Railroad Square

Sonoma and Healdsburg, in Sonoma County, are dissimilar in many ways but they have one feature that is very similar.  They each have a major town square, with inviting leafy parks that are the focal points of each town.  Today they are surrounded by restaurants, tasting rooms, galleries and boutiques that announce that these are towns for people who have made it, who have the means to live the good life in Wine Country.  As a visitor, you know that there is money there.

There’s another place in Sonoma County that also has a lot of history, with shops and restaurants too, but this place says something else: “I remember the old days, before Sonoma County became fashionable”.  That place is Railroad Square in Santa Rosa.  It’s actually a formally designated Historic District, and we like to think that that’s not so much because anything terribly historic ever happened there, but because it has retained its roots.

There’s a railroad station of course, but no railroads anymore.  However, the Web (http://www.railroadsquare.net/) says that there will be light rail trains stopping there again, beginning in the fall of 2016.  Trains notwithstanding, this is a section of town to be seen as a pedestrian.  No matter where you’re from, you get the sense that you’ve been here before, and that you’re welcome back.


railroad square

The old Santa Rosa station in Railroad Square (photo courtesy of City-Data.com)

There’s the old Hotel La Rose that’s been there since 1907.  It’s the kind of railroad hotel that, in the movies, the new sheriff stayed in while the schoolmarm fixed him up a place of his own.  To be honest, we’ve never stayed at the La Rose.  You can’t use frequent flyer points there, alas.  But it is awfully pretty to look at.

Up the street is a favorite restaurant of ours, Lococo’s.  It’s a little Italian trattoria with red and white checkered napkins and with real Italians working in it.  The food is good, the prices are reasonable and the charm comes free.  Like we said, it’s homey.

Further up the street is Jackson’s, the latest establishment to occupy that corner spot.  It’s changed hands and cuisines every few years and right now it’s a frank and honest bar.  Oh, you can get food there, too, but it’s really the spot for a cold beer or a local wine, preferably on a hot summer evening.  With each change of ownership, the new proprietors have been smart enough to keep the art deco cabinetry that once again provides historic continuity.

Another good part of Railroad Square is the coffee shops.  Whenever we’re in Santa Rosa, which is pretty often, we get our morning joe (well, actually latte) at one of two places.  The Flying Goat is newly renovated, with black and white tiles and a lot of sunshine pouring in, a very modern look.  On the other side of the square, there’s A’Roma Roasters with its rustic style, little wooden tables and stools, old posters on the walls and a long row of dispensers of coffee beans, which they sell at retail. It smells of breakfast when you enter.  Both have a few tables outside where you can enjoy your coffee and watch the crowd.

The choice of coffee shops is a deeply personal one, but both of these offer the same thing: they’ve been there a long time, they’ll be there a long time and you’ll feel welcome whenever you get there.  Sure, there are tourists planning their wine tasting days (isn’t that what you’ll be doing too?) but there are a lot of locals as well.  It’s not infrequent that people will ask where you’re from, what you’re doing in Santa Rosa and ask how you found this particular place for a cup of coffee.  Just tell them you’re coming home.

The Good Stuff

The reason to go wine tasting is, of course, to taste wine.  That rather unextraordinary statement obviously needs some refinement.

The main reason we go wine tasting is to educate our palates and increase our understanding by sampling the finest wines we can, in whatever region we are visiting.  We realize that there are some people, usually those living nearby, who are simply enjoying a day in the country along with some nice beverages to enhance the pleasure.  For them, lingering over a rare and expensive Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay just isn’t a part of the game plan.  If you are one of those people, the rest of what follows really isn’t for you.

So now that it’s just us serious tasters, we’d like to ask a question: If you’ve come all this way to France or California or Italy or Australia or…why would you want to spend your time and tolerance for alcohol on anything other than the best wines?  (There are actually a few good reasons and we’ll get to those later.)  But for now, please take our advice and when you enter a tasting room, scan the wines offered and select the best available.

