The 100 most amazing wines in Sonoma County
The remarkable North Bay wines that were released in 2021 is credited to the farmers, winemakers and their crews, who faced a run of unprecedented challenges from 2017 into 2021 to get great wine into our glasses and on Thanksgiving tables. It took can-do attitude, and the earned response is gratitude, from those who appreciate local wines, enjoy the joie de vivre they bring, and the jobs and economic boost a resourceful wine business provides.
The Press Democrat’s 100 Amazing Wines list is populated by bottles produced in 2017 through 2020 (with a 2016 outlier or two), each year having its own harvest-time issues. The catastrophic Tubbs, Nuns and Atlas fires of 2017; the scramble by vintners to install generators, replant scorched vines and create defensive space around buildings in 2018; the 2019 Kincade fire structural damage and preventative evacuations; and the smoky 2020 season, in which county grape growers lost as much as 30% of their crop to smoke taint in the grapes. Add the coronavirus pandemic, drought and labor shortages, and the last five vintages have not been easy.
Despite all this, Sonoma’s reputation as a world-class wine region remains not only intact, but enhanced. A diverse group of winemakers has taken the field, bringing new and sometimes radical ideas that wine new wine drinkers and keep the long-established wineries on their toes. What was once considered a lame claim, “We grow everything here,” has become cool, as nearly every grape variety known to humankind can grow successfully here.
The most admired wines in the world are expensive, their prices based on demand and prestige; Sonoma has entered this sphere, and unfortunately, some of the wines on the list are beyond the means of some. It’s the price of success.
7 Sparkling Wines
Balletto Vineyards 2015 Russian River Valley Méthode Traditionnelle Russian River Valley Brut Rosé ($42)
Winemaker Anthony Beckman used Champagne techniques to produce this wine, with a secondary fermentation in the bottle capturing the nutty, baked-bread character created when the spent yeast cells remain in suspension with the wine. This aged yet fresh-tasting bubbly has those characteristics, plus luscious berry and cherry notes, with a racy finish.
Breathless Wines 2016 McMinn Vineyard Russian River Valley Blanc de Blancs ($49)
Breathless, a brand birthed from the Faust sisters’ Rack & Riddle custom winemaking business in Healdsburg, added to its repertoire three single-vineyard sparklers in 2020; this all-chardonnay wine shines bright, for its core of crisp green apple, Asian pear and citrus, and a welcome yeasty note.
Gloria Ferrer Wines 2013 Carneros Royal Cuvée ($42)
Once upon a time – 10 years ago – this fabulous wine sold for $25 and could be found on grocery store shelves. It was underpriced then, and appropriately priced now, for its extended yeast aging and complex layers of fruit, spice and brioche. I miss purchasing it for $25, yet it remains a remarkable bottle of bubbly – best found at the Carneros winery.
Iron Horse Vineyards 2017 Green Valley of Russian River Valley Wedding Cuvée ($48)
This venerable Sebastopol bubbly pro offers more than a dozen Champagne-style sparkling wines, yet this one, year after year, ticks all the refreshing and elegant boxes. Pinot noir (73%) is expressed as strawberry and raspberry (and the salmon color), chardonnay lends tangy citrus and green apple, and four years aging on the spent yeast adds a complex brioche nuance.
Iron Horse Vineyards 2017 Green Valley of Russian River Valley Gratitude ($70)
Joy Sterling and her family released this limited-production sparkler to recognize and thank those who suffered from, and responded to, the October 2017 fires that decimated many neighborhoods in Sonoma County. Five dollars from each bottle sold goes to the Redwood Empire Food Bank; not just a charity wine, it’s a serious, delicious sparkler with marzipan, baked apple, citrus and blood orange complexity.
Keller Estate 2018 Petaluma Gap Brut Rosé ($66)
Arturo Keller bought this east-of-Petaluma site in 1983, planted vineyards and an olive grove, and began installing outdoor sculptures. His daughter, Ana, the estate director since 1998, and current winemaker Julien Teichmann have evolved the site to be a superstar in the Petaluma Gap. Their efforts are reflected in this precise, floral and racy methode champenoise sparkler with red fruits, anise and biscuit notes.
Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards 2014 Grand Cuvée Russian River Valley Méthode Traditionelle Winemaker’s Release ($44)
It’s the first sparkling wine to win Best of the Best at the North Coast Wine Challenge, in 2021, and it was a much-deserved victory. Mick Schroeter used classic Champagne-production methods, including the time-intensive aging of the wine on yeast cells exhausted during in-bottle fermentation, to compose this complex, full-bodied, multi-layered wine.