How to Change Your Mind About Wine…and Not

In our earliest years of wine tasting, we thought that only wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon were worth drinking.  Oh, well, we were young and foolish.  Of course, we’ve broadened our tastes significantly in the intervening time.  Each time we realized we really liked a wine we hadn’t cared for before, we had to change our mind.

The same applies in reverse.  There were some awfully sweet wines like Mateus and Lancers that we wouldn’t be interested in anymore.  Perhaps if we tried them again we might like them, but we doubt it.

Changing your mind about anything isn’t easy, wine included.  So here are some tips for revising your opinions specifically about wine, but maybe broader than that.  Many of these lessons we learned in Sonoma County, the theme of this issue.

Photos courtesy of Kazzit and the

  • Keep your mind open. You’ll never improve your taste if you aren’t able to accept the possibility that you might learn to like wines you hadn’t liked before.  For the longest time, we weren’t particularly fond of Pinot Noir.  We found them too thin, too acid.  But we have learned to appreciate some Pinot Noirs, especially those from Carneros and Santa Lucia Highlands.
  • Keep trying. Maybe your ability to appreciate certain tastes and aromas has expanded.  Or maybe you’ll find a winemaker who does a better job than those you have tried before.  One of the advantages of wine tasting in Sonoma County is the vast range of varietals that are available there.  Often one winery will have a dozen different ones.  So if you try wine made from grapes you haven’t cared for in the past, you’ll still be able to sip others you know you like.  Maybe you’ll be surprised.
  • Differentiate the same types of wine from different areas. There are still some Pinot Noirs that don’t appeal to us.  We just can’t get our tongues around this varietal the way they make it in Sonoma County’s Green Valley.  But there are some just a bit south in Petaluma that do please us.  Is it terroir?  Specific winemakers?  Sheer luck?  Whatever the case, we went from “We don’t like it” to “We don’t like some of it” which is one way to change your mind.
  • Go back, you may love it. Sometimes a winery just has a bad year.  Here’s an example.  We have always loved the Zinfandels from Limerick Lane.  But in 2011, the winery changed hands and the new owners, by their own admission, didn’t make wines that lived up to the potential of their vines that year.  We dropped out of their club and didn’t visit again for several years.  When we did we were delightedly surprised.  Now we visit whenever we are in Healdsburg and buy some of their Zins every year.
  • Recognize that your tastes change. It may not be the wine that changes, but you.  Whether your tongue has become more sophisticated or you just have learned to like more wines, go with it.  There’s no reason not to accept your tastes for what they are, as long as you are ready to change them when given the opportunity.

Visiting Sonoma County

For many bygone years, a wine tasting trip in California meant travelling to Napa Valley.  Oh, we knew there were vineyards on the other side of the Mayacamas range in Sonoma County.  And occasionally we’d drive over the Oakville Grade and emerge on Route 12 in the Sonoma Valley region.  We’d visit a few nearby wineries and then scamper back to the familiarity of Napa Valley.  No disrespect to Chateau St. Jean, B.R. Cohn or Arrowood (our most frequent Route 12 visits) but we were missing an awful lot of what Sonoma County has to offer the wine enthusiast.

In the late ‘90’s we decided to dedicate an entire trip to Sonoma County.  It was very different then, much more rustic with simple wineries and not many places to eat.  Even though the main road is a highway (Route 101), Sonoma County’s Wine Country is vast.  Not knowing where we were going nor what we liked, we spent a lot of time driving from one winery we had heard something about to another and wasting a lot of time getting from place to place.

The view in front of the Stonestreet winery in Alexander Valley.

We’ve learned that the smartest plan is to visit one region per day.  Fortunately, there is a fairly consistent mapping of grape varietals with specific regions, so we have a good idea of the type of wine we’d be trying each day.  For example, Sonoma Valley was and is all about Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and so are Chalk Hill and Alexander Valley.  If you’re a Pinot Noir fan, you should head straight to Russian River and Green Valley.  And while you’ll find Zinfandel everywhere, they specialize in it in Dry Creek and Rockpile.  Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are everywhere.

Old Zinfandel vines in Dry Creek Valley.

There are three towns where you’ll find most of the restaurants and hotels: Sonoma, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg.  If you did nothing but visit the main squares in each, and sip in the tasting rooms there, you’d have a pretty nice visit to Sonoma County.  All the same, we recommend that you get out into the countryside.

There are still plenty of wineries that are reminders of the way the county used to be.  They’re small, out of the way and their tasting rooms are nothing fancy.  Some have wines that are probably not worth being on the top of your list, but we have chanced upon more than a few that have been favorites of ours for many years.  It’s a good idea occasionally to let serendipity be your guide and try some wines you’ve never heard of.

At the other extreme, there are quite a few wineries in Sonoma County that have deservedly great reputations and should be considered for your visit.  Among these are Jordan, Verité, Rochioli, Martinelli, Ridge and Chalk Hill (including their Chardonnay).  Even before the pandemic, may of these were by appointment only, so check before you go.

