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A valley rising
Why Sonoma no longer plays second fiddle to Napa

If you live in the United States and you love wine, itís probably only a matter of time before you give in to the urge to visit wine country, usually defined as Napa and Sonoma Counties in California.

Now, I have nothing against Napa, home of those huge cabernet sauvignons and monster chardonnays, plump merlots and powerful zinfandels, most of which carry big price tags. Itís a nice place to visit: crowded on weekends, but you get to taste lots of impressive wines in attractive wineries.

For a long time, Sonoma was " the other valley " ó as in, not Napa. Its wines were inferior, and hence cheaper. It did not have the marquee names or the cachet associated with Napa, which had Mondavi and Opus and history.

But Sonoma has come into its own. Across the varietal board, the region produces wines competitive with Napaís finest. So when you plan to visit wine country, I say youíll have a better time and get more bang for your bucks in Sonoma.

At the valleyís northern end, youíll find the towns of Geyserville and Healdsburg. As far as Iím concerned, Healdsburg, a town of less than 10,000, is the unofficial wine-country capital. It has the most charming town square, ringed by quality restaurants and quaint shops. These two towns have more than 50 wineries between them open for your tasting pleasure. Here, Iíll focus on two: Pezzi King and Simi.

Founded in 1993 by the Rowe family, Pezzi King has come a long way over the last decade. The tasting room is beautiful, set on terraces overlooking some of the vineyards. And you canít fake the family thing: everyone here is friendly, knowledgeable about the wines, courteous, and eager to pour and please. The red wines, especially the zinfandels and cabernet sauvignon, receive more attention, but I very much enjoyed the white wines, especially the sauvignon blanc 2000 (labeled fumé blanc) and 1999 Sonoma County chardonnay. The 1998 cabernets show a lot of promise (and 1998 was not the best year for cabernet), and I was blown away by the barrel samples of 2001 zinfandel. Look for those to be released next February.

Simi Winery was founded in 1876 in San Francisco and then moved to Healdsburg in 1881. It continued to make wine during Prohibition, when only the sale of wine was illegal. When Prohibition finally ended in December 1933, the Simi folks not only threw one hell of a party, they also planted a grove of redwood trees around the winery, where you can picnic today.

Simiís tasting room was Healdsburgís most impressive when it was built in 1973. Although the winery was purchased in 1999 by the Canadian wine conglomerate Constellation Brand, it has retained its homespun feel. The extremely friendly tasting-room staff knows its wines and history, and Simiís tour may well be Sonomaís best.

So when you go to California wine country, take it from the top: start in Geyserville and Healdsburg and hit a handful of wineries (you neednít visit more than five in a day). You too may wind up calling Healdsburg the capital of wine country.

2000 Pezzi King Fumé Blanc North Coast. Called North Coast because 48 percent comes from nearby Mendocino County, while 52 percent comes from the Alexander Valley (which encompasses both Mendocino and Sonoma), this tropical-pineapple sauvignon blanc has a plump gooseberry finish, strong in the mid palate. Its clean flavors would complement halibut or a Dover sole or cod.

1999 Pezzi King Zinfandel Old Vines Estate Dry Creek Valley. Plenty of Bing cherry and big alcohol (15.5 percent), balanced nicely by the American and French oak. This wine, with its layers of complexity and long, smooth finish, could someday become a cult classic. Itís restrained for a big zin and would work well with prime rib or short ribs, or even a flavorful barbeque T-bone steak.

1999 Pezzi King Pinot Noir Russian River. Sonoma is becoming known for its pinot noirs, and this wine shows why. Soft and supple, understated but elegant, with ample strawberries and raspberries and a hint of creaminess on the finish. Great with seared ahi tuna or a spicy pork chop.

1999 Simi Sendal Sonoma County. This is Simiís reserve sauvignon blanc, cut with 22 percent sémillon (as are many fine white Bordeaux) and aged in new French oak. The sémillon shines through, balancing out the acidity of the sauvignon blanc. Vanilla and pear notes complement the racy tropical flavors and make this a wonderful companion to a spicy fish, paella, or oysters on the half-shell with mignonette.

2000 Simi Chardonnay Sonoma County. Made with 100 percent malolactic fermentation and judicious use of new oak, bridled apple, and pear flavors, along with some tropical notes. A touch of nuttiness on the finish. Great with a pecan chicken or any nutty fish dish.

1999 Simi Shiraz Sonoma County. A blend of 90 percent syrah and six percent petit verdot (the remainder is cabernet) makes this taste zesty and plump. " Shiraz " suggests a certain fruit-forward style, plus loads of American oak. Round and quite versatile, it should flatter anything from red meat to a spicy gourmet pizza. Huge finish.

1997 Simi Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve Alexander Valley. At $75 a bottle, this is pricey, but you can taste a glass at the winery for a few bucks. You wonít want to spit this wine, with its thick and opulent berry flavors. A powerhouse, big muscles inside a shimmery velvet dress. Depth, complexity, balance, and charm. You might want to bring some cold red meat with you, just to round out the experience.

David Marglin can be reached at wine[a]

Issue Date: March 14-21, 2002
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