The Tasting Room Experience

The Tasting Room Experience

Nov. 27, 2013

by Mary-Colleen Tinney | Photography by Sarah Bradbury

    Sonoma County has the rare and enviable position of producing some of the world's top wines, perhaps none more lauded than the Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays being produced from the coastal regions of the county. With the mid-1980s establishment of the Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA), winemakers since that time have been continually refining and focusing their coastal winemaking efforts.

    Those efforts have been richly rewarded. Many of the most acclaimed of Sonoma County's wineries are located in the western reaches of the Sonoma Coast AVA, where dozens of small producers and family vineyard owners are crafting finely tuned wines that speak to their “sense of place.” This somewhat nebulous concept, which the French have termed terroir, is really just a matter of talented growers and winemakers working in tandem to produce wines that convey the nuances of the place where they were grown.

    I set out to visit three West Sonoma County wineries known for their high-quality wines and unique sense of place to see how they interpret their Sonoma Coast origins. Each has a vastly different feel from the other, and on an ambitious tasting day (perhaps best with a hired driver) you could visit all three to experience what it means to be making terroir-driven wines.

Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery  •   La Follette Wines  •   Littorai Wines  

Perched on the Edge of the Continent

    A leisurely hour-long drive from Sebastopol, either along the scenic coastal vistas of Highway 1 or through the soaring redwood forests of the Bohemian Highway and Highway 116, is the stunning Fort Ross Vineyard and Winery. This striking year-old tasting room is located about seven miles north of Jenner and two miles south of the Russian Fort Ross settlement.

    Fort Ross Winery believes that its tasting room and vineyards, which sit just a mile from the Pacific Ocean, are the closest to the coast in all of California. Sitting above the fog line, on a clear day the site offers breathtaking views of the ocean down to Point Reyes.

    The property, with vineyard sites ranging from 1,200 to 1,700 feet above sea level, is a grape-growing challenge. The vineyard land was developed through trial and error by the tenaciously determined proprietors, South African natives Lester and Linda Schwartz. The project began in 1991 with a test vineyard of 16 varieties and has grown to 50 acres under vine on the property across 30 different vineyard blocks. Planted mostly to Pinot Noir, there are also eight acres of Chardonnay and two acres of the distinctive South African hybrid variety Pinotage, a cross between Pinot Noir and Cinsault that is very rarely found outside of its native country.

    From the entrance to the property, there is a short one-quarter-mile drive that takes visitors through native forest, a tree-lined meadow and then a pond, which Linda Schwartz calls “a journey through the terroir” of their site. The tasting room building is meant to mimic the historic barns found throughout Sonoma County while Linda Schwartz designed the interior in her preferred minimalist style.

    The dog-friendly tasting room is cozy, warm and inviting, a mixture of rich earth tones and industrial wrought iron details. Soft, chestnut-colored leather-and-chrome chairs surround a fireplace, ideal for a cold coastal afternoon tasting. A wood-and-iron bar table and stools provides additional seating, while the expansive tasting bar looks out upon the Pacific Ocean view. A deck along the tasting room provides additional seating, with an intricate Art Nouveau-style iron fence design.

    The wines are all made from the property's vineyards on the site by winemaker Jeff Pisoni. In addition to the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinotage selections, Fort Ross Winery also offers a Rosé of Pinot Noir. There is a $15 refundable tasting fee, and weary travelers can also purchase a charcuterie and cheese plate. The tasting room, with its full professional kitchen and an outdoor pizza oven, also hosts several events throughout the year.

Fort Ross Vineyard &  Winery, 15725 Meyers Grade Road, Jenner.

Open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. in winter, and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. in summer.

Call 707-847-3460 or visit

Natural Winemaking Meets The Barlow

    For winemaker Greg La Follette, the art of crafting wine lies in the intersection between the mystical and the scientific. This is a philosophy that is reflected on the label of his eponymous La Follette winery, an illustration adapted from an 1840s-era French viticulture manual of a farmer hunched over three vines, gently reaching out to them with
a magic wand clasped in his hand.

    La Follette Wines at The Barlow in Sebastopol is the first public tasting room for the 3-year-old brand dedicated to single-vineyard Pinot Noir and Chardonnay sourced from cool climate vineyards in Sonoma and Mendocino counties. Opened in March of 2013, the bright and modern tasting room is a mix of friendly, casual quirkiness backed up by a strong dedication to the land that produced the wines. La Follette works intimately with a number of family grape growers to produce his wines, and his appreciation for their work is quite literally on display. Large photographs of the growers and their vineyards dot the cream-colored walls, while three gnarled, old-growth vines are exhibited within the tasting room's large, built-in wooden display case.

