A Long History of Sonoma County Sparkling Wine 

The Good Stuff 

December 28, 2022 

Virginie Boone 

A Long History of Sonoma County Sparkling Wine 

Sparkling wine has long been an important part of the Sonoma County wine and grape growing story, and the bubbles grown and made here enjoy worldwide recognition for their quality and appeal. 

Made from grapes that enjoy a cool climate, namely Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Sonoma County sparklers remain a testament to the region’s diversity – that this region can grow both heat-loving Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon and the grapes needed for traditional sparkling wines is not something every area can claim. 

Carneros may be thought of as beating heart of this cool-climate grape production, but let’s not forget the contributions of the colder pockets of the Russian River Valley and Green Valley, where much of Sonoma County’s sparkling wine history began. 

The great old winery and brandy tower at Korbel Champagne Cellars were built in the 1880s along the Russian River on River Road between Forestville and Guerneville. This was after decades of the site serving as Sonoma Mills, a steam-powered lumber company also referred to as Big Bottom or Stumptown.  

Francis Korbel was the eldest of nine children. Anton and Joseph were two of his younger brothers. The three took over the 2,200-acre property and mill and established F. Korbel & Bros. in 1862 after immigrating to California from the Czech region of the Austrian Empire known as Bohemia.  

After buying the property, the Korbels were able to get Northern Pacific to extend the railroad out to their location, a key to their success. Built in 1876, it was the terminus of the Fulton-Guerneville branch until 1935. 

The brothers grew tobacco and had a cigar box operation for a time and also made redwood tanks from the wood harvested for lumber. As land was cleared, wine grapes increased in value and prominence. Korbel brandy was sold in large quantities to European immigrants living in the Midwest. 

Korbel sparkling wine had been made since 1882 without much fanfare. That changed with the hiring of fellow Czech Franz Hazek in 1896, whom the Korbels sent to France to study the traditional methode Champenoise techniques for making sparkling wine. 

By 1907, Korbel Sec and Grand Pacific made Korbel one of the top three producers of bottle-fermented sparkling wines in North America, according to “A Companion to California Wine” by Charles L. Sullivan.  

After Prohibition, John Hanuska continued to work for the second generation of Korbels and to make it famous, specifically via its Brut, made in a drier style. The business was sold to the Heck family in 1954. Adolf Heck was a third-generation winemaker from Alsace-Lorraine whose father had managed Cook’s Champagne Cellars in St. Louis. 

Adolf himself worked at Cook’s and served as president of the Italian Swiss Colony when it was the largest winery in the United States. At Korbel, he designed and patented the first automated riddling device for methode Champenoise production. 

In a 1953 “Press Democrat” story, Hanuska explained how the winery used Blue Portuguese, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah and Charbono for its sparkling Burgundy; Pinot Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Franken Riesling to make its famous Korbel Sec and Brut. 

By the 1990s, Korbel was producing more than 1 million cases of sparkling wine a year and half-a-million cases of brandy.  

Iron Horse Vineyards was developed in 1970, just south of Forestville, cold enough to grow sparkling wine grapes. Rodney Strong planted the original 55 acres of Chardonnay and 55 acres of Pinot Noir.  

It has belonged to the Sterling family since 1976, who added a winery a few years later, and were instrumental in establishing Green Valley as its own American Viticultural Area. They now farm 160 acres of certified-sustainable vines that are divided into 39 blocks. 

A sense of place has always been elemental to Iron Horse and as a result, it has represented Sonoma County well at the White House, where Iron Horse bubbles have been served through six consecutive presidential administrations, beginning with Ronald Reagan. 

Piper Sonoma came next, founded in 1980. A partnership between Piper Heidsieck of Champagne and Rodney Strong’s Sonoma Vineyards (now Rodney Strong Vineyards) when it was owned by Renfield Importers, the joint venture sought to produce a methode Champenoise sparkling wine from Sonoma County grapes. 

An $8 million facility was built in 1983, and thousands of cases were made before Piper-Sonoma was bought by Remy-Cointreau USA. Remy-Cointreau sold 118 acres of Russian River Valley vineyards and the production facility to J Vineyards in 1996 and continued to make Piper-Sonoma at the site until 2007, when it moved the brand to Rack & Riddle Custom Wine Services in Hopland. 

J was the vision of Judy Jordan, a geologist whose parents had founded Jordan Winery in Alexander Valley. Founding J in 1986 when she was only 26 years old, she operated the business until 2015, the year she sold it to E. & J. Gallo. 

1983 was also the year the Ferrer family of Freixenet sparkling wine in Spain came to Carneros. They bought 160 acres of pastureland and started planting 50 acres of three quarters Pinot Noir and one quarter Chardonnay, knowing the cool and windy conditions would be ideal for sparkling wine.  

Three years later, a Catalonian-style winery named for the family matriarch, Gloria Ferrer, was built for methode Champenoise production, becoming the first sparkling winery in Carneros. 

Today, Sonoma County is also home to Breathless Sparkling Wines, a partnership between sisters Sharon Cohn, Rebecca Faust and Cynthia Faust. The two Faust sisters also run Rack & Riddle, which is home to hundreds of winery clients looking to make a methode Champenoise sparkling wine. The consulting winemaker there is Penny Gadd-Coster, who was one of the earliest winemakers at J. 