Sonoma County may have once been Napa Valley’s little brother (at least in the opinion of the Napans).  In no way is that true today.  You can taste, dine, sleep and tour just as well in both these sectors of Wine Country.  There are many similarities, which is why we term them both together as Napa/Noma.  But Sonoma has a distinct personality in its wine, geography and attitude.  It’s a destination in itself.

The Russian River and Its Bridges

Long before the Russian River became synonymous with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, it was a river…and of course it still is.  As the Russian River approaches the Pacific through Sonoma County, it is quite a beautiful river, at that.  It begins in Mendocino County and flows south, flowing pretty much along Route 101 (or vice versa, we suppose). As it enters Sonoma County, the river runs between Route 101 and Route 128, the main drag of Alexander Valley.  At Chalk Hill, it hangs a right and proceeds southwest to the ocean.  For those who come to Sonoma County for wine tasting and would like to do some touring as well, it’s this last stretch of the Russian River that’s the place to visit.

If you proceed south down Westside Road, you can catch occasional glimpses of the river, although you may be more attentive to the wineries that are there.  As Westside turns west and becomes River Road, you’ll see and pass over the river often.  In fact, it is the bridges that are for us the main attraction.

Wohler Bridge.  Photo courtesy of  We recommend this site for a virtual tour of Russian River’s bridges.

One of these is the Wohler Bridge, where Wohler Road crosses to meet Westside Road.  It looks pretty rickety, but it must be pretty secure since it’s been there for 100 years.  It’s a one-lane bridge so you have to be careful that no one is coming the other way before you cross it.  Also be on the lookout for tourists (they could be us) having their picture taken while standing next to the bridge.  Nearby wineries include Gary Farrell, Moshin and Rochioli.

Hacienda Bridge.  Photo courtesy of

The Hacienda Bridge is at the point at which River Road merges with Westside Road.  You may see swimmers or boaters in the water.  We’ve always been there for the purposes of wine tasting, so we’ve never dived in ourselves.  There are many resorts in this area as well.  Korbel and Porter Bass are wineries in this area.

It’s likely you’ll want to visit in nice weather, which is a generally good idea.  It’s particularly important for the Russian River.  That pleasant waterway, well used for boating, rafting and swimming, can become a raging torrent in the winter months.  Flooding occurs frequently, roughly every other year since 1940, according to the San Jose Mercury.  There’s a lot to be said for going wine tasting in winter, but it’s probably not a good idea to plan on an excursion along the Russian River.


Foppiano Vineyards

If you’d like to have a glimpse of what Sonoma County used to be while still tasting wines that might appeal to more modern tastes, Foppiano vineyards is a winery to add to your list.  One reason it’s like what Sonoma County once was is that Foppiano was there back then.  It was founded in 1896 by Giovanni Foppiano, an Italian immigrant from Genoa.  To the present day, there are many Sonoma Country wineries with Italian names; in this case, the Foppiano family still owns and runs it.

Foppiano’s winery.  Photo courtesy of Sonoma County Tourism.

The winery is a little bit out of the way although it’s easy enough to find if you start in downtown Healdsburg.  Just head down the Old Redwood Highway and there it is.  (It’s tougher to find coming off Route 101.)  It’s hard to miss, with “L. Foppiano Wine Co.” written in big letters on the side of their production building.

The Foppiano orange tree, in full (sour) fruit.

Foppiano is located in the northeast corner of the Russian River Valley, although it doesn’t feel that typical of the region.  The general image of Russian River is of winding lanes through the forest and alongside vineyards.  Old Redwood Highway and the roads that feed into it are straight as an arrow and the landscape is open and flat.

Foppiano’s tasting room.  Photo courtesy of

Foppiano’s tasting room is housed in a little white clapboard house with a huge orange tree outside.  (They’re happy to let you take any oranges that fall, because they’re terribly sour.)  The building backs up to their factory, so the overall impression is “rustic industrial”.  The impression is softened by the vineyards that surround the buildings.  The tasting room is a bit dark with a simple bar, lit by big windows that overlook the vineyards.

As is often the case with smaller Sonoma County wineries, Foppiano produces an extremely wide range of wines.  There are Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs, Cabernets Sauvignons, a Cabernet Sauvignon, a Zin, a Rosé, some sparklers and even a Carignane.  With that many varietals, it is unlikely that all of them will appeal to all tastes.

However, there is one varietal for which Foppiano is best known: Petite Sirah.  A hybrid of Syrah and Peloursin, this grape was developed in France but is now largely grown only in California.  Many use it as a blending grape to provide color and depth; Foppiano began bottling it as a varietal in 1967.  Their Petite Sirahs are dark, unctuous and deeply flavorful.  Prepare for blue teeth if you try some.  In our opinion, even though their wines are drinkable on release, they really need several years cellaring to knock of some of the rougher edges.

With 125 years of history, Foppiano has certainly seen a lot of changes, both in their vineyards and in the life of Sonoma County.  For most of those years, they produced jug wines and in tribute to those days, they still sell half-gallon growlers of Petite Sirah.  We see Foppiano as a bit of a throwback to a slower, less frenzied time when the roads of the county were filled with tractors, not tourists.  As the song says, these are the good old days, but it’s pleasant to visit the good older days, too.