    La Follette, who once aspired to be a professional bagpiper, is one of Sonoma County's most renowned winemakers. With bachelor’s degrees in chemistry, plant biology and a master’s in food science and technology, he has crossed the globe as a winemaker and vineyard consultant. For several years, he served as the winemaker and general manager at the acclaimed Flowers Vineyard & Winery in Cazadero, honing his passion for the coastal Pinot Noir and Chardonnay he produces today at La Follette.

    La Follette has a minimalist winemaking philosophy, using only natural yeasts that come in on the fruit from the vineyard and eschewing technology like sterile filtration. La Follette crafts his wines through instinct, tradition and skill, and the results are elegant, individual wines that speak to their vineyard origins.

    The winery offers a variety of tasting experiences to guests. The most basic is a bar tasting of up to four wines for a refundable $10 tasting fee, though our server was happy to give us a taste or two of other open bottles. For $5 more, the winery sets guests up with all they need to play a rousing game of bocce ball at The Barlow's bocce court, located just next to the tasting room.

    Beginning in early 2014, guests can also schedule a personal tasting with winemaker Greg La Follette. Available by appointment only, the $30 “Terroir Tasting with Greg” includes five wines in a seated tasting.

    The tasting room also hosts a number of special events, although there are few during the winter. In the summer, look for live music and wines paired with flavored popcorn (a food pairing that seems particularly favored at La Follette) and other similar events.  

La Follette  Wines at The Barlow

180 Morris St., Suite 160, Sebastopol.

Open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Call 707-827-4933 or visit  

Cult Wine on the California Coast

    There is no question that Sebastopol's Littorai Wines, a name derived from the Latin word meaning “coasts,” is one of Sonoma County's most prestigious wineries. The winery, which was founded by Ted and Heidi Lemon in 1993, is one of the pioneers of “true” Sonoma Coast winemaking and grape growing.

     Winemaker Ted Lemon’s path to the Sonoma Coast begins in the Burgundy region of France, where he trained in the craft of winemaking. Lemon was, in fact, the first American winemaker to serve as winemaker for a Burgundy estate, a position he earned at the age of 24. The
finesse of the Burgundian style of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay has had an indelible impact on Lemon's winemaking style ever since. The lineage is clear in Littorai's elegant, concentrated and well-structured wines.

    Littorai began as a passion project for the couple, beginning with just a few hundred cases of wine sold directly to restaurants and trade. Now producing about 5,000 cases, the winery is unlikely to increase production. The winery is dedicated to sustainability and low-impact practices in both farming and winemaking. The couple adheres to the biodynamic growing methods advanced in the 1920s by Austrian scientist and philosopher Rudolf Steiner. Vineyard owners who work with Littorai are also devoted to low-yield, organic or sustainable growing methods.  

    Littorai's 30-acre Sebastopol winery estate is devoted to this environmentally healthy philosophy. The unmarked property, nestled among the rolling hills near Bodega Highway, is nearly impossible to find without the specific directions provided by the winery. Open by appointment only from Monday through Saturday, the winery offers a comprehensive 90-minute Gold Ridge Estate Tour and Tasting, which includes four wines (the wines being poured differ based on availability) for a cost of $40. The winery has also added a 45-minute Single Vineyard Tasting, which costs $25. For new visitors to the winery, especially those who are not familiar with the biodynamic and agro-ecological growing methods employed by the farm, the tour is highly recommended.

    The tour is offered year-round and takes visitors on a short walk through the property. In inclement weather, the winery has umbrellas and boots to share with guests, though the estate walk can be curtailed in truly terrible weather. Even so, because biodynamic philosophy aims to make the farm a self-sustaining entity, there is always something to be seen at the property.

    The solar-powered, gravity-fed winemaking facility was built to have as little impact on the land as possible.  The walls are lined with hay bales for insulation, and the temperatures are regulated through natural air-cooling. Just three acres of the property are planted to vines, known as the Pivot Vineyard because the site was pivotal in the decision to purchase the property. An additional eight acres will forever be preserved as native forest. The rest of the property is dedicated to pasture land, gardens, cover crops and compost piles used in the biodynamic farming process.

Littorai, Sebastopol.

Open Monday through Saturday by appointment only. Reservations can be made online at or by calling 707-823-9586. Please allow up to two weeks for reservations.

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