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San Francisco and Sonoma with James and Aina (July 24, 2012)

by James Harbeck

As far as my wife was concerned, the real motivation for our trip to New Zealand was the stopover in San Francisco and Sonoma on the way back. I got her to agree to go across the Pacific by agreeing to go for a night in the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn (with their vaunted spa) on the trip home. Plus two nights in San Francisco.

Here's a tip, by the way: If you're going to go for a weekend in San Francisco in the late spring, find out what weekend the Bay to Breakers race is. And avoid it like phylloxera. Unless, of course, you want to go there for a big party (the race is really just an excuse for an enormous party) and you don't mind the crowds and the inflated prices. We had to go when we had to go, and we were really gobsmacked to find such low availability and high prices. Clueless. Funny, because I'm a runner. When I found out about the race, I almost wanted to sign up to do it. But it would have wrecked my morning – waking up early, jet-lagged, and then late to pick up the car to drive to Sonoma...

Well, anyway. We arrived on a Friday and spent a big chunk of time in the line for customs, weaving back and forth, passing and passing and passing again the feckless parents and their demon child who destroyed our sleep on the flight over but was somehow perfectly fine and calm once in the airport. Then the BART, then a bus to our hotel. Choose your bus routes carefully; some are slower than others. Or take a taxi or drive or something. (Forget about taking luggage on the cable cars; no room for it, and anyway the lines are huge for most of the day.)

San Francisco is an excellent city for sightseeing and gastronomy; in fact, there are also several wine tasting bars near Fisherman's Wharf. I also found a nice rum tasting in Haight-Ashbury. We had some nice wines (Ventana Gewürztraminer (Arroyo Seco, Sonoma) and Ledgewood Creek Cuvée (Merlot – Cab – Mourvèdre – Grenache) (Napa)) in Blush Wine Bar on Castro, and a $3.50 glass of cheap fizzy poured from a screwtop bottle in the Gold Dust Lounge on Powell Street.

Fizzy in the Gold Dust
In the Gold Dust Lounge

We bought Muni day passes to get around, and I recommend it. Don't drive around San Francisco. Really. Take it easy. Take the cable cars early or late in the day, when they're not crowded. Take the antique streetcars (from assorted cities around the world, including Milan, Baltimore, Chicago, and Toronto) on Market Street and along the Embarcadero to Fisherman's Wharf. And just walk, walk, walk. (But be aware that you may do a bit of waiting here and there for the streetcars and buses and LRT and cable cars, and you will surely do some walking up and down hills.)

Both nights we were in San Fran, we ate at restaurants on Columbus Avenue. The first night, we stopped at a nice Sicilian place called (of course) Original U.S. Restaurant. Aina had pan-roasted halibut over polenta; I had stewed rabbit over polenta. It was a nice place, very friendly. If you're looking for a high-end wine list, try somewhere else, but if you want a charming and friendly place with good Sicilian food (US style, I'm sure), you could give it a go.

Original U.S. Restaurant
Sicilian food, obviously

The second night was Aina's birthday, and, as planned, we went to The Stinking Rose, the famous garlic restaurant. Aina ate quite a lot of a raw garlic spread and paid the price for a whole day after, but the food was lovely. It's really something one has to do in San Francisco, I think, along with the various sights I've already mentioned. And while you're in the neighbourhood, stop by the famous City Lights Booksellers & Publishers nearby.

Aina at The Stinking Rose

The Stinking Rose
Dinner at The Stinking Rose

We didn't have dessert at The Stinking Rose, I should say. We took a vintage streetcar to Castro and stopped by the Crème Brûlée Cart – Aina had a vanilla bean version, and I had El Jefe: Mexican chocolate with dulce de leche. And then, after trying and ultimately failing to spot the Milan antique streetcar to ride on it, we hopped the cable car, which is great fun late in the evening.

