Four Fun Family-Run Wineries in Sonoma County
Featuring Balletto Vineyards, Harvest Moon Winery, Dry Creek Vineyard and Keller Estate.
If there is one question that I have heard over and over since living in the Napa/Sonoma wine region for the past 20 years, it is “What wineries do you recommend that we visit?”
This is an almost impossible question to answer, because there are more than 1,000 wineries in Napa/Sonoma County, and for the most part (in my opinion) they are all wonderful. Each winery has its own personality – some focus on luxury wine experiences; others on the outdoors; some are dog and kid-friendly; whereas other are posh, elegant and expensive.
However, when it comes to Sonoma County, there are a number of fun family-run wineries that I visit again and again. This is mainly because they offer a relaxed, casual environment where I can just be myself, rather than a wine professor, wine journalist, and Master of Wine.
I recommend these wineries to first time visitors to Sonoma County, because they are very friendly, down-to-earth, not too expensive, make delicious award-winning wines, and are still family owned and operated.
Also, they are all located within the actual estate vineyards from which they harvest the majority of their wine grapes.
This winery was started by John Balletto and family. On certain days you can even catch John wandering around the tasting room, which is located in the middle of the vineyards in Russian River Valley AVA. It is delightful to sit at one of the outdoor patio tables to taste wines and gaze at some of the very vineyards which produced the wine in your glass.
They specialize in pinot noir and chardonnay, for which they win multiple awards every year. But they also produce delightful zinfandels, rosés, pinot gris, gewürztraminer, dessert, and sparkling wine.
I have taken many friends, family members, and more than 50 of my Wine Biz students to visit this winery, and always they are friendly and hospitable. Amazingly, you can still make a reservation to taste 4 of their estate wines for only $15 per person (another reason why I take family here!), and you can order a cheese plate for extra.
The staff is very friendly and knowledgeable (many of them are my former students), and it is a great place to start your wine-tasting day, or just relax at the end of the day.
Harvest Moon Winery
This is a small jewel of a winery nestled in the Russian River Valley AVA just outside of Santa Rosa, with the family home and vineyard on the property.
Established by Randy Pitts (who was also one of my former Wine Biz students), he started making wine in his garage and ended up winning the top amateur-winemaking award at the Sonoma County Harvest Festival. So he decided to open a winery next to the family house in an old barn.
Harvest Moon almost immediately became a success because of its excellent wines, plus friendly, casual environment. It is very famous for their sparkling Gewürztraminer, which sells out quickly every year, as well as zinfandel, pinot noir, malbec, sangiovese and other varietals. Tastings start at $25 per person, and include a tour of the crush pad where the wine is made.
This winery is both dog and kid-friendly.
Dry Creek Vineyard
I always encourage friends to bring a picnic to Dry Creek Vineyard located in the Dry Creek Valley AVA. This is because they have one of the most beautiful picnic grounds of any winery – with soft green grass, shady trees, flowers, and picnic tables. So if the weather is good, pack some food, or stop off at the Dry Creek General Store , established in 1881.
It is located just across the road from the winery and makes amazing sandwiches. I generally do the wine-tasting first, and then purchase a bottle of wine for everyone to drink at the picnic.
Dry Creek Vineyard was started by Dave Stare, and is now run by his daughter Kim. You can often find her on premises, as well as some of her children.
The winery is known for its award-winning zinfandel, sauvignon blanc, and chenin blanc. But they also make complex cabs, light and fruity rosé, sparkling, and other varieties. Wine tastings start at $30 per person, and they also offer a picnic tasting with wine and boxed lunch during summer months for $60.
This winery is located in the Petaluma Gap AVA, which is famous for its cool climate pinot noir, chardonnay, and syrah wines. I’ve been to Keller Estate many times, and am always impressed with the beauty of the winery nestled in rolling hills covered with vineyards.
It is also one of the first wineries you can visit, if you are driving up from San Francisco.
The winery was started by Ana Keller, who is often found in the tasting room. She is very friendly, knowledgeable and helped to establish the Petaluma Gap AVA. The winery has won many awards for its wines – all estate grown, and renowned for its vast antique car collection.
Tastings are $50 per person, and also include an in-depth walking tour of the estate. The panoramic view from the tasting room patio is stunning.
Now, it is possible to visit all four of these wineries in one day, but my recommendation is to visit two per day. Or take your time, and schedule them at a leisurely pace of one.
After all, these are family-run wineries where you will want to linger and relax, spending quality time with your family and/or friends, and a delicious glass of wine – most likely made from the vineyard in front of you. Enjoy!