Sonoma County is blessed with some of the oldest wineries in America. Spanish missionaries and various European immigrants carried their vines and winemaking skills to California in successive waves. Agoston Haraszty, a Hungarian faux-count known as the "Father of California Viticulture", founded Buena Vista winery in the town of Sonoma in 1856. Nearby Gundlach Bundschu winery was founded in 1858 and is still family-owned.
While wineries such as these, and others throughout California, can claim the "oldest" this-or-that moniker, they've largely abandoned the qualities that made them truly "old school". Sure, they have old stone wine caves and antique winemaking equipment on display, but history has become a finely-crafted commodity dished out to tourists by well-rehearsed "brand ambassadors".
If not purely age, what then makes a winery authentically "old school"?
1. Some measure of historic significance going back at least a generation.
2. Active involvement of the proprietor in every stage of winegrowing.
3. Eschewing most modern techniques and equipment.
4. Refusal to repackage their history for mass tourism.
5. It's a given - but exceptional wine, honestly made, showing true terroir.
The producers below may not encompass ALL the wineries that fit that criteria, but among the hundreds I've visited, some of my favorite Old School warriors are right here in Sonoma.
Bucklin Old Hill Ranch
Accurately dating historic vineyards is a challenging task since written records don't often exist or get lost over time. Old Hill Ranch can make the argument that it is the oldest continuously-farmed vineyard in California. It was originally planted in 1852 and replanted in 1885. Many of those 1885 vines still live today, and are the most verifiable Sonoma old vines currently in production. (Sausal Ranch, with the oldest existing vines in Sonoma dating to mid-1870s, is owned by Silver Oak but not bottled. Presumably the grapes are sold off but not bottled by anyone as a vineyard designate.)
It's a real miracle that Old Hill Ranch still exists, especially after the tragic October 2017 wildfires that roared through Sonoma Valley. In fact, the day before the fires started, I visited Will Bucklin, the current owner/viticulturist/winemaker, for a tour of the 12 acre vineyard. They lost a few vines, but the vineyard was largely untouched thanks to Bucklin's covert firefighting efforts.
Will's mother and stepfather purchased the vineyard in 1981, although they didn't start making wine themselves until 2000. During the period between, they sold their grapes to Zinfandel king Joel Peterson, the founder of Ravenswood. His Old Hill Ranch vineyard designate became a cult Zin and resurrected the reputation of the vineyard.
While the majority of the old vines are Zinfandel, they are interplanted with Greache, Alicante Bouchet, Petite Sirah, and Carignane, among dozens of other varietals. Will knows every vine's identity like it's his own child. This haphazardly-planted, untrellised vineyard is about as pure as they come, too. The old vines are organically dry farmed, relying on their ancient deep roots to reach natural water sources.
Bucklin is a reluctant tour guide. As you would expect from a crusty old farmer, he hates what modern wine tourism has done to Sonoma, with throngs of wealthy, wine-guzzling yuppies descending on this rural paradise each summer. But he acknowledges that he needs to give more appointments in order to grow his customer base. The classic Catch-22.
The wines are primarily field blends, and capture the essence of terroir in a bottle. There are at least 12 varietals in the Mixed Whites, a zippy, round-bodied, aromatic delight. The firm, bold Ancient Field Blend is Zinfandel-dominant, but contains over two dozen (!!!) varietals from the oldest section of the vineyard. My personal favorite is their Upper 5th Ancient Field Blend, a Petite Sirah-based beauty.
If you are inclined to have an intellectual experience, appreciation for history, and can forgo wine tasting in your Italian loafers or high heels, Old Hill Ranch may be the coolest vineyard you'll ever visit. I also think it is the most historically significant vineyard you'll ever visit.
Tastings/tours by appointment only
Widower Bill Frick is a one-man phenom. Founded in 1976, his winery inhabits a remote corner of Dry Creek Valley just beyond Pedroncelli Winery. In addition to farming the vineyards and making the wines, Frick staffs the teeny tasting cottage himself on weekends, stoically pouring his wide selection of Rhone varietals. His wines, which all sell for $26 each, are only available direct from him. He bottles popular Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, and Viognier, along with lesser-knowns like Cinsault, Counoise, Carignane, Grenache Blanc and Mourvedre. Frick makes several white and red blends, as well. If you ask Bill which are his favorites, he'll pointedly tell you "All of them", and to hurry up and pick your next pour. He's no-nonsense, and so are the wines. His Cinsault and Mourvedre of some of my favorite examples of these rare varietals.
