Sonoma Wine Country Weekend: Day Two at the Wineries

On the second day of our Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, after an exhilarating early morning hot air balloon ride over Sonoma County vineyards, we visited wineries in the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Valley…Martinelli Vineyards and Winery, VJB Vineyards & Cellars and Muscardini Cellars.

Martinelli Vineyards and Winery

Our first stop was in the Russian River Valley just off River Road at Martinelli’s historic old red hops barn home to their tasting room and winemaking facilities. Now in the families fifth generation of winemakers, it all started in 1860 when Giuseppe and Luisa Martinelli came to California from Tuscany, Italy where Guiseppe had been a winemaker. After two years of working in Forestville they purchased their own land on a 60 degree slope planting Zinfandel and Muscat Alexandria Vines. This slope became known as Jackass Hill Vineyard, when in the early 1900’s the family told son Leno, who had taken over the farming when Guiseppe passed away, that only a jackass would farm a hill that steep. Today this land remains the steepest non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County and is home to some of the region’s best single vineyard designate Zinfandel.

Leno’s son Lee Sr. took over and in 1973 expanded the vineyards to include Uncle Tony Bondi’s apple orchards replanting with grapes. Lee and his wife Carolyn started the winery on its current site in 1987. In 1993 they brought in the county’s most talented winemaker Helen Turley, Winemaker of the Year from Food & Wine in 1999. She still consults with current winemaker Bryan Kvamme while Lee Sr and his two sons farm, own and operate the business. The family sells 90% of the fruit they grow keeping the best 10% for their wines producing X cases.

Judy greeted us on a rather quiet morning and took us through an incredible tasting of their wines along with the journey of the Russian River Valley. Judy has worked with the Martinelli’s for thirteen years and is extremely knowledgable. All Martinelli wines are 100% varietal from their vineyards and made the same way…handcrafted, un-fined, un-filtered, neither cold nor heat stabilized. So what you taste is the terroir, the land and soil. It was an incredible tasting… ’07 Martinelli Road Chardonnay, ’08 Zio Tony Ranch Chardonnay, ’08 Lolita Ranch Pinot Noir, ’08 Moonshine Ranch Pinot Noir, ’08 Zio Tony Ranch Pinot Noir, ’07 Terra Felice Syrah, ’08 Vigneto di Evo Zinfandel and ’09 Jackass Hill Muscat Alexandria. My favorites…

Pinot Noir Tasting

  • ’08 Lolita Ranch Pinot Noir, ’08 Moonshine Ranch Pinot Noir, ’08 Zio Tony Ranch Pinot Noir
  • Grape Variety: 100% Pinot Noir
  • Aroma & Taste: Lolita Ranch was blueberry and spicy. Moonshine Ranch was dark berry and smoky. Zio Tony Ranch was molasses, cherry, vanilla.
  • Price: $60 each
  • My thoughts: Tasting these three side by side was extremely educational in illustrating the terroir impact on the grapes. As Judy said Pinot Noir “is a grape that talks!” All Pinot Noir grapes from their vineyards in the Russian River Valley, all made the same way but all taste different and unique.

2008 Vigneto de Evo Zinfandel

  • Grape Variety: 100% Zinfandel
  • Aroma: Caramel
  • Taste: Blackberry, fig, apricot
  • Price: $30
  • My thoughts: I loved the way Judy described this wine, “a friendly pizza zin with a long finish so it goes with food.” I’m usually not a Zin drinker but this one is excellent. Comes from vineyards directly below Jackass Hill. Bought a bottle of this to bring home.

We also bought the 2009 Bondi Home Ranch Pinot Noir which comes from the Green Valley AVA, an area great for Burgundian varietals. Judy highly recommended it. And we liked the 2009 Jackass Hill Muscat Alexandria, made from 100 year old vines on Jackass Hill, a sweet honeysuckle floral wine that as Judy said “you gulp down like a shot. It turns lumpy people alive again after a big Thanksgiving dinner.”

The tasting room is open 10am to 5pm daily with a $5 tasting fee.

