It happens in February and March — a Technicolor burst of blossoms, with bright yellow mustard and daffodils complimented by vibrant green carpets between vineyard rows and along Sonoma County roadsides. An especially early “bud break” this year — when vines sprout buds that will eventually become grapes — has added an additional stroke of color as vineyards awaken from winter dormancy.
Although much of this art gallery occurs naturally, savvy farmers also add their own plants, called cover crops, to their vineyards as a means of growing healthier vines. Clovers, grasses, bell beans, peas, oats, wild carrot, barley and triticale help improve soil structure and water-holding capacity, increase organic matter and plant nutrients, protect soils from erosion and provide habitats for the beneficial bugs that devour the bad ones.
These crops, and the more iconic, calendar-worthy mustard, are typically tilled or mowed in early to late spring, which means now is the time to see the seasonal splendor.
“I do love to see the vibrant yellow fields of mustard,” said Anne Moller-Racke, proprietor/viticulturist for Blue Farm Wines in Sonoma’s Carneros region. But, she said, mustard, bell beans and vetch grow too high for her Anne Katherina Vineyard. “My site gets cold, so I like to plant something of smaller stature, so that I have better air flow, which helps with frost control. The cover crop I plant in the fall is called vineyard mix, clovers and grasses.”
You don’t have to be a wine lover to appreciate the stunning spring show, but it’s good to know there are winery tasting rooms along some of the most gawk-worthy drives. These three routes offer eye-catching spring colors and plenty of refreshment stations — tasting rooms — to make a tour even more enjoyable.
Dry Creek Valley loop
Dry Creek Valley, the land of old-vine zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, Rhone-style reds and grassy sauvignon blancs, has more than 9,000 acres of vineyards. One particular driving route covers all the bases: spring flowers, a leisurely pace and unpretentious wineries.
From Highway 101 in northern Healdsburg, exit west onto Dry Creek Road. Take Dry Creek Road northwest to Yoakim Bridge Road, turn left there and then head south on West Dry Creek Road. The loop ends at Westside Road, a couple of miles west of the Healdsburg city limits and with easy access back to Highway 101.
The drive is a gold mine of mustard glory, with patches of sweet alyssum, buttercups and poppies adding contrast. The former Timber Crest Farms (4791 Dry Creek Road) is a great first stop, where Amphora, Kokomo, Papapietro Perry and Peterson wineries have their tasting rooms and winemaking facilities. Also on the site is The Pour House, a tasting room featuring the wines of Goldschmidt Vineyards and Optima Winery.
At Dry Creek Peach & Produce (2179 Yoakim Bridge), the farmstand is closed until summer, yet the orchard-fruit blossoms and mustard on the property are photo-worthy. From there, turn south onto West Dry Creek Road to Martorana Family Winery (5956 West Dry Creek Road). The certified organically farmed vineyards surround the driveway that leads to the tasting area (for now) outside the cave. Martorana’s wines — among them chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite sirah and zinfandel — come from the estate vineyards, farmed without the use of pesticides or chemicals.
Quivira Vineyards (4900 West Dry Creek Road), a few miles south of Martorana on West Dry Creek Road, is of similar farming mind, taking things a step deeper with biodynamic viticultural practices. Winemaker Hugh Chappelle is a master of sauvignon blanc, zinfandel and Rhone-style wines, and the estate vibrates with life: organic vegetable gardens, chickens, a 140-year-old fig tree for preserves and olive trees for the production of oil.
Amphora Wines, 707-431-7767, amphorawines.com
Kokomo Winery, 707-433-0200, kokomowines.com
Martorana Family Winery, 707-433-1909, martoranafamilywinery.com
Papapietro Perry Winery, 707-433-0422, papapietro-perry.com
Peterson Winery, 707-431-7568, petersonwinery.com
Quivira Vineyards, 707-431-8333, quivirawine.com
The Pour House, 707-433-0100, thepourhouse707.com
Olivet Road, Russian River Valley
For a promenade of pinot noir producers, drive no farther than Olivet Road in western Santa Rosa. A dozen wineries are strewn along the road, between Guerneville and River roads. While pinot noir and chardonnay are the primary grape varieties grown, cabernet, syrah and zinfandel also shine, the last of which is made from some of the oldest vines in the county. The contrast of canary-yellow mustard and the dark, knotty vine trunks and limbs is striking. Many of the wineries belong to the Olivet District association, and its website (olivetroad.com) profiles the region, commonly referred to as the Santa Rosa Plains.
DeLoach Vineyards: DeLoach produces a dizzying array of wines, from large-volume, attractively priced regional blends of chardonnay and pinot noir to small-lot single-vineyard bottles and even tinier vineyard-block selections. The zinfandels can be exceptional, and don’t miss the sparkling wines made in the Champagne style, with a second fermentation occurring in the bottle. The 20-acre DeLoach estate is farmed using organic and biodynamic practices, including site-specific cover crops, to keep the soils and vines healthy and thriving. Founders Cecil and Christine DeLoach sold the property to Frenchman Jean-Charles Boisset in 2003. Since then, the Burgundy native has combined estate-grown grapes and those purchased from other farmers to create a line of wines that offers something for everyone.
