Sometimes you just have to be good and ready

By Celia Strong

Sometimes it’s good to go back to basics. Sometimes, old friends are the best. Sometimes old is new. Sometimes you have to re-visit something you’ve forgotten.  Sometimes a lot of things. And today, we are at “sometimes.”  And, as we will see, sometimes are good times.

We travel to Sonoma, California this week. Sonoma is a city, in Sonoma Valley, in Sonoma County. And a source for wines. It can get a bit confusing when you say “Sonoma,” especially when a specific “Sonoma” can make a difference. Despite the reputations of wines from Napa Valley, and many other parts of this state, Sonoma is also considered to be central to California’s wine industry.

The city of Sonoma began as a mission of the Franciscan order in 1823. It is still based around the original town square. This mission, the Mission of San Francisco Solano, founded by Father José Altimira of the Franciscan Order in Mexico, was the furthest north of all the 21 California missions. It was also the last to be established and the only one to be founded after Mexico’s independence from Spain. Soon after it was established, the Mexican government started secularizing all the missions and Sonoma came under the supervision of General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. (And, yes, some of us have been drinking for long enough to remember the “M G Vallejo” brand!) Vallejo built barracks next to the mission for his soldiers and struggled to control the native tribes in the area. He also had to keep an eye on the Russian settlers who played a part in Sonoma’s early history and development. The General himself owned over 7 million acres which made him one of the largest landowners, one of Sonoma’s most illustrious residents and instrumental in Sonoma becoming the political center of early northern California. General Vallejo encouraged all Americans to come to Sonoma, as long as they did not get too powerful. In 1836, Vallejo was named “Comandante General” of the California territory. But, his partiality toward family and other Mexican citizens finally landed him in jail, in 1846, after the Bear Flag Revolt, by American immigrants, when Sonoma was declared the capital of the new Republic of California. Still, though, Vallejo was instrumental in the new town’s development because of his huge landholdings.

As far as wine goes, and let’s face it, that’s what we really care about, Sonoma is considered to be the birthplace of winemaking in California. The original Mission San Francisco Solano had vineyards that were maintained throughout the history of the area. The father of California viticulture, “Count” Agoston Haraszthy, who founded Buena Vista Winery in 1857, was responsible for many improvements in the young industry. Of importance to Sonoma, he is credited with introducing Zinfandel grapes (Primitivo grapes from Italy) into the vineyards here. The state’s oldest wine festival, the Valley of the Moon Vintage Festival, still takes place late in September every year. Please note, that “sonoma” is the Native American name that means “valley of the moon.”  And, yes, we have looked at wines in the past from both Buena Vista Winery and Valley of the Moon Winery. Sometimes, old is new; sometimes looking back again is good; sometimes everything we do (or in our case everything we drink) is sort of connected. Sometimes all is good. For sure.

Moving on to more wine info, “Sonoma Valley” is the AVA for wines the we call just “Sonoma.”  The AVA is mostly in the southern part of the county, between the Mayacamus Mountains on the east and the Sonoma Mountains on the west.  The first vineyards here were planted in 1823, by the Mission. By 1920, there were 256 wineries in Sonoma. Prohibition was as hard on these wineries as any where else in the country, and many of them were not able to continue operating. And, after the repeal of Prohibition, in 1933, recovery was very slow. By 1969, there were only 58 wineries in Sonoma Valley. Then, in the 1970’s and 1980’s, the wine industry finally started to expand here. Official boundaries for the  Sonoma Valley AVA were established in 1981, and it became the eighth designated AVA. By 2005, Sonoma was back up to over 250 wineries, and the industry now brings over $8 billion (yep, billion) dollars into the local economy every year.

It was during the big surge in winemaking during the 1980’s that three friends, who matter greatly to us, worked together. Tim Murphy, Dale Goode (pronounced just “good”) and Dave Ready founded Murphy-Goode Winery in 1985. They were all wine lovers and, while playing a game of Liar’s Dice cards, decided to make it all official. Their first wines were sourced just from the Murphy Ranch and the Murphy-Goode Vineyard in Sonoma. Their first wines were a Fumé Blanc and a Chardonnay. Quickly, though, they developed more sources and more wines and developed a great reputation for red Bordeaux varietal wines and Zinfandels. They gave the name “Liar’s Dice” to one of their Zin wines. Their wines became part of the California wine boom that spread across the United States, particularly their Merlot, during the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st. David Ready, Jr. Became the winemaker for Murphy-Goode wines in 2001. He grew up in Minnesota, but wanted to be a rock star so California was the place to be. He was appointed assistant winemaker in 1997. Recently, Murphy-Goode Winery was acquired by Jackson Family Wines (of Kendall Jackson fame), and they plan to continue their growth and standing in the Sonoma County wine business. More money is always good.

All of which gets us to our wine for this week — Murphy-Goode Merlot. Like we’ve talked about in previous discussions, Merlot is a cousin to Cabernet, not as heavy a wine, the grape itself often used for blending. At the same time that the Murphy-Goode Winery was starting its business, Merlot wines were being discovered by drinkers in this country as good alternatives to the sometimes too heavy and too harsh California Cabernet Sauvignon wines. Good timing by the three friends. Their use of Bordeaux red varieties at affordable prices was a great decision. The fact that their wines, Merlot in particular, were true to their variety’s flavors and textures made them perfect choices for many wine drinkers.

Since the 1990’s, Murphy-Goode Merlot has been velvety with soft tannins, and full of plum, cherry, blueberry, boysenberry, smoke, coffee, chocolate flavors. It is medium-bodied, full enough to go well with many foods (more in a second) and to satisfy many drinkers. Revisiting it sometime, soon, is a good idea. Once a good Merlot, always…

The current vintage of Murphy-Goode Merlot, 2010, was sourced from vineyards throughout California, many still in Sonoma. The warm weather for this vintage let the Merlot grapes ripen fully for dark fruit character (black cherry, blackberry), while cool nights helped maintain the acidity in the grapes. Barrel aging added notes of thyme and nutmeg on top of the lush fruit flavors.  Those who work at the winery now recommend burgers, lamb burgers especially, grilled poultry or seafood, appetizers in general, and lots more with this wine.

And, what about “Goode and Ready?”  The winery slogan?  (Check out the side of your cork when you open your bottle.) Sometimes, not only do you have to be good and ready, you actually can drink good and ready. Oops, that should be Goode and Ready. And good it is and ready we are. For $12.99. Look out. Sometime is now!  Hope you’re ready  for it. Enjoy.

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