Discovering Sonoma: The California Wine You Must Try

View Through the Window to Vineyards of Napa Valley Wine Country

By Jim Peterson
Wine Enthusiast & Instagram Wine Influencer

Several years ago, I attended a wine tasting with Robert Mark Kamen, owner of Kamen Estate Wines, and he led us through several vintages of his Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon.
You may not recognize his name, but he wrote the screenplay for the blockbuster movie “The Karate Kid.” His story was fascinating because he purchased his 280-acre property with no intention of making wine. He initially grew Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, but simply sold off the harvest to various wineries. After a devastating fire in 1996, he replanted and refocused by deciding to make his own wine.

The Kamen Sonoma County Cabernets were fantastic.
In fact, I still have two unopened bottles of his 2007, separately autographed with iconic lines from The Karate Kid: “Wax on, Wax off” and “Sweep the leg.” They are two of my most-prized bottles because I love the movie…. and the wine.

So why Sonoma?
Sonoma County lies north of San Francisco, has more than 425 wineries, and there are a variety of microclimates sprawled about the redwood forests, mountains, river valleys, and the Pacific coastline. You can find 19 designated American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) in Sonoma County with over 60,000 acres of vineyards and about 60 different grape varieties planted. With all the different wineries, grapes, and winemaking styles there is bound to be something good for everyone here.

Chardonnay – The most popular white grape in the world is also the most-planted grape in Sonoma. I’m a big fan of Chardonnay from the famous Hyde Vineyard in the Carneros district. Several wineries produce Hyde Vineyard Chardonnay, usually in small quantities, so it’s worth trying if you see a bottle with the “Hyde” moniker.
Pinot Noir – There are so many delicious Pinot Noir wines made in Sonoma. I tend to gravitate towards those from the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast areas, but those just scratch the surface. There are a lot of great producers for Pinot Noir lovers in Sonoma.
Cabernet Sauvignon – There is a large amount of Cabernet grown in Sonoma, and that makes it easy to find both excellence and value in one package. There is often a finesse to the finer Sonoma Cabernets that I find is missing from its big-name Napa Valley counterparts.
Zinfandel – If you are a fan of red Zinfandel, then you really ought to be searching out the Zinfandels from Sonoma. Some of the more well-known producers are Ridge, Seghesio, and Martinelli, but Sonoma County is generally considered to be THE place to find top tier Zinfandel wines from California.

PRO TIP: You can often save money and get better access by signing up for your favorite winery’s mailing list. The more popular producers have planned releases, often with specific allocations due to the limited quantity available. I am less inclined to join a “wine club” where they send me wine they pick, or where they specify a minimum purchase. I prefer to control which bottles I purchase, and it does not bother me if I am limited on certain wines. I just keep in mind that there are always other great wines out there to be found.

DuMOL – I have been a DuMOL member for several years. The winemaker, Andy Smith, crafts great Pinot Noir wines, with the “Finn” being my longtime favorite. His Chardonnays are bright, citrusy, and can easily age. I love this winery, but you really must be on the list to get the good stuff (it’s free to sign up.) If you see the DuMOL “Wester Reach” bottles just know that is solely for retail and restaurant. They also make a few different Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignons.
Kistler – The Kistler Chardonnays are simply outstanding. This is seriously good wine and always a safe bet if you see it on the shelf.
Flowers Vineyards & Winery – To me, these are classic examples of Sonoma Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that can often be found in Texas retail locations. These are so enjoyable.
I remember opening a Flowers Pinot Noir at my nephew’s wedding (yes, I brought my own wine,) and the small crowd gathered for my little wine tasting loved it.
Marcassin – A small winery with a rockstar wine maker, Helen Turley. This recommendation is for those of you who like to seek “unicorn” wines and don’t mind paying the price.
Kamen Estate Wines – These are towards the top end of Sonoma Cabernets price wise and they are worth it.

Fun Fact: The winemaker is Mark Herold, who has his own winery in Napa Valley where you can find some of the more powerful Napa Cabernets.
Ridge Vineyards – Ridge wines are somewhat iconic in the wine world. They have a wide selection of different wines that range from their single vineyard Zinfandels to a unique red wine made with a blend of Carignane, Zinfandel, and Mataro. Then there are the separate wineries of Ridge Montebello (in the Santa Cruz Mountains) and Ridge Lytton Springs (in Dry Creek Valley.)
This is just a fun winery that can certainly help you expand your palate.
Williams Selyem – I was introduced to Williams Selyem many years ago by a good wine friend. After years of collecting their Pinot Noir, he swears by a 7-year rule. He will hold their wines until the vintage is 7-years past, and only then will he open them. They have a strong lineup of single vineyard Pinot Noirs and elegant Chardonnays. Keep in mind these wines are much cheaper if you are on their mailing list as opposed to buying them retail.

I could go on and on with this list, and I’m sure many of my California wine friends will remind me of certain wineries I should have listed. I encourage my readers to try the wines of Sonoma County. Whether you are a more traditional wine drinker of classic varietal wines like Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel, or you don’t mind stepping out into the world of varietal “geek” wines from the more obscure grapes, all of that can be found in Sonoma County. Happy hunting!
Follow Jim on Instagram, @tx_wine_pilot, for more wine tips and reviews.

Jim Peterson is a retired U.S. Air Force officer who mainly flew the A-10 fighter jet. He has ties to the wine business going back over 20 years and is an avid wine collector. His extensive wine knowledge includes travel to many wine regions, tasting many of the world’s top wines, and ongoing personal wine exploration and self-study. He has cultivated a large following on his Instagram account, @tx_wine_pilot, tasting and reporting on wines from vintage to value. He now works in marketing and resides in San Antonio, Texas.