Editor’s Note: This column was written prior to the outbreak of the Kincade fire, which is affecting the Sonoma area and remains active at time of publication.
Carol Shelton pulls her cell phone from her pocket and shows us a photo that she took two years ago October. The painting-like image shows dark silhouettes of pine trees against a backdrop of deep orange, red and dabs of yellow.
“This is what it looked like just across the parking lot,” says the winemaker, explaining events in her Sonoma County neighborhood during the 2017 fire. The conflagration destroyed 8,400 homes and buildings, including Shelton’s home near this Santa Rosa industrial park.
We are standing in a concrete building that serves as Shelton’s base of operations; this is her 20th harvest. On the walls hang dozens of gold and double-gold ribbons for wines she has crafted for Robert Strong and Windsor vineyards. In 2000, with help and encouragement from husband Mitch Mackenzie, the veteran winemaker took the leap and launched Carol Shelton Vineyards (www.carolshelton.com). Getting to this point hasn’t been a stroll in the vineyard.
“Being a woman in a nearly male-only industry has had its challenges,” she says.
“Women weren’t even allowed to work in the cellar. They didn’t think we were strong enough. You have to push around pumps, haul hoses and shovel out the tanks. Yeah, it’s hard physical labor but women can do it.”
Carol Shelton Vineyards is one of 10 my husband, Jerry, and I, will visit in Northern Sonoma County. Our 60-hour stay will bring conversations with winemakers, farmers, restauranteurs and innkeepers. In between, of course, there is wine-tasting.
We’re headquartered at the Haydon Street Inn (https://haydon.com), a meticulously maintained, stately, blue-and-white Queen Anne Victorian, which stands just a few blocks off Healdsburg’s storybook town square.
The early-morning air is still crisp when I find innkeeper and executive chef John Harasty standing at his back yard grill, working magic with ordinary peaches that will be picture-perfect deliciousness on our breakfast plates. During our two-day stay, we’ll enjoy his exquisite from-scratch scones, quiche, strawberry soup and Bananas Foster waffles. (Harasty also provides homemade gluten-free pastries, so I miss out on nothing.)
Later in the day, we visit Santa Rosa’s Harvest Moon Estate and Winery (https://harvestmoonwinery.com), where owner/grower/winemaker Randy Pitts is having a difficult day. He blows through the door of the tasting room, pours three different wines into a large goblet, takes a slow sip and takes a deep breath.
“The forklift is broken,” he announces with exasperation, then jokingly asks us, “Would you like a job?”
That job would be the backbreaking work of shoveling thousands of pounds of newly harvested grapes into the machine that separates fruit from stems.
Pitts grew up on this land, and like many who come from wine-making and agriculture families here, left resolving never to return. But living in San Francisco “and being a paper-pusher” brought little joy, and eventually he returned to his family’s nine-acre ranch where his father had grown grapes for other wineries for years.
Now he, wife Sydney and their two children live and work here.
It was in 2002, after a wine-making experiment, that Pitts decided he could make his own wine.
“My favorite thing about growing grapes and making wine is that I get to make something other people want,” he says. “As we move towards service-based world economies, I get incredible satisfaction knowing I create from the raw material to putting the final product in my happy clients’ hands. Taking my dogs to work is fun as well.”
Doing all this “on the dirt where I was born and raised and taking the property to the next level is also very fulfilling,” he adds.
By the time we leave, the fork lift is doing its job again and I, for one, feel a lot better.
So many wineries; so little time – the dilemma faced by most visitors to Sonoma County, so where to start? Find help at www.wineroad.com. (There are 425-plus wineries in Sonoma County; more than 200 are members of Wine Road.) Click on “Concierge” and a questionnaire (free) will help narrow choices and suggest an itinerary of wineries, restaurants and lodging that match your preferences. Also order the free Wine Road map, too.