Ah, Sonoma County — land of the beautiful valleys, verdant rolling hills, magnificent views and 400 of the finest wineries in the world. With offerings for everyone from the novice wine drinker to the true connoisseur, one of the best ways to learn about a particular winery or wine in the area is to take a guided, private tour. Here, Forbes Travel Guide pours the details on five of the best:
Stonestreet Alexander Mountain Estate
Imagine roaming 5,100 acres of mountainside vineyards at heights ranging from 400 to 2,400 feet. That’s what will happen when you book a private winery tour at Stonestreet, home to more than 235 separate vineyard blocks planted at varying levels of elevation. An estate host will take you out in a Land Rover, customizing the two-and-a-half-hour tour according to your specific interests. Love cabernet sauvignon? You’ll be taken to a cabernet sauvignon vineyard, where you can taste the grapes right off the vine. Throughout the tour, your host will share up to eight different pours from the estate-grown portfolio of chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon and interesting whites. You’ll have the opportunity to do side-by-side tastings of a single vintage varietal. A picnic-style lunch (cheese, bread and charcuterie) is also provided by gourmet purveyor Oakville Grocery. And the best part? You get to choose the view and the location of where you want to eat: the 1,100-foot-, 1,800-foot- or 2,400-foot-elevation lookout points.
When you visit Littorai, you’re not just seeing a winery, but a self-sustaining, integrated and diversified farm. The 30-acre property encompasses woods and streams, pasturelands and the winery itself, which is farmed biodynamically. The Gold Ridge Estate Tour & Tasting is an hour-and-a-half walking trek that takes you through the biodynamic winemaking process. First, you’ll visit the biodynamic garden, where you’ll learn about the plants chosen to increase the diversity of the farm. Second comes the walk around a block of pinot noir vines at the Pivot vineyard, followed by a visit to the onsite composting area and barn, where agroecological preparations are made. The tour concludes with a tasting either inside or outside the winery (there is no tasting room), where you will enjoy four to five selections from the Littorai portfolio, usually a chardonnay and several pinot noirs.
For years, the beautiful grounds at this privately owned, 1,200-acre estate were closed to visitors. Last year, however, all that changed. “2013 was the year of our most ambitious project to date: the Jordan Estate Tour & Tasting,” says owner John Jordan. “What started out as an idea during Christmas vacation —creating some sort of garden and vineyard tour —turned into a full-blown visitor experience with construction of outdoor tasting spaces, a new dock for the lake, widened roads, a walking bridge and more.” Your ride for the three-hour adventure will be a plush, leather-cushioned Mercedes-Benz bus, which will make stops at the organic garden, a pond and a bridge next to the petit verdot vineyard. At each of these points, you will have a tasting opportunity: fresh vegetables from the farm; a wine and cold appetizers at the pond; and a barrel tasting at the vineyard itself. Still, it’s the last stop that proves most unforgettable. At the newly constructed Vista Point — a glass pavilion nestled atop a knoll 650 feet up with 360-degree views of the North Coast Ranges’ Mayacamas and Vaca mountains — guests are treated to three wines while dining on cheese, charcuterie, estate-bottled olive oil and hors d’oeuvres prepared by Jordan Vineyard & Winery’s executive chef Todd Knoll.
Your Chalk Hill culinary lunch tour begins in the tasting room, where you’ll have your first sips of the single vineyard estate wines. Your group (max of 12) will then be led to one of the estate vehicles (ask for the Hummer!), which will take you on a tour of the beautiful 1,300-acre property. Your two-and-a-half-hour excursion will make a stop at the onsite organic culinary garden, where you will meet with the estate gardener and nibble on something picked fresh, whichever in-season fruit or vegetable is ripe and ready to eat. Once you’ve learned about the property, vineyards and winemaking process, you will be whisked off to the Pavilion, a conservatory that overlooks Chalk Hill’s equestrian center and indoor polo arena. There, indulge in a three-course chef-prepared meal made especially to pair with the labels. As a special bonus, guests who want a four-legged experience can opt to book a horseback riding tour through the estate, offered by partner company Wine Country Trail Rides.
Since Hanzell wines are only distributed in limited quantity to restaurants and via the Ambassador’s Circle wine club, one of the only other ways you can taste the vino is by visiting the winery. All tours here are exclusive to the party that makes the reservation, and are by appointment only (a two-week advance reservation is recommended). During your 90-minute, car-driven private tour, you will get an intimate view of the grounds, which include 46 acres of planted vineyards, six acres of residences and 148 acres of oak woodland. In all, you will visit three vineyards, including the original Ambassador’s 1953 Vineyard, now the oldest pinot noir vineyard and oldest continuously producing chardonnay vineyard in North America. Because the vineyards are planted on both the east-facing and west-facing slopes of the Mayacamas mountain range, the vistas are incredible. Before leaving the property, you will be given an opportunity to stroll through the historic heritage winery building, state-of-the-art winery and barrel-aging cave, followed by a tasting of three current releases: Hanzell Vineyards “Sebella” chardonnay, Hanzell Vineyards chardonnay and Hanzell Vineyards pinot noir.