Many of Sonoma County’s least-known but still very fine wines begin as pipe dreams.
Winemakers working for someone else frequently yearn to have their own label one day, and many follow through.
Urbanites ditch their day jobs and regular paychecks to move to Sonoma County, answering the siren call to live the vineyard lifestyle and exchanging business suits and manicures for fleece vests, muck boots and perpetually stained hands. The garage often serves as their first cellar.
There are farmers, almost as proud of their grapevines as they are of their kids, who are eager to taste the fruits of their labors from bottles bearing the family name.
And there are multigenerational local ranching families that diversify with wine growing to sustain their businesses now and for the future, sometimes in unexpected ways. Blueberry wine, anyone?
Here are five wine producers that demonstrate the measures some take to follow their vinous dreams. Their brands are relatively new and often too small to have their own tasting rooms, yet they are well worth discovering. While wine critics’ scores, powerful social media campaigns and high-end tasting experiences drive consumers to wineries, word-of-mouth (and in print) remains an authentic introduction to under-the-radar brands.
Charlie Gilmore is one of those winemakers who had a burning desire for his own wine brand and for its focus to be sauvignon blanc. He worked 12 years at Fetzer Vineyards in Mendocino County and, before that, at wineries in France and Australia. He struck out on his own in 2018, producing two vintages of Dry Creek Valley sauvignon blanc at Matorana Family Winery, then moving his production to nearby Kokomo Winery for the Cormorant 2020 vintage.
Cormorant does not have a public tasting venue, but you can buy the wines online and at retailers and restaurants, which are listed on the company website. Sauvignon blanc devotees also can arrange private tastings with Gilmore, although his limited production, for now, means his wines can sell out quickly.
What is so special about Cormorant sauvignon blanc ($24)? It’s how it’s made, with very little oak contact, careful sur lie (on the spent yeast cells) aging and no fining or filtration. The wine can be a bit cloudy and show tiny bits of sediment in the bottle, which means minimal handling. The result is a pure, vibrant, low-alcohol (12.7%) white wine with zesty grapefruit, lime cordial, Meyer lemon and tropical fruit aromas and flavors and beautiful texture. From the 2020 and 2021 harvests, Gilmore expanded production to include grenache blanc, marsanne, chardonnay and zinfandel. These wines will debut in 2022 or later.
Lise Asimont and Shawn Phillips recently opened a tasting room at Bacchus Landing, a new, multibrand tasting space, hospitality center and gourmet market in Healdsburg. She’s a longtime viticulturist (20 years) and Santa Rosa Junior College adjunct professor; he is a professional gardener and landscaper (30 years). They use regenerative and sustainable agriculture methods to produce wines with a heavy emphasis on Russian River Valley pinot noir. (Regenerative farming means minimal intervention and includes composting, maintaining pollinator habitats and using other environmentally friendly practices for soil health and lower carbon emissions.)
Asimont, a full-time viticulture consultant, previously worked for large wine companies, including Cakebread Cellars, The Family Coppola and Beam Wine Estates. A dare from Phillips to produce a pinot noir she truly loved prompted the couple to found their own wine label; Asimont’s familiarity with farmers and their vines gives her an inside track to procuring great grapes. They make three pinot noirs, an unoaked chardonnay and a dry rosé, with other bottlings possible in the future. Tastings at Bacchus Landing are $30 for four wines. Like other Bacchus Landing tasting rooms, food pairings can be arranged in conjunction with the onsite gourmet market.
As for the name, Dot Wine, the couple said that, “In art, the dot is the purest unit of both form and function. Dot Wine is the direct translation of vineyard to bottle.”
14210 Bacchus Landing Way (at Westside Road), Suite 201, Healdsburg, 707-385-9855, dotwinery.com
East Coast native John Musto is among the winemakers who gave up non-agriculture careers to dive into winemaking. He worked in finance for a time, studied at the Culinary Institute of America in New York and acquired a taste for wine when his parents opened bottles of old-vine zinfandel.
