Armed with gloves, shears, and a rectangular plastic basket, I was hunched over a row of vines, removing bunches of fruit. Nervous about mangling the grapes, I worked slowly, eventually falling into a rhythm. Before long a peaceful feeling began to descend as I stood in the dirt. I was visiting the Sangiacomo Family Vineyards in the Carneros region of Sonoma, and the only sounds were the rustling of leaves and the snip-snip of shears. When my bucket was full, I dumped the bounty into a large collection crate mounted on a tractor, then started again, this time feeling more confident. As I worked up a sweat, I realized that the strange sensation I was feeling was a kind of oneness with the land.
If you’re into food and wine, this region of Northern California is a true dream destination, blessed with year-round mild, sunny weather, beautiful scenery, fantastic wines, and restaurants making the kind of hyper-local farm-to-table cuisine—often with ingredients grown right in the backyard—that’s worth traveling for. It’s also easily accessible for Houstonians, a nonstop flight from IAH followed by an hour’s drive.
The chance to pick grapes was part of Sonoma County Grape Camp, a once-a-year, three-day, full-immersion winemaking tour organized by the Sonoma County Winegrowers. It’s an incredible opportunity to explore the region, meet the people who live there, and begin to grasp what the place is all about. This is farm country, home to a community of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth people who give themselves to the land. The region’s wonderful wines, appreciated by oenophiles the world over, are, literally, the fruits of their labor. And I planned to try as many of them as possible over the course of 10 winery visits the camp somehow would manage to cram in.
At Amista Vineyards, a small family farm in Dry Creek Valley, I listened intently as winemaker Ashley Herzberg, in a soft voice that belied the fact that she’s one of the area’s top winemakers, talked about making the pink sparkling grenache that she’d poured us. As the fine bubbles fizzed on my tongue, she explained how she’d achieved the wine’s deep blush color by exposing it to grape skins for 11 hours, along the way weaving in the story of how she came to Sonoma in the first place: “I took a break after getting my bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering at the University of Nevada to work a harvest in Sonoma County,” she said, “and knew immediately that it’s what I wanted to do with my life.”
We walked the 21-acre property with Herzberg, admiring the neatly manicured rows of vines planted with syrah, grenache, chardonnay, and mourvèdre grapes, stopping at the vineyard’s landmark 200-year-old oak tree; catching a glimpse of the property’s Dry Creek; and passing a pond that had been turned into a habitat for endangered steelhead trout and coho salmon as part of the vineyard’s commitment to sustainability. By the time Vicky Farrow, one of the winery owners, joined us for a pour of their “Tre” red blend—explaining that she and her husband had chosen the name “Amista” based on the Spanish word for friendship—all of us had indeed become fast friends.
We arrived at Schug Winery in Carneros just in time to see the crushing of the grapes. In lieu of grape stomping, which I’m sad to say will have to remain on my bucket list, we settled for the high-tech version: Tractors lifted huge vats of just-harvested pinot noir grapes, dumping them into a machine that destems and then crushes them through a series of fast-moving rollers. The skin and juice of the grapes, now a burgundy-purplish sludge, were collected in large fermentation vessels before being punched down by a hydraulic device instead of feet.
Afterward, in another room, one of the winemakers opened a spigot right off one of the barrels, allowing us to taste the difference between wines still in development and those that have been properly aged, stored, and bottled. The unfinished wine was very tannic, causing my mouth to pucker. I might have made a face. While I wasn’t sophisticated enough to tell whether the wine would be good one day, it was still a cool experience.
Rest assured I was working on my level of sophistication—all day long, diligently!—even attending a formal tasting seminar with local winemakers and advanced sommeliers. During a session at Benziger Family Winery, known for its organic, biodynamic farming methods, I swirled any number of wines to aerate them; observed the “legs” they left on their glasses; noted color, viscosity, and mouthfeel; and, of course, tried to sniff out and distinguish tasting notes such as berry, honey, and pear.
Meanwhile we feasted on what has to be some of the most delicious food in the entire country. In Sonoma people make things from scratch. They pick vegetables from the garden and raise animals that will be used, in their entirety, to put food on the table. One of the finest examples of this ethos, sadly, was our lunch, full of just-plucked tomatoes and fresh herbs, at chef Duskie Estes’s Zazu Kitchen + Farm in Sebastopol—the restaurant closed earlier this year after catastrophic flooding, with no definitive plans to reopen as of now.