On Sunday morning, we headed to the airport to pick up our rental car. We could have picked it up at Fisherman's Wharf, right near our hotel, but the price difference was breathtaking. On the other hand, the crowds on the buses for the Bay to Breakers party were also breathtaking – in quantity but, yes, too, I must say, in the inventiveness of their costumes.

Our car was a Prius. In California, you can save money on parking if you have a hybrid (some places charge less or not at all). And the total gas bill was remarkably small. So it didn't matter all that much that it took me almost five minutes to figure out how to start the thing. (You have to have your foot on the brake when you start it. Yes, really. Who thought of that?)

We drove up along the ocean coast of San Francisco (slightly less scenic than it sounds, in part because of detours due to – yes – that race) and over the Golden Gate (free to leave SF on it, costly to enter). The cool breezes of the seaside had converted to hot, dry weather by the time we reached Sonoma and our first stop, Gloria Ferrer.

Aina at Gloria Ferrer
The view from Gloria Ferrer

I've been a fan of Gloria Ferrer's sparklers for years. There was no question of our not stopping there. That said, though, I have to warn those who want to go: it's not a tasting bar experience. You order your fizzy by the glass, and you find a table to sit at and drink it. They also have food items you can buy from coolers (we got some nice salami and cheese, plus some olives). We first found a table outside, but the sun was overbearing and the table we found turned out to be next to a small possibly soon-to-be-screaming child, and after our flight across the Pacific we had developed an aversion. So we relocated inside, which, honestly, was nicer anyway.

Here is what we drank:

  • 2004 Extra Brut: light citrus, very dry
  • Sonoma Brut Late Release: bready, lemon
  • Va de Vi: light flavour, slightly grassy and peachy

And then we headed just across the highway to Cornerstone Sonoma, which has a few nice shops and a few nice wineries' tasting bars. I have to admit I was uncertain as to what we would encounter; mea maxima culpa, I have tended to avoid a lot of California wines for fear of encountering yet another overdone hyper-rich I'm-sucking-this-through-a-Twizzler-and-licking-it-off-an-oak-stick hello-sailor stun-juice. But I have been unfair. I tasted many wonderful wines in Sonoma, including from these two wineries at Cornerstone:


  • 2009 Zinfandel: cherry, raspberry, prune nose; medium dry, bright berries
  • 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa, Mt. Veeder): young; dry red fruit
  • 2008 Foyt Family Cabernet Sauvignon (Mt. Veeder): oak, raspberry nose; young, tannic, very Bordeaux style, needs a few years


  • 2008 Merlot: raspberries etc.; dry cayenne, tannins, dark fruit
  • 2009 "Montecillo" Zinfandel: soft, sweet, marshmallow candy nose; palate soft, tannic, ketones, matches nose
  • 2008 Rockpile Malbec: dark; violets on nose; horse stable on palate
  • 2008 Rockpile Petite Sirah: cherries, chocolate, jam, tannins
  • 2009 "Montecillo" Cabernet Sauvignon: raspberry, flowery

And it was a real tasting bar experience, chatting about the wines with people who know about the wines and are working in the winery year-round.

We managed one more stop just up the road, at Anaba – a great place for wine geeks, and by that I also mean geeks who like wine, not just geeks about wine. The winery is named after the anabatic winds that help their grapes grow optimally in their vineyards near the ocean. The guy pouring the wines was my kind of nerd. Here's what we tried:

  • 2009 Coriol (49% Roussanne, 27% Viognier, 15% Grenache Blanc, 9% Marsanne; fermented in 2/3 stainless steel and 1/3 French oak, aged 11 months): white-bready, light citrus (lemon cream), creamy
  • 2009 Chardonnay (fermented in 60% stainless steel and 40% French oak, aged 11 months): dry, minerally, but soft and like white cake; buttered popcorn
  • 2009 Pinot Noir (aged 11 months in French oak, 25% new barrels): red fruit nose; mesquite BBQ, raspberry cream
  • 2009 Sonoma Valley "Turbine" Red (52% Grenache, 28% Mourvèdre, 20% Syrah; fermented in stainless steel and aged in French oak, 37% new, for 15 months): nose of smoke and coffee, cherry cake; beautifully complex; palate of baked beans plus all of the above
  • 2008 Coriol Red Rhone-Style Blend (45% Mourvèdre, 25% Petite Syrah, 15% Grenache, 10% Syrah, 5% Cinsault; aged 17 months in French oak): a bit of smoke and coffee, and dark rum; baked beans and blackberries
  • 2010 Late Harvest Viognier, Landa Vineyards: definitely late harvest, not ice wine; modest pear
  • Red Aero Port (100% Syrah): somehow I had stopped taking notes by this point

