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Sonoma County wines challenging Napa as California's best

By Staff
Jan. 9, 2002
Satchel Paige, the late and great baseball pitcher, once advised a friend: "Don't look back. Someone may be gaining on you."
That's good advice for the wine producers of Napa Valley, but it's something they already know. While Napa is considered to be the heart of the California wine country, Sonoma County is gaining on them.
The best
It's still not a real contest. Napa has more wineries than any other county in California and they produce the largest number of fine wines, and the best variety, of any place in this country. There's a pride there that means, without saying a word, "we're the best and we're always going to be."
Currently I agree with the first half of that statement but not necessarily the second. The order of importance has changed before.
Sonoma County was planted before Napa back in the early 1800s. Then in 1838, a trapper from North Carolina named George Yount acquired a few vines from Sonoma. He planted them outside his log cabin and changed the history of American wine. Yount just wanted the wine for his own use but what those grapes produced made others pay attention. Within six years, Yount was making 200 gallons of wine per year. In the next 20 years, Napa Valley was leading the way in producing fine tasting wines.
Sonoma fell back. Until the late 1960s, it was considered an area that produced only blending wines. In 1969 Russell Green purchased Simi winery, a once famous source of excellent wine. In the next four years, he upgraded Simi's wines. Others followed him into the valley and began to produce quality bottles of wine themselves.
Today Sonoma County is California's most prolific wine-producing area and it's reputation is rising with every vintage. It is also home to some of the most famous and best liked wines produced in that state, wines that many of you have tasted and enjoyed and probably credited to Napa.
For example Benzinger is a Sonoma County wine. It once also produced the Glen Ellen wines but has since sold them to Heublein to concentrate on their Benzinger label which truly represent value for your money.
Buena Vista winery's home is also in Sonoma. Since the early 1990's Buena Vista is a competitor to with which to be reckoned.
One of my favorite labels is Chateau St. Jean. A bottle of their chardonnay was among the best I tasted all last year. It formerly had Japanese owners who never realized its potential but it's owned by Beringer now and they do.
Cline Cellars is not a label many of you may recognize but their red zinfandel is marvelous and for the money is one of the best you can buy. I believe it is available in Mississippi and, if so, your favorite package store can get it for you.
Every store in the state, however, carries the Clos Du Bois wines, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and others. Their winemaker is a woman, Margaret Davenport, who has been in charge since 1990 and is highly skilled.
DeLoach is known for its buttery chardonnays but I find their red zinfandels to be first class products.
There are few producers who offer more for less than Geyser Peak. I have never been disappointed in their wines and marvel how they can offer so much for so little. They have an Australian winemaker who certainly knows his business and makes Sonoma proud.
More crowd pleasers
We have served both Iron Horse sparkling wine and it's cabernet sauvignon at our tastings and both were crowd pleasers. Where did it get its strange name? Well, it was once the only railway stop in Sonoma's Green Valley, thus the Iron Horse name but the owners didn't stop there. They also produced a second tier wine which they called Tin Pony. Their cabernets are styled very much like wines from Bordeaux, as we noticed at the tasting.
I've certainly touted the Landmark chardonnay often enough for you to be familiar with it and it's just been named the 24th best wine produced in the world last year. That's even higher praise than I can give it. Its price of about $25 was a factor in that rating, and there's plenty of it available in our state.
One of the most popular Sonoma producers is Rabbit Ridge. Their wines are inexpensive, filled with flavor and are major sellers.
Other outstanding producers in Sonoma include Ravenswood, the great intensely flavored St. Francis wines, Sebastiani, Simi, of course, Sonoma Cutrer and Rodney Strong.
Napa is still No. 1 but Paige was right. Sonoma is gaining on them.