Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma by Tilar Mazzeo

“Be careful going in search of adventure – it’s ridiculously easy to find” – William Least Heat Moon

Tilar Mazzeo’s new book – the charming Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma – has made your wine adventures that much easier. This book simply whets one’s appetite for wine travels along the backroads of Sonoma County in search of hard to find, and, yes, adventurous wineries.

The layout of Mazzeo’s Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma is straightforward and easy-to-use. It is divided into five sections (six if you count the Intro/How to Use section) highlighting Sonoma County’s revered wine regions: Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Healdsburg, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley and Carneros. The wines that are written about in this smart little travelogue are the remarkable hand-crafted wines that herald from family-run operations and that, with few exceptions, see only local distribution. (Mazzeo doesn’t spend any time writing about the big dogs of Sonoma). For each chapter, Mazzeo throws in favorite restaurants, cafes, and picnic spots.

It’s not only lesser-known winemakers and wineries represented here. Some wines see a broader distribution than others. Iron Hill, Unti, Robert Young, and Dutton Goldfield, for instance. But keep in mind that these wineries are producing less than 35,000 cases a year. And though it seems a big number, consider that the output of commercial operations is closer to 5 million cases a year.

Most of the wineries presented in Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma produce less than 10,000 cases yearly. Some less than 1000. Most of these wines can only be found and purchased locally. Take Bacar Vineyards in Healdsburg. “One-man wonder” Trace Nunes produces only one wine, a Burgundy-style Pinot Noir that retails for $100. He fairly eschews advertising his wine, favoring working the fields instead. His is an appointment only operation, and Mazzeo makes it clear that it is worth one’s time to make said appointment, as Nunes’ wines are little known and worth the while.

And then there is Nalle Winery, where the Nalle family has been producing small-lot wines in the Dry Creek Valley since the 1980s. It is easy to become enchanted by this family of winemakers who believe that ‘wine makes you smart’ and whose approach to wine is described as “laidback and fun-loving”.

With just over 65 wineries included, Mazzeo’s guide is chockfull of similarly tempting anecdotes, so one must not forget to give certain props where props are due. For how else could one learn of some of these lesser-known wineries – and the producers so single-mindedly passionate about wine – without Ms. Mazzeo’s having travelled these backroads, explored the wineries, and written this book.

Tilar Mazzeo is a cultural historian, biographer, and assistant professor of English at Colby College. This may well explain her depth as a curious human being: in Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma she not only seeks out world class wines, she also seek out the people behind the wines, the stories behind the people. And in her conversational manner, she conveys her considerable wine knowledge. It is like listening to one’s best friend, home from a wine holiday, still giddy with excitement, still full of all those sights and tastes.

With over 7 million tourists – connoisseurs and beginning enthusiasts alike – visiting Sonoma Wine Country annually, it’s not such a bad idea to take to the back roads and experience a wine tasting or two from these smaller wineries. Not to mention, meeting the producers themselves. Most certainly don’t forget to pack Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma. This little gem of a guide, thanks to Tilar Mazzeo, just made your Sonoma adventure ridiculously easier. And remarkably tastier, at that.

Be sure to keep an eye out for Back Lane Wineries of Napa by Tilar Mazzeo, coming 2010.

Back Lane Wineries of Sonoma by Tilar Mazzeo

published by The Little Bookroom 2009