My short-list for the most pleasing wine-food tasting places in an inspiring setting in Northern California would include the Viansa Winery in southern Sonoma County.
The setting is quite magnificent and romantic. Situated on a flower-filled hilltop in southern Sonoma County, the edifice overlooks a swath of country full of vineyards and olive trees. At the base of the hill is an extensive wetlands, an extension of San Francisco Bay, rich in birdlife. The number of bird species documented here has reach 351.
The romance of the place begins with the name, Viansa, which flows on the lips like a pleasing sip of wine. This name is a combination of “Vicki and Sam” Sebastiani, of the legendary Sebastiani wine-making family.
They built the winery on the hilltop of a 200 acre parcel of land and later sold it in 2006 to an individual, Lloyd Davis. The romance today continues for a consumer enjoying some wine/food on the lovely outdoor tasting/picnic area overlooking the vineyards and wetlands. The weather is usually cooperative here, creating a sunny daytime environment, April-September, good both for travelers and grapes.
I happened to be with a small group of about 10 people, so we set up in advance a tour and then a pairings tasting of wine and food. If traveling alone, one could look around by oneself and pick up some food in the Marketplace and Tasting Room to go with wine on the outdoor deck.
I enjoyed many small details in the architecture. For example, the wrought iron fence along the walkway as I approached the hillside winery was a hand-made affair with a motif of vine leaves and grape clusters.
A lot of people were having a good time at picnics in the outdoor areas at the top. A band was playing. Kids were running around. Families were enjoying the outing. You could even bring your own picnic food if you bought at least two bottles of wine. The aura of the place is of an Italian family gathering, with wine (Sam is third generation winemaker) and food (Vicki has a background as an executive chef).
A sign explained details about the 90 acres of wetlands, a joint venture between the Sebastianis, Ducks Unlimited, and other conservation groups.
Our knowledgeable tour guide was Charlotte Boblitt, who was articulate and passionate about wine. She mentioned that each year she made wine herself from three tons of grapes at her home in Sonoma, so she was, one might say, immersed in the subject.
Charlotte described how Sam and Vicki went back to the Tuscany area of Italy and studied the legacy of the grandfather who started the migration of Sebastianis to Sonoma. When they returned, they hired an architect to build a villa with Tuscan convent motifs. They brought back varietals that the grandfather favored, planted them, and nurtured their reputations. One special aspect of the winery is that its wine production, about 50,000 cases, is sold only here, not in retail stores. Of course, the modern consumer can buy it over the Internet from Viansa, but all sales are direct.
We walked through the fermentation room and cellars, amidst the hand-painted frescos and picturesque oak barrels. The more pedestrian bottling line is on Eighth Street in Sonoma rather than here, and that is fine, because the traveler does not benefit hugely from seeing an industrial bottling operation. The romance is in the lore, the frescos, and the oak barrels.
Charlotte was precise about many nuances of wine making, taste, and history. She explained how this Carneros region in southern Sonoma has a special cool climate and afternoon winds. She said that the Italian varietal Nebbiola was Caesar’s favorite grape for wine. With little rain from April through August, Viansa was an ideal place to let grapes mature, assuming you could keep the birds off them when the sugars began to build.
“There are four main components in a good wine,” she said, echoing a litany that many wine lovers have internalized. “They are the soil, the climate, the varietal, and the winemaker’s technique.”
We then tasted three special wines, some of the best of Viansa. The winery gives their wines a personal name to associate with the varietal. They were:
“Cento per Cento” Chardonnay 2006. Oaky but crisp and balanced.
“Piccolo” Sangiovese 2003. This is the most widely planted red wine grape in Italy and the hallmark of the Chianti region.
“Samuelle” Cabernet Franc 2005. A rich and intense red wine.
Charlotte closed our visit with a quote from Robert Mondavi, the father of much California wine appreciation, who noted, “Acidity is the bones of a wine. And fruit is the meat.”
My tastebuds were pleased. I then went into the Marketplace and Tasting Room where wine and food products could be purchased. Four “flights” of wine can be tasted for $5, with the fee applied to a purchase. You taste the wines with a “Wine Educator.” The winery has a Tuscan Wine Club offering discounts. Even these select wines were relatively affordable, around $20-$40. The Marketplace had an ample tasting of cheeses, mainly California and Italian, plus pesto, mustard, preserves, plenty of specialty foods for a picnic lingering on the outdoor, elevated terrace or a gift to take home.
Viansa Winery and Marketplace is at 25200 Arnold Drive (Highway 121), Sonoma, CA 95476, 800-995-4740, www.viansa.com.