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Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Sonoma’s Celebrity Wineries - Of Emmy’s, Grammy’s & Writer’s Block

It's nice to be a celebrity - people treat you well, you own nice things and have the money to do most anything you want, say like, starting a winery. Sonoma seems to have a lock on celebrities-turned-vignerons. A visit to this bewitching wine country shows the diversity of celebrity styles and their wineries from theatrical to tranquil amid the rural setting of the Sonoma countryside.
What a Fool Believes
Inside the BR Cohn tasting room
The Doobie Brothers have sold over 40 million records with hits like China Grove, Listen to the Music, and, What a Fool Believes. But their success in large part came because of Bruce Cohen who is the Doobie Brothers’ manager. But Bruce Cohn was not just about music. He bought land in Sonoma, built a house for his family and raised his kids in what is now the winery tasting room for BR Cohn Wines. In addition to an outdoor grassy amphitheater where music is played all summer long for the last 27 years, there are 13 gold and 11 platinum records that stud the tasting room walls, signed guitars and photos. BR Cohn also produces olive oil from trees on their property. “Our olive trees are the largest and oldest picholine olive trees in California,” Bruce’s son, Dan Cohn, tells me. You can sample wines like Zinfandel, Barbera, and Cabernet, and olive oil, and both will be music to your ears.

An Offer Your Can’t Refuse
The Author at the Godfather desk at Coppola Winery
With wineries in both Napa and Sonoma, Oscar winning film director Francis Ford Coppola turned to winemaking after filmmaking. His Sonoma property is a palatial estate and in addition to an onsite restaurant and tasting room, Coppola has a mini-museum with props from some of his well-known films including Apocalypse Now, Dracula, Tucker; The Man and His Dreams, and his iconic American gangster film, The Godfather. Surfboards used in Apocalypse Now hang from the ceiling, the black veiled costume worn by actor Gary Oldman in Dracula sits encased in glass and the Tucker car gleams in the center of a room flanked by a circular staircase and the iconic Godfather desk and chair sits atop a staircase illuminated by amber lamps. There’s also a collection of Coppola’s five Academy Awards. Coppola produces a lot of wine including a series called Director’s Cut, which includes Cabernet, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.

Animating Wine
Tasting at Lasseter Family Wines
If Pixar movies like Toy Story, Cars, and Monster’s Inc. - all helmed by John Lasseter - are up your alley, then you might think the Lasseter Family Wines tasting room and wines are consistent with high energy comedy and spectacle. Well, it’s the exact opposite. The Lasseter tasting room is actually a bit subdued, a non-Hollywood counterpoint to places like Coppola and Cohn. Though architecturally beautiful and comfortable with sleek clean décor there is very little Pixar memorabilia displayed here. There are a few wine glasses with etched logos of Monsters Inc. and other Pixar movies but you won’t see much else. Open by reservation only, this is a sit down wine tasting with a small plate of food, made to accentuate the wines.
Calling the Wild
The Remnants of Jack London's Wolf House
Though he died in 1916, author Jack London (White Fang, The Call of the Wild), was one of the foremost celebrities of his day, authoring over 24 novels and dozens of short stories. He built a 15,000 square foot, four-story stone and wood home he called Wolf House, deep in the forests of Glen Ellen. Weeks before he was to move in his massive residence mysteriously caught fire and was destroyed, only the stone and brick chimneys standing like mute sentinels as witnesses to history. To this day no one knows who started the fire; was it an accident, did his wife set the blaze, were locals intolerant of this unsightly structure in their backyard, did London himself set the fire to cash in on insurance money? These are viable theories, but the truth is still as elusive as the smoke that rose from the ashes nearly a hundred years ago. You can visit JackLondon State Historic Park, as I have many times, and the burned out shell of his home. A half-mile walk along a dirt path takes you to moss-covered stone walls surrounded by pine trees; at once both eerie and calming.

The Supporting Characters
Having penned movies as diverse as The Karate Kid, Taken, and A Walk in the Clouds, screenwriter Robert Kamen has written his passion for wine in the form of his own tasting room just off the Sonoma Square. His vineyard sits stop a long circuitous dirt road, overlooking San Pablo Bay, which I visited with Robert a while back. In addition to Cabernet, and Syrah, he offers a wine called Writer’s Block, a blend of Petite Sirah, Cabernet and Syrah.

The Author flanked by Kate MacMurray (L) and Gina Gallo (R) at MacMurray Ranch
Though it’s only open to the public once a year during the monumental Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, MacMurray Ranch was once the apple of actor Fred MacMurray’s eye. MacMurray (Double Indemnity, The Absent Minded Professor, TV’s My Three Sons) started raising shorthorn cattle, actually competing against my great uncle (affectionately called Uncle John O and a hell of a guy!). MacMurray had visions of turning his ranch into a working winery - something that eluded him before his death, however his daughter, Kate, eventually accomplished this and she graciously showed off the ranch to me. The Gallo Family purchased his property and still works with Kate MacMurray to make exceptional wine including Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir. If you attend Sonoma Wine Country Weekend in September during the grand tasting at the ranch you’ll notice two redwood trees planted by hand by Fred MacMurray in 1941 at the entrance to the original 1840s barn.

Ultimately Sonoma is about the wines first, and celebrity second. Sonoma is a slice of quintessential California and a place of relaxation, regardless of whose name is on the bottle. So come enjoy California at its best - a mix of star power and intoxicating grape juice. 

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