In Search of Russian River Pinot Noir
By Karla Erovick
Sonoma County’s Russian River Valley is known for its succulent Pinot Noir. I am cruising along bucolic country roads lined with vineyards displaying the last vestiges of autumn color. The influence of the river and the close proximity to the ocean makes this a unique growing region, a place where you can find sandy river beaches, towering redwood trees, and an abundance of farmland.
The growth of the wine industry has heralded the addition of restaurants, shops, and cozy accommodations while still maintaining a casual charm. With more than 70 wineries in the Russian River, it would be impossible to visit all; fortunately, assistance from the Sonoma County Tourism Bureau resulted in an itinerary with a mix of family-owned and larger wineries. With harvest completed the wineries are quiet, a perfect time to visit.
Dutton Goldfield is located in Sebastopol, California, and has a bright and welcoming tasting room. The winery is a partnership between a grower and winemaker—a perfect combination judging by their wine. While they make a lovely Devil’s Gulch Pinot Noir from Marin County grapes, I am more interested in the Fox Den Pinot Noir and the Freestone Hill Pinot Noir, both of which exhibit bright fruit flavors from the Russian River. The Freestone Hill is a cooler climate with windy conditions, resulting in smaller fruit with more concentrated flavors. It is my favorite of the trio, and I purchase a bottle to enjoy later. The indoor tasting room and outdoor terrace are ideal for savoring their wine. It is an ideal place for a picnic or a lively Friday-night tasting.
Red Car is a relative newcomer to the valley, making wine for 12 years, and it has only recently opened a tasting room next to Dutton Goldfield. The tasting room has a fun vibe with quirky seating and interesting designer touches. They make a Chardonnay and Syrah and have two current releases of Pinot Noir, the 2010 Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir with red fruit flavors and the 2010 Aphorist Pinot Noir, which exhibits bright fruit characteristics. The winery has fun wine labels that change with each vintage. They offer covered outdoor seating where visitors can savor the wine with a picnic.
The town of Graton is close by and provides a great lunch spot for dining in or picking up sandwiches to go. Willow Wood Market Café in Graton serves tasty comfort food both inside and outdoors. I enjoyed creamy polenta, peppers, and mushrooms in a savory broth with pork tenderloin. The 2011 Balletto Pinot Noir was bold enough to stand up to the dish. Willow Wood’s sister restaurant, Underwood Bar & Bistro, is located across the street.
Inman Family Winery is located on 10 acres and contains a 100-year-old winery, which they have spent considerable time and effort to renovate. Whenever possible the winery strives to be eco-friendly and use local materials; the tasting room counters are made of recycled wine bottle glass. We were fortunate enough to enjoy our tasting with owner/winemaker Kathleen Inman. She took us through a tasting of all of their wines: Chardonnay, Rose of Pinot Noir, Pinot Noir, and Sparkling Rose. The Rose of Pinot Noir is a dry yet fruity wine with a pale salmon color; it’s in short supply since it is only made in even-numbered years.
Next we compared the 2009 Thorn Ridge Ranch Pinot Noir, which had dark fruit flavors of cherries and berries, to the 2009 Olivet Grange Estate Pinot Noir and its notes of strawberries, cherries, and rhubarb. As a special treat we sampled the 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, a smooth wine with red fruit flavors. Kathleen also surprised us with a taste of the Endless Crush Sparkling Rose, made for her 25th wedding anniversary and in very limited supply. This Blanc de Noir sparkler contained a splash of aged Pinot Noir, tinting it a pale pink. It was exceptional, crisp, and elegant. Comfortable outdoor seating encourages picnics while enjoying vineyard views.
Gardens, fountains, and sculptures greeted us as we arrived at the tasting room for DeLoach Vineyards. The winery is located on 25 acres and includes estate vineyards, an organic garden, and winery production facilities. We were given a seated tasting of Chardonnay and 2009 Marin County Pinot Noir, as well as three from the Russian River, 2009 Swicegood Vineyard Pinot Noir, 2009 Masut Vineyard Pinot Noir, and the 2010 OFS Pinot Noir. The Russian River Pinot’s were ruby in color and exhibited red fruit characteristics. DeLoach is an excellent place to linger over a bottle of wine at one of the outdoor tables.
The next wineries were all grouped along Westside Road. The drive was scenic as we traveled along country roads surrounded by vineyards. Thomas George Estate is perched on a hillside with a tasting room and wine caves at the top of the property. We toured the production facilities—a historic building that once housed hop production—with wine in hand. During our tour of the wine caves we tasted the winery’s Pinot Noirs from the Russian River including the 2009 Baker Ridge Estate Pinot Noir, the 2009 Starr Ridge Estate Pinot Noir, and the 2010 Estate Pinot Noir. Each of the wines exhibited dark fruit with mineral characteristics, typical for the Russian River. The beautiful forest-like setting with fountains and statues is a great place to enjoy a picnic along with the wine.