Lastly, for all things sparkling wine, spend some time with Sparkling Discoveries, a site founded by Vicky Farrow of Amista Vineyards in the Dry Creek Valley. It features conversations and resources about one of the world’s favorite drinks. 

So raise a glass this New Year’s Eve to Sonoma County’s long lineage of bubbles, among the best in the world. 

Books To Give and To Get 

The Good Stuff 

December 21, 2022 

Virginie Boone 

Books To Give and To Get 

If you love Sonoma County and are looking for a good book to read or to gift this holiday season about agriculture, food or wine, these are some of the newest and the best. 

A Life in Wine 

By Steven Spurrier 

The man behind the famous Paris Tasting details his life in wine in this 2020 book, published the year before he died. There is much to savor about America’s rise in wine around the world, which Spurrier helped document and create. In a chapter about the 1980s he tells a story about being asked to judge at the Sonoma County Wine Fair in 1983 and arranging to visit Jordan Winery. His contact at Jordan suggested they meet at the local bar (I’m guessing the former corner bar on Alexander Valley Road, current-day site of Medlock Ames?), where two huge men approached Spurrier and asked what “a city fella” like him was doing in their bar. Spurrier replied that he’d come to “get picked up.” Luckily his Jordan contact and friends chose that moment to burst in through the doors. 

Crushed: How a Changing Climate is Altering the Way We Drink 

By Brian Freedman 

Released in October 2022, Freedman is a wine, spirits and travel writer who contributes to Food & Wine, Forbes and other outlets. Here he travels to several regions around the world that produce wine, beer or spirits and takes a look at how issues around climate change are impacting what they grow and make. The book begins in Sonoma County during the 2017 fires, detailing the travails of winemaker Jamie Kutch as he tries to save his vintage of Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir. It’s a well-researched reminder to, as we like to say, drink the good stuff when you can. Travels to Kentucky, Patagonia, England, South Africa and Texas contribute further perspectives. 

Six California Kitchens: A Collection of Recipes, Stories and Cooking Lessons from a Pioneer of California Cuisine 

By Sally Schmitt 

The original owner of The French Laundry in Yountville (pre-Thomas Keller) who later decamped from the Napa Valley to open the Philo Apple Farm in Anderson Valley, Schmitt is considered the unsung heroine of California farm-to-table cuisine. She passed away in March 2022 just days after turning 90. Through more than 100 recipes she tells the stories of how Northern California cooking developed and evolved over her lifetime. Along the way she sings the praises of Sonoma County staples like the Gravenstein apple, Liberty Duck and Laura Chenel goat cheese. 

Sonoma Wine and the Story of Buena Vista 

By Charles L. Sullivan 

Released in 2013, this book remains a definitive source on Sonoma County’s early days of viticulture and winemaking, tracing two centuries’ worth of history, beginning in the 17th century through 2011, with superb detail and meticulous research behind every word. Much is centered around the mighty contributions of Agoston Haraszthy and the trials and tribulations of Buena Vista Winery, California’s first commercial winery. But all of Sonoma County’s booms, busts, dry times and good times figure into the mix. This is a fascinating resource and read. 

Under the Sky we Make: How to be Human in a Warming World 

By Kimberly Nicholas, PhD 

Published in 2021, this best-selling book is by Dr. Kimberly Nicholas, who serves as associate professor of sustainability science at Lund University in Sweden. More significantly, she grew up in Sonoma County on her family’s vineyard, and her PhD from Stanford University focused on the California wine industry. She’s also a “turkey heiress,” as she puts it – her grandfather was George Nicholas of Sonoma County turkey fame (father of the modern turkey who operated Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms in Carneros). The book is imminently readable, personal and profound, with plenty to feel encouraged about. 

The Whole Duck: Inspired Recipes from Chefs, Butchers, and the Family at Liberty Ducks 

By Jennifer Reichardt 

Released in October 2022, this exceptional cookbook comes from the multigenerational family behind Sonoma County Poultry in Petaluma, best known for its Liberty Ducks, which was founded by Jim Reichardt in 1992, himself a fourth-generation duck farmer. The author, his daughter Jennifer, serves as COO of her family farm and is also the owner and winemaker of Raft Wines in Sonoma County. Liberty Ducks are considered among the most flavorful, a strain of Pekin Duck that grow slowly without antibiotics or hormones in Sonoma County’s ideal climate. Many of the tips and recipes come from the Reichardts themselves, in addition to many of their chef friends and fans. 

Wild Sonoma: Exploring Nature in Wine Country 

By Charles Hood 

Published in 2022, with a foreword by Jane Goodall, this is a lovely field guide on the natural wonders of Sonoma County, from newts to monkey flowers, that includes six suggested explorations and excursions. A section on dirt versus soil in the chapter, “Where Nature Comes From,” says, “The wine regions of Sonoma [County] owe their varietal plentitude to the many microsoils provided by weather, fate, and the number of times in the past the earth has split open and roared with bright-red fire.” 

The Wine Bible, 3rd Edition 

By Karen MacNeil 

Comprehensively updated and revised, this third edition by the wonderfully hardworking, detailed and thoughtful MacNeil is a must-have for anyone at any level of wine knowledge or interest. 

