A Northern California Wine Bootcamp Adventure: From San Francisco to Healdsburg
Just a few minutes before our scheduled 9:15 AM departure, I already had my doubts about the trip. Overnight and early morning rain led to a messy morning commute, as you’d expect from California drivers. That meant John’s short Uber trip from the Marriott Marquis to my Mission Bay apartment went at the speed of a wheelbarrow.
He finally made it and then we rushed across the Bay Bridge and the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, eventually making it to an isolated corner of Sebastopol only about 8 minutes off schedule.
Skip to any of these sections:
- Cobb Wines
- Fort Ross Vineyard
- Lunch: Gold Coast Coffee & Bakery
- MacRostie Winery
- Limerick Lane Cellars
- LIOCO Wine Tasting Room
- Dinner: Dry Creek Kitchen
18100 Fitzpatrick Ln
Occidental, CA 95465
Our meeting with Cobb Wines’ Jim Kuhner (who previously worked with Verve Wines in New York, which now has a wonderful Pacific Heights shop) was a different setting than the one I met Ross Cobb at a few years ago. That one was at Cobb’s home estate, even further off the beaten path at the Coastlands Vineyard in the “metro Occidental” region.
Here, we were at the Emmaline Ann Vineyard on the outskirts of the “metro Sebastopol” area tasting world-class Pinot Noir in the living room of a slightly suburban vineyard house that often is rented out on AirBnb and our car was parked under a rusted out basketball hoop.
Yea...not your typical wine tourism spot. However, it’s exactly the setting you want for kicking off a wine trip: a non-cliché tasting room with vines everywhere with leaves evoking New England bright orange-yellow foliage.
While Ross Cobb makes wine for other wineries (Reeve, Anaba, Claypool Cellars), he is without question one of the true Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir whisperers with this deeply personal label he started with his father. Don’t forget the Cobb Chardonnay either, a bright, citrus-tinged, lean, well-rounded 2016 from the Mariani Vineyard near Tomales Bay.
3 wines to try: 2016 Emmaline Anne Pinot Noir, 2015 Coastlands Diane’s Block Pinot Noir, 2016 Coastlands Old Firs Block Pinot Noir
Fort Ross Vineyard
15725 Meyers Grade Rd
Jenner, CA 95450
After all kinds of twists and turns on River Road and Highway 1, and watching the Pacific waves crash in a pre-storm surge, we made it to what is considered the most isolated, consistently open tasting room in Sonoma County. Fort Ross Vineyard’s owners, the Schwartz Family, were told by many “experts” that grapes wouldn’t grow here in cow pasture/heavy fog country, but they didn’t listen—and were correct.
I didn’t swoon over any of the Pinot Noirs, nor did John, which surprised us since we found a Fort Ross Pinot Noir in Buffalo, NY while planning this trip and thoroughly enjoyed it. However, we truly appreciated the unique cold weather harshness that’s noticeable in the current Pinot Noirs being poured, and loved how the Schwartz family honors their South African heritage with Pinotage bottlings, a total rarity in California.
While the wine wasn’t of standout caliber, the living room space (with fireplace) and gorgeous outdoor deck with a slight Pacific view is as lovely as a wine tasting atmosphere gets. This is also the only tasting room in the now 7-years old Fort Ross-Seaview AVA which runs north on the coast towards Sea Ranch.
3 wines to try: 2014 Mother of Pearl Chardonnay, 2012 Top of Road Pinot Noir, 2015 Stagecoach Road Pinot Noir
Lunch: Gold Coast Coffee & Bakery
When you’re in the far reaches of the Sonoma Coast and on a tight schedule, sit-down dining is not possible. Many peers had told me about the baked goods at Gold Coast in the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it quirky town of Duncans Mills on River Road.
What they didn’t tell me was that there are no sandwiches, even though it’s a bakery, and the homemade pizza can’t be warmed up. So, cold pizza, scones and coffee it was for a quirky lunch in a quirky place. However, this was the finest cold pizza I’ve ever had if that counts for something.
4605 Westside Rd.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Since Fort Ross and lunch were, to be honest, slight letdowns, we needed to be perked back up. John knew MacRostie’s Pinot Noirs from bottles he had enjoyed in the past and owned in his East Coast cellars. After getting the friendly welcome glass of Chardonnay outside (what I later learned is a gracious touch insisted on by the winery’s owner) the owner and legend himself, Steve MacRostie, surprised us and joined for the tasting.
