A typical day of wine tasting involves visiting at least two or three wineries, sometimes as many as four or more. For many visitors to wine country, this seems like the logical route – cram as many visits into each day as possible. The only problem? After the second or third winery, the details blur and your palate has been worn down to the point where you can only determine if it’s a liquid or solid that’s hitting your lips. Plus, the tasting room staff doesn’t really want to accommodate you and your drunk friends crashing through their doors at 4:29 to squeeze in just under the wire. I have been guilty of this, and suspect a good many tourists to wine country do the same. After all, with 500+ wineries to choose from in just Napa and Sonoma, how else can you get the full experience?
So when my girlfriend and I had a free weekend with some time to spare in early May, we decided to take a drive to Healdsburg, a charming town in the Sonoma Valley located just North of Santa Rosa. Having spent most of my time in the Napa Valley since moving here five years ago, I was eager to explore Sonoma a little further. I had been to a good many wineries in the Carneros region, and in the town of Sonoma itself, but as anyone who is familiar with the area knows, the actual Sonoma Valley encompasses a huge region that’s much more expansive than Napa.
Starting off Right: Picnic Supplies in Healdsburg
In Napa, you won’t find many wineries that allow picnics. In Sonoma however, the opposite is true, and I highly encourage you to bring a lunch to enjoy at a winery. The small town of Healdsburg is packed with amazing options for food and dining, which we can’t fully explore here; what I will suggest is that you stop at one of two places to get some picnic supplies. In the town center, you’ll find the legendary Oakville Grocery, a bustling deli and gourmet food shop that’s always a popular tourist stop. And as such, it’s usually fairly crowded. Alternatively, as you exit the town center and head to Dry Creek rd. for some wine tasting, you’ll pass a grocery market called Big John’s Gourmet Market. This great spot offers a similar array of artisan cheese, local wines, sandwiches and snacks, but without the fervor and crowds of Oakville Grocery.
Choosing Among the Many Dry Creek Road Wineries
Now that you’re armed with a picnic, it’s time to head to Dry Creek rd. This is the equivalent of Napa’s Silverado Trail, and is lined with winery after winery. Choosing which ones to visit can be tough. After narrowing down a list of five or six wineries that included Unti, Coffarro, Bella and Frick, we decided that Lambert Bridge seemed like the best overall choice. Shortly after parking the car and entering the winery, we confirmed this was the right decision.
Meeting Gus and Bernadette – the Winery Dogs
When you enter the wine tasting room, you’ll probably have to navigate around a large dog laying on the floor. Dogs are a ubiquitous part of the winery culture, and these two pups are among the most memorable ambassadors. Here you will find one of the most well-known winery dogs – a 160-pound St. Bernard named Bernadette and a playful Labrador named Gus. Bernadette spends most of her time laying on the cool floor, belly exposed, casually waiting for guests to give her a rub. She’s figured out her role, and seems to thoroughly take advantage of her large surface area well. Gus bounds around the winery with typical Labrador exuberance. He hails from a long line of winery dogs; as the offspring of the Mauritson and Rafanelli family dogs, he was born into the industry and seems more adept at chasing wild turkeys out of the vineyards, and closely observing the food pairings that guests enjoy.
An Informative and Delicious Food & Wine Pairing
Part of the reason we chose Lambert Bridge was because of their wine and food pairing option. Guests have the choice of tasting a flight of wines at the bar, or entering the barrel room, where they can do a seated tasting and food pairing. I have been to a few wineries that serve small bites with their wines, but never did a formal pairing, so I was excited for the opportunity when their Director of Hospitality, Summer Jeffus, invited us in for one. My extent of food and wine pairing was pretty limited, and I knew basic rules like Zin goes with barbeque, Pinot with a roast chicken, and white wines with fish.
A Focused Approach to Winemaking
We were seated in the barrel room, framed by vaulted redwood-lined ceilings and that familiar smell of oak, concrete, and 55% humidity air that you’ll find at most wineries. Summer explained their philosophy and approach to winemaking, which boils down to creating food-friendly wines backed by extremely high standards during the entire process. For example, they are one of the few wineries with a “Le Trieur” sorting system, which helps sort only the most premium grapes. Screaming Eagle, Medlock Ames, and other high-end producers use the same machine. In fact, she went on to describe how every staff member at the winery takes an active role during harvest. While many wineries have a big disconnect between the vineyard crew, owners, and tasting room, the sense of community is value they clearly demonstrate at Lambert Bridge.
More Education Equals Better Appreciation
Part of a great wine tasting experience includes having a guide who can teach you a thing or two. And for me, understanding the intricacies between wine and food was probably the most enjoyable part of the experience. To begin, we were presented with five small plates of food, each meant to pair with a certain wine. From the Sauvignon Blanc with a color that could be measured as “VS1” on a diamond clarity scale, to the bold Zinfandel and Cabernet, we were able to understand not just what to pair with food, but how the food and wine complement and heighten certain flavor nuances. In some instances, elements of the wines played a secondary role in bringing out primary flavors in the food, while some of the food completely enhanced flavors in the wine. As many people know, putting words and descriptors to flavors and smell can be a challenge, so it was great to be led through this sort of sensory tour.
Let’s take the Maple Zinfandel and Caggiano smoked Pork/Duck with red onion confit as an example. The rounded plum and red fruit flavors of the Zinfandel were apparent in our first sip. After a small bite of smoked sausage, the smoky note in the wine became much more apparent, and merged into a lengthier, meatier finish than before. The Petit Verdot was another eye-opener. I’m not usually one to enjoy wine and chocolate together. But somehow they made it work, with a cardamom-spiced chocolate that really enhanced and framed the spicy notes that had previously been lurking under the surface of flavors.
Post Wine Tasting Picnic and Relaxation
After finishing the food and wine pairing, we were content, but still in the mood to eat. Lambert Bridge features an extensive garden area that hosts a dozen or more picnic tables spread throughout. We found a cozy spot, and ended up staying for another hour, munching on our sandwiches, soaking up the sunshine, and admiring the countryside. By the time we finished, we had spent nearly three hours there. It was a perfect retreat, and any thoughts of clamoring to the car to sneak in one more tasting were replaced by total contentment. Next time you’re planning a wine tasting adventure, make sure to press pause if you can, to fully soak in your surroundings and present company. Sometimes that’s the best way to get the full experience.
Lambert Bridge Winery
4085 West Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Written by: Michael Meisner. Mike is a native of Massachusetts who moved to the Napa Valley five years ago. He has since immersed himself in the wine and food culture, and particularly enjoys spending time exploring the regions’ smaller wine producers, searching for great hidden gems, and learning about the rich history of the families who make up the fabric of California’s wine industry.