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Wine to me is passion. It's family and friends. It's warmth of heart and generosity of spirit. Wine is art. It's culture. It's the essence of civilization and the art of living. - Robert Mondavi

Sonoma's Castle - Ledson Winery

Monday, January 2, 2012

Driving along Highway 12 through Kenwood, Sonoma, it’s challenging not to find yourself mystified by Ledson Winery, and after visiting it, even more enchanted. The 16,000 square foot gothic-inspired French Normandy winery is known as “The Castle” and it’s no question why. It is an architectural showpiece boasting uniquely eggplant-colored brickwork and a slate roof, featuring sweeping staircases, marble fireplaces, cathedral-style windows, coffered ceilings, luxurious oak and crystal furnishing and furniture and over five miles of ornate wood inlays and mosaics, which were hand cut and installed by Steve Ledson’s son, Mike. When the Ledson family started construction in 1989, they thought the property would be ideal for their residence. They planted 17 acres of Merlot and began work on the house. As the months passed, the turrets, slate roofs, balconies and fountains took shape and passers-by started to take notice, some going so far as to climb the fences to get a better look. The family eventually realized that it was time to rethink the plan. Given the intense public interest in the building and the quality of the Merlot harvested from the estate vineyard - which had been sold to nearby wineries - they decided to turn the home into a winery and tasting room. In 1997 the family released their first wine, the 1994 Ledson Estate Merlot and in 1999 after two years of reconstruction, the winery opened its doors to the public.

After enjoying the neatly manicured grounds and enchanting fountain, we entered the Castle. and were greeted by Shirley, an attendant who was so hospitable that I imagined we were being welcomed by a kind servant at a royal palace. She welcomed us warmly and noted there were three separate tasting rooms, including the Reserve Tasting Room for Club Members up the grandiose stairs on the second floor. Boisterous noise and laughter wafted down from the second floor, and Shirley kindly obliged our request to head up to the Reserve Tasting although we weren’t club members. Upstairs, Freddy, the wine bar attendant, was entertaining a crowd around the beautiful 100 year-old oak bar, flipping wine bottles before he poured them the way a bartender in a trendy mixology bar would with drink shakers. Freddy welcomed us as he poured us a glass of the 2009 Gold Medal Sauvignon Blanc, and handed us the Ledson Wine list that contained over 70 different bottles of wine.

Unlike most other wine tasting rooms, here we could request to taste what we wanted from the expansive wine list and Freddie would oblige, pouring tastes that were so large, we had no choice but to sneakily pour most of it back to the dump bucket when he turned his back. The contents of the dump bucket, Freddie said, is what they sold back to Napa wineries (hinting at the ongoing rivalry between Sonoma and Napa). Ledson’s Reserve Tasting Bar surprised me for several reasons: Freddie himself seemed like the last person I’d imagine running the Reserve tasting at a “castle”. From the exterior of the Castle, I’d expected a stoic wine staff, tiny tastes of a few varietals and an overall stuffy, stodgy experience with lots of velvet red tape alluding to a “don’t touch” atmosphere. Aged 25, Freddie was like the life of a college fraternity party, entertaining us with tastes from tiny vials of barrel wines not yet bottled, performing hand-written impersonations of movie characters, and entertaining us with his jokes about Napa. If we had wanted to stay up there in the private dimly-lit second floor, I think we could have continued for several hours (and clearly some of our fellow tasters has done just that). Fortunately, it was New Years Eve, and Garrett and I knew better than to get carried away.

We selected our favorite wines to purchase (noted below) and were guided by a second tasting room staff, Brittany, to the gourmet market located on the first floor of the winery. The Marketplace is a true sensory feast, stocked with the freshest and finest of the local Sonoma bounty to create an inviting array of salads, sandwiches and quick bites. The Marketplace offers an extensive selection of locally produced gourmet items including condiments, oils, jams, tapanades and artisan cheeses and meats, plus a deli that makes grilled panninis made to order. With the generous pours at the tasting bar, and the beautiful sweeping grounds with picnic areas, keep this marketplace in mind for a great winery to enjoy a gourmet picnic either before or after your tasting.
The quality and variety of Ledson wines was the other surprise to my delight. The winery specializes in small varietal lots that reflect the diversity of their different vineyards and appellations, ranging from the Russian River to Knights Valley to Sonoma Valley. There is even a special Jeff Bridges Meritage, which received 91 points from Wine Spectator. All proceeds from the Jeff Bridges “Be Here Soon” Meritage go towards the Ledson Harmony Foundation For Children. All Ledson wines are sold exclusively at the winery in Kenwood, in their online store, and at the Ledson Hotel & Centre du Vin in Sonoma, so be sure to pick up a few bottles while you’re visiting!

A few of my top picks below: Reviews can be found on the Ledson Website. http://www.ledson.com/wines/index.asp

2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Reserve - $60

2007 Knights Valley Cabernet Sauvignon - $70

2006 California Mouvedre - $36

2007 Russian River Valley Old Vine Zinfandel - Jolene’s Vineyard - $36

2008 California Gunsight Red Wine - $36

2007 Mes Trois Amors - $36

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