Change is coming in Geyserville, California. You may not see it yet, but you can feel it. The town’s excitement – and anxiety – about the very near future is tangible. The tiny community of about 1,600 wine-loving souls is on the verge of significant changes. Geyserville’s burgeoning wine industry has produced star-quality product for decades. Now, at a time when wine has taken a much higher profile in our society, Geyserville is on the precipice of cashing in.
The citizens of Geyserville have a palpable attitude of hope – hope that change is coming, and hope that the change will be good. They are a small town – downtown is not much more than a wide spot in the road. But the change these people are hoping for is a change that will widen that road, and populate it with more and more businesses to serve the tourism that the change will bring. It would be easy to read a little desperation into all that hope, but that’s not how it comes across. These people know what they have – a collection of extremely good wineries and vineyards which are responsible for wines of a very high quality. But they know that is not enough. What they need now is for people to notice. And people are noticing.
The former Chateau Souverain was purchased by the Francis Ford Coppola wine empire, and the change has already started there. Coppola is moving his public profile in the wine biz from his Rutherford property to the Geyserville facility, which makes a huge statement all on its own. His Oscars are already there, and his expansion – more on that in a bit – is set for completion by the summer of 2010. Nearby River Rock Casino has expansion plans of its own. Although their hotel plans have been put on the back burner due to the economy, they are at least still on the stove. Just a small economic upturn could be the spark that relights the fire. This sort of change will bring more people to the area, and a higher profile to a wine region that richly deserves a little more notice.
Geyserville has the good fortune to sit in one of the most amazing grape-growing regions in the world. The Alexander Valley of northeastern Sonoma County is blessed with great soil and several diverse microclimates that rival the most prominent wine locales in France and Italy. The wineries in Geyserville produce wines of a consistently high quality, easily able to stand alongside the bottlings of any other California appellation. The grape growers and winemakers of Geyserville and the surrounding area are just as smart and just as passionate as their brethern from other locales, and probably a lot more down to earth. Aside from a few big names situated here, most of the wine producers in Geyserville are small boutique wineries with limited production. Big name or small, some pretty fantastic wines are being produced around Geyserville.
As I wandered about the community I couldn’t help but notice how friendly and open everyone was. Each winery I visited seemed to be one of the nicest places in the state in which to hang out. I could ask anybody any question and get an answer that was thoughtful and insightful. Everywhere I went, “laid-back” was the prevailing attitude. There wasn’t an Italian sportscar in sight the whole time I was there. In fact, it would have been no surprise at all to see a horse tied to a hitchin’ post.
Wineries To Watch
Geyserville is home to several of the bigger names in winemaking. The old Chateau Souverain now bears the impressive name of Francis Ford Coppola Presents Rosso & Bianco. It sounds like it should be spoken with a fanfare accompanying it. Coppola is known as an idea man. His ideas are being made into reality at Rosso & Bianco, and when he’s done, he will have changed the face of Geyserville dramatically. His plans – which are frequently emended as the work progresses – call for the winery to be made into a wine resort, with dining, swimming, lounging and even activities and a play area for the kids. Coppola’s changes will attract more people to Geyserville and, with a hotel not included in his plans, will push eager tourism dollars out into the community.
One of the many boutique wineries that populate Geyserville, Trione Vineyards and Winery, has developed such a reputation with the wine alone that they can place a tasting menu on the counter which features nothing but award-winning wines. Only one of them was produced in a quantity greater than 600 cases, and two of them were made in lots of less than 500 cases. The tropical Sauvignon Blanc, the apple pie Chardonnay, the earthy Pinot Noir and the Cabernet Sauvignon which spent 24 months in French oak barrels are big highlights on a roster that has only winners.
Jim Rickards of J Rickards Winery would probably bristle at the mention of the word “boutique” in connection with his operation, but that’s the cattleman in him talking. His interests turned from bovine to old vine when he bought his vineyard in the 1970s and began selling grapes to other area winemakers – Silver Oak, Geyser Peak and Dry Creek Vineyards to name a few. His plants date back to 1908 and he has augmented the originals with newly planted clones of old vines. He and his wife Eliza began producing extremely small batches of handmade wines in the early ’90s for friends. The reception was enthusiastic enough that they finally decided to start bottling on their own with the 2004 vintage. That move made them a lot more friends.
The Pedroncelli family runs the oldest winery in the Alexander Valley, and is one of a handful of Italian-American families in the wine business there. The Pedroncellis were around when the Dry Creek Valley floor was all prune trees. They’ve done quite well with the grapevines, though.
TV legend Raymond Burr didn’t really want his vineyards to bear his name. But when Burr passed away his longtime partner Robert Benevides decided it was only right. Today, a very limited amount of top-notch wine is still made with care. One look at the view from the tasting room door and you’ll know why Burr didn’t mind that long drive up the hill.
Stryker Sonoma‘s showcase tasting room literally puts the vineyard on display, with ceiling-to-floor glass for walls. Murphy-Goode Winery is in Geyserville, although their tasting room is located in Healdsburg. Clos du Bois and Geyser Peak both have names that are familiar to California supermarket shoppers.
Now, Geyserville is presently about as big as a street corner – at least the downtown business district is. But it’s nice to know that you can get plenty of tastes without wandering too far from your accommodations.
Locals tasting room was one of my favorite spots. There you can sample from 75 different wines by 11 local producers like Dark Horse, Eric Ross, Atrea and Hawley, just to name a few. They like to pour a “varietal comparison flight,” several tastes of one kind of grape from different producers. It’s a great way to experience the differences and similarities of various wineries side-by-side. Of course, they also pour what ever you’d like to try, so skip around the extensive two-page tasting menu all you like. Everything you taste is for sale by the bottle in the store. The shop is funded by a collective of the wineries, and the staff knows what they’re pouring, so any questions you may have about what you’re tasting will be answered.
Terroirs Artisan Wines handles only four local wines, Godwin Family Wines, Hughes Family Vineyards, Palmeri and Pena Ridge. I tasted both the Godwin and the Hughes while I was there, and they both impressed me.
You should also try and get into Route 128 Vineyards and Winery tasting room. Pete and Lorna Opatz opened a tasting room in what was once the parts department of one of the first Ford dealerships in the country. Their 60 combined years of experience with grapes pays off well in their boutique wines. They produce less than 500 cases per year, the standouts being a crisp and lovely Viognier, a lively Zinfandel and an award-winning Syrah which mixes chocolate and blueberry flavors in a delightful way. In the tiny room, you may find art from local Twyla Gettert or even a pairing event with nephew and culinary artist Rian Rinn. Route 128 is a definite “must taste” in Geyserville.
Some people consider “wine futures” to be a good investment. I think the time is ripe for some enterprising entrepreneurs to buy futures in Geyserville. Services are needed now, and the need will grow exponentially when the Coppola project and the casino hotel are reality. The town lacks a true grocery market and needs a bakery and a coffee shop that open early. Although Diavalo and the Hoffman House are hard to beat, a couple of extra dining choices would be nice and more lodging will be needed, too. Oh, and that little downtown area could use some sprucing up. Geyserville has great wine. Now it just needs to get dressed up a bit before the company comes over. Keep an eye on the Alexander Valley, and Geyserville in particular. You’ll be seeing a lot more of them in the future.