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I put everything aside, the prior day spent in Napa Valley served as preamble for my annual pilgrimage to Alexander Valley. Every year I try to make it to Sonoma County—a wine region that has occupied my heart since the beginning of my wine journey—to visit the fabulous producers in Dry Creek, Russian River and Alexander Valley. I plan for it, and when the time comes I become giddy and it is impossible to reign in my excitement. My trip was a little different this time; I had appointments and news to share with some of the familiar tasting room managers who could trace my path back to its roots. My tastes had changed quite a bit from the year before, trading in my adoration for Zinfandel (which nobody makes better than in Dry Creek) for more esoteric varietals and my recent raising stock in Northern California Cabernet Sauvignon. I would also sharpen my cartographer skills, penciling in new wineries throughout Sonoma as I spent my blithesome day tasting all over the expansive county.

Along the familiar 128 my friend and I stopped for breakfast at Jimtown Store before our day would begin. We placed our orders for a couple of breakfast sandwiches, taking a seat at the communal tables as we waited. We sat next to two people discussing the latest release by the Black Keys—what we didn’t know was that that record would score our wine tastings.

After our quick bite we traipsed next door to Hawkes Winery, parking under a burdened persimmon tree. The pregnant branches were festooned with apple-sized orange lanterns and after admiring the tree—recalling my father’s near obsession over the Hachiya persimmons—we wandered into the tasting room. A new face greeted us and it seemed much had changed since my prior visit to the winery. We discussed the differences since my visit over a year ago and we were treated to five very nice wines. We began our flight with their only white wine. The Home Chardonnay was crisp and clean, leaving my mouth full of fruit and minerals. We soared through the tasting, running through a Merlot and two Cabernets (a single vineyard Cabernet from Stone Vineyard was poured) before ending on an aged beauty. The 2002 Cabernet Sauvignon pulled fruit from all of their properties and gracefully displayed its potential. Firm but elegant tannins, ripe black cherries and a long-lived finish demonstrated that after nine years they—all my shipments from the wine club—could last easily past a decade in the cellar.

Our second stop was close on the trail, continuing up the 128 until we reached the manicured estate of Stonestreet Winery. Our unannounced trip would not be as private as Hawkes; we shared the room with a group of three, tasting through some hedonistic expressions of Chardonnay to begin the flight. Our weathered tasting room liaison monitored my expressions as I sipped and spat the Gold Run and Broken Road Chardonnays. Most were in agreement that those were favorable styles; I was not enamored with the heavy mlf (malolactic fermentation). The white wines lacked subtlety, rounding it up in exchange for Disney-in-July fireworks. We pressed on and learned about the contributions of Jess Jackson and his role in Sonoma, as well as the history of Stonestreet Winery. Our pouring room guide culled bold reds from the ‘Single Vineyard’ collection before our sampling drew to a close.  He was resolute on wowing me since he had all but one juror in favor of their wines. My friend and I shared Monolith, Monument Ridge and Christopher’s Cabernet Sauvignon before calling it quits. The expressions were rich and the tannins were almost too big. Despite having popped and poured the latter three, it was easy to see the elegance and the ageing potential of the youthful reds.

After tasting five wines at Stonestreet Winery we were off to our first appointment of the day at Medlock Ames. We pulled up to a newly renovated space (previously the home of Alexander Valley Store and Bar) and on display in the garden was a sustainability exhibit. Early on, it was apparent that these guys were ardent supporters of the environment. In the tasting room, near the wine rack, were the makings of local and organic produce for sale, in the form of preserves, pickles and other vegetables. The latest sounds of the Black Keys filled the airspace, as our tasting guide was eager to share his new purchase. Without having tasted a sip of wine, I liked the place a lot. The differences between Napa Valley and Sonoma County were becoming quite clear to my friend. And after a brief introduction we tasted a Sauvignon Blanc that was just perfect. It tasted of fresh citrus (grapefruit and pommelo) and finished long on the palate. It was summer in a glass and the wines of Medlock Ames continued to impress. We riffled through eight wines; different vintages of Merlot and Bell Mountain Red Wine (an approachable Bordeaux blend) were all tasted before concluding with the signature varietal of Alexander Valley—Cabernet Sauvignon. Different tasting profiles manifested themselves for each wine; our mouths were coated with notes of cola, baking spices, blackberry and black cherry that stayed with us until the end. Before the album finished, I left a fan of the winery, confident in my ability to sell their wines when back in SoCal.

Before it was time for a highly anticipated lunch—I had been singing the praises of Diavola for some time to my friend—we visited Trione Winery. We caught up with their tasting room manager—a long time acquaintance—who first poured for me four years ago at Stonestreet. The epitome of class and hospitality, she would pour us the royal treatment. We tasted through twelve wines, crossing vintages and digging deep into their cellar. Over the airwaves was the timid but powerful voice of Regina Specktor before there were musings of changing the station to the Black Keys. As we tasted through some of the acclaimed wines, the music did little to distract us, though it was changed. We tasted and talked, breaking to rest our palates between varietals and enjoy our time. We moved through the lineup and in no time we were onto the last legs of the tasting. The apex came when we examined their Pinot Noir. The 2007 vintage was very good and varietally correct but when it came to the 2005 vintage of Russian River Pinot Noir I was blown away. I couldn’t hold back my enjoyment. The wine was Burgndian—though I am not a fan of using that descriptor on domestic expressions—and called to mind some of the better old world expressions I have had. Dusty and earth-driven; with notes of root vegetables, mushrooms and forest floor filling my nose as the wine still possessed some raspberry and pomegranate fruits in combination with the best elements of oak in the mouth. It was by far the best thing I had tasted all day.