After living in Italy for two years, Musto moved to Sonoma in 2013, intent on making wine. While taking enology and viticulture classes at Santa Rosa Junior College, he met Tom Young, a graphic design and print professional with a home vineyard. They hit it off, began making wine in Young’s garage and eventually upgraded to the garage of a vineyard owner and restorer of vintage race cars, Peter Lewis. Thus, the Drive label.
Musto and Young went pro in 2017, starting with zinfandel from Puccioni Ranch in Dry Creek Valley, and they have slowly added more wines to their arsenal. Their business is small and personal, the wines of excellent quality and smartly priced. It’s a labor of love, not hefty profit.
Current releases include a 2019 Sonoma Coast Syrah from Canihan Vineyard, a 2018 Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel from Puccioni Ranch (from vines planted in 1904) and a 2020 Quan Vineyard Carneros Rosé of Pinot Noir. In the pipeline are small lots of 2021 cabernet sauvignon from Alexander Valley and 2021 pinot noir from Carneros.
Complimentary tastings — yes, free — are offered by Drive and other small producers at Locals Tasting Room in Geyserville; Musto and Young are often behind the bar.
Pinot noirs, chardonnays and syrahs from cool-climate vineyards in the Sonoma Coast and Petaluma Gap growing regions of Sonoma County are Kevin Bersofsky’s forte. He began making his own wine in his Napa garage in 2006, after working in the business end of winemaking, holding COO and CFO positions at Merryvale Family of Wines and Trinchero Family Estates, as well as at The Republic of Tea.
Bersofsky went “legit” in 2015 and summer 2021 saw him open his first public tasting room for his own wine label, Montagne Russe, at Healdsburg’s Bacchus Landing. The brand name, French for “Russian mountain,” alludes to the 18th century European predecessor to the roller coaster (Bersofsky designed a roller coaster as his university engineering project), and perhaps also to the up-and-down nature of the wine industry.
Wine buffs will recognize the names of many of the vineyards Bersofsky sources for grapes, among them Roberts Road, La Cruz (Keller Estate) and Terra de Promissio, all in the wind-whipped Petaluma Gap AVA. A new wine is Tous Les Deux, an unusual white blend of pinot gris and pinot noir, the juice of the latter spending no time in the skins after pressing and thus not picking up the dark-red pigment and tannins of traditionally made pinot noir.
The Classic tier tasting at Bacchus Landing is $25; Reserve tier $35. Additionally, Bersofsky hosts visitors at his wine-aging cave in Petaluma ($50), with six or more wines poured during the 90-minute experience. Cave tastings must be arranged in advance; the location will be shared at that time.
4210 Bacchus Landing Way, Suite 101, Healdsburg, 855-467-8773, russewines.com
Serres Ranch Wine
Here is where blueberries enter the enological picture, as a creative and casual extension of the Serres family’s agricultural history in Sonoma Valley. Six generations of Serres have raised cattle, blueberries and wine grapes on their property north of Boyes Hot Springs, with Gen V leading the winemaking charge.
The Serres wine brand launched in 2017, made from mostly Bordeaux red grape varieties planted in the mid-1980s. Tim Milos is the winemaker (some will recognize him from Hidden Ridge in the Fountaingrove AVA, now known as Immortal Estate), and the current releases — all exceptional — are a merlot and two blends of merlot, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, petit verdot and cabernet franc ($65). Bleusé, a sparkling blend of blueberry fruit and aleatico wine, is refreshing, low in alcohol and remarkably good ($23 for a four-pack of cans).
Schedule a private tour and tasting at the ranch ($40), usually led by fifth-generation Taylor Serres and with hellos from her father, John Serres Sr., and Taylor’s brothers, John Jr. and Buck. Tastings are accompanied by a charcuterie board with local artisan cheeses, meats and nibbles.
16060 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma, 707-996-6776, serresranchwine.com