Sonoma is locked down again, just in time for the holidays. That’s a mean one, Mr. Grinch, another diabolical way to keep families at home and in small numbers at what normally is the most celebratory time of the year. Wineries, bottle shops and restaurants are closed, except for online sales, curbside pickups and takeout. Bah humbug.
Yet there is a small yet satisfying silver lining to this holiday season: the availability of half-bottles of excellent Sonoma wines — holding 375 ml instead of the more standard 750 ml. Sparkling wine, sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and zinfandel, they’re all available in a size (often called a split) that suits the coronavirus times, meant for sharing or for two generous pours for those home alone.
“Half-bottles have always been a great way to introduce our wines to new customers,” said Robert Wetzel, family partner and national sales manager for Alexander Valley Vineyards in Healdsburg. “In any year other than 2020, they are the top sellers at restaurants and hotels across the country, and many restaurants use them as premium-by-the-glass pour, which guarantees the guest will always have a fresh glass.”
The role of the split has shifted to home enjoyment this year, Wetzel said, “and I can’t think of a better ‘adult’ stocking stuffer than a half bottle. Plus, they are priced right so you can put together a really nice Sonoma-based gift basket with a couple of half-bottles, some local cheese and charcuterie.”
Mari Jones, president of Emeritus Vineyards in Sebastopol, knows a thing or two about half-bottles. Her father, Brice Cutrer Jones, founded Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards in Windsor in 1973 and was a huge proponent of half-bottles, placing his 375-ml chardonnays in seemingly every hotel honor bar in California and beyond. He sold Sonoma-Cutrer to Brown-Forman Corp. in 1999 and started Emeritus, which Mari now directs.
“We love making half bottles because (they’re) a little more accessible and less intimidating than opening a full bottle,” she explained. “Whether you want to try multiple wines over the course of a dinner, are drinking solo or like to enjoy something different from your partner, half-bottles are the perfect size. It’s also a great way for people to try our wine without such a big commitment.”
Half-bottles of wine are meant to be consumed when they’re young, so buy the latest vintage possible. The amount of oxygen trapped between the wine and cork is the same in both half and full bottles, so there is more air exposure in a 375-ml bottle. This makes the wine mature more rapidly than the same wine in a 750-ml bottle. But this can also be an advantage: tannic red wines will soften more rapidly in the smaller vessel, with no cellaring required.
Here are 10 Sonoma-made half-bottles to provide full drinking pleasure for the holidays. Many wineries don’t bottle 375 mls, and some that do don’t promote their availability on their websites. So call ahead and order for pickup or delivery, or shop at grocery stores and wine shops allowed to remain open during the stay-home order. Large chain stores tend to have the broadest selection of both local and international wines.
Alexander Valley Vineyards 2018 Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, $15: Cabernet sauvignon is joined by splashes of merlot, malbec, cabernet franc and petit verdot in this fruit-forward wine that also has complex notes of cedar, vanilla and dark chocolate. Juicy dark fruit, supple tannins and a lingering finish make it a serious wine in a small package. The Wetzel family also bottles and sells chardonnay ($11), merlot ($14) and Sin Zin ($11) in 375-ml sizes; a sampler pack ($51) includes one bottle of each, all finished in screw caps for tool-free opening.
Bedrock Wine Co. 2019 Bedrock Vineyard Sonoma Valley Heritage Red, $25: Winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson and business partner Chris Cottrell look to their old-vine Bedrock Vineyard in Glen Ellen for this multi-variety blend. Zinfandel, mourvedre, syrah, tempranillo and other grapes appear in this wine, depending on vintage, and the result is a complex, spicy, peppery wine with solid tannins, graphite-like minerality and intense black and blue fruit. Beef and lamb roasts are good companions for this wine. The Sonoma plaza tasting room is temporarily closed, so call or email for wine purchase opportunities.
414 First St. East, Sonoma, 707-343-1478, firstname.lastname@example.org, bedrockwineco.com. Sonoma’s Best Modern Mercantile often stocks this wine in half-bottles: 1190 E. Napa St., Sonoma, 707-996-7600, sonomas-best.com
Dry Creek Vineyard 2019 Dry Creek Valley Sauvignon Blanc, $10: Consistently one of the best sauvignon blancs produced in Sonoma, it delivers layers of citrus, lemongrass, white peach and tropical fruit flavors and gains complexity from the addition of sauvignon gris and sauvignon musque grapes. Winemaker Tim Bell ages the blend in oak, acacia and chestnut barrels, and this combination contributes mouthfeel and depth to a varietal that can be simple, lean and assertive. For those eating fresh crab for the holidays, here’s your wine.
