One of the most attractive wine tasting features of Sonoma County is that different sections of it specialize in certain grapes.  For instance, Alexander Valley is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek for Zinfandel and Russian River for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  As you drive further west in the Russian River area, you encounter subsections, such as the wineries on River Road, the heart of Russian River AVA, and Chalk Hill, on the other side of Route 101.  Perhaps the most remote section is Green Valley, quite rustic, with quite a few wineries to visit.  Among the best known are Dutton-Goldfield, Hartford Court, Kosta Brown, Merry Edwards and Iron Horse.

Downtown Sebastopol.  Photo courtesy of Visit California.

The “seat” of Green Valley is the small town of Sebastopol (population around 8,000).  No one is quite sure how the town got to be named after a Ukrainian city in the Crimea.  There used to be several California towns of that name.  One became Yountville; this Sebastopol was originally named Pinegrove.

Founded when prospectors came to Northern California for the Gold Rush of ’49, Sebastopol soon became the market town for apple and plum orchard keepers.  The region is still known for one apple in particular, the Gravenstein, which is becoming rarer and rarer, even in California’s stores.  Beginning in the 1970’s, vineyards began to replace orchards, and today that transformation is nearly complete.

The town of Sebastopol was transformed as well.  Apple farming doesn’t generate the same kind of revenue as does winemaking, so Sebastopol was until fairly recently a dusty, slow-moving village.  And apples don’t attract tourists like wine does, so soon tourists arrived in Green Valley for tastings.  (They were more a trickle than a flood; still today Sebastopol is not as heavily visited as Sonoma town or Healdsburg.)  Visitors to Wine Country everywhere want to live and eat well, so along with tasting rooms came restaurants, inns, art galleries and just a little bit of traffic along Sebastopol’s Main Street.

Today, as we see it, Sebastopol is a strange mixture of sleepy Healdsburg, circa 1995, and St. Helena today.  All three towns are able to maintain the feel of a rural village, but with all the amenities of a town that has been discovered.  Healdsburg was transformed by the wine trade and is now a destination itself. St. Helena has become rather ritzy.  If the demand for Green Vally Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays expands the way that it has done in the rest of the Russian River area, Sebastopol may become more of a mecca.  But it hasn’t happened yet.

Photo courtesy of The Barlow.

One of the signs that Sebastopol is seeking more visitors is The Barlow.  It’s a twelve-acre market, on the site of the Barlow family’s apple sauce factory, similar in style and function to the Oxbow Market in Napa town.  Kosta Brown has a tasting room there, as do brewers of both beer and cider (apples do survive in the region), plus restaurants, boutiques and specialty food shops.  For our part, we prefer the less touristy ambiance of the restaurants and shops on Main Street and the side streets nearby.  We recommend that you come and visit soon, before the 21st century catches up to Sebastopol.

Choosing Where to Go

Sometimes your destination for wine tasting is chosen for you.  If you have a business trip to San Francisco, you may want to add on a day or two of visiting wineries.  You’re most likely to decide to go to Napa Valley or Sonoma County, if only because they are the closest.  Similarly, if you are just looking for a pleasant day in the country – with wine of course – you’ll drive to the winemaking area nearest your home.  So, for example, we New Yorkers head out to Long Island’s North Fork.

But sometimes, your objective is to take a wine tasting trip, without a particular destination in mind.  How do you select the region of Wine Country to visit?

Tuscany in September.

  • Is wine tasting the only objective?  If it is, then you want to go to an area that has many vineyards open to the public, where the quality is well known and accommodations are easy to find.  Once again, NapaNoma suggests itself, but so does Bordeaux or Tuscany or the Rioja.  That’s different than a Paris vacation with a day out in Champagne or the Loire Valley.  If everyone in your party loves wine, the first option makes some sense.  But if you have teetotalers or teenagers with you, maybe you should only inflict wine on them for a day.
  • Would you prefer a new experience or would you like to re-visit favorite places?  We can never get too much of wineries in some of our favorite valleys, Napa and the Southern Rhône.  We go back as often as we can, given available time and budget.  But California’s Central Coast or the Northern Rhône, where we have not travelled to as frequently, also have their allure.  And we’ve not yet tasted wine in Switzerland’s Dôle or Austria’s Burgenland.  Maybe this upcoming trip is when someday becomes now.

Carneros, on the Napa County side.

  • What kind of wine would you like to try for several days in a row?  We appreciate a cold glass of Gewürztraminer on a hot summer day, but we’re not up for a week of it.  So while we have tasted wines in Alsace, it was only briefly.  At the other extreme, maybe the 16% alcoholic wines of Paso Robles are too much for you this time around.  Ah, yes, Pinot Noir would be perfect!  Now you only have to choose among Burgundy, Carneros, Los Olivos and Santa Barbara, to name a few possibilities.
  • When do you want to go?  Power Tasting has long recommended that you avoid the most popular destinations on weekends.  But some of the best wineries in certain regions are only open Thursdays through Sundays.  For instance, we have experienced this in Paso Robles and the Santa Rita Hills.  Time of year also matters.  If all you’re interested in is the wines, then there’s no problem making a trip in the depths of winter.  Many California wineries release their wines in February, so that might attract you.  But if you want to see the vines with dense coverage, you need to go in the summer.  And if you want to see the harvest, you have to be in Wine Country between August and October.  (Unless you want to go to the southern hemisphere, when February through April is the right time for you.)

