Tucked away beyond winding country roads in the heart of the Russian River Valley, Arista Winery (once a hop farm) is a hidden family-operated gem run by Mark McWilliams and his brother Ben. A small greenhouse-like dining room sits amid the vineyards offering a great view and even better meal. A particular standout was the duck pignoli mortadella with a house made raw goat milk chèvre paired with their 2011 Harpers Estate Vineyard Pinot Noir, made from grapes 40-60 years old. "I haven't been to the store all week," chef Timothy Kaulfers bragged about the bounty found on the land.
Another highlight was the MacMurray Ranch, once the home and refuge of actor Fred MacMurray. We rode on jeeps through the vineyard up to a peak where we enjoyed a very scenic Pinot Gris overlooking the valley. Winemaker Chris Munsell confessed to me that wineries are much more competitive than craft breweries.
MacMurray is only open to the public for Taste of Sonoma, one of the signature events of Sonoma Wine Weekend that features an endless sampling of local food purveyors and vineyards alike. My personal favorite was a 2004 limited release Pinot Noir from Clouds Rest, a small vineyard on Sonoma Mountain that gets its name from the clouds that roll in the Petaluma gap from the Pacific Ocean and hang just below the vineyard's fence. It was endlessly complex and comforting, the wine equivalent of a barrel-aged porter.
I realized that all of my beer loving friends' wine of choice is Pinot Noir and save for the movie Sideways, I think it's because more than anything it's a varietal that exudes a muted richness and most importantly lacks the cringe-inducing acidic bite many wine aficionados love and beer lovers loathe.
Robert Mark Kamen is one of the former. He's a Bronx-born stocky fellow who made his fortune writing screenplays like The Karate Kid, The Fifth Element and recently the Taken series. He's poured the money into a 280-acre organic vineyard on the southwest slopes of the Mayacamas Mountain Range that over looks the San Francisco Bay and employed viticulturist Phil Coturri (a dead ringer for Jerry Garcia) to look after it. I wanted to love Kamen Estate wines as much as Robert Parker but couldn't. They punch you in the face with unadulterated fruitiness and that's hard to stomach, but it's exactly how they love it. One thing's for sure: the view from the vineyard and most of Sonoma is unmatchable. It's easy to see the draw of the endlessly rolling hills carved from pristine mountains that make you forget the rest of the world exists.