Unti Vineyards: Italy in Sonoma
If you visit Sonoma add Unti Vineyards to your list. If you like food friendly wines (less oak, lower alcohol, more acidity) don’t wait to visit, just place an order. Even if you’re not ready to order, sign up for their mailing list; their newsletter offers a glimpse of their personality with plenty of tongue-in-cheek humor.
Unti Vineyards is on our short list of favorite wineries. We visit every time we are in Sonoma and order regularly via mail. I had the opportunity to visit Unti again this past November, but this time, I made sure I had my camera!
Unti is located a short way up Dry Creek Road on the way out of Healdsburg. Once you pass the Dry Creek General Store (a great stop for cheese, bread and gifts,) you are only about a mile away. Unti’s tasting room is in their winery, and while they don’t allow drop-ins, they will happily accommodate you that day if you call in advance. There is a big benefit to this approach – you never face a huge crowd, sharing the room with one or two other groups. They have great hours: 10:00am-4:00 pm, seven days a week. I scheduled my appointment for 10 am on Sunday, to give myself the best chance of a quiet visit and I requested a tour of the winery if they weren’t too busy.
As you drive in, you are looking at about 1/2 of the 60 acres of Unti vineyards. The other thirty acres are across Dry Creek Road. It’s a beautiful spot surrounded by hills on either side of the valley. In early November, the grapevines had finished their work for the year and were well into shutting down for the winter. Of course, “winter” is a relative term; not to be confused with Minnesota winter!
Nothing fancy, but everything is clean and orderly. As I drove up, Buena Vista Social Club (Cuban jazz) was playing outside and in the winery itself; no elevator music here!
Once inside, you’ll see that the tasting room is also the office, the shipping area and part of the barrel aging area. George Unti’s wife, Lynda, is an artist and her artwork decorates the walls. On this day my host was Alex who also handles their commercial and restaurant sales.
The Unti family has Italian roots and their taste in wines definitely leans to the old world style. They aren’t trying to mimic European wines but rather use the traditional old world approach with the grapes they grow in their Dry Creek Valley vineyards. Compared to many wineries in the area, they pick their grapes at lower levels of ripeness with higher levels of acidity and they avoid excessive use of new oak. The results are balanced wines that marry beautifully with food. The tasting room experience only gives you a little of what these wines have to offer. They need a great meal to really show their stuff.
We tasted a bit, then realized we should get on with the tour as another group would show up soon. From a casual look below, you might think all wineries look pretty much the same. On closer inspection, you’ll notice some interesting items: a concrete egg and some huge oak foudres. They also have some large square concrete tanks, not shown in this photo.
They were still processing some of the last grapes so we were able to see the winery in action. They were well past the peak of activity but not yet done for the season.
Below are the oak foudres. These are common in the Rhone and in many parts of Italy, but you don’t see them very often in the US. A foudre holds 4500 liters (!) of wine, compared to a typical barrel which holds 225 liters. The larger volume brings a lower level of oak influence and a more gentle air exchange as compared to a standard barrel (barely visible on the right). By the way, Unti only uses French oak barrels.
As we left the winery, we saw some more work going on with some of the last grapes. Here you see punchdowns in action.
Punchdowns are very physical, both for the human and for the grapes!
A few minutes later, I saw the basket press in use.
Pressing the must – the color is just beautiful.
Unti Vineyards’ focuses on red wines, although they do make a very nice crisp white blend and a stunning rosé (here’s what I think of their rosé). They make a Zinfandel, two different Syrah’s, a Grenache dominant blend, and several Italian wines: Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Barbera, Segromigno. I have had each of these wines and can recommend them all.
Today, we tasted the 2010 Grenache, 2009 Montepulciano, the 2009 Zinfandel, and two 2009 Syrah’s. The Grenache and the Syrah Normale were my favorites today.
Unti 2010 Grenache – I’ve had several different vintages of the Grenache now, and the 2010 is so bright and vivid and just sings of Grenache; very pretty. I noted that the Grenache was raised in those big foudres we saw in the winery.
Unti 2009 Syrah Normale – I was taken with the 2009 Syrah Normale. They describe it as being very Croze-Hermitage like, and I wholeheartedly agree. It was fermented with 1/2 whole clusters and 30% new oak. It was unfined and unfiltered. It was really meaty & earthy, qualities I love in Syrah.
Unti 2009 Zinfandel – I have several bottles of this at home, ordered earlier this year. I really like Unti’s Zinfandel, you would call it a classic or old school take on Zinfandel. This Zin comes alive with red meats cooked on the grill, anything from a burger to a nice steak.
Unti doesn’t have a wine club, preferring to let their customers pick just the wines they want. They offer a 20% discount for a period of time on their new releases, and they also offer 6, 12, & 24 bottle discounts. Their wines are reasonably priced, ranging from $20-$40 typically (before discount). All their wines are from Unti Vineyards grapes.
After my visit at Unti Vineyards, my next stop was the airport and November in Minneapolis. I stayed just a few minutes more to soak in November in the Dry Creek Valley.
Thanks to Alex and to Unti Vineyards for another fun visit. See you next time – we’ll be back!