Sogi. The wine and food pairings are gastronomic works of art, expensive but worth it. But just sitting at the sidewalk tables sipping a Zena Hyde Cunningharm Russian River Shalee pinot makes for a memorable Sonoma moment.
Enoteca Della Santina
Enoteca Della Santina
127 East Napa Street
This is a local institution, an offshoot of the Della Santina trattoria, where you can sit and sip from a carefully curated collection of wines both domestic and foreign. There’s a solid wall of wine opposite the bar, and a lot more to pour behind it. There’s a wine club to join. Or not. A wine shop, and an ambiance that invites intimate, wine-lubricated tête-à-têtes. Much more than a tasting room, but a tasting room nonetheless. And a good one.
141 East Napa Street
One of the first tasting rooms to elevate the experience to a sit-down sampling of multiple wines with Riedel glasses at a proper table with winery principals and time to absorb the experience, Sojourn also launched an enviable record of 90-plus ratings for its premium pinots, cabs and chardonnays. With a little innovation they transformed a room into a salon and a tasting into a journey. Comparative, side-by-side tastings are $35, by appointment and, at that price, a bargain.
Jeff Cohn Cellars
Jeff Cohn Cellars
535 First Street West
Formerly the winemaker for Rosenblum Cellars in Oakland, Jeff Cohn migrated his considerable skills to Sonoma as his Jeff Cohn Cellars label outgrew the Rosenblum umbrella. But before he left, he crafted a 2003 Rockpile Road Zin that took third place on Wine Spectator’s top 100 list – unheard of for a zin. Today his focus is primarily on syrah, zinfandel and cabernet, and 80 percent of his fruit comes from the Sonoma Valley.
Flights of four wines are $25, waived with purchase.
Adastra Wine & Art
5 East Napa Street
Another tasting room that has found its niche as an art gallery, Adastra combines an inventory of organic pinot, chardonnay, syrah and merlot with paintings from some of the Valley’s premier artists, and the winery donates 10 percent of all art sales to Sonoma Plein Air, a nonprofit foundation devoted to funding art education in Sonoma schools. The tasting room also offers wine by the glass, enhancing the opportunity for some relaxing art appreciation.
481 First Street West
A Healdsburg winery with a Sonoma tasting room seems to be an evolving tradition. Rancho Maria is a small family winery owned by former Sonoma County sheriff’s deputy Monte Hansen and his wife, Stella, with a special focus on zinfandel. That’s a wise choice given that the vineyard is in Dry Creek Valley, one of the premier zinfandel AVA’s in the state.
The tasting room on First Street West is a casual locale with an expansive backyard patio with a fire ring and room for celebrations.
Lake Sonoma Wine Bar
Lake Sonoma Wine Bar
134 Church Street
This is a complicated equation with a delightful outcome. Lake Sonoma Winery and Madrone/Valley of the Moon Winery are now owned by the Canadian Stewart Family, who also own Quails’ Gate in the Okanogan Valley of British Colombia. The Lake Sonoma tasting room, tucked behind Sign of the Bear kitchenware store, offers 26 different wines by the glass, a spacious indoor tasting lounge and a sprawling outdoor patio with fire pits, umbrella tables along with food and wine pairings and occasional pop-up dinners. The space, formerly occupied by Red Wolf Gallery, is a perfect escape from the busy Plaza and is kid- and dog-friendly.
122 West Spain Street
Family-owned Roche Winery, which closed its estate tasting room near Sonoma Raceway after selling the original winery out of bankruptcy in 2006, has made all the right moves ever since, not the least of which was opening a tasting room and wine bar just off the Plaza and next door to the girl and the fig restaurant. With indoor and outdoor tasting and a large patio that is dog- friendly, Roche calls itself the Plaza’s outdoor living room. Roche supports numerous local nonprofits, employs locals and says more than 600 of its wine club members live in the Valley.
383 First Street West
Hawkes is another Healdsburg transplant, with 85 acres and a tasting room in Alexander Valley and another tasting room just off the Sonoma Plaza. The delightfully irreverent and self-deprecating father and son – Stephen Hawkes and Jake Hawkes – sound like reluctant winemakers, but they clearly love the family enterprise and share a strong environmental ethic. The Sonoma tasting room offers estate tastings by reservation for groups of six, pairing wine with fresh local bread and Hawkes’ own olive oil, for $15 per head.
373 First Street West
Auteur tastings are by appointment only, in the 1915 bungalow just off the Plaza, and they are intimate, casual and thorough affairs that can last well over an hour. If Bobbi Cohen presents your tasting experience you may leave with a friend for life, and even if she doesn’t, you’re likely to leave with a lust for Auteur wines. Winemaker Kenneth Juhasz, who with his wife, Laura, owns Auteur, has found the formula for intense, expressive and beautifully balanced pinot and chardonnay and the presentation of these wines is exceptional. A seated comparative premium tasting is $35 per person, by reservation only.
380 First Street West
Walt Wines is a literal and corporate marriage between Katheryn Walt and Craig Hall, a powerhouse merger that covers 1,000 miles of vineyard country and produces some 10 different pinot noirs as well as chardonnay.
The tasting room is another renovated First Street house with a bar, small tables inside and out, along with picnic tables and a pretty garden.
The facility is frequently filled with happy crowds, wine club members can bring their own food to eat on-site, and walk-in tasting is accommodated.
Typical tastings last 45 minutes and cost $20.
Three Sticks Winery
143 West Spain
Three things define Three Sticks Winery. First is the historic location of the tasting site, inside the Vallejo-Castañeda Adobe, half a block from the Plaza and the longest continuously occupied residence in Sonoma. Second is the list of vineyards the winery owns or accesses: Durrell; Gap’s Crown; One Sky, and equally impressive plots in the Russian River Valley and the Santa Rita Hills. And third is Three Sticks owner Bill Price, now retired from private equity life and fully committed to wine and philanthropy. Intimate tastings inside the Adobe are by request and not all requests are granted. Good luck.
Sonoma Wine Shop
Sonoma Wine Shop
412 First Street East
The Wine Shop is just that, with the added convenience of wine-by-the-glass sales and an eclectic variety of small-lot wines from all over California, stacked in racks that run floor to ceiling in the old Pinelli Building directly on the Plaza. There is a wine club to go with the shop and a companion facility, La Bodega, in Sebastopol that is a full-blown restaurant.
Roger Roessler Wines
Roger Roessler Wines
Too far down Broadway to technically qualify as a Plaza tasting room, Roessler’s facility may nevertheless be an indication of how far afield tasting rooms may go when the Plaza is either too full or too expensive for more winery tenants. Roessler is a veteran restaurateur and winemaker now specializing in Sonoma Coast pinots. He offers both his Black Pine pinot and variety of other single-vineyard designates. And most Friday nights the winery hosts a “weekend kickoff” food and wine gathering.