We explore the diverse pinot noir and dreamlike scenery of Sonoma, where warm hospitality and relaxed Californian charm flow as freely as the wines.

Given its million-plus acres and 18 designated AVAs, trying to ‘do’ Sonoma wine country in a single weekend would be a stretch for most. Undeterred, the Pinot Palooza team recently took the challenge and bolted up Highway 101 from San Francisco to experience some of Sonoma’s finest pinot in situ.

And what a trip it was. Along with tasting some incredible wines we got to experience the region’s hospitable locals and famed coastal fog, which rolls in and out as if the place is breathing. We met plenty of land-loving grapegrowers and winemakers, and visited some of the coolest tasting rooms (aka cellar doors) we’ve seen in a long time.

Sonoma is basically three wine districts in one (north, south and central), each containing a mix of different microclimates and more soil variety than all of western Europe. What does all this mean? It means you might find an elegantly spicy pinot in the rolling hills of Carneros, sip a lush dark-fruited version beneath the majestic redwoods in the Russian River Valley, then discover an ultra-crisp example on the cooler-than-Burgundy west coast. There’s a huge amount of diversity in the region, and after tastings at Littorai Wines and Peay Vineyards, among others, it’s no surprise that the mountainous west coast was formally proposed for its own AVA status (distinct from the massive Sonoma Coast appellation) at the end of 2018.

Not content with cranking out dependably delicious pinot among the dairy farms, state forests, apple orchards and charming small towns of their picturesque county, Sonoma’s 430-plus vintners have committed to making theirs the world’s first 100 per cent sustainable winegrowing region. This isn’t surprising once you meet the locals, whose laidback earthiness and respect for the land is evident across the board. We also love that most wineries remain family-owned in this place where White Fang author Jack London pioneered organic farming methods in the early 1900s.

Starting out at The Donum Estate, with a jaunt through its epic outdoor sculpture collection – which features works from the likes of Ai Weiwei and Tracey Emin – is a great way to kick off a journey that will feature more terroir-expressive bottlings than you can shake a vine cane at. Time spent at the handsome home of new-wave pinot pushers Scribe Winery is beautifully balanced out with a visit to the home of minimal intervention winemaking legend Ted Lemon (Littorai) and the Russian River Valley-defining Williams Selyem.

The proximity of these guys means that a tasting at Red Car Wine Co (including some cracking rosé) makes perfect sense when you back it up with a visit to their neighbour Dutton Goldfield next door, where you can taste up to a dozen distinct pinots including lively options from the forever-foggy Green Valley. For your Oregon-style pinot fix look to Anthill Farms Winery, and when you’re ready to eat, head to Healdsburg, the foodie capital of the county. Still want to try more of the region’s stellar wines? Cap it all off with some deep-as-the-Pacific pinots at Peay Vineyards.

Sonoma is the kind of place that will draw you in with its easy Californian charm and hold you under with its bevy of incredibly expressive and beguiling pinot noir. Take our word for it though, and don’t rush – leave your big-city worries behind and just go with the flow.


Who needs to eat or sleep when there’s pinot with a cool-climate personality to make?

Fans of nuanced and earthy Oregon pinot would do well to check out Anthill Farms, the bootstrapped winemaking project of three fearless pals who love nothing more than roaming California’s northern coast in search of the perfect parcel on which to grow something that defies stereotypes.

Founded in 2004 with “$9000 cash and about $47,000 in sweat equities”, Anthill Farms combines the talents of David Low, Webster Marquez and Anthony Filiberti (all ex-Williams Selyem) and is shaped by the unwavering faith that New World pinot noir can be just as conversation-starting – if not more so – than its Old World counterpart. Anthony says he was stoked his partners were willing to entertain the dream they could make provincial Oregon-style wines in Sonoma those 16 vintages ago, with the trio somewhat taken aback when they got crazy reviews for their first 200 cases.


Where the wine is as artful as the estate’s famous sculpture collection.

Located at the southern edge of Sonoma about a mile from San Pablo Bay, Donum was established almost 20 years ago – taking its cues from the Burgundian grand cru model, with the goal of producing super-premium pinot noir and chardonnay.