VJB Vineyards & Cellars 

Next we headed south into the Sonoma Valley. Just off Sonoma Highway in Kenwood, we found one of our favorites of the trip, VJB! Stepping into their tasting room was like stepping into a little Italian cafe. They were on my list of stops as their focus is old style Italian wines. They grow classic Italian varietals in Sonoma like Sangiovese, Barbera, Primitivo, Aglianico (only one to grow in the U.S.) as well as Sonoma varietals, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay.

VJB is a small family owned winery run by father Vittorio and his son Henry Belmonte. Vittorio and his wife Maria came to the U.S. in 1963 from their hometown of Bonito, Italy south of Naples where Vittorio worked on the family vineyard since age eight. After settling on the east coast they moved to Kenwood in 1976. Maria opened a small cafe and then a restaurant in Santa Rosa in 1987. The family made wines for home and their restaurant. Then in 1999 brothers Victor and Henry evolved that wine making into VJB Vineyards & Cellars. In 2003, they closed the restaurant and opened their current tasting room.

Vittorio welcomed us as he stood behind the big wooden bar pouring wines on this Sunday afternoon. He had me at “buon giorno”! 🙂 We tasted through their ’10 Gabriella Ranch Chardonnay, ’08 Estate Sangiovese, ’09 Mendocino Barbera (won Gold Medal at 2011 Denver International Wine Competition), ’06 V’Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, ’09 Sonoma Valley Primitivo, ’08 Dante (85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Sangiovese), ’09 Nero d’Avola, ’08 Estate Anglianico and ’08 Chardonnay Port. My favorites…it was so tough to decide so we joined the club and shipped home a case including their Prosecco they import directly from Italy! But if I had to pick out of what we tasted that day…

2008 Estate Sangiovese 

  • Grape Variety: 100% Sangiovese
  • Aroma: Red fruit and cedar
  • Taste: Soft, strawberry and black cherry
  • Price: $28 (sold out)
  • My thoughts: I love this grape, a classic in Tuscany. Was very cool to try it grown in Sonoma and tasted just like the ones I love!

2009 Primitivo 

  • Grape Variety: 100% Primitivo
  • Aroma: Blackberry, baking spices
  • Taste: Smooth jammy blackberry
  • Price: $26
  • My thoughts: I got to know this grape in Puglia, Italy last summer. Excellent example of what this grape gives you in a wine and its grown in the U.S.!

Overall their wines are very smooth, easy and approachable with great price points. They produce only 5,000 cases per year, sold through their tasting room, wine club, online and a few restaurants. Their Club Enoteca wine club is free to join and you chose from three bottles a quarter, one case in May and November, or one case a quarter. It also gives you access to their small productions and 20% savings on all wines.

The tasting room is open daily from 10am to 5pm with a $5 tasting fee. Just next door their NEW Tasting Room & Marketplace is under construction and looks just like an Enoteca you’d find in Italy.  Opening is planned for spring so mark your calendars!

Muscardini Cellars 

Our last stop of the day was just down Sonoma Highway at Muscardini Cellars tasting room, shared with Ty Caton Vineyards. There was quite the party going on with a large group when we arrived, but it broke up shortly after and we had a nice visit with Randall as his last customers of the day.

Michael Muscardini is owner and winemaker for this very small production winery, approximately 1,500 case per year. Michael’s grandfather came to San Francisco from Italy in 1892 and eventually started St. Helena Napa Valley Wine Co., where he sold specialty bulk wines. In 2000, Michael came back to his roots and planted his first Sangiovese vines. While they grew he learned winemaking.

We tasted the ’10 Barbera, ’09 Sangiovese, ’10 Rosato Sangiovese, ’09 Zinfandel and ’08 Fortuna. My favorite…

2010 Rosato di Sangiovese

  • Grape Variety: 100% Sangiovese
  • Aroma & Taste: Classic crisp strawberry, grapefruit finish
  • Price: $19
  • My thoughts: Was great to try not only a rose wine from Sonoma but one made from Sangiovese!

Tasting room is open daily 11am to 6pm with a $10 fee (covers Muscardini and Ty Caton wines).

Next I’ll take you on our final day at the wineries…Jordan Winery, Unti Vineyards and Michel-Sclumberger.

Visit the gallery for more great photos from the trip.