Recently I visited one of California’s marquee wine-growing regions: the Sonoma Valley. Based on previous experience, I was sure the business of wine production and wine tasting would afford rich opportunities for photography. So, along with my sunhat and shorts, I packed my Leica Q2. At each winery, while my compatriots were quaffing samples of locally-produced Pinot Noir, I wandered around with my camera. This is what I saw.
Wine tasting in California
To anyone who enjoys wine, a tasting tour in a picturesque region of the world sounds like a winning proposition. Living in California, a weekend jaunt along those lines is an entirely realistic prospect. In Southern California, where I live, there are wine-growing regions of note within reasonable driving distance, such as Temecula, Santa Barbara, and Paso Robles. But, the heavyweights are to be found in Northern California.
I reckon if you asked an oenophile to name the world’s most important centres of wine production, the Napa Valley would appear on their list, perhaps after Bordeaux, Burgundy, and maybe Beaujolais. Napa is a town at the southern end of the valley bearing its name, an hour north of San Francisco. It is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes, wines made from which are considered among the world’s best. They are also among the world’s most expensive.
The Sonoma Valley lies just to the West of its more famous sibling. Like Napa, it is named after the eponymous town at its southern end. Whilst still producing sensational wines, Sonoma enjoys a more easygoing vibe than Napa. Its wines are also more reasonably priced. This was our destination for a wine-tasting weekend.
Travelling to wine country
You can fly directly into the Sonoma Valley via the Charles M. Schulz Airport. Yes, that is the same Charles M. Schulz who wrote the Peanuts cartoon strip. Hence, the airport’s logo: Snoopy in his World War I flying-ace attire, sitting upon his doghouse. Schulz lived for thirty years in Santa Rosa, the main town in Sonoma County.
However, long-distance travellers to Sonoma are likely to fly into San Francisco, as we did, or Oakland. After a short Air Train ride to pick up a rental car, and a brief stop in San Francisco to pick up passengers, we were soon on our way to Sonoma.
We rented an AirBnB in Windsor, a few miles North of Santa Rosa. It is close to Healdsburg, a charming spot with a classic town square, art scene, tasting rooms, and a selection of restaurants. We dined in one of them on the evening of our arrival.
Make mine a Cab’
I consider myself a wine enthusiast: someone who enjoys wine, is not too bad at identifying wines, and is willing to splash occasionally on an expensive bottle. Amongst the reds, I can tell the difference between a Cabernet, Pinot, Petite Syrah, and sometimes a Malbec. Amongst the whites, I can spot a Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Riesling. That’s about it.
But, in the spirit of continuous learning, ahead of the trip, I began reading Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker. It is an irreverent account of her efforts to improve her understanding and enjoyment of wine. In fact, she aspires to reach sommelier-level expertise in wine identification. I won’t spoil the story, but her ultimate goal was to be able to identify the grape, region, producer, and vintage for each of four wines in a blind tasting. I recommend it.
We visited three wineries on our trip, each offering guided tastings. Collectively, we sampled wines made from Pinot Noir, Grenache, Zinfandel, Barbera, Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. Yum! As the designated driver, I sniffed a few but refrained from drinking any. I had other things on my agenda.
Our first port of call was the Martinelli Winery. Founded by two Italian immigrants, Giuseppe and Luisa Martinelli, the family has been farming the property for 135 years. Before the emphasis on grapes, they grew hops and apples, the latter still being an important part of their business. The main building houses an original hop-bailing shute, complete with gears for compressing the bales. These were transported to San Francisco by a long-defunct railway, which ran beside the farm.
Martinelli turned out to be a great place to start the day. The staff were friendly, its history was fascinating, and for the drinkers, its wines were delicious. The winery allowed us to hang around in the shaded tasting area and eat a picnic we had brought for lunch. Note to novice wine-tasting tourists: it’s a good idea to eat as well as drink, especially when the drinking starts at ten in the morning.
When travelling with the Q2, I look for opportunities to use its fast lens and macro capabilities. The Martinelli winery did not disappoint. Naturally, I zeroed in on a glass containing a splash of wine, alcohol refluxing temptingly above the liquid surface. Since it was springtime, a photo of fresh green leaves unfurling on the vine was also hard to resist.
We decided to purchase a Pinot-based rose that even the designated driver could enjoy as an aperitif before dinner later in the day.
The perfect accompaniment
On we went. A short detour was required before our next stop to pick up a selection of cheeses and crackers. At the grocery store, Olivier’s, we were greeted by a beautiful, apple-green, vintage delivery truck.
Note to novice wine-tasting tourists: cheese is the perfect food to accompany wine tasting.
Unti Vineyards is a small winery specialising in Rhone and Italian varieties, such as Grenache, Mourvedre, Vermentino, Barbera and Sangiovese. A row of Italian Cypresses enclosing the garden helped convey a Mediterranean ambience. The property is surrounded by acres of vines that were just coming into leaf. Spring flowers bloomed in abandon. A spectacular arbour, created using the prolific yellow climbing rose, Lady Banks, led us to the tasting room.
Unti felt very much like a working farm, with barns, trucks, tractors and smiling, check-shirted vintners. Note to novice wine-tasting tourists: although in Britain, vintner means wine merchant, in North America, it means wine grower.
After an animated debate, the 2021 Barbera was declared the winner of the tasting. A bottle was duly purchased for consumption that evening.
Our final stop was at Comstock Wines. This was a grander affair than the two earlier establishments, even boasting a bocce ball court. Bocce is a member of the boules family of ‘sports’, such as petanque and lawn bowling. Played on an enclosed gravel area, the objective is to toss and land your ball close to the white ‘jack’.
Note to novice wine-tasting tourists: one’s aim can be impaired after a day spent consuming wine in the hot sun. I will just note that the designated driver won the game by a convincing margin.
More food was, of course, necessary to accompany the wine tasting. In this case, a few mezze plates did the job nicely. You can see from the ‘red flight’ list that the tasting involves a steady progression in ‘bigness’ or ‘oomph’. It began with a delicate Pinot Noir and concluded with a robust Syrah. Yum!
Once again, the surroundings were delightful, as was the weather.
Leica Q2 vs Q3
The 28mm field of view of the Q2 was perfect for capturing a range of indoor and landscape shots. I know that many readers prefer a 35mm focal length, but I think Leica made the right choice when choosing the lens for the Q2. I was also able to snap a few still-life and shallow-depth-of-field shots while I was at it.
The word on the grapevine (I couldn’t resist!) is that a Q3 is coming soon. I wonder what improvements we will find over what is already a sensational camera? A range of sensor resolutions, like the M11? In-camera charging or memory? A tilting, rotating screen? I really hope it retains that gorgeous 28mm f/1.7 lens. Not long to wait now.
This has been the third instalment in the ongoing Macfilos food photography series since I count wine as food. I wonder what cuisine my Q2 and I will explore next.
Do you have any tales of wine-tasting trips? What is your favourite wine varietal? How do you think Californian wines compare to those from Bordeaux? When was the last time you played boules? Let us know in the comments below.
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