How do you know which are the best?  One way, of course, is that there’s a special list with the best wines on it, often called the Reserve or the Library selection.  If there isn’t such a list, there will be some wines that are more expensive than the others.  It is highly likely that those are the wines the proprietor considers the best.

Not only will you taste better wines this way but you will have a better experience.  Sometimes, the glasses will often be larger and thinner.  You will probably get a better explanation of what is being offered to you, especially if you are tasting on a weekday.  You may very well be in a special, more elegant tasting room as is the case, for instance, at Beaulieu Vineyards and at Cakebread in Rutherford.

Naturally, these better wines cost more to sample.  For example, at the two aforementioned wineries the cost of a regular tasting at Beaulieu Vineyards is $20 and $35 for the Reserve tasting.  At Cakebread  it’s as little as $15 for a selection of current releases and $40 for the Reserves.  We always choose the Reserve lists.

Now, we understand that the higher price may be a deterrent for some people.  That’s one of the good reasons mentioned above for choosing the lesser quality tasting list.  Another might be that there are wines that are on the regular list that you’d especially like to try.  A particular winery might not have a reserve Merlot, for instance, and you’d like to know what their Merlots are like.  There’s also the fact that you might want to taste wines that you are more likely to buy when you get back home.

Here are a few tips that might make tasting the good stuff more affordable.  We two almost always share a tasting.  Remember that the idea is to taste, not drink, so a shared glass gives both of us enough of an idea of what we want to know.  Moreover, we have sometimes found that the server will pour a bit more into a shared glass than to a single taster’s.   If, in addition, you want to try something on the lower priced list, the server will almost always accommodate you if you purchase the more expensive tasting (although often not the other way around).  In fact, it is often a very good idea to taste both the regular and the Reserve wines side by side.  (Just ask for an additional glass.)  You may well find that the regular wine is more to your liking than some of the pricier ones.


Let’s say that you’re in some wonderful sector of Wine Country and all day long you’ve been tasting fabulous wines.  If you’ve taken our advice, you’ve selected only the best wines to sip even if you had to pay a little more for the experience.  At the better wineries, you could be enjoying a pour from bottles that go for a hundred dollars or in some instances, several hundred.

Then you go to dinner.

Remember that wine you liked so much this afternoon.  Well, with the restaurant’s markup, that could make the price of drinking it with your meal unaffordably high.  But there is a way around it: bring your own bottle.  Remember, most restaurants charge a corkage fee if you bring a bottle with you.  It could be as little as $10 per bottle or as high as $25.

But look at it this way.  Restaurants mark up their wines between twice and three times the retail price.  So if for example you loved a $75 wine, you might expect to pay $150 to $225 for this wine to accompany your meal.  If you bring it with you, it would cost you only $100.  Now, “only” is a relative term, but it certainly is cheaper than the price on the wine list.

If this is your plan, it could change the way you approach wine tasting during the day.  If you know the restaurant at which you plan to dine that evening, call them and find out their corkage policy and fees.  You might even ask what the specials of the day will be.  Then go wine tasting with your dinner in mind.

Perhaps you’re planning on having a steak, a big, luscious steak.  A Cabernet Sauvignon would be just the right wine to drink with it.  And luckily enough, you’re in Napa Valley or Sonoma County (or Bordeaux or Chile)  where they just happen to be famous for big, luscious Cabernet Sauvignons.  As you go through the day, try the Cabernets that would fit your budget with the corkage fee added.  When you’ve found the perfect wine, buy it and take it with you to dinner.

Of course, you might taste several “perfect” wines while you’re visiting the wineries.  If you’re thinking of buying one for your evening meal, it’s a good idea to take a few notes as you go along and then decide which one is most to your liking or fits best with your dinner plans.  You can then go back the winery where you tasted that wine and buy a bottle.