3770 Lambert Bridge Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-1000, drycreekvineyard.com. Also available at Oliver’s Markets in Cotati, Santa Rosa and Windsor, oliversmarket.com and Big John’s Market, 1345 Healdsburg Ave., Healdsburg, 707-433-7151, bigjohnsmarket.com
Emeritus Vineyards 2017 Hallberg Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, $25: From the winery’s estate vineyard comes this luscious pinot noir with vibrant black cherry and dark raspberry fruit, savory spice and supple tannins. It’s both energetic and silky-smooth, with fine depth and a long-lasting finish. It’s textbook Russian River Valley pinot noir in the hands of winemaker Dave Lattin.
Gloria Ferrer Caves & Vineyards NV Carneros Blanc de Noirs, $11: Traditionally made sparkling wines such as this, in which still wine undergoes a secondary fermentation in the bottle to create the bubbles, mature remarkably fast in 375-ml glass bottles. For this reason, most California producers don’t make them, yet Sonoma Valley’s Gloria Ferrer does, and thankfully so. A pretty pink in color and brimming with refreshing strawberry, raspberry and citrus fruit, it has a slightly creamy mid-palate and brisk acidity. It’s a perfect holiday-time aperitif and New Year’s Eve corker for in-your-bubble celebrating.
J Vineyards & Winery 2018 California Pinot Noir, $10: J winemaker Nicole Hitchcock may focus most of her efforts on Russian River Valley-grown still and sparkling wines, yet her three-appellation blend from Sonoma, Monterey and Santa Barbara counties offers a solid bang for the buck and is widely distributed in half-bottles. Blackberry, black cherry and cola aromas and flavors from Sonoma, red fruit and black tea from Santa Barbara and forest floor and subtle leafy herbs from Monterey meld in this smooth-drinking wine, which has a whiff of holiday baking spice upon opening and pouring.
11447 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, 707-431-5430, jwine.com. Among the local stores that carry this wine are Bottle Barn and Pacific Market in Santa Rosa, Lucky, Safeway, Whole Foods, Wilibees Wine & Spirits and Petaluma Market.
La Crema 2018 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, $12: This wine has a little bit of everything most chardonnay fans love: juicy tropical, peach and citrus fruit; palate-cleansing acidity and subtle notes of oak and baking spice. Head winemaker Craig McAllister, a native of New Zealand, sources grapes from throughout the Sonoma Coast AVA and is able to bottle this wine with a consistency of style, no matter the vintage. If you find another vintage of the La Crema Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, expect a very similar wine (though the older the vintage, the more evolved the wine will be).
3575 Slusser Road, Windsor, 800-314-1762, lacrema.com. Also available at Oliver’s Markets in Cotati, Santa Rosa and Windsor and many other chain supermarkets.
Ramey Wine Cellars 2018 Russian River Valley Chardonnay, $23: In the past, chardonnay master David Ramey has bottled this flagship wine in half-bottles for key accounts such as hotels and restaurants. COVID-19 restrictions have increased demand at the winery for this smaller-size bottling, and Ramey has obliged, making “splits” of this generously fruited, focused, oaked-spiced, mouthwatering wine available to more consumers. It’s not listed on the winery website, though an email sent to the winery will give buyers the opportunity to purchase this chardonnay. Ramey has an equally strong (and international) reputation for Bordeaux-style red wines; his 2018 North Coast Claret ($23), based on cabernet sauvignon, hails from Sonoma, Napa and Lake counties and also is sold in half-bottles at the winery.
Seghesio Family Vineyards 2018 Sonoma County Zinfandel, $16: Of Seghesio’s many fine zinfandels, this one is the easiest to find in markets, particularly in the 375-ml format. Rich in juicy blackberry and blueberry flavors, it’s accented by notes of espresso, licorice and pepper. Winemaker Andy Robinson has been with Seghesio since 2003, recently taking over in the cellar for longtime winemaker Ted Seghesio. Seghesio’s Old Vine and Home Ranch Zinfandels are treasured by zin fanatics, yet this county blend over-delivers on price.
Sonoma-Cutrer Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, $11.50: This refined, racy wine is widely available in supermarkets and hotel minibars, with an easy-to-remove screw cap to suit all occasions. Winemaker Mick Schroeter has maintained the chardonnay style established by winery founder Brice Cutrer Jones, with a precise balance of citrus and green apple character, background oak spice and energetic personality that complements a wide range of foods. Fruit- and butter-bomb lovers should look elsewhere for chardonnay. Sonoma-Cutrer’s Russian River Ranches Chardonnay also comes in half-bottles ($14) and is a step up in complexity, with a bit more oak influence.
4401 Slusser Road, Windsor, 707-237-3489, sonomacutrer.com. Also available in most chain grocery stores.