On a clear, sunny January afternoon, when the oak-covered Mayacamas Mountains are so brilliantly green that you have to squint, State 12 is one of the prettiest roads around. Rick Kasmier still remembers how that road struck him and his wife, Sandi, when they first came to the Sonoma Valley 19 years ago. "It was just the most beautiful place ― the view, the sunset...Then and there we both decided, 'This works,' " he says.
So the couple bought 2 acres of land just off State 12 and began making wine out of their basement. In June 2003, they opened Kaz Vineyards & Winery tasting room. Kaz was, and still is, the smallest Sonoma Valley winery with a public tasting room; it produces about 1,000 cases a year. "I'm the only full-time employee of me," Kasmier jokes.
There are plenty of "onlys" about Kasmier. He may be the only commercial winemaker to make his own labels out of vintage, hand-colored family photos, and the only one to welcome kids with toys and juice in the tasting room. And, he says, he's one of only two California growers of Lenoir, an obscure French-American hybrid grape that produces some of the darkest juice of any grape. Kasmier likes to work with what he calls the "third- and fourth-tier" varietals: Lenoir, Malbec, Barbera, DeChaunac. "I wouldn't enjoy just doing the Cab-Merlot-Chardonnay thing. I dislike commercialism. It's just not fun."
Kasmier is in good company in the Sonoma Valley, where creative types find their muse and residents work hard to maintain the valley's quirky, small-town character. Go this month, when tourism is at its slowest and local winemakers, shopkeepers, and artists have more time to visit.