Passalacqua Winery

We’ve often been told that in California, Cabernet Sauvignon is king.  That’s true, except where it’s Chardonnay or Pinot Noir.  For some reason, the grapes originally from France are the most widely grown in California.  Why aren’t there more Italian grapes planted there?  Well, Zinfandel is descended from Italian Primitivo and there is certainly enough of that grape in California.  And at Passalacqua Winery ( you will find quite a lot of Zin.  You’ll find a fair number of Italy-inspired wines as well.

Members of the Passalacqua family have been making and selling wine in Dry Creek Valley since 1895.  After operating in several locations around Sonoma County, Passalacqua settled at the western end of the Lambert Bridge Road.  This was previously the location of Pezzi King, known for their Zinfandels, which Passalacqua still features.  In fact, there are five of them, most sourced from nearby vineyards and one grown on their own land.

The winery building is a simple, wooden structure without pretense.  A Napa Palace would feel out of place in Dry Creek Valley, and Passalacqua certainly has a sense of place, which they invite you to share.  We recommend that visitors take their tasting out on Passalacqua’s terrace.  Of course, it’s always pleasant to taste wine out of doors, but the experience at this winery is more than that.  The views across the Dry Creek Valley are nothing less than spectacular.  In case the vines didn’t provide enough scenery, fountains and some well-placed olive trees add just the right touch.  You will find yourself sipping slowly, just to extend your time taking in all that beauty.

The Passalacquas’ Italian heritage comes through in several of the wines they make.  Their aptly named Radici della Famiglia (Roots of the Family) is now in its fifteenth release, so they add Quindici (15) to the name of the wine in the current release.  It’s meant to tase like a Super Tuscan, as it is made of Cabernet and Sangiovese.  Italian it may be in style, but there’s no missing that it’s a California wine.  Of course, they still bow to the king and make Cabernet Sauvignon as well.  They also make a white Fiano, and almost no one else in America makes wine from this southern Italian grape.  Interestingly, the majority of the Fiano grapes are pressed the old-fashioned way, by foot.  Roots, indeed! 

Quite a few of the wines that Passalacqua makes are available only to their club members, although just maybe an odd bottle or two will show up in the tasting room.  And if you want to taste their wines, you’ll have to do so at the winery or join their club, because they don’t distribute commercially.

Napa Valley and Sonoma County have many wineries established by immigrants from Italy.  Not many others pay tribute to their heritage in the wines they make.  (David Coffaro, nearby, is another exception.)  With regard to Passalacqua, we say come for the views; stay for the wine.

Changing Hands in Sonoma County

There is a sad, empty feeling that we get when a favorite bar, restaurant or shop changes hands and the new ownership changes it into something else.  Our favorite local tavern was once the best place for an honest burger and a beer; now it tries to attract a hipper crowd.  There’s a line of twenty-somethings waiting to get in to order designer beers and avocado toast.  And an old-fashioned family grocery store that featured locally made products was bought by a French couple that made it an outlet for French imports.  It went out of business.  Ah, well.

The same thing happens to wineries and in-town tasting rooms.  In a previous issue, we wrote about “lost wineries” that simply closed to visitors or were sold out.  There are a number of others in Sonoma County that we remember fondly.

Francis Ford Coppola Winery.  Photo courtesy of Tripsavvy.

Chateau Souverain has had a Sonoma County presence for more than 80 years.  We weren’t around for its early days, when the legendary Mike Grgich (sadly, recently deceased) was given his first American job.  But we did visit their second home in Alexander Valley.  It was quiet, a bit out of the way and rustic in appearance.  In 2006, the location was bought by Francis Ford Coppola who turned it into a swimming pool with wine (and Coppola tributes).  Yes, Chateau Souverain can still be bought.  They in turn took over an existing winery and are now not open for visitors there.

There is a tasting room on the northeast corner of the Healdsburg Town Square that is today the tasting room of Ernest Vineyards.  It was previously the place to taste DeLoach wines, principally their Pinot Noirs as we remember it, when they were acquired by the Boisset family from France.  It was more convenient to taste there than in the western part of the Russian River valley, where they still operate.  Before that, the space was occupied by Gallo Sonoma, when the well-known mass producer made a foray into fine wines. There may have been some intermediary tenants there, but these are the ones we can recall.

Chateau St. Jean

It’s not all sad stories of demise.  Sometimes new owners inject money to improve a vineyard’s wines without changing their overall style nor the experience of visiting.  For example, Chateau St. Jean was long a favorite of ours in Sonoma Valley.  Treasury Wine Cellars took it over and then in 2021 it was sold to Foley Family Wines.  As far as we can tell, the quality of the wines has remained consistent.  More important for Power Tasting, which is about the experience of wine tasting, the architecture, gardens, palm trees and statuary have all been preserved.

Elsewhere in this issue you can read about the former Pezzi King vineyards that have been replaced by Passalacqua Winery.  In the old days, if you wanted to try a heavy, highly alcoholic Zinfandel, Pezzi King was the place for you. Thankfully, the wines are very different now.