After a sumptuous lunch at Diavola, that survived my hype, where we enjoyed headcheese, minestrone soup, beef cheek ragu, a salsicca pizza and a drank a local example of Sangiovese from Acorn vineyards it was onto Dry Creek Valley to taste at Quivira. I was somewhat familiar with the winery, having sold their Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc; this was a time to try a larger portion of their fleet. I knew that they were dedicated and staunch environmentalists but I was not aware that their lineup ran so deep. They served many Rhône and Southern French varietals with success; a Grenache that was loaded with pepper, an earthy Mourvèdre that was reminiscent of Bandol and a servile Viognier that would tandem with Sauvignon Blanc. Quivira proudly portrayed some spicy California varietals to offset their Francophile fancy with the aforementioned Zinfandel and their Petite Sirah. Intrigued after tasting seven wines, I could not get over their Refuge Sauvingon Blanc that relied heavily on malolactic fermentation, ageing the wine for ten months on lees (dead yeast cells) to give it some creaminess. It shook my view of the possibilities of California Sauvignon Blanc and provided a tastefully warped guise on a grape I thought I had pegged.

Before wrapping up our day we finished our eventful Friday at the family-centered tasting room in downtown Healdsburg on the recommendation of the tasting room manager of Trione. Portalupi would be our final stop. We were walked through the list of seven wines by the father/winemaker. A daughter and her boyfriend were fresh from the Pacific Northwest, adding to the vibe of the tasting room. We felt bad for interfering with family time but were assured that there was no need to worry. The wines had a particular Italian influence, though the grapes were not distinctly of Italian decent. We tried two excellent Pinot Noirs, sourced from two different regions in California and a Mendocino Barbera that displayed lithe acidity that recalled my love for Piemonte. The unique package of the Vaso di Marina told a story that was rich in tradition and particularly interesting. The daughter and nonna shared the name Marina, which highlighted a deep family connection inherent in every wine we had tasted to that point. The showstopper for me was the Port, maybe because I was in the mood for a dessert wine or just enjoyed my glimpse into their family dynamic but that Port was beautiful. Restrained and free of goop, showing notes of chocolate, nuts, fruit and caramel that was fit for a Christmas gift. I bought a bottle for the fast-approaching holidays and we bid arrivederci to the Portalupi family.

In no hurry to leave the beautiful settings of wine country, we had some drinks at the Spoon Bar in Healdsburg before departing for San Francisco. We met some wonderful locals at the bar, flanked on both sides by people willing to engage us, sharing stories with the couple on our left and the three ladies to our right over deliciously-crafted libations as I discussed my purposes for the trip through Sonoma in the off-season. Eighty-eight wines between two days (16 remained), glorious foods and the Black Keys latest record supplying the perfect diagetic soundtrack to my visit up north… yeah, I was living right and on pace to crack five hundred bottles before the year’s end. I can’t wait to go back to Sonoma.

Another wine trip concluded, leaving me with a bevy of bottles in my trunk as I made my way home this weekend. Reflecting on all the wineries I visited during this trip—the familiar lot of winemakers I visit each year dutifully and the wineries I am introduced to—sometimes new is refreshing. With choices abound it is hard to come to Sonoma and only select a few wineries to visit when they are all of such a high caliber and the valleys and coast are replete. The difficulty choosing is made that much harder if you are traveling from Southern California (or somewhere outside the wine realm)—where the best wines shops cannot even begin to scratch the surface of the small lot productions.

These “boutique” wineries are shrouded by the successes of their brethren; names like Ridge, Seghesio Family Vineyards, Jordan and even Silver Oak of Alexander Valley might be high on your list but look further and see the value and beauty of the vineyards of Sonoma.

After stopping at Hawkes winery in Alexander Valley—a winery I look forward to visiting each time I arrive in Sonoma—I was told about a new winery from the tasting room manager, located about five miles from Hawkes.

Mercury Geyserville, taking its name as an ode to how the area was initially settled, quicksilver mining. It is the vision of Brad Beard—a family friend of Jake Hawkes—who hopes to have a more comfortable and inviting aesthetic for people who want to try new wines and keep it casual in the tasting room.

Brad Beard’s tasting room is open and spacious, equipped with a record player dedicated to Mercury vinyl (although when I walked in Johnny Cash was spinning). This room was co-created by Jake Hawkes and Beard and is the perfect environment to enjoy a taste of wine.

The winery is incredibly new, opening its doors in January—the dead of winter. This time might not be hospitable to shops or new businesses in a town that thrives on tourism but it has been kind to Mercury—instituting a push to enthrall locals by extending discounts to them for their purchases.

Beard currently offers only reds, from Bordeaux blends to Pinot Noir. He offers a little twist on the usual bottling practices too, which make his wines more marketable like offering a 1700’s Bordeaux bottle that has a squat frame akin to a fire hydrant still retaining those broad shoulders. That bottle houses “The Messenger” a sensitive blend of mostly Cabernet Sauvignon.  Also on the menu are little jugs—that contain 500ml (2/3) of an actual bottle—which are for everyday drinking.

The Mercury jug wine acts as a chameleon because it is a blend; the flavors are pulled out with all different fare offering a really affordable and diverse food companion. At $125.00 per case (that includes a wooden crate to store the wines) this is a wise miniature purchase.

Next on tap are the whites, which will be available for tasting soon.  He wants to keep the tasting room fresh by constantly tinkering with the tasting menu and adding to his production of these smaller wines.

So here is to Mercury Geyserville, an emerging stalwart wine producer in an area that is chock-full of great choices. Amend your list of “must try/visit” wineries to include this small lot producer and you will not be disappointed.

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