Don’t get Sondra Bernstein started on the joys of drinking wines made from the grenache grape.
“I could go on and on about grenache, as it’s my favorite of the Rhone varietals,” the Sonoma restaurateur and caterer said. “I love its versatility with food and the very different expressions that winemakers can create using the same variety.”
Two decades ago, Bernstein opened her first Sonoma County restaurant, the girl & the fig, in Glen Ellen and later moved it to the square in Sonoma and installed the fig café at the Glen Ellen space. At both restaurants, her wine lists focus on wines made from grapes native to France’s Rhone Valley: grenache, syrah, mourvedre, cinsault, viognier, marsanne and roussanne among them.
Now many of Bernstein’s vino offerings are locally made grenache, an emerging darling of Sonoma red wines that’s winning fans for its unabashed, zinfandel-like fruitiness, the spice of syrah and shiraz and the polish of Pinot Noir. It’s the key ingredient in what’s known throughout the world as GSMs — blends of grenache, syrah and mourvedre — the grape of choice for many dry rosés and cousin to the white grape grenache blanc.
But it’s grenache noir (grenache black) that’s capturing the palates of those seeking something new in a California red wine.
“Twenty years ago, wines made from grenache were far and few between here,” Bernstein said. “Maybe we had three or four when (the girl & the fig) opened in 1997, though none were from Sonoma. Now we feature over a dozen wines made from grenache and have many hundreds to choose from.”
The aroma and flavor descriptors for grenache run a wide gamut, from lavender, Bing cherry and plum to black pepper, licorice and Asian spice.
Some grenaches are opulent and jammy, others laser-focused, with fresh fruitiness and palate-whisking acidity, and still others earthy and brooding.
Grenache is widely planted throughout the world, including in the Central Valley, where massive yields of low-quality grapes go into jug and bag-in-box wines. It’s a niche variety in Sonoma County, with just 209 acres planted (vs. 12,478 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon). The variety loves a warm, Mediterranean climate, so climate change could encourage more plantings of grenache in future years.
There are a number of Sonoma tasting rooms that offer grenache, in its black, white and rosé forms. Some key producers don’t have tasting rooms, yet their wines can be found on restaurant lists and in wine bars. (Two to check out: Peter Mathis Wine and The Grenachista Wine Co.)
These five wineries welcome visitors to taste grenache and several other varieties. Check their websites for hours of operation and whether appointments are required.
Although Benovia partner and winemaker Mike Sullivan is largely known for his excellent Russian River Valley chardonnays and pinot noirs, he has a soft spot for grenache.
That’s because the grape is planted in his family’s Four Brothers Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain, where volcanic soils and aromatic wild herbs lend savory notes to the Benovia 2016 Sonoma Mountain Grenache ($42).
It shows the polished side of the varietal, layered and complex, with herb and saddle leather notes accenting the bright dark-red fruit. The supple tannins are supported by crisp acidity.
3339 Hartman Lane, Santa Rosa, 707-921-1040, benoviawinery.com.
Jeff Cohn Cellars
Longtime residents of Alameda, Jeff and Alexandra Cohn moved their winemaking from Oakland to Santa Rosa and established a tasting room in downtown Sonoma. Jeff worked for years with Rosenblum Cellars owner/winemaker Kent Rosenblum in Alameda, while launching Jeff Cohn Cellars on the side.
Syrahs in several forms — including two made in collaboration with Rhone Valley winemakers — are the most obvious of Cohn’s wines, yet his 2016 El Diablo Vineyard Russian River Valley Grenache ($45) is noteworthy for its bold richness, minerality and structure.
The 2016 Misc. Stuff Sonoma County ($55), a blend of grenache, syrah and mourvedre, is smoky and savory, with a chocolate note to the ripe blueberry and blackberry fruit.
535 First Street West, Sonoma, 707-938-8343, jeffcohncellars.com.
Erik Miller started the Kokomo label in 2004, and in 2008 partnered with grapegrower Randy Peters, who farms vines in Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast.
Zinfandel and pinot noir are Kokomo staples, though the 2018 Pauline’s Vineyard Dry Creek Valley Grenache Rosé ($26), 2017 Dry Creek Valley Grenache ($38) and 2017 Cuvee Red Blend Sonoma County ($26), with a wallop of grenache and syrah, show Miller’s deft hand with the grenache grape. “Grenache has a great future in Dry Creek Valley,” Miller said. “We’ve only scratched the surface.”
4791 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-0200, kokomowines.com.
The Meeker Vineyard
In 1977, Charles and Molly Meeker bought their first vineyard on West Dry Creek Road in Healdsburg and started their winery in 1984. Charlie, a movie executive in Los Angeles, made the wines on weekends and became known for his zinfandels and merlots.
The Meekers sold the Dry Creek Road property (now Bella Vineyards + Wine Caves) in the late 1990s and established a new winery near downtown Healdsburg. Charlie turned over day-to-day winemaking to his son, Lucas, in 2007.
Lucas has a way with grenache, which is quickly becoming one of Meeker’s most popular wines. The 2016 Hoskins Ranch Dry Creek Valley Grenache ($38) has crisp acidity, firm tannins and a core of juicy cherry, dark berry and strawberry-rhubarb flavors. The 2017 Reserve Hoskins Ranch Dry Creek Grenache ($45) is a cut above.
21035 Geyserville Ave., Geyserville, 707-431-2148, meekerwine.com.
George Unti and his son, Mick, founded Unti Vineyards in 1997, based on their shared love of Rhone Valley and Italian wines. Their Dry Creek Valley vineyards and wines made from them reflect their tastes, and grenaches noir and blanc are particular favorites.
The 2018 Dry Creek Valley Grenache Blanc ($28) is made in a high-acid, scintillating chablis style. On the red side, the 2016 Dry Creek Valley Grenache ($35) has heady aromas and succulent dark-red fruit character, with mouthwatering acidity.
A Grenache-Mourvedre-Syrah blend, the 2016 Dry Creek Valley Cuvée Foudre ($55), was aged in large oak casks and combines the lively raspberry fruit of grenache and the firmer tannins and earthiness of Mourvedre and Syrah. It’s pure, complex and with a lingering finish.
4202 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, 707-433-5590, untivineyards.com. Open daily but by appointment only