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The wines in Sonoma County are world-class, and each year over 7.5 million tourists visit what locals call simply the North Bay—the rural and still magical wine country less than an hour north of San Francisco.  And everyone knows, of course, that wine tasting is a serious business.  Swirl, sniff, taste. This is the stuff la dolce vita is made of. 

Many wineries in Sonoma are large retail operations offering wines that you can buy just as readily on the shelves of your local store. Often, these are beautiful places, and a part of the California wine tasting experience is sitting on marbled Italianate terraces overlooking acres of perfectly pruned vineyards, basking in the warm sun and the intense loveliness of it all.

Just as exciting and but far more difficult to spot, however, are the small, back-lane wineries, places that the critics, industry professionals, and locals revere but that few visitors ever see. These are wineries run by the same people who grow the grapes and make the wines.

Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma is a guide to wineries where you can find excellent handcrafted wines made by on-site proprietors, often with only a local distribution and limited production, places where wine tasting gets down-to-earth—no one needs to show off how developed his or her palette is. These are often also where sustainable and organic viticulture is being pioneered. Above all, these are wines that are likely to be a new experience; amid the back-land wineries of Sonoma, there are still discoveries to be made.

In addition to the profiles of more than seventy wineries, in Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma you’ll find: Wine Tasting Essentials, Wine Shipping Services, an overview of the area, ideas about how to plan your itinerary, the etiquette of tasting, general prices, and much more practical information. There are also restaurant suggestions and local attractions that you can work into an itinerary spontaneously.


Tilar J. Mazzeo is the author of Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma (The Little Bookroom), The New York Times best-selling "oenobiography" The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It (Harper), and the forthcoming Back Lane Wineries of Napa (The Little Bookroom, Spring 2010). The Widow Clicquot has been recognized by Gourmand as the Best Work of Wine Literature in the United States for 2008. A member of the International Food, Wine, and Travel Writers Association, her work has appeared in Food and Wine magazine. She divides her time between the California wine country and the East Coast, where she is a professor of English at Colby College.

Paperback, 256pp.
4.75” x 6”, color photographs throughout
ISBN 13: 978-1-892145-69-7
Retail price: $19.95
Price: $15.96 (20% off)

Garden Creek Ranch Vineyard Winery
2335 Geysers Road, Geyserville
Highway 128 to Geysers Road, 3 miles north of Alexander Valley Road
Tasting daily by appointment
Tel. 707 433 8345  www.gardencreekvineyards.com

Sometimes in Sonoma County, trolling along the back lanes, you can still discover the next generation of winemaking talent before everyone else does. Unfortunately, the Garden Creek wines almost certainly aren’t going to be a secret much longer. Only a few years after releasing their first vintage, Justin Miller and Karin Warnelius-Miller have already garnered national attention from Wine Enthusiast and Savor magazines. All the fuss was caused by just a couple hundred cases of their handcrafted Bordeaux-style red, known as “Tesserae” (around $70). The name comes form the word for the small pieces of broken tile that are used to create a mosaic, and this harmonious combination of elements is the essence of the house philosophy here at Garden Creek. Currently, production is limited to five hundred cases of this premium cabernet sauvignon blend and to two hundred cases of estate chardonnay.

If Garden Creek is a new enterprise, Justin and Karin come to winemaking with a lifetime of experience. Karin grew up locally, in the middle of vineyards planted with old Italian-style varietals. Justin’s family has owned the one hundred acres here on the Garden Creek ranch since the 1950s, and he was running the vineyards at eighteen. The thing you notice on first meeting them is a hands-on style born of experience. A visit to Garden Creek starts with the scents of wisteria and redwood over in the winery. Justin milled the boards for the building. In fact, 50% of the building materials came from reclaimed sources, and it’s all solar powered. It’s the same in the vineyards. The couple farms the ranch using organic and biodynamic techniques, composting even the wastewater from the winemaking process and hand-thinning the vineyards during the hot, dry summers in order to achieve maximum quality and consistency.

If this all sounds like a lot of hard work, don’t let it give you the wrong idea. This is also one of those places where the natural beauty draws you into its own quiet rhythms. The creek bubbles softly in the background, and in mid-May peonies come tumbling out of the fences. You gather around an old oak barrel by candlelight for a taste of wine and some local gourmet nibbles in the cellars. Back out in the sunlight, there’s the long view of the valley and the hillside olive groves, where by special request you can settle in for a winemaker’s luncheon and get a hands-on lesson in understanding terroir and the Bordeaux style. Tasting fees for special requests vary.