Under the watchful eye of affable Tom Petty-loving winemaker Dan Fishman – a Sonoma native who has been in the role since 2012 – Donum produces a range of single-vineyard estate pinot noir and chardonnay from vineyards in Carneros (home to some of the region’s earliest pinot noir vines), Russian River Valley (where the pinot tends to be bigger, with dark fruit and hints of cola) and Anderson Valley.


Where you’ll taste the full spectrum of this diverse region.

Dutton-Goldfield Winery was founded in 1998 by Russian River Valley locals and longtime pals, grapegrower Steve Dutton and winemaker Dan Goldfield. They specialise in pinot noir and chardonnay, but also produce small quantities of syrah, zinfandel, pinot blanc, riesling and gewürztraminer.

Fruit is sourced from Dutton Ranch – which, confusingly, isn’t a single place but a collection of over 80 small vineyard sites (all owned by Steve) that are scattered around the region. These include sites in the super-cool pockets of the Russian River Valley (including the Green Valley sub-zone), as well as in Marin County, Sonoma Coast and Anderson Valley.


Out there dripping in finesse, Littorai stands for pinots of crystalline precision.

Located on Sonoma’s west coast, Littorai is considered one of the most important producers of chardonnay and pinot noir in the US and its wines are a wonderful representation of all that is great about Californian winemaking. The 30-acre vineyard was established by Heidi and Ted Lemon in 1993, with the winery following in 2008, marking the realisation of a long-held dream for the Lemons.

Winemaker Ted earned his stripes working for the likes of Dujac, de Villaine, Roumier, Bruno Clair and Domaine Parent in Burgundy before being appointed winemaker at Domaine Guy Roulot in Mersault. Although certainly inspired by his time in Burgundy, Ted isn’t one for slavish mimicry and his wines have played an important role in defining the unique appeal of Californian pinot.


Calling lovers of cellar-worthy pinot noir from out-of-the-way places.

As middle-of-nowhere producers go, Peay Vineyards is in a league of its own. The foggy drive along switchback roads to reach this place of pinot-oriented pilgrimage, clinging to the northwestern tip of the Sonoma coastline, is one you can neither rush nor forget.

Brothers Andy and Nick Peay picked the chilly and mountainous 35-acre site in defiance of conventional winemaking wisdom back in 1996 because they could see its potential for delivering rarefied pinot noir and chardonnay of shiver-inducing intensity that remain light on the palate. Andy explains: “It’s really difficult to farm out here! That’s what makes the wines unique; the yields are far lower than inland but we get more of that refreshing crunchiness from our fruit.”


Producer of lip-smackingly vibrant pinot on the edge of the Pacific.

Named after the trolley line that once ferried riders across Los Angeles, Red Car winery was founded in 2000 by wine-loving Angelinos Carroll Kemp, Richard Crowell and the late great Mark Estrin. Today, the business is led by Richard and his wife Alison and produces pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah on the region’s extreme coastal edge.

In 2004, the founders acquired 125 acres of land and began developing vineyards in the wild coastal ridges north of Bodega Bay, a subregion now known as the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Here, they discovered the secret that allowed them to produce the kind of nuanced, structured and age-worthy wines that got them into the business in the first place.


Really really ridiculously good-looking, Scribe is all silky wines and fun times.

Founded in 2007, Scribe Winery has become the weekend playground for Bay Area millennials. It’s managed by fourth-generation Californian farming brothers Adam and Andrew Mariani, along with sister Kelly, who runs the winery’s culinary program, conjuring magic with a wood-fired grill and produce grown in the property’s verdant kitchen garden.

The family’s approach to wine and hospitality is all about connecting people and place, and a tasting session here is always done with food and al fresco ­– either under a tree on a Mexican blanket or sat around a big old table on the patio (just be sure to book ahead of time). This all happens on the grounds of a gorgeous 19th-century mission-style villa, ensuring that any visit is an experience.


Sonoma’s first cult-status pinot producer, as strong as ever.

This long-running Sonoma icon bottled its first vintage of pinot noir in 1982. And although the winery started as a bit of an experiment, today the wines of Williams Selyem are considered some of the most exemplary in the region.

It all began when founder Burt Williams scored a few tons of excess grapes from a local grower back in the 1970s, and in doing so tapped into a talent for winemaking he never knew he had. Along with his buddy Ed Selyem, Burt loved a good Burgundy, so the pair decided to go into business in a bid to make some of their own.