1791 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa, 707-755-3300, deloachvineyards.com
Hook & Ladder Vineyard & Winery: The DeLoaches San Francisco firefighter Cecil De Loach and his wife, Christine, purchased the Barbieri Ranch and its vineyards in the Olivet District in 1970. After selling their DeLoach Vineyards to Jean-Charles Boisset in 2003, they moved their winery operations to the Barbieri site (planted in 1905) and named it Hook & Ladder. Their grandson, Jason DeLoach, is the winemaker. A benefit to visiting Hook & Ladder is that Jason produces merlot, cabernet sauvignon and red blends from the family’s Chalk Hill vineyard, Los Amigos. In the tasting room, they join pinot noir, old-vine zinfandel and chardonnay as options to try and buy. The firefighting theme (Cecil DeLoach was a San Francisco firefighter) is particularly poignant, honoring those who have battled wildfires in recent years.
2134 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa, 707-526-2255, hookandladderwinery.com
Pellegrini-Olivet Lane: Alexia Pellegrini is the fourth generation of her family to manage this vineyard and winery. Its Olivet Lane Chardonnay has been, for years, one of the finest from Sonoma, and the grapes also are sold to such producers as Gary Farrell Winery & Vineyards and Ramey Wine Cellars. Pellegrini produces pinot noirs from some of the oldest existing pinot vines in Russian River Valley. In 1973, Alexia’s family purchased a 70-acre apple and plum orchard on Olivet Road and converted it to vineyards in 1975. Her father, Bob Pellegrini, was the winemaker and face of the brand — named for the olive trees that lined the lane to the winery — until turning over operations to Alexia in 2017. Also produced are a rosé of pinot noir and vineyard-designated pinots from the Hallberg and Toboni vineyards.
4055 W. Olivet Road, Santa Rosa, 707-545-8680, pellegrinisonoma.com
Kenwood-Glen Ellen corridor
Kunde Family Winery, Ledson Winery & Vineyards and BR Cohn wineries are known for the fields of mustard that bloom around their wineries and throughout their vineyards. A drive through the Kenwood-Glen Ellen corridor of Highway 12 allows for March flashes of vast mustard fields and colorful cover crops near other wineries and in pastures, fallow plots and along the roadside.
Tastings at Kunde, Ledson and BR Cohn offer deep menus of wines to try, including sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, barbera, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, Rhone varietals and zinfandel, with an occasional splash of pinot noir. Here are three other wineries to consider visiting; be sure to take a Sunday-drive attitude on Highway 12, which can be a slow go. Take in the view, and the vino, too.
Chateau St. Jean: The marvelous Margo Van Staaveren has made wine at Chateau St. Jean since 1980, working her way from laboratory technician to winemaker and general manager. Vineyard-designated and Reserve wines have long been Chateau St. Jean’s raison d’être, yet the range is broad and includes regional and appellational blends. Cinq Cepage is Van Staaveren’s flagship, produced from the five classic Bordeaux red grapes (cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, malbec and petit verdot). Chardonnay, sauvignon blanc and pinot noir are also staples. The large lawn in front of the chateau makes for easy physical distancing for visitors, and there are options for cheese and charcuterie plates.
8555 Sonoma Hwy, Kenwood, 707-257-5784, chateaust.jean.com
Imagery Estate Winery: Winery founder Joe Benziger turned over winemaking to his daughter, Jamie Benziger, in 2017, and she’s charged with continuing to produce arguably the most interesting lineup of wines in Sonoma. Little-known varieties such as lagrein, teroldego and aleatico are bottling alongside tempranillos, malbecs and tannats. There is a muscat canelli and the rare (for Sonoma) riesling, as well as the more traditional wines such as sauvignon blanc, chardonnay, zinfandel, petite sirah and red blends. All the bottles are dressed with eye-catching labels commissioned by artists. When indoor tastings are allowed to return, visitors will see many of the paintings and drawings that have become Imagery labels. Come for the mustard, stay for the excellent wines and sense of adventure.
14335 Sonoma Hwy, Glen Ellen, 877-550-4278, imagerywinery.com
Mayo Family Winery Reserve Room: President Jeff Mayo and his team produce and pour some 20 different single-vineyard wines from Sonoma Valley grapes. There are two tasting rooms, one in Glen Ellen and the Reserve Room in Kenwood. The focus of the latter is in pairing Mayo wines to specific foods, typically seven courses of small bites. A visit here eliminates the need for lunch, and there are myriad wine styles served. Don’t miss the brut sparkling wines and the boldly flavored red Reserve bottlings.
9200 Sonoma Hwy, Kenwood, 707-833-5504, mayofamilywinery.com
BR Cohn Winery, 15000 Sonoma Hwy, Glen Ellen, 707-938-4064, brcohn.com
Kunde Family Winery, 9828 Sonoma Hwy, Kenwood, 707-833-5505, kunde.com
Ledson Winery & Vineyards, 7335 Hwy 12, Kenwood, 707-537-3810, ledson.com