Touring and tasting your way through Sonoma is a thrilling experience for all the senses. But, as with visiting any wine destination, I find it even more enriching when I take time to learn about the history of a place. I guess I’m old school, but I still learn by reading books. If you’re looking for great wine, and some artistic stimulation, Sonoma County beckons.
All I wanted was a quiet place in the country to write and loaf in, and get out of nature that something which we all need, only the most of us don't know it.” – Jack London
American author Jack London picked a good spot when he moved to Beauty Ranch, located in the Sonoma Valley enclave of Glen Ellen. In 1911, London began construction on his dream house. He focused heavily on wolves in his fiction, with books like White Fang and Call of the Wild, so it’s fitting that the building became known as The Wolf House.
Ruins of the Wolf House at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. Credit: Jack London State Historic Park
London envisioned this remote part of Sonoma as a place of solace and writing: “This is to be no summer-residence proposition, but a home all the year round,” he wrote. “I am anchoring good and solid, and anchoring for keeps.” He never fully realized his dream house. Before he could move in, the house burned down in August of 1913. In a sense, he did anchor for keeps. London died three years later.
Today, you can still see the ruins of London’s dreams at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. There is a long and rich wine history in this area, and some gnarly old vines too. Part of London’s Beauty Ranch was built on the earthquake-damaged foundation of an old winery called Kohler and Frohling.
Winery ruins at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen. Credit: Jack London State Historic Park
London references the Sonoma Valley in his fiction, including his novel, The Iron Heel, which is considered by some to be one of the first modern dystopian novels. I find Sonoma more paradisiacal than dystopian, but the book is a fantastic read, full of deep political undertones.
For 30 years, Sonoma Valley producer Kenwood has honored this history of wine and literature with its Jack London Vineyard-designated wines. These wines, which come complete with a wolf’s face on the label, offer relatively inexpensive examples of Sonoma Valley staples: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel and Syrah. The Jack London vineyard (which was not planted by London, but in the early 1970s) produces deep and flavourful wines from red volcanic soils of Sonoma Mountain.
All of these wines are quite good, but year after year I’ve found the Jack London Cabernet delivers droves of Sonoma Cab goodness for a reasonable price (the 2011 sells for $35). The winery is located in an easily-accessible, but gorgeous spot on the floor of Sonoma Valley, and is definitely worth a stop on your trip.
Glen Ellen is tiny (about 800 people according to the most current census), but it was also once home to gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who lived here the mid-'60s. While in Sonoma, he wrote for the National Observer before heading off to follow the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang.
The Sonoma Valley is more suited to Bordeaux varieties, but you can’t go to Sonoma without tasting some delicious Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. The town of Sebastopol is a great place to start. There are dozens of wineries within a short but scenic drive from the center of town, and Sebastopol is also home to a thriving community of local artists.
If you’re in the mood for Pinot Noir, I’d recommend visiting Sonoma pioneer Merry Edwards, who produces a range of fruity, but complex Pinots from vineyards in the Russian River Valley. She also crafts one of my favorite Sauvignon Blancs in California.
From Merry Edwards, it’s only a few miles to Joseph Swan, a Russian River institution. The winery has an old-fashioned charm, a no-frills kind of place, housed in a barn full of barrels, tanks and winemaking equipment. (I think Jack London would’ve liked this place.) Joseph Swan’s Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays are elegant and complex, and their Zinfandels show uncharacteristic restraint and freshness. Joseph Swan also produces one of the more exciting Gewurztraminers I’ve tasted from California. Visit this winery and expand your understanding of what Sonoma wine can be.
Sebastopol is home to Iota Press, a traditional letterpress printer that focuses on chapbooks and broadsides. They even offer demonstrations and classes, if you want to dust off those poems and put them to paper the old-fashioned way. Sebastopol hosts several indie book shops worth checking out: Ben Kinmont Bookseller, Copperfield’s Books, Many Rivers Books and Mockingbird Books. “During an era when many towns are losing independent book stores to online or big box competition, Sebastopol is fortunate to keep the love of books and bookstores alive,” boasts Sebastopol Center for the Arts on its blog. “All of Sonoma County, California, is rich with writers, artists, and book and technology professionals.”
When you visit Sonoma County, just make sure you leave room in your suitcase. You’ll have a lot of wine and books to bring back with you.
Isaac James Baker is a writer and wine lover who lives in Washington, DC. He escapes to Sonoma as much as possible to taste wine and surf the Sonoma Coast. Isaac blogs about “Reading, Writing & Wine” and contributes to the daily wine blog Terroirist.