The view is almost worth the price of admission at Hamel Family Wines. Arched and bristling with trees, looming darkly over the vineyards of Glen Ellen—all yellow and Halloween orange—from this vantage point Sonoma Mountain looks nothing like the lumpy pile of golden pancakes that slumbers over Petaluma. It would make a fine Badger Mountain indeed, but it is still Sonoma Mountain. And no, Hamel does not mean badger in Old French. So, why a badger?
The short answer why the Hamels chose a scrappy little animal to represent their luxury wine brand is that most of them are alumni of the University of Wisconsin at Madison: Bucky Badger, mascot. The long answer can be found on their website, which offers exhaustive details involving taxidermy, YouTube, a defibrillator, and Richard M. Nixon, as well as, oddly, a warmth and sense of humor that didn't really come across during my actual visit.
Hamel Family Wines debuted their eco-luxe winery and hospitality center earlier this year. Thus far, it's somewhat of a secluded find, pending completion of a traffic signal and entrance on Highway 12 at Madrone Road. It's a stylish place, but the kind of place that piques my interest in its incongruities.
Before becoming enchanted with the idea of building a winery, patriarch George F. Hamel Jr. acquired this parcel as investment property—as did a previous owner, Sen. George Hearst, who replanted vineyards here in 1888. The fanciful suggestion proffered by our plucky host that Hearst Castle was originally planned for this site doesn't check out.
The architect convinced the Hamels to give up their chateau ambitions in favor of this striking, rammed-earth glamour-shed with energy-saving features. Vineyards are farmed organically by Phil Coturri; a couple of charismatic goats and chickens signify biodynamic ambitions. All this, for about a thousand cases of wine nobody's ever heard of. But here's the difference between this joint and the kind of showy little wineries that Napa Valley is lousy with: mostly, they don't invite you, the unwashed, to come and lounge around their patio for half a day. At Hamel Family, that appears to be the business model.
The 2012 Estate Zinfandel ($45) is a plush, black cherry and plum-fruited sipper accented in black olive. Sourced from some of the most proven Zinfandel ground here in Glen Ellen, it had better be, and they've done a good job with it.
Hamel Family Wines, 15401 Sonoma Highway, Sonoma. By appointment only, 10am, 1pm and 3pm. Experiences, $40, $60 and $100. 707.996.5800.