You can’t find Gustafson Family Vineyards without a map and determination, but the effort to reach this stunning Sonoma mountaintop winery is well worth it for the unforgettable view, let alone the great wine and handsome architecture.
Gustafson, with vineyards at 1,800 feet above sea level, was the third stop on a September morning tour of three Dry Creek Valley wineries that practice viticulture with good intentions and Earth-friendly practices to produce world-class wines. I’ll cover the other two wineries — Hawley Vineyards and Winery and Preston of Dry Creek — in subsequent posts. So, stay tuned!
There are 20 acres of vines at Gustafson — zinfandel, petite sirah, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, petite verdot, sauvignon blanc and riesling. The vines are planted on a 240-acre parcel of steeply rugged terrain that was once a sheep ranch. The wild unplanted site captured the owner’s eye and imagination in 2002 as he drove along Stewarts Point-Skaggs Springs Road , scouting for new vineyard locations.
“I could have gone anywhere I wanted to and I chose this spot,” said owner/proprieter Dan Gustafson, a farm boy who became a landscape architect and successful builder in Minnesota. He explained his motivation while standing in the shadow of a giant 300-year-old madrone tree that guards a zinfandel vineyard heavy with deep purple fruit.
“We knew that vines would grow wherever there was madrone because they both love this red volcanic soil,” he said.
Still, the vines struggle for nutrients and water pumped into the vineyard sites from a well. There are numerous natural springs on the property which also supports a crop of wild turkey, deer, and feral pigs.
“A flock of turkeys can easily eat 200 pounds of fruit a night,” Gustafson sighed.
For visitors on this day, there was an al fresco luncheon on the winery terrace, catered by Forestville’s Mosaic restaurant and featuring an all-Gustafson lineup of wines. The tour was part of a bigger public event, Zintopia, put on by rhe Winegrowers of Dry Creek Valley.
My favorite, the 2007 zinfandel ($36), was smooth with a pleasantly jammy nose and good plum flavors. The 2007 Petite Sirah ($32) was a slightly better match for the main course of melt-in-your-mouth short ribs over creamy wild mushroom risotto.
Flat space is at a premium on this site. The steepness of the terrain (the grade runs up to 29% in some spots and averages 19%) demands almost all the work be done by hand and on foot.
The stone-and-wood winery sits 17 miles outside Healdsburg, just up the hill from the Lake Sonoma Dam. It’s another 18 miles, as the crow flies, from here to the ocean, which by car translates into a 35-mile twisting -and-turning drive to the Pacific.
Gustafson has a small tasting room that is open by appointment during the week with public tasting on Saturdays only. The posh layout includes private living quarters for Gustafson, who splits his time 50-50 between wine country and his family in Minnesota.
Winemaker Emmett Reed, who apprenticed at a few other places before signing on at Gustafson, lives on the property just down the hill from the winery. He and Gustafson are constantly on the prowl, monitoring the progress of their young vines on a daily basis.
“Every vine is touched at least 12 times a year and with 1,000 vines per acre, that’s a lot of hard work,” Gustafson said. It’s a two-man team, with a part-time tasting room employee and extra help brought in for big projects, like the 2009 harvest.
There are other vineyards within a few miles of the property, but no old-timers here with knowledge to share about any long-term history of winemaking on this spot.
“We are continuing to learn more and more about the vineyard,” Reed explained. “There’s really nobody to tell us what to do or how to do it up here.”
Coming Up Next: Going downhill is not a bad thing if it takes you to Hawley Vineyards and Winery.