Good Neighbors – Sonoma County and the Napa Valley share more than a county line 

The Good Stuff 

December 14, 2022 

Virginie Boone 

Good Neighbors 

Sonoma County and the Napa Valley share more than a county line 

The boundaries that define and separate Sonoma County from the Napa Valley, its neighbor to the east, like all manmade boundaries, are arbitrary, and this week at a celebration of a new archway at Pride Mountain Vineyards, there were more similarities to celebrate than differences.  

At Pride Mountain Vineyards, on the top of Spring Mountain, the boundary between the counties runs through its actual vineyard and winery. Pride created an arch to mark the spot where this occurs, the only visual demarcation of any border. The vines certainly don’t grow any differently from one side to the other nor do the soils change from either end of the arch.  

So while differences might be difficult to see, what it takes to survive as a community of grape growers is the same – favorable growing conditions that can be sustained over time. Sustainability writ large craves collaboration. 

Collaboration between these two large neighbors has always existed. Almost 30% of Sonoma County wine grapes cross the invisible border over to Napa Valley every year. Some are used for blending in small enough amounts to not make a label change; most are proudly displayed as Sonoma County wines in Napa Valley tasting rooms and websites. 

Increasingly, producers have established their own roots in both regions. The Duncan family of Silver Oak Cellars was among the first to operate two separate wineries under the same name in Napa Valley and Sonoma County, buying vineyard land in Alexander Valley in 1970 and in Oakville in 1972. 

In 1999 St. Helena-based Joseph Phelps Vineyards bought 89 acres in Freestone to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The first vintage of Joseph Phelps Freestone wine was made in 2004.  

In 2003, the Boisset family bought DeLoach Vineyards in the Russian River Valley. They followed that with the acquisition and eventual renovation of Raymond Vineyards in the Napa Valley in 2009 before returning to Sonoma County with the purchase and complete restoration of the historic Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma in 2011. 

Hall Wines in St. Helena has two partner properties: WALT in the town of Sonoma and BACA in Dry Creek Valley. Kirk Venge of Venge Vineyards in Calistoga, where he specializes in Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel, loves Sonoma County Pinot Noir and Chardonnay so much he established Croix Estate in the Russian River Valley (his mother was also from Sonoma County). 

Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay producer Far Niente established En Route Russian River Valley Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in 2007. 

Stewart Cellars runs a tasting room in Yountville where it features its NOMAD Collection of Beckstoffer Vineyard Designates, exquisite, age-worthy Cabernets from the famous grower. The winemaker is Blair Guthrie.  

In Sonoma County, Guthrie runs Guthrie Family Wines with his wife, Caroline Stewart. That brand is devoted to crisp, affordable wines that are fun to drink. In June of this year the family bought the majestic Montecillo Vineyard on Moon Mountain, which has some of the oldest Cabernet planted in California. 

Robert Biale Vineyards in Napa, best known for its Black Chicken Zinfandel, makes single-vineyard designated Zinfandel and Petite Sirah from both the Napa Valley and Sonoma County. Biale sources from Bedrock Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, Monte Rosso Vineyard on Moon Mountain and Pagani Ranch in Sonoma Valley, among others. 

B Cellars in Oakville gets Pinot Noir from the Calesa Vineyard in the Petaluma Gap, Zinfandel from Dry Creek Valley and Chardonnay from the Richard Dinner Vineyard on Sonoma Mountain.  

Winemaker Paul Hobbs has always traversed both regions, making Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley and Sonoma Coast in addition to Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon. David Ramey crosses borders, too, making Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Syrah from Sonoma County but also Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa Valley. 

The list goes on. As the arch at Pride signifies, here in the grapegrowing and winemaking regions of Northern California, we have much more that brings us together than holds us apart. 

When the Last Leaf Falls

The Good Stuff 

December 7, 2022 

Virginie Boone 

When the Last Leaf Falls 

A Vine’s Long Winter’s Sleep 

The grapevines of Sonoma County are now naked of their leaves, marking the end of the year’s vine growth cycle. The vines will now lie dormant and store resources so they can grow leaves and grapes again next year. 

Defoliation is a natural and necessary part of the process, happening at the end of every growing season. The first frost often kicks it into gear. By this time, typically the leaves aren’t green anyway, nor effective at photosynthesis, which is how we get the spectacular turning of the leaves to yellow, red and orange as they prepare to fall.  

Reserves of carbohydrates are crucial to keeping the vines sustained through their long winter’s sleep. 

“The vine responds to defoliation by producing new leaves on lateral shoots,” writes Jancis Robinson in The Oxford Companion to Wine. “However, this new growth will depend on the stored carbohydrate reserves of the vine for a month or so, and so will weaken the vine until the new leaves are able to produce carbohydrates and build up reserves again.” 

This period of dormancy and rebuild is important of course. Instead of growing fruit, the plant’s roots grow and take up soil nutrients. With enough reserves, grapevine flowering and vegetative growth in spring should go well. Not enough reserves and low leaf-to-fruit ratios could occur, negatively affecting fruit sugars and phenolics the following year, in turn affecting color and flavor.  

Sucrose is made in the leaves via photosynthesis, while starch is part of the carbohydrate reserve stored in the woody parts of the vine. Starch gets turned into sugars to fuel the growing of shoots in spring. Vines are also adept at storing extra energy which can be used when needed. 

These reserves help keep vines alive and able to withstand freezing weather. Winter pruning during dormancy is all about managing the reserves available for shoot development. According to Oxford, the new shoots become independent of these reserves when the leaves reach about half their final size and enough photosynthesis can take place to continue growth. 