Here’s a little tip that will make bringing your wine even more attractive.  Many restaurants, even some of the best, don’t charge corkage at all.  They may place some restrictions on that policy.  For example, Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg only extends the no-corkage policy to wines made in Sonoma County.  That still gives you a lot of room for maneuver.  Another California restaurant with a no-corkage policy is Hurley’s in Yountville.  We especially appreciate that the sommelier there gives extra attention to wines that are more than ten years old, because they and their corks can be a little more delicate.

There may be other restrictions, such as only certain nights when corkage is waived or a requirement that you buy one bottle off the list before they waive the corkage on the one you bring with you.  A little advance planning pays off.  There are lists on the web, but we’re not vouching for their accuracy.  A few simple phone calls are the best bet.

Domaine Carneros

As we often point out, Power Tasting is not about wine itself but about the pleasures of visiting Wine Country and tasting wine.  In our estimation, there are few if any places worthier of a visit than Domaine Carneros in the Napa County side of the Carneros region.  In a word, the experience is simply lovely.

Domaine Carneros is the US subsidiary of Taittinger in Reims, France.  Their wines are among the most famous champagnes in the world.  The French have laws that restrict the use of the word champagne to sparkling wines made of grapes grown in the Champagne region.  Therefore, being a French company, they do not call their California production champagne, only sparkling wine.  You can now forget that distinction and call it whatever you like.

And we’re pretty sure you’ll like visiting Domaine Carneros.

You enter the grounds through a wide gate (remember that gate) and park at the foot of a long staircase leading to what to the naked eye seems to be a grand French chateau.  Honoring their roots in France, the Taittinger people constructed a faux chateau in California, very much like the one they have on their French estate.  The staircase cuts through rows of Pinot Noir vines, one of the three grapes used in champagne and thus in Domaine Carneros’ cham…, excuse us, sparkling wines.  (The other two are Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier.)


The faux chateau at Domaine Carneros

You then take a seat at a table on the wide terrace (or inside on days with inclement weather).  The views from that terrace are priceless: vineyards, the rolling green and beige hillsides of Carneros, blue sky, a lake, sheep nibbling the grass.  Wait.  Sheep?  Actually, the Domaine Carneros folks put up flat wooden replicas of sheep, just to enhance your experience.


The view, with “sheep”

Soon a server will bring you a menu and ask what you would like.  Here you pay for wine flights at different levels, from $30 to $40 dollars.  You can also order by the glass, at prices ranging from $10 to $30 a glass.  No, it isn’t the cheapest place for wine tasting in Napa Valley, but you should consider the matter of value for money.  Visitors can have their sparkling wines or their Pinot Noirs, the most renowned of which is called Famous Gate.  (Remember that gate?)

You can also order rather pricey nibbles, like charcuterie and caviar.  Your server will also bring you some almonds or other snack to go with your wines, without charge.

A few words about those servers.  They are always very well-mannered and attentive and are usually quite informative about the wines they serve you.  They tell you what you need to know and don’t enter into your conversation.  It can be a little difficult to get their attention when you want to order some more to drink, and in our experience, we’ve always wanted more.  But they can be rather pushy about joining the Domaine Carneros wine club.  (See Wine Clubs in a previous edition of Power Tasting.)  We must admit that we have succumbed and have joined, but that is neither a recommendation nor does it mean our arms were twisted by the server.  Just be ready for the sales pitch and politely say “no” if you’re not interested.

It is important to remember that a visit to Domaine Carneros is more about drinking than sipping, as compared to any other winery we’re familiar with.  If you show interest in purchasing the wines, or especially if you show interest in joining their club, the server will bring you healthy pours of virtually all the wines on their list.  So take it easy and keep in mind your wine tasting agenda for the rest of the day when you visit Domaine Carneros.

For us, it’s usually the first place we visit when we arrive from San Francisco, the winery being one of the southernmost in Napa Valley.  It may be our only visit for the day.  Or it’s the last stop on the last day of our trip, the only place we go as we leave Napa Valley (or Sonoma for that matter).  We can’t recommend visiting Domaine Carneros highly enough, but you do need to be prepared.