Open 12 - 4:30 without appointment on weekends, plus Fridays in the summer.
If you blink, you'll miss Nalle Winery on your drive along Dry Creek Valley Road. Perhaps you were too excited to reach a spectacular Italian villa down the road. But if you whizzed by without stopping, you've really missed out on the real Dry Creek Valley. Humble winemaking legend Doug Nalle founded his own label in 1984 while he worked as a winemaker for other ventures, notably DCV neighbor Quivira Vineyards. Since 1990, Nalle (pronounced Nawl, rhymes with Fall) has been devoted to his brand. His son Andrew now carries on the legacy as the winemaker.
Tastings take place in (or weather permitting, outside of) their earthen-roofed, above-ground wine cellar. This property, which has been in Doug's wife Lee's family since 1927, boasts 90+ year old dry-farmed Zinfandel vines. When I visited, a family friend poured me wines until Doug finished weed-whacking the driveway. Sweat-soaked, smelling of grass clippings and two stroke motor exhaust, Doug joined me for several hours to discuss his wine and international travel, among other things.
Nalle specializes in Zinfandel and Pinot Noir. Out of their three distinct Zinfandels, the estate Old Vine Zin is a benchmark for what Dry Creek Valley Zin should be. Dusty tannins, brambly berry, and high acidity make this age-worthy Zin. Also, despite the fact that they only produce one Pinot Noir bottling annually, Nalle's Russian River Valley is one of my favorite Pinots. In contrast to the thousands of others on the market, Nalle renounces the typical cherry-cola explosion and floppy character that plague RRV Pinots. This Pinot has elements of mushroom, earth, fruit, and a heroic backbone.
Nalle is the first Old School experience I had after moving to Sonoma, and it's one of the first I recommend once people are ready to change their touristy ways.
Open without appointment every Saturday 12 - 4:30, and other days by appointment.
Joe Swan was a modern pioneer of Sonoma's Russian River Valley. In 1967, he purchased a 13 acre property in the town of Forestville which contained some old Zinfandel vines. Swan soon found the mentorship of Napa Valley legend Andre Tchelistcheff, a French-trained Russian immigrant known for running Napa's famed Beaulieu Vineyards. Tchelistcheff convinced him that his property was prime for Burgundian varieties, so Swan planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. With help from his assistant Joel Peterson (who later made his first Ravenswood wines here), Swan grew steadily during the 1970s. The estate vineyard today consists of mostly Pinot Noir, with smaller amounts of Syrah, Chardonnay, and Cabernet. Joseph Swan also pulls fruit from numerous other historic vineyards around Sonoma County for the 25 wines they produce annually.
When you show up to Joseph Swan's barn, you won't be greeted with hip music and ornate decor. Pull open that heavy barn door yourself, though, and you'll likely find owner/winemaker Rod Berglund humbly lounging among the barrels. Rod is so low-key, it took me 10 minutes of chatting until I figured out who he was. Berglund is Joe Swan's son-in-law, and he took over winemaking duties before Joe's death in 1989. The reputation of Joseph Swan Vineyards owes more to Berglund and his wife Lynn than it does to Swan himself at this point. They've been running the operation a decade longer than Swan ever did.
Be forewarned, however, these wines are unconventional. If you like staying in your comfort zone and want every Pinot Noir to taste like those on the supermarket shelf, don't bother trying them. These Pinots are diverse in profile, each owing to the terroir of their vineyards. The same goes for the multiple Chardonnays, Syrahs, and Zinfandels they make. Each wine has its own character, and tasting through them is a fascinating experience. You might not LIKE all of them, but if you have more than a passing interest in good wine, I promise you'll APPRECIATE all of them.
Swan's Pinots continue to gain serious critical acclaim. Their Trenton Estate Pinot regularly earns magazine scores in the high 90s, and the $74 price tag reflects that. But you'll find astonishing value and complexity in other wines, like the old vine Zinfandels, Petite Sirahs, and the surprising Tannat. Joseph Swan's 2012 Mancini Ranch Zinfandel, from 90 year old Russian River Valley vines, still ranks as one of the most interesting Zins I've ever had.