Before jumping into wine, MacRostie was a scientist by educational background and was drafted in 1969 by the military for non-combat in Italy (something he then discussed at length with John, who served the military in Vietnam). Post-Italy, MacRostie started making wine in 1974 because he disliked all of the tumult in society and wanted to go a more unconventional career route. He focused on relatively unknown Sonoma County vineyards while Bordeaux varieties in the Napa Valley were the trendy things to do for young winemakers.
MacRostie Winery and Vineyards then opened in 1987 and the lavish current Doug Thornley-designed winery and tasting building on the estate Thale’s Vineyard opened in 2015. This was our only Russian River Valley Chardonnay/Pinot Noir stop and MacRostie’s wines hail from the estate and nearby area, plus several from the Carneros/Petaluma Gap area (he has a vineyard on Wildcat Mountain Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap).
Fast forward to Christmas on Lake Erie when John and I decided to do a MacRostie side by side since he still had an old 2008 MacRostie Pinot Noir in his cellar. The verdict? Exactly what you would expect. It was a tie between the subtle 2008 (better on its own) and the charming, dense 2015 (better with food).
3 wines to try: 2015 Wildcat Mountain Chardonnay, 2016 Wildcat Mountain Pinot Noir, 2016 Terra de Promissio Pinot Noir
Limerick Lane Cellars
1023 Limerick Ln.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
The Bilbro brothers are two of the most enjoyable winemakers for a journalist to talk with because they’re really fun storytellers and don’t go too overboard on wine geek terminology. Oh, and they also happen to make fantastic wine. That was the case as Limerick Lane’s Jake Bilbro (more on Sam Bilbro in Day 2) and his son Cruz and daughter Scout showed us around the tree trunk-like, gnarly vines that are predominantly Syrah, Zinfandel, Grenache, with some dating back to the Limerick Lane Vineyard’s 1910 planting.
There’s no beating around the bush that these are big, deep wines of high (but not hot tasting) alcohol percentage. We also tried a Grenache that Cruz had made (with very little help from dad) for a fundraiser in New Orleans that fetched $325,000 at auction.
I’m being totally honest: it was one of the most impressive wines of the day! As the fifth generation winemaker in the family, Cruz has huge potential. And, the wines his dad makes aren’t too shabby either…this is the mandatory winery for any visit to Healdsburg.
3 wines to try: 2016 1023 blend, 2015 Hail Mary, 2015 Syrah
LIOCO Wine Tasting Room
125 Matheson St.
Healdsburg, CA 95448
After checking into our Healdsburg hotels, we had our aperitif at another winery — sort of. LIOCO’s newly opened tasting room is part of an exciting Downtown Healdsburg/Downtown Sonoma/Downtown Napa trend where the heart of the cities themselves are becoming tasting room destinations for smaller boutique producers instead of the customary glossy enterprises by bigger/corporate driven wineries that tended to be the downtowns’ norm. LIOCO was created in 2005 by wine salesman Matt Licklider (LI) and Spago Beverly Hills wine director Kevin O’Connor (OCO) in the alley behind the fabled restaurant.
Licklider and his wife Sara now run the winery, which makes the wines in Santa Rosa, but sources grapes from all over Northern California. This is a fantastic destination for an out-of-towner to get a deep education on wine geography, along with highly acidic, balanced wines of several wide-ranging grape varieties that show grace over power. Going from Limerick Lane to LIOCO might not be a big alphabetical change, but it’s a huge wine style change. The tasting room’s funky 60s and 70s soundtrack helps make this wine tasting experience one of the most approachable in the region, as well.
3 wines to try: 2014 Anderson Valley Chardonnay, 2015 “La Selva” Anderson Valley Pinot Noir, 2016 “Sativa” Mendocino County Carignan
Dinner: Dry Creek Kitchen
Charlie Palmer’s flagship restaurant put Healdsburg fine dining on the map (with the now closed Cyrus) over a decade ago and it’s as strong as ever under executive chef Scott Romano. The chocolate peanut butter bar for dessert is a Healdsburg icon in its own right.
Wine-wise, Martinelli is an iconic Sonoma County winemaking and grape growing family—and has nothing to do with apple juice.
Head back to Wine Bootcamp Central for the full guide of wineries and eateries we visited.