Wine Tasting a Different Way

One of the most common questions that comes my way is, “What are your four or five favorite wineries in Napa Valley? [Or Sonoma, Paso R...

Sara Schneider, Sunset wine editor

The vineyards at Rams Gate Winery (Photos courtesy of Kopol Bonick Photography).

One of the most common questions that comes my way is, “What are your four or five favorite wineries in Napa Valley? [Or Sonoma, Paso Robles … fill in the blank.] We’re headed there this Saturday and would like to hit a few.” The question is wrong on so many levels—name five favorite Napa Valley wineries?! But mostly I just want to scream, “No, don’t do it! Don’t even think about a five-winery afternoon!” How could you possibly appreciate anything about that fifth place except that it’s made you a little drunker and happier (let’s hope there’s a limo waiting).

Weekend before last I discovered a winery that aims to change that behavior. It’s Ram’s Gate, conveniently one of the first wineries you get to heading north across the Gate from San Francisco, then east into Sonoma Valley. Sure, you can just drive up and head to the tasting bar for a few sips, and then move on. But that would be to miss the layers of this place completely—like the welcoming nooks to settle in by the outdoor fireplace, suggesting that you might want to stay awhile. But here, it’s not just about rustic high style (which is everywhere in spades). That’s just matching backdrop to seriously well-crafted wine—single-vineyard Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from some of Sonoma’s most venerable growers. And to feed the inner wine geek in us all, Ram’s Gate has deep dives arranged, so you can find out why the Hyde Vineyard Pinot tastes different from the Sangiacomo bottle.

Reserve ahead for a guided tasting or, even better, one paired with food (wine is very much a food partner here). Another great track is the picnic plan. The pond beyond the Chardonnay vineyard out back is one of the sweetest picnic spots I’ve seen in wine country. Call ahead, and a basket will be waiting. But the deepest dive of all—and the reason I was at Ram’s Gate—is their summer Sunday suppers in the vineyard.

Long, sunflower-decked tables surrounded by the vines your wine came from, the likes of grilled Sonoma lamb over a tangle of fresh greens and ripe plums, earthy and complex Pinot Noir vying for your head to kick in along with your happy heart at this moment … Okay, I wax too elequent. But great food and wine—in spectacular settings that they happen to be related to—can be unsettlingly exhilerating. I think that’s a good thing.

Vintner Jeff O’Neill (L) and Sunset wine editor Sara Schneider (R).