Thus, at the end of the life cycle, it’s important to have as many carbohydrates on reserve as possible. This usually requires not only good training and pruning decisions, but also an appropriate amount of thinning to not overly restrict yield. 

Where winters are particularly brutal, vines are buried beneath the soil or covered with mulch before the ground freezes to preserve any energy at all, the temperature of the soil warmer than the air above. This technique is expensive and labor-intensive, though necessary in some parts of Russia, Ukraine, China, Canada and the Finger Lakes region of New York.  

Professor Li Demei, a Chinese wine authority and consultant, told Decanter in a 2020 interview that if the lowest temperature of a region regularly drops below -17 degrees C (1.4 degrees F), it becomes necessary to take special measures to protect the vines.  

Vines are first pruned, and canes taken off their trellis. Fallen leaves and branches are removed to prevent disease. Vines are watered 10 days before burying in areas that are arid and may not get much winter snow and thus moisture. Two weeks before freezing temperatures are expected, vines are buried with just enough soil not to snap, not to be dug out again until spring.  

The when is another sources of angst and poses another period of risk – unearth the vines too soon and frost can occur; too late and there could be rot from soggy soils. 

Where it’s not quite that cold, farmers gather soil around the base of vines to protect them. Wind machines are another way to help increase temperatures around the vines, while geothermal (or frost) blanketing systems, also called geotextiles, are another tool.  

A winery in Quebec is using not only geotextiles but geothermal energy to heat its vines, tapping into warmer temperatures 2 meters (6.5 feet) below the soil. Le Vignoble du Ruisseau Winery and Cidery claims to be the first vineyard in the world to use this kind of energy to protect its vines from the cold. 

  

They have patented their system, which distributes heat across their fields, with tubing both above and below ground that carries underground heat to the surface via a glycol solution, keeping the temperature of the soil above -10 degrees C (14 degrees F) year-round. They also use geothermal heat to wake up the vines in spring. 

In Sonoma County, we get cold in winter, but not that cold, another reason grapevines are so happy to live here. The mean minimum temperature in January ranges from 42 degrees F (5.5 degrees C) on the coast to 36-38 degrees F (2-3 degrees C) over most of the cultivated area. All-time lows are as low as 14 degrees F (-10 degrees C) in the coldest spots, according to records kept by Sonoma State University. 

Past winter, past pruning, the leaves will begin to grow again when the ambient temperature gets to 50 degrees F (10 degrees C) or more, that treasure trove of carbohydrates ready to kick things back into gear. 

Three Cheers for Repeal Day 

The Good Stuff 

November 30, 2022 

Virginie Boone 

Three Cheers for Repeal Day 

It’s hard to imagine what European immigrants who brought wine culture to America must have thought in 1919, the year Congress passed the 18th Amendment outlawing alcohol. 

So many of the Italian, French, German and other immigrants who came to Sonoma County had centuries of wine’s prominence already in their bones and in their histories, wine being a representation of not only culture, but friendship, food, industry and of course agriculture. 

Prohibition lasted 13 long years, with much lost. On December 5, 1933 at 4:32 Pacific standard time it was repealed via the 21st Amendment by a 3/4ths majority of states.  

December 5 is now known as Repeal Day and is a registered trademark of the Museum of the American Cocktail. 

Sonoma County’s grape growers, wine producers and wine lovers have much to celebrate about Repeal because Prohibition didn’t just take away alcohol, it took away agriculture, and a way of life and sustenance for many who settled here, a setback that took decades to reclaim. 

People faced fines, imprisonment and the destruction of wine that took years to produce. Many persevered by being resourceful and moving their businesses underground, turning into bootleggers overnight. Federal raids were always a risk, as were criminal shake-downs. 

But others persevered and survived because of their ties to agriculture. Familiar names such as Seghesio, Sebastiani, Foppiano, Kunde, Bundschu, Pagani, Simi, Teldeschi, Passalacqua, Demostene, Martini and Cuneo were all among the affected, yet were able to survive by selling grapes for home winemaking, a crucial loophole in the original legislation.  

In 1919 before Prohibition took hold, wine grapes were grown throughout California and 400,000 tons of wine was made, both sweet and dry. Farming families were able to afford modern comforts like cars and gramophones, in addition to land.  

“The land was sacred to these families, and it meant much more to them than comfortable lives,” author Vivienne Sosnowski describes in “When the Rivers Ran Red: An Amazing Story of Courage and Triumph in America’s Wine Country,” published in 2009.  

“Many of the winemakers could recall their immigrant fathers’ stories about the early years: how they used meager savings to buy property; how they… struggled with mules and plows on raw, arid land buzzing with rattlesnakes; and how they built their first homes with their own hands.” 

That hard work and clearing enabled the growing of many crops, with wine grapes among the most important. Wine was food, as fundamental a part of the dinner table as bread, meat or vegetables. 

When that day of Repeal finally came it got blasted across local front pages in all caps: “REPEAL GOES  OVER THE TOP,” said the Sonoma Index-Tribune, while the Press Democrat reported how packed the restaurants in San Francisco had become again. 

At Repeal, Sonoma County counted 69 wineries, with the Italian Swiss-Colony in Asti the biggest. Sensing that Repeal was coming many had prepared, ready to get wine out of storage and into bottles and jugs again. 

