It was 10:00 am and my stomach was rumbling as I walked through the orderly rows of chardonnay, pinot noir, and zinfandel vines in the Morelli Lane Vineyard at Dutton-Goldfield Winery, my footsteps kicking up the fine, beach-like earth that dusted my hiking boots.
I never skip breakfast, loyally adhering to my late mother’s admonition that it’s the most important meal of the day. This morning, though, I had purposely, rebelliously, ignored her remembered voice in my head, my usual bowl of oatmeal unmade and uneaten.
I was one of 13 wine-and-food loving participants in Dutton-Goldfield’s Second Saturday Vineyard Stroll and Tasting. A prize-winning winery near the town of Occidental in Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley, Dutton-Goldfield launched this fitness-education-indulgence experience at the start of summer to showcase their property and current vintages.
This was no traditional tasting, where you enter a winery’s tasting room, belly up to the counter, chit chat with the server, select from the sampling menu, and follow the ritual pour, sip, repeat choreography. Instead, we were outside and at the source, participating in a boots-on-the-ground hike and tasting actually in the vineyard, the vines assuming a dual role as player and backdrop, with an al fresco brunch as the culmination.
Visiting California’s Sonoma County for the past three summers, I’d experienced vineyards from a host of intimate vantage points. Wineries are all about showcasing their grapes, estates, and products through a variety of creative special events, many of them musical performances.
One year I lived in a small cottage situated within a vineyard in the town of Glen Ellen.
Rented through airbnb and called the Vineyard Gatehouse, the cottage is on Old Hill Ranch, a historic jewel founded in 1851. The ranch is one of Sonoma Valley’s oldest and most prestigious zinfandel vineyards, producing Bucklin Old Hill Ranch wines. Most mornings I’d walk out the front door and stroll along the dirt road that skirts the vines to monitor their progress.
I also spent a magical evening enjoying a tasting and wine dinner at Quivira Winery in Dry Creek Valley. We diners sat at a single long table amid the colorful abundance of Quivira’s organic and biodynamic gardens and in view of the vines. The gardens were bursting with vibrant and lush produce and herbs that inspired our catered four-course dinner, featuring mini curried crab and estate heirloom apple tacos, roasted sea scallops with sunchoke puree, and coffee rubbed filet with wilted chard. The lustrous orange and pink sunset, unlike any I’ve seen before or since, provided the ultimate nightcap.
But back to the present. The Morelli family, Italian immigrants who owned the property in the late 1800s and into the 20th century, made wine and dried meats in the basement of the white, 1924-era farmhouse at the end of the driveway, the starting point for out tour. Some of the hooks and strings the Morellis used to hang sausages from the ceiling beams are still in place, small remnants of a bygone era. Nowadays Dutton-Goldfield produces pinot noir, chardonnay, syrah, zinfandel, riesling, pinot blanc, and gewürztraminer.
Our convivial host, sommelier Nicole Kosta, had greeted us along with Melody Waldron, guest services coordinator. Australian-born Nicole is Dutton-Goldfield’s direct sales and hospitality manager. The vineyard stroll, tasting, and brunch program is her brainchild, launched this summer.
Thea, Nicole’s energetic black and white Australian shepherd dog, nipped at her heels. True to her breed, Thea rounded up the group for a welcome tasting of pinot blanc. Found primarily in the Alsace region of France, Oregon, and less than a handful of wineries in Sonoma County, pinot blanc features initial waves of floral and citrus and a long, lingering crisp finish. Nicole called it “the perfect front porch wine for easy sipping” – which, surely not coincidentally, is where we drank it.
How fitting that fog hung heavy overhead as we entered the vineyard, for grapes grown in the coastal hills of the Russian River Valley thrive in the cool, foggy climate. There’s a daily, progressive interplay between the cool marine air coming off the Pacific Ocean, the valley absorbing the sun’s warmth and burning off the fog, which allows the grapes to ripen, and the cool air and fog creeping back at night.
We meandered through the vines, drooped with cascading clusters of green and purple-hued grapes maturing closer to harvest. Meanwhile Thea, ever the herder, determinedly zigged and zagged around us, corralling us and urging us onward.
Nicole, all bubbly personality and expressive gestures, her Australian accent softened from years of living in the U.S, wove stories about Dutton-Goldfield’s grapes, vines, soil, and geography, much like a museum docent shares facets of an exhibition’s provenance and history.
Hens and chicks, Nicole explained, handling a seemingly misshapen cluster of grapes, contain berries of different sizes and levels of maturity. Normal-size berries are called hens and have seeds. Chicks are small, seedless berries, their growth stunted by cool weather earlier in the season during flowering. Both go into the barrel for fermenting. At her urging, I plucked and sampled them, savoring the sweeter hens.
Balancing exposure to sunlight is a critical component of canopy management, and growers handpick leaves to create dappled light on the grapes. Chardonnay grapes, for instance, are resilient and can handle some sunburn. The pinot noir grape is a “princess with delicate thin skin that needs some protection,” Nicole noted, laughingly patting her cheeks for emphasis.
It takes a year for wood to become actual fruiting wood, and Dutton-Goldfield’s winemaker selects certain canes (buds) to be trained to become fruiting wood, and cuts off and discards the rest of the cordon (arms).
“Just as blood doesn’t pump as efficiently when people (and their veins) age, a too-long cordon doesn’t produce premium fruit,” Nicole said.
Dutton-Goldfield is famous for its Goldridge sandy loam. Water drains well, and vines go deep to struggle for the nutrients they need, so irrigation is done only in extreme conditions. Well aware of California’s drought and the visibly dry ground, now, I thought, might constitute a dire circumstance. As if on cue, Thea rapidly pawed through several inches of sand, revealing moisture beneath and proving the vines weren’t stricken.
Throughout each of the three varietal parcels we visited, Nicole punctuated her commentary by pouring samples of the finished product from pre-stashed bottles laid against the vines or on display tables. My kind of a refreshment stop.
And then, the big reveal. We knew brunch in the vineyard would happen, but we didn’t know where or when. We rounded a bend and there among the vines was a long table set invitingly with a blue and white checked tablecloth and heaping platters of hearty breakfast sandwiches, fresh fruit, and massive taste bud-bending cheddar and thyme biscuits from the improbably named Big Bottom Market in nearby Guerneville.
Wouldn’t you know, as if orchestrated, the sun appeared as we sat down to savor our meal. I couldn’t help thinking that if we had been in France at the turn of the 20th century, Renoir or Monet or some other master Impressionist painter would have immortalized our party on canvas.
A full stomach, the pleasure of convivial company, and the precious Dutton-Goldfield loam still clinging to my boots were fitting takeaways from a memorable morning in the vineyard. I looked up at the now-blue sky and made a silent promise to Mom to resume breakfast tomorrow.