Although I live in the wine country, I have made no effort to learn a great deal about it or become a grower of grapes.
When I moved to Sonoma in 1993 after leaving Ticketmaster, I bought a great place high on a mountain overlooking Sonoma and could clearly see San Francisco 45 miles away. I was just 5 minutes from the Plaza that was the center of the city (only 7000 people) but I was clearly removed. The Plaza is where a few residents in 1846 planted the Bear Flag and declared the Republic of California, so it has special meaning to all Californians. And close to the Plaza were l wineries, including Sebastiani, Buena Vista and dozens of others.
I was asked if I were going to plant grapes on my 15 acres, but I didn’t, except for a few concord grapes and wine grapes for eating. When asked didn’t I want a “vanity label” wine like so many who move to Sonoma or Napa county do, I answered that since my name was already on millions of bottles around the world, that was enough for me. Also, there were hundreds of Oak, Manzanita and other trees on the property that I would never cut down.
Everywhere you go in Sonoma you are aware of wine country living, a casual style that allowed neighbors to end the day sharing the bounty of the area with glasses of wonderful wines, most of them never seeing stores or restaurants outside the county. Of course if you are visiting someone, it is necessary to bring a bottle, and depending on what you bring, you will be judged; and the expensive wines are not important, just something that shows you have thought about it.
My neighbor Bob having grown up in Sonoma not only raised grapes but had a cellar of hundreds of wonderful wines. I am purposely not giving his last name so you won’t find him. During the Cavedale fire when the flames were sweeping down the hill towards us, he came over with a precious bottle of Jordan wine that was from the first release. and we sat and drank, along with my friend Darrell. Luckily, the fire was stopped but I didn’t give back the great wine.
Every month a group of us had a “geezer” luncheon, where the participants would bring some classic bottle they had to a local restaurant (usually Della Santina),some dating back 30 or 40 years. I had no such collection, so I had to make certain I was part of a lively discussion (obviously my life had been different than theirs) so I wouldn’t get ejected. Before long, I could taste the difference between the wines, though I am no great judge and cannot tell if the barrel was oak, there is a taste of cranberry, or what the sulfite content is (I don’t care). My son Steve can tell, he became sommelier at the Rainbow Room in New York and at Tavern on the Green. Today he lives in New York and is private labeling for Hotels and Restaurants. He has occasionally given me a bottle of something wonderful.
Our geezer lunches usually were comprised of Bob, his long time friend Richard Cuneo, then chairman of Sebastiani Winery (the family has since sold) and another winery owner of an excellent Sonoma wine. The reason I don’t use his name is that he pulled off one of the great exploits that is still talked about.
There is a great rivalry between Napa and Sonoma. For a long time people seemed to be only aware of Napa wines, while great wines were being produced in Sonoma. Several years back an entrepreneur started the Napa Wine Train, which is a restored train that goes very slowly between Napa and Saint Helena in north Napa County, giving the passengers a view of the beautiful countryside and mountains, while serving exquisite food and Napa wines – it is definitely worth doing if you are in the area. One one trip, mounted horsemen with masks suddenly appeared in front of the train, made it stop, and removed all the Napa wines and replaced them with Sonoma wines, and then rode off into the sunset.
That would have been the end of the story except at a later time a group of government officials appeared at the winery as apparently it is illegal to stop any train in the US for whatever frivolous purposes.
Richard Cuneo told us some interesting stories and facts about wine – I still think Sebastiani is among the finest wines here, and Cherry Block Cabernet is amazing. He said that Sam Sebastiani who founded the winery over 100 years ago used to drive a horse-driven wagon around the Plaza, and people would come out with containers and Sam would dip into a barrel and sell wine with a dipper into a bucket or other vessel; he would have been amused about all the fuss that is made about wines now. This family-operated winery was able to survive prohibition by being designated as one of the wineries to supply churches for religious purposes.
Sonoma prides itself on having fun with wine unlike its more serious cousin in the next county. Every Labor Day this is a wine auction in Sonoma where all the money raised goes to local health and other charities, and all the wineries do goofy things, compared with the very serious wine auction in Napa. Usually Tom Smothers who has a winery wears his “Sonoma for wine, Napa for auto parts” shirt.
In 1997 when Carolyn Stolman and I started the Sonoma Valley Film Festival we were showing a documentary about the Italians in San Francisco and there was a part of the film that featured the Mondavis, so we invited them to the Festival. What a wonderfully elegant couple!. That night we had a private dinner at the Swiss Hotel (not a hotel, but great food) and the Mondavis and Sebastianis attended. On that occasion I really got a feeling of what the wine country was all about; Napa and Sonoma are like nowhere else, with over 300 wineries and just wonderful people.