Driving into Sonoma Valley from Santa Rosa, the first undeniable indication you've made it to Wine Country is a bizarrely huge stone building a couple hundred yards back in a merlot vineyard, on the north side of Highway 12 in Kenwood.
With its dark bricks, steep walls, slate roofs, spires and imposing posture, it looks like nothing less than a castle, which is exactly how Steve Ledson envisions the Ledson Winery tasting room.
"I call it a Normandy-style castle," he told me in a recent conversation. "My family was originally from Europe, they came over in the 1800s. After I build this place and traveled over there, I started seeing stuff that looked like the Castle, looked like the design. I find it intriguing that I was dreaming all that stuff."
When Ledson says he was "dreaming all that stuff," it's not a metaphor. He originally planned the structure as a family home - he himself grew up a fifth-generation Valley resident, and lived until he was 21 nearby up Pythian Road.
But as the design for structure began to take shape, it took on a life of its own.
"I started sketching out what I wanted for the floor plan," he said, "then I started having these dreams about it. First I'd wake up in the middle of the night and start drawing stuff, then I started putting the plans and elevations I had on the ceiling above my bed.
"As I'd go to sleep, I'd lay there and think about it, and just with that thought in front of my mind I'd dream about it and I'd keep drawing. I designed it, I think, from my dreams."
Ledson, a contractor by trade who looks like he does every task on the job himself, finally decided the place was too much for his family alone. It's when unexpected drive-by visitors came to his door to ask if it was a winery that the idea began to take shape.
"1994 is when I got the idea to convert what was supposed to be my residence into a tasting room. I was actually living in that little guest house while we finished up the main house," he said.
Ledson's family had been making wine in the area since the 1800s, and although he had done so with his father, and knew a lot of winemakers, he had never done so for commercial purposes.
But he took the reins and, while his appeal to the county Planning Commission to convert a residential permit to a commercial winery permit began to drag on, became the winemaker for his first release, a 1993 Merlot from the 17 acres planted at the Highway 12 estate.
After three years of the drawn-out permit process, an appeal to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors resulted in approval of his conversion permit, and he opened for business in 1997 with a doublewide trailer parked on the property serving as the tasting room.
"We still have our first wine club member," he said. "We signed him up in that trailer - in fact I think it was him who gave the tasting room the name, the Double Wide."
The story, about Jan and Dave Holcomb of Denver, is one of many historical anecdotes on Ledson Winery website.
Now Ledson Winery has about 15,000 wine club members, leading the winery's direct-to-consumer sales strategy. Production at Ledson Winery is usually around 30,000 cases, though in recent years it’s dropped to 18,000 due to unfavorable weather, according to General Manager Mark Thomas.
He took me on a tour of the 12,000 square foot castle, its three downstairs tasting rooms and five upstairs luxuriously appointed private rooms, its grounds, its hand-crafted ornate wood inlays cut and installed by Steve's son, Mike.
There is also a gallery of black-and-white portraits and photos of Ledson and Cunningham family ancestors, whose faces resemble (but are not) familiar figures like Jack London or Richard and Pat Nixon, Jack Kerouac to J. Edgar Hoover.
Nearly all of the wine is sold directly to those 15,000 wine club members and others whose preference in wines is known. Sometimes you'll find Ledson wines on a restaurant's wine list - specifically of course at the the downtown establishment he opened in 2003.
"From time to time I offer them to a few places I visit, just because I like to drink my wines," Ledson said.
Makes sense: His wines have been winning a number of prestigious awards, including the Sweepstakes White at the 2006 Sonoma County Harvest Fair, for the 2005 Russian River Sauvignon Blanc.
Still, it's a given that the Castle is his biggest marketing asset.
"The biggest draw is the building," said Thomas. "They're taken aback when they come in and see the big staircase - then they try the wines."
There are three tasting rooms downstairs, of which at least two are usually open, each named after the generation of Steve Larson's father: Noble, Winslow and Whitby. The Gourmet Marketplace is to the left of that grand staircase, where racks and displays fill the big room with zinfandels, cabernets, merlots, sauvignon blancs, syrahs and petite sirahs, just about every varietal you've come across. There are also many dessert wines and, occasionally, celebrity bottlings from the likes of Jeff Bridges, Michael McDonald and Dwight Clark. Plus sandwiches, for picnicking on the oak-shaded grounds.
There are other wineries along Highway 12, in Kenwood and Glen Ellen, leading into Sonoma. Some of them, too, are castles - Chateau St. Jean comes to mind, appropriately. In the Napa Valley, such grandiose structures are not uncommon. But it's not just that Ledson Winery is the first one you come to. It's more than that.
With its blending of fine wines, celebrity, a conspicuous display of wealth and an evident attention to detail, to say nothing of ambitious architecture, the Castle disappoints few. It's one man's Sonoma Valley dreams made manifest, in wine and stone.