Top 10 Wineries of Russian River Valley
A mere hour away from San Francisco, there is a treasure trove of wine goodness known as the Russian River Valley (RRV). It received its AVA (American Viticultural Area) status in 1983. Located in the heart of Sonoma County, it accounts for roughly one sixth of its total planted acreage. It is widely regarded as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country; varieties that thrive in the areas cool, Pacific Ocean-influenced climate. However varietals, such as Syrah, Zinfandel, Sauvignon blanc, Gewürztraminer, Petite Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are cultivated in the area as well.
Many RRV Pinot Noirs are plush, rich, full-bodied, and fruit forward, with a distinct dark fruit flavor profile that makes them easily recognizable. Maritime influences and a long growing season greatly benefit flavor development in RRV Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They feature naturally high acidity and a depth of flavor that are prized expressions of these varietals. Original classic clones such as Martini, Swan, Pommard have given way to newer, shower selections, such as Dijon clones 115, 667, 777 and 828. These newer plantings make for sassy, bright wines that are quite unforgettable.
The Russian River Valley is a wine lover’s dream destination. It offers a myriad of tasting opportunities, great dining, and romantic B&B’s. If you hadn’t visited the impossibly charming Healdsburg, with its quant coffee shops, world-class restaurants, friendly tasting rooms, you are seriously remiss. It tops the most discerning wine-traveler’s wish list.
My top ten winery destinations are as follows:
Founded in 2005 by husband and wife team Joe Anderson and Mary Dewane, Benovia makes Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Zinfandel. Their very own crown jewel, Cohn Vineyard is the inspiration for its highly regarded winemaker, Mike Sullivan. Since its first commercial release in 2006, Benovia has been gathering accolades from the press and public alike. Their stellar, well-priced wines are as consistent as they are exciting.
Davis Bynum Winery was the first winery to produce a single vineyard Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley. The 1973 Davis Bynum Winery “Rochioli Vineyards” RRV Pinot established a new standard for California Pinot Noir.
Bynum became fascinated with wine in mid-sixties, and made his first Pinot Noir in his own garage in Albany, California. Davis Bynum now boasts production of thousands of cases of Pinot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The brand was later acquired by the Klein family, owners of Rodney Strong Vineyards. With consulting contributions from Gary Farrell and Guy Davis, and the formidable skills of winemaker, Chris Rossi, the brand is poised for continued success.
U.C. Davis grad, Tom Dehlinger, launched his namesake brand in 1975. He was one of the pioneers of California Pinot Noir. At the time he bonded his winery, there were a mere three dozen wineries registered in Sonoma County. Starting out with a few hundred cases of Chardonnay, Cabernet and Zinfandel, he grew the brand into a producer of highly sought after, cult-status Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They also produce small amounts of Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. However, Dehlinger is renowned for Pinots that have proven to be exceptionally age-worthy. Despite maintaining a low profile, Dehlinger is well known and revered among the cognoscenti.
Brice Jones, who previously owned Sonoma-Cutrer bought a hundred and eighty acre parcel north of Sebastopol with an intent to plant a Pinot Noir vineyard. He did just that, and farms his cool, hilly property sustainably, with little to no irrigation. His goal is to preserve the wines’ natural acidity and physiological ripeness which are realized by the site’s perfect location and well-drained soils. Having followed Emeritus since its inception, I can comfortably say that the wines are perennially stellar and ooze integrity. The Pinots are precise, cellar worthy and deftly balanced. A recent taste of 2007 revealed a compelling tale of greatness in winemaking and grape growing.
Gary Farrell clearly has an eye for first-rate fruit: Allen, Rochioli, Hallberg and Olivet Lane are great fruit sources. A former winemaker at Davis Bynum, as well as Rochioli, Gary went on to create some of the RRV’s most praised wines. Gary Farrell Winery, currently owned by Vincraft, has undergone several transitions, all while retaining high standards and consistency. Their recent releases, under the leadership of talented winemaker Theresa Heredia, are quite impressive.
If you find yourself staring at a magnificent Normandy-style grand château in the middle of Sonoma County, you have come to the right place. Ledson produces roughly seventy-five wines that are marketed through various distribution channels. Owner, Steve Ledson, is a veteran winemaker with twenty plus harvests under his belt. He, and his team of fellow winemakers, craft a vast portfolio of wines. Yet they manage to impart their own unique style in each bottling. My favorites are their Reserve Collection wines as well as their perennially delicious Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.
Porter Creek Vineyards dates back to the late seventies when George Davis acquired acreage on Westside Road next to Russian River tributary, Porter Creek. His son, Alex, took the reins in late nineties and adopted organic and biodynamic vineyard practices. Alex Davis is a deep believer in classic wines of elegance and finesse. They display the authentic characteristics of the land on which the fruit was grown. The winery is known for their well-crafted, cellar-worthy Pinots. However, don’t overlook their lovely Chardonnay, Carignane, Syrah, Zinfandel and Viognier.
An iconic brand, the winery was started by Joe Rochioli back in 1976. Soon after, his son Tom, who trained under none other than Burt Williams of Williams-Selyem fame, took over and turned a small label into a wildly successful, ten thousand plus case, winery. Rochioli’s tiny production, single block Pinots (East Block, West Block, Three Corner, and Little Hill) sell out in seconds to eager mailing list subscribers. Their tasting room on Westside Road features the most picturesque picnic site in RRV. Here, they sell “tasting room only” wines of unique varietal origin (Carignane, Ranch Red, Gamay) They are tasty and offer a great quality/price ratio.
VML is a partnership between Virginia Marie Lambrix and a group of her close winemaking friends and associates. Virginia started at Lynmar and then went on to hone her skills under the tutelage of Greg La Follette at De Loach. After meeting the “biodynamic king,” Paul Dolan, she became a winemaker for Truett Hurst. VML winery is deeply committed to biodynamics and sustainability, as evidenced by their wines and depicted in the intricate and poignant label art. Their wines are pure, full-bodied, texturally sound and exciting.
Ed Selyem and Burt Williams were the original “garagiste winemakers.” They literally made wine in a garage in Forestville. Their first commercial release was in 1981, and the rest is Pinot history. Catapulted into cult brand status virtually overnight, this prolific producer single-handedly established the Russian River Valley’s status in the pantheon of world-renowned wine regions. Today, the winery boasts a state-of-the-art production facility, one of the most stunning hospitality centers in California and perpetually growing waitlist for their wine. Sourcing from eighteen acclaimed vineyards, Williams Selyem shows no signs of slowing down. I always look forward to tasting their bottle-aged offerings, which, historically, cellar well.