Small, back road wineries are my absolute favorite. Even though they may be harder to find, the reward is definitely worth the effort.
Aside from the slightly more complicated journey, back road wineries offer an experience you’d never find along the main tasting routes. Many small wineries are family owned with rich histories and deep local roots. Sometimes the “tasting room” is a rustic bench on the edge of a vineyard, or a folding table in the middle a production facility in an obscure industrial park. The tasting room “staff” is often the winemaker or a family member sharing their handcrafted wines and telling stories with a passion that can only be told by someone who lives & breathes wine.
My last visit to Sonoma included one of my most memorable back road winery experiences to date. The only winery I had on my list was Porter-Bass – a small estate winery on the outskirts of Guerneville that was recommended by a local sommelier.
Visits to Porter-Bass are by appointment only so I was thrilled we were able to schedule a tasting with relatively short notice. We left downtown Guerneville and made our way up Mays Canyon Road, driving through groves of redwoods that often completely obscured our view of the sun. Just when we thought we might have gone too far, the towering pines gave way to a clearing – a gorgeous, rolling vineyard surrounded on all sides by the dense forest.
We had arrived at Porter-Bass Winery and I was so excited… it was magical. We got out of the car and were greeted by Susan Porter – winemaker Luke Bass’ mom. She lead us to a sitting area under a large walnut tree where we tasted wine and enjoyed wonderful conversation for well over an hour.
Porter-Bass focuses solely on three varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, while the winery’s Poco a Poco label also includes a Sauvignon Blanc and a few other varietals. With a current production of only 800 – 1000 cases under the Porter-Bass label and roughly 4000 cases for Poco a Poco, the only place to pick up a bottle is at the winery, through their mailing list, or in a small handful of wine stores.
The wines were all outstanding, but my surprising favorite was the Porter-Bass Estate Zinfandel from Dot’s Garden. It was juicy and beautifully balanced – not like the overripe, raisinated Zinfandels you sometimes find. After chatting with Luke Bass over email, I learned that he makes Zinfandel in the same way he makes Pinot Noir, picking the fruit at lower sugar levels, treating it very gently, and allowing the juice to ferment slowly in neutral French oak. As a Pinot Noir lover, it’s no wonder I enjoyed this wine so much.
I also learned that Dot’s Garden is Porter-Bass’ “best and last remaining block of Zinfandel, which includes a very steep section of 100+ year old vines”. Dot was Luke’s maternal grandmother and it was through her that his parents were able to move to the area. The rest of the Zinfandel vines on the estate are 35+ years old.
It doesn’t take long to understand that family is the heart and soul of Porter-Bass Winery. Luke’s parents Sue and Dirck found the property in 1979 – a time when west Sonoma County was a “very sleepy place and the property was pretty run down”. Through many years of hard work, his parents transformed the estate and brought out it’s incredible natural beauty.
The home on the property – which strikes a perfect balance between modernity and harmony with the surrounding environment – was designed by Dirck who spent most of his adult life as an architect. The incredibly cool wine labels were also designed by Dirck. As Luke told me, he likes to think of the bee as his mom who has been “the main force behind the vineyard and is happiest out working in the vineyard” while is dad is “the creative grasshopper”. It also depicts “the balance needed in making wine, between hard work and creativity”.
Growing up in the vineyard, Luke always knew he was going to be involved in his family’s business. Working at Flowers Vineyard & Winery after graduating college in 1997 got him truly excited about winemaking. “In many ways, I see myself as a grape grower first and a winemaker second” Luke told me. “In all my wines, I am really just trying to get out of the way as a winemaker and let the grapes express the site”.
In addition to taking a hands-off winemaking approach, Porter-Bass has been farming Biodynamically since 1999. Biodynamics is an ecological, sustainable, holistic style of farming that incorporates preparations meant to heal and rejuvenate the earth rather than strip it of its resources. At Porter-Bass, Biodynamics is primarily used to revitalize the fertility of soils that have been farmed for over 100 years. “At it’s core, Biodynamics is about paying very close attention to the vineyard and that fits with the way we have always farmed”.
Unfortunately our visit to Porter-Bass eventually came to an end. I did however take home a bottle of each wine we tasted so I could transport myself back to that bench under the walnut tree and taste the sunshine, the soil, the fruit, the attention to detail, and the extraordinary place that all went into making Porter-Bass’ amazing wine.
PORTER-BASS WINERY & POCO A POCO WINES
11750 Mays Canyon Road
Guerneville, CA 95446
Phone: (707) 869-1475
Fax: (707) 869-1435
* Tastings & tours by appointment ONLY. Please call ahead to schedule a visit.