Hop Kiln takes its name from the kilns that processed hops and once dominated the valley. We were treated to a French-style sparkling wine, the 2011 Sparkling Rose of Pinot Noir, a gold medal winner that tastes of strawberries. Next we sampled their assortment of HKG (estate grown) wines including the 2010 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, the 2010 North Bridge Estate Pinot Noir, and the 2010 Twin Corners Estate Pinot Noir. Comparing the very different wines side by side was interesting. Flavors ranged from bright fruit in the Twin Corners to dark fruit in the North Bridge. It was difficult to choose a favorite since each was distinct and delicious. Hop Kiln offers a large selection of merchandise for sale, as well as picnic supplies to use at shaded tables on the grounds. The picturesque lake is inhabited by ducks and used for irrigating the vineyards.
At VML, a stroll to the tasting room took us through the lovely gardens and grounds. Citrus and persimmons provided color to the landscape. The tasting room was bright and comfortable with a fireplace, art, and a cozy tasting bar. The tasting began with the Sparkling Blanc de Noir, which tasted of strawberries. Next was the 2010 Russian River Pinot Noir, a ruby-colored wine that tasted of cherries and strawberries; the 2010 Boudreaux Pinot Noir, which exhibited spicy characteristics with berry flavors; and the 2011 Floodgate Pinot Noir, which came from a single vineyard and tasted of cherries. Plenty of outdoor seating is available for picnics and enjoying views over the valley.
My final stop in the quest for Pinot Noir was the JCB Tasting Room in Healdsburg. The Boisset Family Estates makes wine locally as well as in Burgundy, France. The tasting room pours a sampling of their wines in an elegant setting with chandeliers and a beautiful tasting bar. The wines are numbered, corresponding to a significant event in owner John Charles Boissett’s life. We began with the No. 21, a Brut Sparkling wine that was crisp and elegant. Next we tried the No. 69, an elegant Brut Rose that was a pale pink with fruit characteristics. I bought a bottle because I loved it so much. No. 7 and No. 11 were both Pinot Noirs with differing fruit characteristics. No. 7 tasted of cherries and raspberries, while No. 11 tasted of dark fruit.
Hampton Inn & Suites was well located in relation to the wineries, with none more than a 20-minute drive away. The spacious rooms had comfortable beds, linens, and pillows for a restful night’s sleep. Some of the features included a comfortable desk and chair with ample plugs for recharging electronic devices, a hot breakfast buffet each morning, and a fitness center, pool, and hot tub to help guests to stay fit during their stay. The location is minutes from the Windsor Town Green and Healdsburg, which offer numerous shopping and restaurant choices.
Many of the wineries that I visited are in rural areas and a distance from restaurants. Eating a substantial meal before heading to the wineries and packing a picnic lunch will ensure that you can visit all of the wineries on your list. Only a few sell picnic supplies.
Newly opened Taverna Sofia in Healdsburg specializes in Greek cuisine served in a cozy restaurant with outdoor seating. The restaurant serves Greek favorites edited for a California audience such as a mezze plate with dolmas, tzatziki, feta, Kalamata olives, spanakopita, and fresh baked pita bread. The moussaka was rich and satisfying, using beef rather than traditional lamb. Chicken breast was stuffed with kale and feta and drizzled with a creamy white sauce, and the lamb shank was cooked for hours in a vermouth sauce, making it tender and delicious with hints of cinnamon. The rosemary potatoes complemented each of the entrees, although guests were given a choice of other sides. We finished our meal with Greek coffee and baklava.
Bravas is a new tapas restaurant that specializes in Spanish delicacies. The restaurant is decorated with bright colors and offers a cozy indoor fireplace and a spacious, covered outdoor terrace. There are so many delicious tapas to try including Fermin Jamón Ibérico, delicately sliced from a side of pork and best accompanied by the cheese plate and tomato toast; Mussels Escabeche served in a tin with a spicy relish; and mouth-watering anchovies on bread with onions. Although Bravas offers a creative cocktail menu I chose a local wine, an Unti Vineyards Grenache to accompany the meal that worked perfectly. The restaurant also serves Spanish wine and sherry by the bottle or glass.
While Pinot Noir is made in many wine regions throughout the world, I am partial to those produced in Sonoma County. Not only do they have luscious cherry and berry flavors, but also they aren’t overpowered by oak. An added bonus is the sparkling wine, which we were able to sample, made from Pinot Noir grapes; a little bubbly brightens any day. Driving past the vineyards on my return journey allows me to relive my wonderful wine adventure and begin planning the next one.