Swirl n’ Spit

Swirl n’ Spit

Nicholson Ranch Vineyards and Winery

By Heather Irwin

Lowdown: If you look up into the hillside, just about halfway between Sonoma and Napa on Route 121, a tiny dollhouse of a chapel sits alone overlooking the valley. Each time we drive by, my kids and I make up some fascinating, mysterious and tragic story to explain the church–none of them, it turns out, even remotely correct.

Because of its crossroads location, Nicholson Ranch gets lots of curious passersby, many of them wondering about the church, the land or the newly built winery. The tasting staff is pretty used to filling folks in. The chapel, in fact, belongs to the Nicholson family, who also own the surrounding ranch and winery around it. Family patriarch (and Greek immigrant) Socrates built the chapel for his daughter’s christening. He also built the small Greek amphitheater visitors see coming up the driveway.

Though the Nicholson Ranch has been around for more than 40 years, and the land farmed for more than 125 years, the winery itself (along with the massive cave it sits on) is less than five years old. Prior to 1996, the land was used for cattle and sheep until daughter Ramona (she of christening fame) turned the ranch into a thriving winery that features large picture windows and frequent art shows in the tasting-room gallery.

Mouth value: The ranch is best known for its Chardonnays, with the ’02 Reserve Chardonnay Cuvée Natalie ($45) standing out. The fruit is tempered to withstand heavy oak, making it a solid–if slightly massive–wine. Pinot Noir is also grown on the estate, but falls at the opposite end of the spectrum, seeming almost too subtle to make it a serious contender. Somewhere in the middle, however, is a surprising Rosé of Pinot (’04 Estate Ramona Rosé, $18) with a dry, summery flavor that doesn’t taste like strawberry lip gloss (and trust me, many do).

Don’t miss: Get an exclusive invitation to visit the tiny chapel and sit under the Grandmother Oak with Ramona Nicholson. The winery promises incredible views of the Carneros Mountains and San Pablo Bay, along with a stroll through the vineyard. Serious vertical climbing is involved, but just think about the rosé waiting for you down below. ($40 Wine Club members; $50 public; $25 kids.)

Spot: Nicholson Ranch Vineyards and Winery, 4200 Napa Road, Sonoma. Tasting room is open 11am to 6pm daily; cave tours by appointment. Tasting fee is $5 for three wines. 707.938.8822.

From the August 3-9, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

© 2005 Metro Publishing Inc.

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