|Sonoma City Hall ©2020 HMCDPHOTO
|We begin our weekend getaway dining al fresco next to Sonoma's iconic park.
From benches shaded by yew and sycamore trees, citizens of the town of Sonoma can be seen tossing bread to ducks skimming a pond. It is not uncommon to hear the squeak and pop of a cork as someone opens a bottle of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir or Sauvignon Blanc, the bounty of the surrounding 17-acre-long Sonoma Valley.
A clink of glasses registers a picnic toast and in the distance sound the bells of an early 19th-century mission church. This is the way of life in Sonoma, especially at its heart, an eight-acre public park that was laid out in 1835-the largest Mexican-style plaza in California.
The peacefulness of the locale, however, belies a turbulent history, for it was here on June 14, 1846 that the so-called Bear Flag Revolt took place (commemorated by a bronze statue of a soldier that occupies the northeast corner of the plaza). Some might choose to call the Revolt an example of Manifest Destiny or simple American ambition, while others might regard the event as a revolution, or invasion, or act of outright aggression. Semantics and politics aside, what happened is that on the eve of the Mexican-American War, a rag-tag group of American settlers descended on the northern California city and claimed it as American territory. It was a bloodless coup, but it involved the kidnaping of General Mariano Vallejo, an enlightened Mexican statesman who had been assigned to oversee the mission and who, coincidentally, was responsible for the design of the plaza. Vallejo was later released once American naval forces had captured Monterey, the then capital of Mexican-controlled California.
|Statue photo source: Wikipedia
|Soon thereafter, Sonoma, assumed its role as an American town and became the locus for a winemaking region that existed nowhere else in the nation. In deference to Vallejo's former role, he was made the mayor of Sonoma in 1856, and it was he who sold 400 acres of his land to a Hungarian who established the area's first vineyards.
|Although Sonom's animated streets-filled with chic shops and cafés, restaurants and wine bars–beckon, the real history and identity of the town is best experienced by a walk around the perimeter of the plaza, most of which is part of the Sonoma State Historic Park. At its center is the City Hall (1908), a handsome, fortress-like edifice made of local basalt stone.
|Ever since its founding in the early 19th century when it was still part of Mexico, Sonoma has been a town defined by its creativity, and it is a legacy that continues.
|Starting from top left: Apart from wine, one of Sonoma's culinary treasures is its Sonoma Jack Cheese, first introduced in town in 1931; several shops in town sell handblown glass creations, including a multi-colored centerpiece; interspersed in the center of town are small-scale shopping/dining arcades; in an artisan's shop off the plaza, a hand painted plate depicts Sonoma County's favorite product; the sea receded from the Valley eons ago, but a fossilized fish imprint, for sale in a Sonoma store, attests to the region's prehistoric topography; the main dining room of the St. Francis Winery is often the setting for private functions; visitors in town try on hats at a sidewalk sale; locals gather at a Pub for their weekly football pool.
|Much of the spirit of the town of Sonoma is defined by the thousands of acres of vineyards that lay beyond its attractive streets. But winemakers and growers, grape pickers and oenophiles, locales and tourists gravitate to the town for its many restaurants and entertainment and cultural venues. Although it is a quiet place, restrained, even elegant, this remains the capital of the American wine industry.
|It's America's version of Bordeaux-Sonoma County, where more than 30,000 acres of vineyards grow with grapes that have changed the way we eat and drink.
|Just a short drive north of the town of Sonoma is home to some of my favorite wineries. On this trip, we decided to take a trip to the Kenwood and Jack London estates.
|Mike Lee, chief winemaker at Kenwood Vineyards Winery for decades, considered himself to be in the right spot in life. Lee, who just finished his harvest season for the winery, looked over the 22 acres of Sonoma County land that is dense with grapes. "What this place is all about is location, location, location." That may be an old expression, but it has fresh meaning here.
"Where we are, right here, is where we can grow premium grapes. The quality of any wine goes back directly to its vineyards." Lee has probably touched and tasted the fruit of every vine on the property. "Everything we need is here on this spot," he says, "the right climactic conditions, the right soil and growing conditions, the right flavors" Writers note: Mike Lee passed away in May of 2011.
|Locals enjoying an afternoon of wine and music
|Kenwood, which was officially established in 1970, is not the first winery to recognize the magical qualities of this land. Gary Heck purchased the former Pagani Brothers Winery, which had been established in 1906. Although Heck and his partners updated the facilities and introduced the most technologically advanced winemaking techniques, the bounty of the land is determined as much by its intrinsic characteristics as it is by man's efforts. It is from these acres, as well as 200 more in the region that are farmed by Kenwood, that the winery produces its classic varietal wines-Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Gewürztraminer, and Merlot. Kenwood buys grapes from up to seventy different growers throughout Sonoma County, and what that has meant is a distinctive house style that is Kenwood's alone.
|The resulting reds are infused with vibrant berry-like flavors, typical of Sonoma County wines, while remaining soft and not "over-the-top tanic wines," this makes them blend better with foods. The whites, meanwhile, are crisp and fruity, not over-oaked. "I think our fruit is impeccable," says Mark Stupich, Kenwood's cellarmaster since 1987 (now retired), "We derive it from the best sources possible and that is immediately obvious in the wine itself."
In 1971 Gary Heck, Marty Lee (Mike's brother), and he met Milo Shepard, the grandnephew of the famous author who was best known for his adventure dramas that included The Call of the Wild. Milo had been born and raised on Jack London's Beauty Ranch, a thousand-plus prime acres. Milo had wanted to re-establish the vineyards that had once grown there and he approached Kenwood with the idea. Kenwood buys his grapes exclusively and promote the brand with Jack London's wolfplate book logo that he used during his lifetime.
Although some 800 acres of the former Beauty Ranch belong to the California State Parks System and are open to the public for hiking, biking, and horseback riding, the Jack London Estate Winery cultivates another 130 acres. Also on the land are London's main residence, the remains of his beloved Wolf House, which burned down before he and his wife could occupy it, and the author's grave-a kind of literary pilgrimage site for devotees. In the parlance of his craft, Lee's winemaker notes describe the Cabernet Sauvignon as "complex and full-bodied," with blackberry, chocolate, and "earth flavors" that combine in an "elegant finish."
The grapes like it there, referring to the land that was once Jack London's expansive ranch and that now yields some 25,000 cases of wine annually. "There" is an undulating land of red-lava-terraced vineyards, gentle Sonoma Mountain looming above. Beginning in 1975, when the first crop of grapes was harvested, the Jack London Estate Winery has been producing some of the world's most sought-after Cabernet Sauvignons, Merlots, Zinfandels, and Pinot Noirs. Since 1976, Kenwood has been granted the exclusive rights to produce wines from Jack London's land in Glen Ellen.
The deep-red Merlot grapes grow on the eastern side of Sonoma Mountain, where the early sun and afternoon breezes work to temper the heat. The vines are stripped of their leaves so that the clusters of grapes are exposed to constant sun. This speeded-up ripening results in flavors with greater depth.
|Adjacent to the Merlot grapes, on the southeastern slope of Sonoma Mountain, grow the Zinfandel grapes-where they were first planted in 1988. Lee characterizes their flavor as a combination of wild berry and black cherry. Pinot Noir grapes, which Kenwood has been growing since 1980, are among the first to be harvested, usually in early September. After a relatively short aging process, typically 11 months, the inherent "polished plum and black cherry flavor notes," as Lee describes them, complement the herbal, earthy undertones.
With wine, descriptions of characteristics must be precise and evocative-no less for the narratives created by a writer like London.