So on December 5 raise a glass for how far Sonoma County has come, from this strange interruption to among the most important and dynamic wine regions of the world. 

Photo credits to the Sonoma County Library 

This Thursday, Thank a Farmer

The Good Stuff 

November 23, 2022 

Virginie Boone 

 This Thursday, Thank a Farmer  

This time of year is full of advice for what’s best to eat and what’s best to drink at Thanksgiving. 

Whether you’re enjoying the traditional set-up of turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes or going off script with something entirely new, there are farmers to thank for the meal. That includes the people behind the wine, beer and cider you might choose to enjoy. The pumpkins and pecans, too. 

Here in Sonoma County we can grow pretty much anything, and we do. We also used to grow a lot of turkeys. 

Max W. Poehlmann is credited as one of the first commercial turkey farmers and a pioneer to boot. Born in 1890 in San Francisco, Poehlmann’s family moved to Petaluma in 1900 to set up a tannery business.  

After a stint as an Alaskan fisherman, miner and prospector, then service in World War I, Max came back to Petaluma to help his parents run their new hatchery business on Petaluma Boulevard North.  

When Frank Poehlmann passed away in 1922, Max took the business over with his mom, Bertha. In 1930, Nathan Thompson and Bill Warner took over Mrs. Poehlmann’s interest, becoming Max’s partners in the Poehlmann Hatchery. 

With the advent of commercial air transportation, hatcheries were able to sell products to Asia and South and Central America in addition to throughout the western United States. Poehlmann also ran a hatchery in Salt Lake City. 

According to research done by the Sonoma County Library, by 1937 the hatchery was producing one million chicks a year. That same year Poehlmann expanded by buying a 650-acre ranch to specifically raise turkeys in El Verano, a ranch once owned by the Carriger family.  

By 1941, hatcheries were considered the Petaluma area’s most important industry, with turkey eggs for hatching accounting for more than $100,000 a year alone. With no intense heat during the growing months of July, August and September, Petaluma’s climate was considered ideal for poultry of all kind.  

The Petaluma Argus-Courier from December 1952 stated that 15,000 turkeys were raised at the Poehlmann Hatchery’s Yulupa ranch in Sonoma Valley that year. About 1,000 birds were sold at Thanksgiving; another 1,000 at Christmas and another 3,000 selected as breeders. 

That year, Poehlmann’s birds won 10 awards at the Far West Turkey Show in Turlock. 

Around that time, replenishment of the stock came by way of George Nicholas’ turkey breeding farm, which provided 12,000 eggs to hatch at the Poehlmann Hatchery in Petaluma. 

In the 1950s, Nicholas perfected the breeding of broad-breasted, white-feathered turkeys (known as the Mae West), which soon surpassed the bronze turkey as the industry standard.  

Nicholas soon became known as the father of the modern turkey and operated Nicholas Turkey Breeding Farms in Carneros, where Scribe Winery is located today. He sold the business in 1978 to outside interests and the entire operation moved to West Virginia in 2004. It is now called Aviagen Turkeys. 

Poehlmann’s operation persisted until 1970 when he retired to Oakmont with his wife Nell. He died in 1980 at the age of 90. The Poehlmanns had two sons, but it was his nephew, Nathan C. Thompson and his wife Lois, who took over the operation and changed the name to their own. They also converted the historic family home on Petaluma Boulevard North to a restaurant called 610 Main.  

Today, nearly all commercially sold turkeys harken back to the broad-breasted white. A movement exists to bring back heritage turkey breeds via Sonoma County 4-H and Slow Food Russian River. 

So this Thanksgiving, raise a glass to the turkey farmers that contributed to Sonoma County’s agricultural legacy, a long-gone moment in time that changed the face of turkey farming forever.  

 

Cricklewood, A Sonoma County Institution

The Good Stuff

November 16, 2022

Cricklewood, a Sonoma County Institution

For nearly 42 years along Old Redwood Highway, in the heart of Larkfield, there was only one place to be, a true locals’ hangout for business lunches and cocktail lounge gatherings with juicy prime rib, piping hot French onion soup and ice-cold Lemon drops from the bar: Cricklewood.

Tragically it burnt to the ground in the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Owners Lynette McGee and Michael O’Brien didn’t even have the chance to grab the reservations book on the way out to let their patrons know. Their art-filled apartment upstairs perished as well. The location remains unbuilt.

But for four dynamic decades, Cricklewood rocked the local restaurant scene.

O’Brien fell in love with steakhouses in the late 1960s while living in Alameda as a Navy man. A decorated Vietnam War combat pilot, he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and other honors for all his missions.

From Alameda he’d cross the Bay to dine at the Victoria Station in San Francisco, which became his inspiration for getting into the restaurant business.

A stint at the Miami outpost of the chain followed, where he happened upon the Cricklewood name, a suburb of London that adorned some of the British boxcar memorabilia the restaurant used. He soon transferred back to California to work at a Victoria Station in Sunnyvale.

Wanting to go into business for himself, he found a vacant restaurant in Larkfield owned by Rico and Mary Venturi that they had previously operated as Marico’s, a favorite Italian spot of the 1940s and 1950s. Marico’s often hosted a “Parade of Talent,” on Friday nights, a chance to hear Sonoma County entertainers compete for cash prizes.