But Estes and her husband still run the Black Piglet food truck, which can be booked for catering, and sell heritage bacon. They also own several plots of land throughout the county and continue to employ local farmers. “Much of what we serve is picked fresh from the garden within an hour of being plated,” she told us when we visited. “The flavor is so much more intense when you eat produce that has never been refrigerated.”
Beautiful, farm-fresh vegetables and pasture-raised meats were everywhere during our Sonoma adventure. Our welcome dinner in the wine cellar at the palatial Ferrari-Carano Vineyards included a course of mushroom risotto garnished with arugula direct from a Petaluma farm. A lunch at the stunning Ram’s Gate Winery in Carneros featured dishes piled high with purple, green, and white roasted cauliflower; crisp, sweet summer corn; succulent beets; and heaping plates of grass-fed short ribs. And our closing dinner, inside a barn at Dutton Ranch, brought corn-fennel soup topped with toasted lemon, shrimp, and succotash; roasted heritage pork tenderloin; sides of maitake mushrooms, tomatoes, and roasted golden beets drizzled with aged balsamic; and, for dessert, fresh fig-and-mascarpone tarts.
Truth be told, the experiences, all wonderful, started to blend together. Each day we left the cloud-like cocoons of our feather beds at the Vintners Inn in Santa Rosa at 7:30 a.m., returning close to midnight after days spent working the land and visiting wineries. By the end of the trip, we’d probably tasted something on the order of 100 individual wines.
But there was that moment I won’t forget—the kind all the best trips have, that gets seared in your memory like a postcard. It happened at Beltane Ranch, just after sunset. By then we’d seen the entire winemaking process. We’d met people like Steve Giacomo, whose family has farmed in Sonoma for generations, who’d welcomed us onto his land to pick grapes. We’d seen the evolution of a 100-year-old winemaking tradition at Schug Winery, learned about biodynamic winemaking at Benziger. We’d just finished a tour of the orchards at Beltane, a working ranch where the resident cows, Paisley and Bob, roamed freely, duly unimpressed when we subjected them to the paparazzi treatment.
Seated underneath a historic oak tree, its gnarly branches shading our dinner, illuminated by string lights and flickering candles, I watched as whirls of pink, orange, and yellow turned the sky into a glowing, ephemeral canvas. Seated next to me was Alex Benward, a fifth-generation steward of the very earth beneath our feet. He told me about growing up on this land that was once Wappo Indian territory, how the original house had been converted into a bed and breakfast, how this was the site where pioneering winemaker John Drummond produced Northern California’s first merlot. There was pride in his eyes as he shared his vision for the future and the legacy that he planned to leave his kids.
Feeling full of hope and, okay, wine, I could picture it, too: 100 years down the line, his kids’ grandkids sitting in the same beautiful spot, in the most sustainable winemaking region in America, under the same oak tree, witnessing a sunset just as breathtaking.
When to Go
- June through October is high season, when the weather hovers in the seventies and eighties during the day and drops to the sixties at night. Harvest season takes place in September and October, drawing lots of tourists.
- Fresh off of a two-year, $17 million expansion, complete with a new spa, the charming, rustic Vintners Inn resides on 98 acres of vineyards in the heart of Sonoma County. Rooms from $395 during high season.
- With only five rooms available, reservations for Beltane Ranch are hard to come by, but if you can score one, you’ll be rewarded with a room overlooking the property’s gorgeous gardens and vineyards. Rooms from $350 during high season.
- At Ram’s Gate Winery, in addition to vineyard tours and tastings, guests can book a five-course meal with wine pairings prepared by Executive Chef Stacey Combs.
- Sample the season’s harvest along with live music at the Sonoma Harvest Music Festival, September 14–15 (Ben Harper, Lauryn Hill), 21–22 (Chvrches, Death Cab for Cutie). Tickets from $119.
- The 21st Annual Sonoma County Wine & Food Affair features tastings from dozens of participating wineries. November 2–3. Tickets from $30.