How can you tell if you’re at a Sonoma or Napa wine event? Check the ratio of Porches to pickups in the parking lot. OK, plenty of people in Sonoma County drive luxury automobiles _ and I have seen a few beaters parked at Napa wineries _ but in broad-brush terms, it’s true. Sonoma is to Napa like a chunky amber topaz necklace to a sparkly diamond pendant. Both gems, just one’s a little wilder, a little more unexpected. I was reminded of how much fun it is to explore Sonoma County when I spent a recent afternoon there doing interviews for some upcoming stories.
It was a beautiful day _ warm, sunny, and plenty of time to enjoy the scenery of green vineyards unrolling under a cerulean sky. Lots of vineyards. The county has nearly 63,000 acres planted to grapes _ chardonnay, pinot noir and cabernet sauvignon are the Big 3 _ and there are 260 wineries open to the public.
One of my stops was at the Mauritson Winery in the Dry Creek Valley. This winery has an interesting history that goes back to the 19th century. Great-great-great-grandfather S.P. Hallengren was a pioneer in Sonoma County’s Rockpile region and the family homestead and ranch grew to 4,000 acres. But in the early 1960s almost all of it was acquired by the government to create Lake Sonoma.
With most of their land under water, the family moved farming operations elsewhere, continuing their business of growing grapes for other wineries, something they still do. But in the mid-1990s, winemaker Clay Mauritson, then just out of college, suggested that the family go into the winemaking business as well. The inaugural release of Mauritson Dry Creek Valley zinfandel came in 1998. Meanwhile, attention turned to the family’s remaining property in Rockpile _ craggy, ridge line property once deemed good only for sheep-grazing. These days that kind of environment, sparse soils, steep slopes, sun and wind exposure, is considered a prime place for producing premium wine. Grapes that struggle to survive turn out more flavorful than those that live a plush life. (Query: Is this true for people, too? I’d like to think so, especially on Monday mornings.) Today, Mauritson makes several Rockpile wines, including zesty zins.
In 2004, the winemaking facility and tasting room opened. Nothing fancy here, just a comfortable tasting bar with good, reasonably priced wines. With the temps being on the toasty side, I tried the sauvignon blanc, which was fresh with bright acidity and an aromatic nose. (Wel,l since this is down-to-earth Sonoma County, let me rephrase that last part. It smelled good.)