Sonoma and the Snowball

A scientific approach to sampling

By Mike Rosenberg

Photo: The crew at Two Amigos Winery in Sonoma, California show off their wares

The Sweet Partner in Crime and I made our first trip to Sonoma County in 2005. Our first stop, before even checking in and unpacking, was Iron Horse Winery, where we cobbled together a lovely picnic among rows of Cabernet Sauvignon vines. We hit a couple of other wineries before making it to our B&B, where we went to a happy hour down in their “speakeasy” of a tasting room. In just half a day, we had learned quickly that we were surrounded by so many good wines – zins, cabs, syrahs, merlots, and I wanted – no, I needed – to try them all. In three days. I saw the light. My mission was clear.

I went a little crazy.

I had some recommendations from my more knowledgeable friends of several wineries to hit and we kept adding to the list as we tried new wines. We zoomed though the valleys, bouncing from tasting room to tasting room like meth-addled census takers. I thought a dozen tasting rooms a day seemed perfectly logical, starting at the first one to open and running the gamut until they closed up shop. Sure, we covered a lot of ground, but needless to say, this isn’t the most relaxing way to spend a vacation.

To the great benefit of my palate, my liver and the SPinC’s willingness to keep me around, my strategy has changed a bit in the ensuing years. I have no more illusions about trying to drain the contents of entire valleys. So, on our recent return to Sonoma, rather than trying to run down a bunch of wineries someone else thought would be good, we took matters into our own hands based on our own conversations and connections once we arrived. The Naked Vine Snowball Technique was born.

The Snowball’s central idea comes from a research method called “snowball sampling” – a recruitment technique in which participants are asked to assist researchers in identifying other potential subjects. In short, after someone takes a survey, the researcher asks, “Do you know other folks who might be interested in participating?” Those referrals leads to other referrals, growing in number as the virtual snowball rolls down the hypothetical hill.

How does this work with tasting rooms? Start at the place where you’re staying. They live there. They know things. Say something like, “We’re looking for a good place to start. We want somewhere fun, laid back and not overly pricey.” Replace those descriptors with whatever you want: expensive wines, pinot noir specialists, great gift shop – whatever floats your cork. Pop in to one of them and do a tasting. Chat. Enjoy. If you make a connection, repeat your question to the good folks behind the bar. They’ll mention other places. Those places mention other places. Patterns form. You now have your guide. Go forth and enjoy.

Our previous trips were to the northern end of the county near Healdsburg, and the surrounding valleys. We wanted a different experience this time around, so we parked it in the actual city of Sonoma, which is in the southern portion of Sonoma County. Sonoma has 26 tasting rooms in and around its city square. (In the past, I might have tried to hit them all.) The tasting rooms were generally run by smaller operations, at which many didn’t own vineyards themselves. Many of these winemakers bought grapes that fit their needs to produce excellent wine. I like that notion.

We dropped our bags at the Inn at Sonoma, made a couple of inquiries to get us started, and off we went.

We started our sample at Two Amigos Winery, where our tastress, Michelle, got us off on the correct foot. She was there along with Bob, one of the “amigos.” The other amigo is an actor named Squire Riddell, who played Ronald McDonald after Willard Scott headed to the Today Show, so there is plenty of McDonald’s and clown-themed memorabilia about the tasting room. Their 2013 cabernet sauvignon was fascinating for a wine that young. I’ll be curious how it develops. The other highlights were their viognier, a port made from syrah, and a syrah from GlenLyon – Riddell’s other winemaking venture. (

Michelle told us we needed to try the bubbles at Bryter Estates. I can’t resist a bottle of good bubbly, so we popped in and discovered she was absolutely right about not only the sparkling wine, but the rest of their catalogue, which was our favorite from front to back. Winemaker Terin Ignozzi has crafted a portfolio of exceptionally harmonious, clean wines. The sparkling wine was wonderful, but their rosé was as good as I’ve had, and their “Cadeau” pinot noir blew my doors off. (

Relaxed and happy, we asked for a nice tasting room where we could kick back for a bit. We were pointed towards Bump Wine Cellars. Bump’s tasting room was far and away our favorite, with warm, contemporary décor and comfortable places to relax and sip. Bump was the best value we found in Sonoma. The winemaker, Geordie Carr, specializes in fermenting wines at cooler temperatures to preserve the aromatics. He sources his grapes from all over Sonoma County through friendly partnerships he’s developed in his travels. Their chardonnay was delicate and nuanced with just a kiss of oak. I don’t classify many zinfandels as “delicate,” but Carr’s technique of slightly early picking and cool fermentation yielded a beautifully aromatic wine that drinks like a good pinot – even at 15.2 percent alcohol. With nothing – at the time of this writing – in their portfolio over $28, it’s a good time to stock up. (

We kept this up for a bit. Some other favorites were R2 Wine Company, where we learned the contrast between “valley fruit” and “mountain fruit” wines (fruitier vs. deeper, generally) and enjoyed their Hein Vineyard pinot noir and their “1331” cabernet; the merlot at Hawkes Wine; the exploration of a bunch of different terroir at Walt Wines; and the rich opulence of the cabernet and syrah at Kamen Estates, which is owned by screenwriter Robert Kamen – the man who penned “Taps,” “The Fifth Element,” “Taken,” “The Transporter” and others.

In addition to all of the wines you can sample, the town of Sonoma is home to any number of fabulous restaurants. Try the Red Grape for lunch. La Salette is a Portuguese restaurant with fabulous variety and flavor. The Girl and the Fig is a local favorite – contemporary French. The El Dorado Kitchen does some neat takes on American classic cuisine. One of our favorite dining experiences was the Tuesday night we were there – which coincided with the first Sonoma community farmer’s market of the year. The farmer’s market turns into a big community picnic, so we joined right in with a bottle of Hawkes rosé. Once things started winding down, we joined many of the locals at Murphy’s Irish Pub for an oyster roast and multiple beers. After a few days of wine tasting, beer made for a great way to close a wonderful stretch of vacation.

Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at or visit his blog at

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Reach DCP freelance writer Mike Rosenberg at or visit his blog at

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