Many would-be casual wine tasters may not realize this, but one of this region's most compact and accessible wine roads is only two miles west of Santa Rosa, on a short stretch of Olivet Road. At least a half dozen family-run wineries are practically within stumbling distance of each other, but then I wouldn't recommend stumbling down Olivet Road in the middle of harvest. Even with a designated driver, the passengers would have to be champs to make it through an afternoon of the world-class wines this country back road has on tap. If I was writing for tourists, I'd say it's one of those authentic back-road spots where the locals go. Writing for locals, I instead recount that it's a convenient, quiet area that most tourists haven't found.
But Hook & Ladder is easy to find. Just look for the old fire truck parked out front. The label seems obscure at first, perhaps having something to do with pirates--until you're reminded that "hook and ladder" is slang for a fire truck. Owner Cecil De Loach retired from 16 years as a fire captain to smoosh grapes full-time. The same De Loach who helped to bring international recognition to Russian River Valley wines? The very same. Having sold the brand to a Burgundian clan (see Swirl 'n' Spit, July 11, 2007), the De Loach family reorganized their operation at their original Barbieri Ranch, retaining some 400 acres of vineyards. Both wineries release some vintages from the same vineyards, as with the Gambogi Zinfandel.
Hook & Ladder is a favorite; I've been there three or four times in the past year. Maybe because it's the straightforward tasting room in the plywood-paneled barrel room, a step from both the lavatory and the laboratory to the right of the wood-plank-across-some-barrels tasting bar. Folks there are friendly, and if they've discovered a litter of kittens in the case storage area, they'll let you see them (sorry--they'll have long been spoken for). Furthermore, here's a place where they'll proudly serve up estate-grown white Zinfandel.
This is the pink stuff that you'll want to bring to dinner with that relation who just loves white Zin instead of uncompassionately trying to convert her into a connoisseur of extracted, eminently cellarable reds. The best darn white Zin you're likely to find, off-dry, not cloyingly sweet, a pastel mouthful of strawberries and cream--and it's $10. The 2006 Estate Grown Sauvignon Blanc ($22) similarly has a broad, creamy aroma, but is dry and astringent, with a fruit corollary of white peach.
I found the 2005 Estate Grown Chardonnay ($16) preferable to the reserve version, for its nut and caramel aroma, hint of hard cider and the special effect of dropping to the bottom of the palate like a dollop of honey. The 2004 Estate Zinfandel ($22) seems to greet the nose as if with beads of raspberry rubies spiraling out of the glass. The 2005 Gambogi Ranch Zinfandel ($30) is somewhat of a blackberry version of the former, drier while juicer. Simpler but somehow brighter and more lip-smackingly raspberry-bright is the bestselling 2004 "Tillerman" ($16). This blend of Cab, Cab Franc and Sangiovese, none of my favorite flavors, comes together in a crowd-pleasing mélange. Might even win over your white Zin sipper.
Hook & Ladder Vineyards and Winery
Address: 2134 Olivet Road, Santa Rosa
Price: No tasting fee
Hours: Tasting room open daily, 10am to 4:30pm
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