By James Knight
Napa has long eclipsed Sonoma in terms of name recognition, to the point where Silicon Valley weekenders can sometimes be overheard describing their whereabouts while standing in Healdsburg Plaza, "I'm in Napa." But the old town of Sonoma is bested by none in terms of history. The site of the too short-lived California Republic, and home to historic buildings left behind by progress during long, sleepy decades, today Sonoma is thronged with summertime tourists and sightseers year-round. Autumn is a fine time to make a day of it; parking is rarely a hassle, and one needn't feel underdressed amid the dear, ambling tourists.
For longtime residents like me, the town's history is doubled with personal nostalgia of childhood visits to the historic adobes, free cheese at the Sonoma Cheese Factory, and a first bottle of fizzy wine cooler enjoyed on the Plaza after employing an effective Jedi mind trick—or so I imagined, at, ahem, age 17—on an unsuspecting corner store clerk. Alas, the corner store is gone, but happily for wine tasters of a legitimate age, Sonoma is catching up with its neighbors in tasting rooms. An organization called the Sonoma Wine Walk lists no less than 16 within a few blocks of the plaza.
Spann Vineyards is the newest tasting room, sharing space with a photography gallery where limited edition black and white prints are available for upward of $32,000, while color wine country prints by Bob Nixon fetch in the more moderate $700s. Peter and Betsy Spann come to the business with a keen appreciation of territory—not to be confused with terroir, but they've got that, too: Peter got his start recommending French wines to New Orleans restaurant patrons, then worked as an importer and distributor before planting a vineyard in Glen Ellen. Ninety percent of Spann wines are distributed out of state, leaving a little aside to pour just off the Plaza. Naturally, the Spanns favor Bordeaux styles. Having quit their day jobs in the past several years, they handle winemaking themselves.
The list features some appealing Chardonnay, Malbec, and Mourvedre, while the standout selection hails from the home vineyard. The 2006 Mayacamas Range Cabernet Sauvignon ($35), with nutmeg and tobacco leaf aromas, has focused chocolate liqueur and cassis flavors, and the lean profile of product from this side of the mountains. The take-home bargain is the 2008 Classic Four ($20), with floral, cherry aromas and immediately appealing black cherry flavor. With this quality at these prices, one can definitely phone in to one's associates: we're not in Napa anymore.
Spann Vineyards, 111 East Napa Street, Sonoma. Open daily, 12 to 6pm. Tasting fee. 707.933.8343.
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