And then we headed into the town of Sonoma itself. It's a small and charming town centred on a very large town square; I will spare you a discourse on its history and etymology, since I've already written one and published it on Sesquiotica.


Sonoma with Aina
Some of Sonoma

Anyway, we were eager to head on through and check in at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn.

Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn
Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn

Just after we had checked in, I got a little surprise – a familiar voice greeting me: my friend Helen Walsh, the publisher of the Literary Review of Canada, who was there on a bit of vacation. We made an arrangement to meet later and get through one of the two bottles of Gloria Ferrer we had bought. But first, while the fizzy-o-therapy chilled: the spa. And, later, after the spa and coming up for Ferrer, dinner in town at The Girl & The Fig.

The next day was planned around our visit to Marimar Estate, on the far side of Sonoma County. Marimar Torres is the daughter of Don Miguel Torres and Doña Margarita Torres – in short, she is a scion of the greatest rootstock of Spanish (Catalan) wine families. Tony Aspler had assured me that if I was going to Sonoma the one place I must not miss was Marimar Estate; he emailed Marimar, and she arranged for me and Aina to have a tour of the place.

First, of course, we had to get there. It seemed simple enough: take route 12 to Sebastopol, then 116 to Occidental Road, and from there to Marimar on Grafton Road. But, you know, Sonoma is where California gained independence from Mexico, and I think one way they did it was by the Mexican army getting lost trying to follow the roads. A numbered route thereabouts might, with minimal warning (just a small sign shortly before the intersection), make an abrupt left turn or suddenly exit onto a freeway, and if you don't happen to be in the proper lane, you have no choice but to overshoot and find a place to U-turn. So those little detours cost us a few minutes. And then I was navigating on Occidental Road from memory and quite forgot that we were supposed to turn on Green Hill Road to go to Grafton Road; instead, we went all the way to where Occidental and Grafton met in the town of Occidental... we were so dis-oriented, it was an occident waiting to happen. Finally I pulled off the road and out my laptop and double-checked the email with directions, and we made it. I thought we were late, but I had forgotten when we were to arrive, and we were early.

Racks at Marimar
The racks out back

We were met by a winsome young woman named Chrissy, who guided us around and told us all about Marimar's vineyards and wines. We learned, on the course of the tour, that it was Chrissy's last day there – she was heading off to open a restaurant. She showed us around the Catalan-style winery building first, and then we headed up through the vineyards to Marimar Torres's house.

Sign at Marimar
"Drive slow – old dogs, young dogs, and one stupid dog at play"

Marimar's house is quite a nice (though by no means oversized) place, full of pictures, paintings, and many equestrian appurtenances (Marimar and her daughter Cristina are avid equestrians). And Marimar herself is a lovely, gracious person, justifiable proud of all she has accomplished. And she has accomplished much with her lovely, gracious approach to winemaking.

James, Aina, and Marimar, and dogs
Me and Aina with Marimar Torres and her dogs

The vines are grown very carefully at Marimar Estate. They aim for smaller vines, lower to the ground, with lower yields, but planted very close together: the vine density is over four times the usual for California. As we walked up the hill, some vines belonging to another winery were pointed out to us, growing just across the one-lane dirt road. The difference was quite noticeable: their wide rows and high vines contrasted with Marimar's low, tight vines.

