Wine Country Events Newsletter
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Carriage Rides at Landmark Vineyards
"Carriage rides," the sign says. Not what you expect along Sonoma Highway near Kenwood, where tasting rooms are lined up like shot glasses on a bar. The other wineries advertise barrel samples, new releases, and picnic lunches. But that's what the sign outside Landmark Vineyards promises, and on a gorgeously crisp autumn Saturday in the Valley of the Moon, plenty of Wine Country visitors make the turn onto Adobe Canyon Road to investigate. What they find is a mission-influenced structure ringed by vineyard -- planted to Chardonnay, as they're about to learn.
Several bright purple umbrellas are pleasantly garish against the lush, green foliage. Many of the visitors have brought their kids. There seem to be more children at the wineries lately. You see them dragged along on tours, staring at their sneakers with boredom, or fidgeting with tasting room knick-knacks while their parents sniff and swirl at the counter. You even see newborns, strapped into their car seats, plopped onto picnic tables and tasting bars. Some visitors are annoyed by the trend, while others see this as a positive development that gives children the opportunity to learn about the healthful effects of moderate wine consumption and its natural place on the table with food. Whatever your take on the issue, it's clear that on summer and fall Saturdays when the carriage rides are offered, Landmark provides an oasis for families touring with kids.
Waiting outside the winery for the carriage, two little boys spot a vintage John Deere tractor and get their father to help them climb aboard. It's but one of several working tractors kept on the property as a tribute to John Deere, the grandfather of the winery's owner, Damaris Deere Etheridge.
"Oh wow," the boys shout as they spot the carriage, a high, buckboard wagon pulled by two snorting Belgian draft horses. Massive and handsome, they look like the Budweiser Clydesdales without the long hair and hardware. The team is driven by Pat Prather. Bearded and topped with a straw hat, he looks like he'd be equally comfortable steering the carriage down a country road a century or two ago. After welcoming the two boys, their parents, and three other couples aboard, Pat launches into easy oration, giving his riders a little background about the winery as the horses pull the carriage past the front gate into the vineyard.
Damaris Deere Etheridge purchased the winery in 1990 as a way of continuing her family's agricultural tradition. Enlisting the help of her son and daughter-in-law, Mike and Mary Colhoun, to run the operation, Etheridge set about turning Landmark into one of Sonoma County's top producers of super-premium Chardonnay. Concerned about the encroachment of suburbia into Windsor, its original location, she started by moving the operation into its present Sonoma Valley home, where Sugarloaf Ridge State Park provides a strikingly beautiful backdrop for weddings and other special events held at the winery.
Pat steers the wagon to the rear of the winery, hops off, and gives the visitors an up-close look at the winemaking process. He points out the bins, presses and other machinery, then leads his guests over to two large open vats. Here is the 2000 vintage of the winery's vaunted "Grand Detour" Pinot Noir. The juice is hiding under the grape skins that float on top, looking like thousands of tiny, purple, broken balloons. Pat explains that the winemaker is using dry ice to keep the mixture cool and arrest fermentation until enough flavor has been extracted from the skins.
Back in the vineyard, holding forth on clones, rootstock, trellis systems, and other details of viticulture, Pat sounds wistful as he tells his guests that the grapes have already been picked. He seems to miss them, but he's happy to answer questions about the harvesting process. The pickers have left behind a small cluster or two on each vine, and Pat grabs one of those to illustrate a point: although Landmark's winemaking team has sophisticated lab analysis to back it up, their preferred way to test the grapes for peak flavor and ripeness is the old way, which Pat gladly demonstrates. He puts a cluster of Chardonnay grapes into his mouth, chews thoughtfully, and says, "They're ready."
When Pat passes another cluster around the carriage, one of the two boys turns up his nose. He knows what grapes look like, and they don't look like these tiny wine grapes with their seeds and thick skins. The other boy, a spunky toddler, imitates Pat. He shoves a handful of grapes into his little face, chews, then spits the seeds and skins into the dirt before asking for more. A future winemaker, no doubt.
While the future winemaker toddles off with his parents (who chose to taste another time without the kids), the other adults repair to the brick-walled tasting room, where the accommodating staff pours samples of the winery's three textured, complex Chardonnays, as well as a fruit forward, ready-to-drink Zinfandel made under its second label, Adobe Canyon. Unfortunately, the Pinot Noir is sold out, so there's none available to taste or buy, but the visitors know there is more Pinot coming soon, right out back.
Landmark Vineyards is one of the wineries you can visit with Burdick Vineyard Tours http://www.burdicktours.com/ Burdick Vineyard Tours offers a variety of vineyard and winery tours, including lunch and musical serenades!
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