Open Saturday and Sunday from 11:00 to 4:30, no reservation required.
If you want to visit A. Rafanelli Winery in Dry Creek Valley, don't email them. There is no email address. You'll have to abandon the anonymity of your computer screen and call them. You also can't simply buy their wine online, only in person at the winery. In other words, go meet them.
The history is tangible here at A. Rafanelli. Family artifacts line the wine cave, which also contains an old wooden table where they still celebrate holidays. Awards and medals pepper the barn walls like they would in a proud parent's office. Antique equipment like foudres (giant wine barrels), oak fermentation tanks, and basket presses are center stage. Third generation owner Dave Rafanelli gave us a tour of the barn and wine cave while weaving family tales. His father, Americo, built this facility and planted the property in the 1950s. Prior to that, Americo's Italian immigrant father Alberto made wine starting in 1911 in the nearby town of Healdsburg. David's daughters Shelly and Stacy now make the wine and run the family business.
The Rafanellis only make three wines: Merlot, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon. They each have a bold, jammy fruit and rustic tannin characteristic of the hot Dry Creek Valley. There's a brilliance to knowing what you're good at and what you love to make. No sly Red Blends. No Rosé. They don't chase down the hottest varietal or introduce new wine styles, but maintain a consistency that only a family operation can.
The wine is the draw inside, but you can't miss a walk around the property. Fragrant lavender beds crowd the barn from all sides. A small garden with flowering artichokes offers seating to enjoy a lunchtime picnic. And the views... oh, the views from that garden! It's a clear shot across acres of vineyards and Dry Creek Valley. A. Rafanelli is one of those rare wineries that checks all the boxes for me and has that long family history which can't be duplicated.
Open daily by appointment only. Must call!
Yes, I know... Smith-Madrone is in Napa County. But it's just over the county line and is quintessentially Old School. If you asked me for an authentic wine tasting experience, I would be remiss to not include them on any itinerary. They're the Deans of Old School.
Perched atop Spring Mountain, it's a long, twisty drive from either Santa Rosa or St. Helena to reach Smith-Madrone. Their low-key property is hidden between fancier neighbors like Pride Mountain, Barnett, and Schweiger. Walk around the property and you'll find magnificent views clear across Napa Valley.
Brothers Charlie and Stuart Smith, both pushing 70 years old, are a delightful throw-back. Their winemaking philosophy, not to mention the facilities, remains largely unchanged since the first vintage of 1977. Smith-Madrone is the definition of a small family operation: Stu manages the vineyard, Charlie makes the wine, and Stu's son Sam is assistant winemaker, the next generation to carry forward the legacy.
When you arrive for your appointment, you'll meet one of the brothers themselves in the vintage barn. Tastings are held in the shadows of the towering barrel stacks. There are no seats. There are no tasting notes. There are no charcuterie pairing plates. What you will get is an incredibly priceless time with a Napa winemaking legend and samples of their three wines (four, if you're lucky).
Smith-Madrone only produces Riesling, Chardonnay, and Cabernet Sauvignon. The fourth wine is a premium Cabernet called Cook's Flat Reserve which puts other Napa "Cult Cabs" to shame. Each of their wines fascinate me not just because they are good, but because they are approachable when young and supremely age-worthy. And their Cabernet, at around $50 a bottle, is a steal.
Smith-Madrone's Riesling is one of my all-time favorite white wines. Period. It has all the mouthwatering acidity and crisp fruit of American Rieslings, but also the rare Petrol fume character that punctuates superlative Alsatian or German Riesling. Smith-Madrone's version has all that complexity and elegance.
If you're too hip for Chardonnay, the vinous target of all mom jokes, you should rethink your stance. The Smith Brothers make an awesome Chardonnay, perfectly balanced with lush fruit, smooth body, and a precise amount of new oak. This isn't your mom's Tuesday night crutch.
Whether visiting Sonoma or Napa, you need to drive into the mountains for Smith-Madrone. You'll end your trip feeling like you've stumbled onto the best secret of your life.
Open by appointment, 11:00 or 2:00 M, W, F, Sat only.