Contrasting vines
Marimar's vines are on the right

Marimar uses not just organic but biodynamic principles. This means the vineyard is not trying to be an island fending off critters with pesticides; it is enthusiastically in harmony with its surroundings, and cooperative plants and beneficial insects and predators are encouraged. Composting is standard, and fertilization includes a very interesting process involving burying a cow's horn packed with concentrated manure on the autumn equinox and digging it out on the summer solstice – and then diluting the amazing contents to use on the crops.

OK, fine, very well, all the earth sings in harmony and we are happy. But how are the wines? The wines, my friends, are the proof. Marimar grows almost nothing but Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, and the results are breathtaking. We were sorry that our already overfull luggage allowed us to buy only one bottle to take back to Ontario – and sorrier because Marimar wines are not easy to get in Ontario. (Hey, LCBO! Are you listening?)

These are the wines we tasted:

  • Acero Chardonnay 2009: peachy nose; brown sugar, caramelized onion, apricot
  • La Masía Chardonnay 2008: greeny colour; stone fruit and oak nose; caramel and stone fruit fried in butter
  • La Masía Pinot Noir 2007: clearly I was too stupefied to take notes on this one
  • Mas Cavalls Pinot Noir 2007: rich, earthy colour; strawberry rhubarb nose; earthy, fungal
  • Stony Block Pinot Noir 2008: dark, like vintage port; lilies on the nose; nutty, walnut, tannins, fruity
  • Cristina Pinot Noir 2007: cherries and chocolate on the nose; smooth and elegant and a bit creamy, still young
  • Syrah/Tempranillo 2008: dark; long legs; road tar and Oreos on the nose, with mocha opening to cherries; rich and sweet, coffee, light roasted carob and tannins

Which one did we take home, by the way? The Mas Cavalls. I almost went for the Syrah/Tempranillo! But one each of the whole bunch would have been nice. Perhaps I will find a way in future...

Once we left Marimar, our tastings were not altogether over. Nearby was Taft Street, which we had to stop at, because why not. We had a nice, friendly tasting of the following:

  • Sauvignon Blanc 2011: fresh and dusty
  • Chardonnay 2009: clean; light oak; light and buttery
  • Chardonnay "Garagistes Reserve" 2008: melon, lemon, apricots
  • Riesling 2009: light and simple; soft fruit and toast
  • Rosé of Pinot Noir 2010: strawberry, tea
  • Pinot Noir 2008: tarter, more candy-like, but still earthy
  • Pinot Noir "Garagistes Reserve" 2008: caramel nose; nicely balanced
  • Merlot 2009: dusty, berry Kool-Aid; tannic
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2008: bell pepper and berries; tannic
  • Syrah 2007: young; peppery

Then we retraced our anfractuous path towards the town of Sonoma. We managed to find our way to Benziger Family Winery before the tasting room closed (though after the last tour of the day had gone – they load people into a sort of trolley pulled by a tractor; it's quite the big tourist attraction, very different from Marimar).

The bridge to Benzigerland

We tasted the following:

  • Sauvignon Blanc 2011: big on jalapeño
  • Zinfandel 2008: raspberry and strawberry jam; rich but with tannins
  • Syrah 2008: dark; rich jam and coffee; soft but hot
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (Puma Springs vineyard): old plums and prunes on nose; Bordeaux-style, tannic, young
  • Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 (Sonoma Valley): blackberry and raspberry nose; tannic, rich, cherry
  • Muscat Canelli 2011: bright, flowery; rangy with pear and melon and prosciutto
  • Port 2006: cedar and eucalyptus nose; pecan palate with rich sweet fruit

And after that, and another stop in the town of Sonoma for dinner at The Girl & The Fig again, we drove, by many a commodious vicus of recirculation (note to self: don't rely on the little maps in tourist brochures), back through Berkeley and Oakland and over the bay through San Fran and to our hotel near the airport, where we stayed overnight and caught an early flight the next day and that was that. Well, we've left ourselves lots of Sonoma to see and taste next time. And some to come back to and taste again.




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