The flower garden beneath our second-floor room is in full bloom. Raspberry bushes bear ripe fruit waiting to be picked. Paisley and Clifford, two relaxed longhorns, graze the pasture just beyond the garden. Close by a flock of chickens scratch and peck among the olive trees, with their nighttime roost (a re-purposed travel trailer) set safely within their fenced area. Beyond are Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc vineyards and a view of the Sonoma Mountains. Come evening the porch in front of our room is the perfect place to watch the sun slip beyond the mountains and it is where we will enjoy breakfast each morning. This is the historic inn at Beltane Ranch. It is quiet and comfortable and the perfect place to stay when wine tasting in Sonoma.
As we planned our first wine tasting trips of 2021 we knew we wanted lodging and tasting experiences that were uncrowded. We decided against large properties for lodging and looked for smaller wineries following organic and biodynamic practices that offered outdoor tastings. We also looked for outdoor dining options. By planning ahead we found everything we wanted in Sonoma wine country.
Beltane Ranch is a 105-acre working ranch in Sonoma Valley. The region was the ancestral home of Wappo, Pomo and Coastal Miwok People before it became a land grant called Rancho Los Guilicos in 1837. Vineyards were first planted on the property by an early owner, and winemaking pioneer, John Drummond in 1879.
In 1892 Mary Ellen Pleasant purchased the Drummond Ranch and surrounding homesteads. Described as perhaps the most powerful Black woman in Gold Rush-era San Francisco, she came to own businesses, restaurants and boarding houses in the city. She used her wealth to support the Underground Railroad.
Mary Ellen Pleasant designed and built the farmhouse at Beltane Ranch, which she ran as vacation lodging for guests from San Francisco. The name of the ranch may derive from her business partner’s name, San Francisco banker Thomas Bell, or the Celtic festival of Beltane.
Ralph and Effia Hines, ancestors of the current owners, purchased Beltane Ranch from local ranchers in 1936. In 1960 the next generation of the family completed renovations to the farmhouse and opened it as a Bed & Breakfast. The fourth and fifth generations now work the ranch.
We were greeted with appetizers and a glass of Beltane Ranch Sauvignon Blanc, sourced from sustainably farmed estate vineyards. Rooms are comfortably appointed, and with only six rooms on the property, our stay never felt crowded. There is plenty of outdoor seating under giant oak trees and the gardens are to be envied. The grounds also include a horseshoe pit and tennis courts.
Breakfast outside our room each morning was hearty and sourced locally and from the farm’s gardens. One afternoon we enjoyed a cheese & charcuterie board prepared by the on-site chef and another evening we enjoyed an alfresco dinner.
You will want to take a stroll around the farm and if you want a longer walk consider the Valley View Walk or Canyon Walk. The Valley View Walk will take you uphill and reward you with vineyard and Sonoma Valley vistas.
There are many wine tasting choices in Sonoma county. We narrowed our focus as I noted above and chose four wineries to visit. Each is a unique experience and we highly recommend them all.
DaVero Farms & Winery
We will remember DaVero Farms & Winery as our first winery visit after the uncertainty of 2020. It was a friendly, welcoming visit. We will also remember it for the flower and vegetable gardens, the bee hives and the farm animals. The organic and biodynamically farmed gardens and vineyard are a little piece of paradise with many outdoor wine tasting settings. The winery, vineyard and gardens are located along Westside Road in Dry Creek Valley, but the setting feels miles away from a busy roadway.
Italian varieties are the stars of the show at DaVero, inspired by a bottle of 1997 Paulo Bea Montefalco Sagrantino Secco. We tasted a rosato, white and red blends, Primitivo and DaVero’s noteworthy Sagrantino. Our tasting included small bites and a tasting of olive oils as well. Cannonau, Carignano, Greco-Fiano blend, Sangiovese, Barbera and Pinot Nero are available to wine club members according to the tasting sheet on the day of our visit.
Winemaking employs natural yeast fermentations with neutral oak aging. Annual production is around 5000 cases with about 1500 cases sourced from estate vineyards.