In between the location had served as a smorgasbord, a trendy signature of the post-World War II boom years of the 1950s and 1960s, when plentiful buffets became all the rage. In 1976, O’Brien took over the space, opening Cricklewood steakhouse.

He aimed to create a “rustic, country feeling,” as he told The Press Democrat in a story from July, 1979. To that end, he procured 103-year-old wood from a torn-down house in San Anselmo. The dining room’s walnut tables were made by a local gunstock carver. The booths were partitioned by old prune tree props.

O’Brien noted in the PD that his most steady customers were business people who considered Cricklewood “an office with food,” and who came for lunch on corporate credit cards and back in the evening with their families.

In 1985 a PD story detailed how O’Brien let his customers put together the wine list.

“’They invariably select more Riesling and Gewurztraminer than I would,’ said the Zinfandel lover,” he told the paper.

Every October O’Brien would look through the Harvest Fair gold medal winners to determine which ones he could sell for $15 a bottle or less, tasting through the wines and selecting five or six of each variety. Those would then be tasted by 300 of his customers to get to a top 50 for the wine list for the next year or so.

Local wines, prime rib, French onion soup, Liar’s dice and the fireplace bar were all a part of its enduring charm for power lunches, prom dinners and quick bites before events at the Luther Burbank Center. At one point it even had a literal watering hole for horses.

Along the way, local celebrity chef Guy Fieri even recommended the Cricklewood French Onion soup as not only his favorite hometown food, but the best French Onion soup he’s ever had on the Food Network show, “The Best Thing I Ever Ate.”

He praised O’Brien’s version as “Vesuvius-hot” and “just a hair under the temperature of the sun,” and acknowledged how the Cricklewood chef took his time to make it perfect. See the video about it here.

O’Brien passed away in 2021 from cancer at the age of 76. In his later years he became a student of Buddhism. His widow McGee keeps a Facebook memorial page going to keep in touch with patrons of the past. Have a memory of Cricklewood?

Sonoma County’s Biodiversity

The Good Stuff 

November 9, 2022 

Sonoma County’s Biodiversity 

In addition to being an abundant place to farm, Sonoma County is also biodiverse, able to support a wide range of agriculture while also sustaining forests, woodlands and pasture, not to mention plenty of people.  

The 76 miles of coastline that border Sonoma County to the west add to the formidable range of life that is supported here and helps to balance the region both economically and environmentally. 

A way to encapsulate all living species, including plants, animals, bacteria and fungi, the term biodiversity was coined in the mid 1980s, though it’s probably fair to say that the concept of valuing variety – genes, species and ecosystems – is as old as earth itself. 

It was Edward O. Wilson (1929-2021) who first amplified the term and as a result he is often referred to as the father of biodiversity. An American biologist born in Alabama who helped found the field of sociobiology, in addition to being a naturalist, Harvard professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning non-fiction writer, Wilson’s first area of specialty was ants. He is credited with discovering the first colony of fire ants in the United States when he was just 13. 

Ants and insects later evolved into the study of animal and human behavior in his first book, “Sociobiology.” His later work, “The Diversity of Life,” in 1992 connected humans and the Earth’s biosphere. To create an “Encyclopedia of Life,” he was given $20 million from the MacArthur Foundation; it is hosted today by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. 

As a visiting professor at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment, Wilson would tell students to “Be an ‘ologist.” He believed strongly that scientific discovery is an important element of biodiversity, that humans have so far discovered and documented about 2 million organisms but, he estimated, there are probably a much bigger number of 8 or 9 million on the planet.  

You can’t protect what you don’t know. Wilson felt strongly that new generations of young scientists were absolutely necessary to discover what else was out there. 

While biologists like Wilson thought about biodiversity from a macro perspective, here in Sonoma County it’s good to think of it from a micro, or regional perspective. While we are a deeply agricultural place, and wine grapes are currently our most viable crop, the 59,000 acres of grapes grown take up less than 6% of the total 1.1 million acres of land mass that is Sonoma County. 

Additionally, over 95% of the farms in Sonoma County are family owned and relatively small, with 80% consisting of 100 acres or less and 40% less than 20 acres.  

Most of these grape growers have farmed other crops over the years and have transitioned to winegrapes so they can afford to keep farming. Today many still grow and farm other things like apples, hay, poultry or dairy and in addition to orchards, farms and nurseries, Sonoma County is home to livestock ranches, coastal fisheries/oyster farms and cannabis. It is estimated that for every 1 acre of vineyards, Sonoma County farmers grow 2 acres of something else, diversifying the landscape through these efforts.  

Within the vineyard, the common grapevine (Vitis vinifera) is considered a major tree crop with high genetic and phenotypic diversity, with an estimated 6,000 to 10,000 cultivars (including those for table grapes) estimated to exist worldwide.  

Rootstock and clonal material are also diverse and varied within sites and across sites, another way to ensure biodiversity. Future rootstock breeding is looking to diversify even further as another way to fight a changing climate and pest pressure.  

Many growers also maintain native landscapes amidst a healthy mix of grazing land, orchards, wetlands and managed forests. This also maintains biodiversity.  

This both keeps the environment and the economy in better health – the don’t put your eggs all in one basket philosophy, the hedging of one’s bets. It’s smart business and important climate stewardship, valuable insurance against unpredictable conditions. 

