Do we still speak of Napa vs. Sonoma? The histrionic rivalry makes for good copy in numberless travel blurbs and sells books like 2003's A Tale of Two Valleys. The authors of the latest edition of Wine for Dummies--uh, it's my housemate's--breezily reassert the nut of the dichotomy, a question of social class and authenticity: "Many of Napa's wineries are showy . . . but most of Sonoma's are rustic, country-like and laid-back. The millionaires bought into Napa; Sonoma is just folks." Of course, they lament that Sonoma will become like Napa, 10 years on the ever-shifting horizon. For the moment, Sonoma County's newest tasting room racks up another point squarely in the "just folks" column.
The story of Graton Ridge Cellars is as uncomplicated as Sebastopol's agricultural shift to grapes after Gravensteins. Formerly an apple shed beloved by regular customers who drove up to get juice and apples, this tasting room on Gravenstein Highway North has since been remodeled. It's clean, contemporary, with a bit of vineyardy, wine country art on the walls. (What do you want, Roy Lichtenstein? Get outta here!)
Hospitable owners Art and Barbara Paul have invited two other family wineries to share their tasting room. The vineyards of Occidental Road Cellars were also planted in apples nearly a century ago. Now, fourth-generation farmer Richard Prather says he's traded his post-harvest vacation to join the year-round vinting crowd. And Atascadero Creek wines are crafted by a gentleman named Bob Appleby. So it's apples to grapes all around.
A brief cross-section of the generally excellent wines: Occidental Road Cellars' 2006 Rose de Pinot Noir ($25) is a light pink tinged with orange, and whispers the subtle scent of a rose garden shrouded in a fog bank. Graton Ridge's 2006 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($35) is a delicate Pinot, with sweet candied cherry notes. Atascadero Creek's 2005 Green Valley Syrah ($26) is an original, with aromas of dried orange peel, cocoa, spicy stems.
There are 16 wines on the menu, so there's a lot to check out. With three Chardonnays, five Pinot Noirs and three Zinfandels, pouring a flight is common. That's nice, but they consequently offer tiny, metered samples. Hard to get a bead on the flavor that way. Natch--they're not dealing in thousands of cases. I suggest politely requesting a bigger pour for one or two of the wines that seem particularly promising to you. Hey, it's free tastes that these hardworking neighbors are offering up for our edification with their laid-back, country-like hospitality. Not like those millionaire snobs in Napa, pinching us upwards of $10 for their overhyped corporate swill, right? Damn straight. Rebuttals? Write care of this paper.
Graton Ridge Cellars, 3561 Gravenstein Hwy. N., Sebastopol. Tasting room open Friday-Sunday, 10am to 4:30pm. No fee. 707.823.3040.