Hamel Family Wines
The tasting experience at Hamel Family Wines can only be described as posh, but it’s definitely very friendly. The modern, steel and glass building overlooks vineyards and has ample seating inside and out for tasting. All tastings are by reservation only and that’s how it’s always been at Hamel Family Wines. They want to provide an unhurried, quality experience.
Their Sonoma Valley and Moon Mountain District estate vineyards are farmed according to organic and biodynamic principles. They respect the land and have a great curiosity about the dirt under the vines. So much so that they engaged noted Chilean geologist, Pedro Parra, to survey their vineyards. It was the description of Hamel Family Vineyards’ diverse basalt terroir in Parra’s book, Terroir Footprints, that drew us to the winery.
During our tour of the winery that soil diversity was on full display. The winding cave excavated into the mountainside behind the winery holds a surprising variety of aging vessels, but just as surprising is the exposed earth visible in various locations throughout the cave highlighting the varied geology. What beautiful dirt!
A brief downpour moved our tasting indoors, but there was only one other couple inside. At a leisurely pace we were introduced to each wine: 2019 Sauvignon Blanc, 2018 Zinfandel, 2017 Isthmus and 2014 Hamel Family Ranch. As we sipped we enjoyed house-made ricotta with shaved spring truffles and house-made crackers. These are varietal and blended wines with layered flavors, structure and balance. They are made to age, but it will be a challenge for us to keep them very long. No worries though, they are delicious now.
Porter Creek Vineyards
Porter Creek Vineyards is located among rolling hills surrounded by oak and redwood forests off Westside Road above the Russian River. The location looks and feels very remote. The vineyards are certified organic and biodynamic and winemaker Alex Davis is continuing the winegrowing tradition started by his father, George, in 1970. His winemaking employs natural yeast fermentations and only minimal sulfur addition
We enjoyed comfortable seating in the shade just outside the charming tasting room. The vibe is unhurried and laid back. Any question you can think to ask about the vineyards or winemaking will be answered, but you won’t be overwhelmed with details. We found the Chardonnay, with its oak influence, elegant and food worthy. Pinot Noir sourced from two sites are distinctly different. Perhaps the surprise of the tasting was a stellar Zinfandel sourced from a nearby vineyard. There is so much to love in these wines made with what tastes like a gentle hand.
It was a sweltering afternoon when we visited Two Shepherds, but the outdoor tasting area at the farm is shaded and there was a welcome breeze. And the chilled, low alcohol wines we sipped helped us keep our cool.
Proprietor William Allen describes Two Shepherds as a home winemaking hobby that got out of control. Lucky for us. He and Karen Daenen, his partner in life and wine, somehow manage to care for an expanding flock of adorable farm animals, tend their home vineyards, make about 3400 cases of wine per year and hold down full-time jobs. There is no standing still for them.
William sources grapes from interesting vineyards scattered around California and selects specific rows and blocks within each vineyard. Their farm vineyard includes Grenache Gris and Grenache Noir. All vineyards are farmed organically and winemaking is hands off: natural fermentations, neutral oak, minimal sulfur additions.
I first became aware of Two Shepherds wines through their interesting skin-contact white wines (Centime, Pinot Gris Ramato and Trousseau Gris). The red wines, which include Syrah, Carignan and Cinsault, are lighter versions than many and are absolutely charming.
After releasing their first canned wine in 2020, at Karen’s prodding, they have expanded their lineup of canned wines this year. In addition to the Bucking Luna (sparkling Cinsault-Carignan), we tasted Natty Pets (sparkling Picpoul) and Maximus Piquette made using hydrated skins of carbonic Carignan.
William had to be convinced by Karen that canned wines were a good idea. They have proven to be a hit with customers and their environmental footprint is light. With that in mind, William uses very lightweight wine bottles and does not use foil capsules on any of them. We highly recommend Two Shepherds wines. I can’t think of one wine I’ve tasted that I didn’t enjoy.
Sonoma wine country is a beautiful place to spend a few days enjoying the scenery and the wineries. Parts of it are busy, but others feel very remote. If you’re so inclined, there is excellent hiking to be enjoyed at Jack London State Historic Park that includes both history and heartbreak.