Sonoma County’s Million Dollar Crops (2021 Sonoma County Crop Report) 

Grapes: $541 million 

Milk: $124 million 

Nursery: Ornamentals $26 million 

Livestock/Poultry products: $26 million 

Nursery miscellaneous: $22 million 

Cattle/calves: $21 million 

Misc Livestock/Poultry: $12 million 

Timber: $11 million 

Commercial fish: $11 million 

Vegetables: $8 million 

Cut Flowers: $6 million 

Bedding plants: $6 million 

Sheep/lambs: $5 million 

Apples (late varieties + Gravenstein, including canned juice, cider and vinegar): $3 million 

Rye/oat hay: $2 million 

Growing Leaders and Giving Back 

The Good Stuff 

November 2, 2022 

Growing Leaders and Giving Back 

 

November is national gratitude month, the American month of Thanksgiving of course, and a time to dive deeper into what it means to be thankful and not only give thanks but give. 

Studies around the benefits of gratitude call it a “gateway drug” to better mental health while statistics exist around how being thankful can have an impact in big ways and small. One statistic shows that 70% of employees would feel better about themselves if their boss were more grateful and 81% would work harder (Glassdoor Employee Appreciation Survey).  

On the other hand, lack of gratitude is a major factor in job dissatisfaction, turnover, absenteeism and burnout (Fast Company), while a study of 800 descriptive trait words rated “grateful” in the top 4% in likability (Positive Psychology). 

Gratitude month can be traced back to the efforts of Stacey Grewal, who proposed it as an official holiday in 2015. Grewal is the author of “Gratitude and Goals,” among other books. A timeline of National Gratitude Month’s creation also credits a World Gratitude Day held in 1965 in Hawaii, which led later to a United Nations resolution in recognition of the day and eventually Grewal’s success in taking it further. 

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of GivingTuesday, a global generosity movement created around the simple notion of getting people to do something good, whether it be donating money, time, a gesture of kindness or lending influence and power. 

Founded and incubated at the 92nd Street Y’s Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact in New York, whose motto is Ben Franklin’s “What good shall I do this day?” the movement spawned communities around the world around this common theme, from #NewsForGood to #NextGenGenerosity.  

GivingTuesday’s driving concept is one of radical generosity, that the suffering of others should be as intolerable to us as our suffering. But it also believes fiercely in the power of local action and in driving innovation around generosity. It is most importantly a useful tool for nonprofits to raise money for their communities and for global initiatives, leadership programs and civic movements. 

The GivingTuesday organization estimates that there are more than 260 community campaigns in the United States alone and more than 80 movements worldwide, representing millions of people doing good things. A nonprofit, its financial supporters include the Ford Fund and Ford Foundation as well as Google.org and MacKenzie Scott. 

GivingTuesday Communities, as one would imagine, most often center around a common geography or issue.  

Here locally, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation was founded 20 years ago to support vineyard employees and their families, serving as a crucial lifeline during wildfires, floods and COVID-19. It has provided more than $1.5 million in direct support to those in need. 

Over the last four years, the foundation has also worked to show gratitude by recognizing individuals via its Vineyard Employee Recognition Program, a meaningful way to highlight the skills and commitment of Sonoma County’s agricultural work force with a show of gratitude and giving all year round. 

Every month, four employees are nominated by their employers around such themes as leadership, innovation, conservation or safety. A total of 170 employees have been so honored. 

An award celebration is also held to express gratitude to these employees in the presence of family, friends and peers. It is also at this time that from that group an employee of the year is named, the one person who most encompasses all the year’s themes and skills. 

In 2022 the employee recognition program spurred the launch of a Leadership Academy to create future leaders from this illustrious pool. In addition to the Leadership Academy, a Mentorship Program and Next Generation Program are planned in the coming year. 

NATIONAL GRATITUDE MONTH TIMELINE 

1965 

World Gratitude Day 

A Thanksgiving gathering at the International East-West Center in Hawaii marks the launching of the celebration of Gratitude Day on September 21. 

1977 

U.N. Recognizes Gratitude Day 

The United Nations Meditation Group requests a formal resolution to give recognition for World Gratitude Day. 

1998 

New Branch of Psychology 

The systematic study of gratitude within psychology begins, as Martin Seligman introduces positive psychology. 

2015 

National Gratitude Month 

November of each calendar year is proclaimed as National Gratitude Month, after submission by Stacey Grewal in August 2015. 

Where the Rhones Are 

The Good Stuff 

October 26, 2022 

Where the Rhones Are 

Wine drinkers who love Syrah keep waiting for it to have its moment of fame and fortune, but that moment remains elusive. A red grape native to the Rhone region of France, while California took many of its grape-growing cues from other parts of France – notably Burgundy and Bordeaux – for some hard-to-define reason, Rhone wine grapes remain a minority here. 

This is as true in Sonoma County as elsewhere, where Zinfandel has long had deep roots and varieties like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon are much more predominantly found. 

That doesn’t mean there aren’t some growers willing to fight the good fight. Sonoma is after all, a very diverse place when it comes to grapes. 

Nate Belden at Belden Barns is one of them. He and wife Lauren own Belden Barns on Sonoma Mountain Road, a vineyard originally established in the early 1970s by David Steiner. Once a Cabernet Sauvignon site too cool climatically to be consistent, it gradually transitioned over to Pinot Noir at the suggestion of winemaker Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan. 

When the Beldens came along in 2005, there was a small movement going on in the Bennett Valley area to plant cool-climate Rhone varieties like Syrah, led by Joe Judge at Judge Vineyard and Peter Young at Dry Stack. Conditions there were right for complex Syrah and there was hope that it might be the next big grape. 

But of course Pinot Noir exploded after 2004’s Sideways and well, in most cases, if a site was right for cool-climate Syrah it was probably right for Pinot Noir. 

The Beldens had to decide. 

“There was a lot of interest in our Pinot Noir, and it is why I was interested in the site in the first place,” Nate Belden says. “But we are farmers first and we also wanted diversity and variety.” 

The Beldens had to replant anyway and while they were able to keep 1.5 acres of the Pinot planted in 1998, they planted the remaining 18.5 acres to more Pinot Noir but also Sauvignon Blanc, Gruner Veltliner, Chardonnay and three Rhone varieties: Syrah, Grenache and Viognier.  

Nate considers his a late-ripening site that even at elevation is relatively cool.  

“Syrah is a great grape to have right now,” he says. “It can withstand heat spikes and make a really good wine. From a farming perspective it’s a more forgiving grape, a more flexible grape.” 

While Belden produces its own wines from the Syrah, Grenache and Viognier, it also sells Syrah grapes to three Argot, Bevan Cellars and Enkidu. 

Other spots to find Rhone grapes include Carneros, where the Cline Family has vineyards devoted entirely to Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. 

In 2001, Durell Syrah was registered as its own clone by Foundation Plant Services. It had been a source of budwood since the 1980s to growers throughout the area. The story goes that shortly after the site was bought by Ed Durell in 1977, vineyard manager Steve Hill field budded 6 acres of vines with budwood he obtained from Linda Vista Nursery in Napa thought to be Shiraz 1 from UC Davis. 

The grapes were sold to both Kendall-Jackson and Edmunds St. John Winery for many years. The Durell Vineyard now owned by the Price family continues to grow a small amount of Syrah and a Durell Vineyard Syrah is made by Ram’s Gate 

Not far from Belden Barns, Four Brothers Vineyard grows Grenache that goes to Benovia and Greystack Cellars. On the other side of the mountain, Coursey Graves sits at 1,500-feet-elevation on a slope above Bennett Valley and grows Syrah in volcanic soils. 

Rossi Ranch closer to Glen Ellen was originally planted in 1910 and brought back to life by Phil Coturri of Enterprise Vineyards in 2013. It grows Grenache and Mourvèdre found in bottlings by Sixteen 600, Carlisle, Gallica and others.  

Also in Glen Ellen, Lasseter Family Winery has long been a proponent of Rhone-inspired wines, growing Grenache, Counoise, Mourvèdre and Syrah. It also grows Syrah on Moon Mountain, while Hamel Family Wines grows Grenache on its Moon Mountain Nuns Canyon estate and Syrah and Grenache at Armor Plate Vineyard on the Sonoma Valley floor. 

Dehlinger grafted a small part of its vineyard in the Russian River Valley to Syrah in 1990 and maintains 3 acres of it still. It makes a Goldridge Syrah and Altamont Syrah, named for the two soil types found on site. An East Face Syrah is also periodically made. 

At Acorn Winery in the Russian River Valley, Betsy and Bill Nachbaur tend to a sustainably-grown, field-blended vineyard that includes interplanted Syrah and Viognier that dates back to 1991. Across the highway Limerick Lane has 4 acres of head-trained Syrah, 2 acres of Grenache and 1.5 acres each of Mourvèdre and Petite Sirah.  

Catie’s Corner Vineyard was planted in 1995 by Saralee Kunde to a smattering of white varieties, including Viognier and Grenache Blanc. Other sites that date back to the 1990s include Timbervine Ranch (Russian River Valley), what DuMol dubs Wild Mountainside for a Syrah and Viognier, and Griffin’s Lair (Petaluma Gap). 

Donelan Family Wines specializes in Rhone wines, particularly Syrah; its estate Obisidian Vineyard is in Knights Valley. It also sources from Richards Vineyard in Sonoma Valley, once a lavender farm; from Kobler Family, which farms Syrah and Viognier in Green Valley; and from Judge Vineyard in Bennett Valley, one of its coldest sites.  

Farther north, Quivira has estate-grown Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah and Counoise growing on its Wine Creek Ranch in Dry Creek Valley. Farther still, Ridge Vineyards makes a Buchignani Ranch Carignane from old-vine hillside grapes first planted in 1927 in the Alexander Valley, in addition to a Carignane-Zinfandel blend from Russian River’s Mancini Ranch. 

Lastly, no story of Syrah is complete without the mention of the magic David Ramey coaxes out of the Syrah and Viognier grown at Rodgers Creek (Petaluma Gap) and Cole Creek (Sonoma Coast) vineyards. 

Sonoma County’s Rhone Grapes  

(California Dept of Food and Agriculture Grape Acreage Report 2021 Crop) 

Whites: 

36 acres Grenache Blanc 

22 acres Marsanne 

4 acres Picpoul Blanc 

39 acres Roussanne 

206 acres Viognier 

Reds: 

159 acres Carignan(e) 

8 acres Cinsaut 

4 acres Counoise 

267 acres Grenache 

82 acres Mourvèdre 

677 acres Petite Sirah 

1,360 acres Syrah