American wine lovers have progressed beyond the four wine choices of the 1960s – Mateus and Lancers, Manischewitz and cheap Chianti in a basket. (Made elegant candle holders, didn’t they?)
Selecting the perfect wine has become a shopper’s nightmare. Aisle after aisle, bottle beside bottle, elegant labels with centuries-old family crests challenging labels with lizards, cars or seductive women; each numbs our senses.
As with Barry Schwartz’s jeans in his Paradox of Choice, even if we develop a relationship with the manager at our local wine shop, with all the choices we timidly ask ourselves “What if this $15 bottle doesn’t meet my expectations? Would the $9 one have been better? And does it really matter if one Pinot Noir costs $100 and is rated 94 points if the $16 one only rated 89 but tasted better to me?”
If you’ve been to Tuscany or the south of France, you remember how the components of geography, history and availability of quality, affordable wines produced lasting memories. Well, take Europe’s rolling hills and narrow country roads, blend in towering redwoods and bay laurel and eucalyptus, add unending days of warm California sunshine and evenings of cooling Pacific fog banks, and you’ve got the perfect wine shopping-dining-vacation area in the USA; Russian River Valley, Sonoma County.
Nothing against the fine wineries in Napa, but I think Sonoma County has more personality.
Grape growers and winemakers are proudly partnered, ensuring high quality fruit that delivers world-class vintages. Well established wineries as well as new entrants are releasing remarkable Pinot Noirs, Zinfandels, Sauvignon Blancs, Syrahs and sparkling wines among other much appreciated reds and whites.
Russian River Wine Festivals
I’m convinced that tasting a wine in its ‘homeland’ brings out spectacular flavors that remain reclusive in your dining room. So, get out of your shabby wine store and smell the crush!
From Geyserville and Healdsburg, through Guerneville and Graton, then to Forestville and Sebastopol, and on to Santa Rosa, Russian River Valley, California tasting rooms abound and are open most days. Over 150 wineries are scattered over this world famous wine producing appellation. Most local wineries are members the Russian River Wine Road or other associations which sponsor annual tasting events including Winter Wineland (January), Barrel Tasting (March), Single Vineyard Night (June), Grape to Glass (August), the Pinot on the River (October), and the Wine and Food Affair (November).
Each festival showcases Russian River Valley wines, some which have been rated best in the world. The White House (both Red and Blue States!) often serves Russian River Valley wines at state dinners, and at least one NFL team has served them at their celebratory events. I suspect they even get invited to dinner at the Bohemian Grove.
And while these events are entertaining, unlike your sterile supermarket, they provide you with an opportunity to judge your wines before you buy, while you gain confidence that will serve you well back home at your wine shop.
What’s more, the wide selection and high quality of wines made from the various grape varietals that thrive in the terroir of Russian River ensure that oenophiles with fat or thin wallets will discover several gems to take home. Fortunately, you won’t have time to visit all 100, so you have an excuse to vacation again in the Russian River Valley.
The Russian River Wine Road seems endless; dozens of great vintners reside side-by-side, yet a drive from one side of the valley to another is only a scenic 30 miles. You can easily visit Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Chalk Hill, Green Valley, Russian River Valley and Rockpile. I’ve navigated these winding roads for 30 years. Each winery has a devoted fan club, but it’s rare that tasting rooms are crowded.
I’ve divided my arbitrary selection of wineries into two categories: Golden Bottle Awards (truly high end), and Golden Bottle With a Twist (a collage of various levels of perfection, each with memorable personality). As you read this story, my list of 10 should be considered as a guide to optional starting points for your exploration, your shopping and tasting adventure, not a list of best of the best – though some are exactly that. But there are more than 100 others, each one aging award winning wines to perfection, polishing the stemware, and awaiting your arrival! Remember, spontaneity and serendipity are your best friends during wine tasting.
Golden Bottle Awards
Merry Edwards – Established in 1997, Merry Edwards’ wines have become known as the benchmark in fine American Pinot Noir. Each of her vineyard-specific Pinots speak teasingly with flavors including redwood, red fruits like cherry, and scents of eucalyptus and bay. A tasting of Edwards’ Pinots is stunningly capped with a glass of her pungent Sauvignon Blanc. Reverse the order, you say? Just you wait!
Iron Horse – Down the dusty narrow country lane and up the hill, you’ll discover an open air tasting ‘room’ consisting of two barrels and a plank. Since 1979, Iron Horse had earned a reputation as one the top producers of sparkling wines in California. With your back to the tasting area, your eyes drift across some of the most beautiful vineyards in America, a view that enhances your enjoyment of Wedding Cuvée or Blanc de Blancs. Iron Horse’s selection includes a finely crafted Pinot Noirs, a floral/fruity T-Bat-T Viognier and Estate Chardonnay ($26), or their Rosato di Sangiovese, Merlot and classic Benchmark Bordeaux styled blend. The folks at Iron Horse have recently added Food Truck Fridays.
Siduri – 92, 93, 94, Hike! Who’da-bet that football fans Adam and Diana Lee from Ennis, Texas would score a game winning touchdown in the Sonoma County Pinot Noir Bowl during their first season. They have tackled the feisty Pinot Noir grape with finesse that takes Siduri Pinot Noirs to the Superbowl of wine crafting success. Referee Robert Parker wrote in the Wine Advocate that Siduri “is one of California’s top Pinot Noir producers. One of my favorite wineries.” Maybe it’s in the names – fermentation tanks named for Dallas Cowboy team members. “By focusing solely on Pinot Noir from the most prestigious vineyard sites in California and Oregon, and by vinifying each barrel separately by lot, clone, yeast and cooper, we champion individuality of place and intensity of flavor in each wine we produce.” Each of their vineyard-specific Pinots portrays the classic flavors and colors of this famous grape.
Moshin – A 2005 surprise on Westside Road, the new Moshin winery is making a commotion. Rick Moshin’s focus is great (wide range of price points) Pinot Noirs, though his selection includes a fine citrus and pineapple Sauvignon Blanc, Perpetual Moshin Bordeaux blend, Moshin Potion late harvest white, and LoCo Moshin off-dry Zinfandel. A San Francisco critic recently wrote that Moshin, after 30 years of impressive tutelage of Davis Bynum and Gary Farrell, is releasing Pinot Noir wines from the best clones (Dijon 115, Rochioli and Swan) that are among the top 10 Pinots on Westside Road.
Hartford Family – Their architecture makes you think you’re back in Napa or even Virginia, but their wines (and staff) reaffirm the qualities you expect from Russian River Valley wines. That’s not a lot of words, but Hartford wines should not be missed. The Hartford’s focus is on fine Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Zins. A selection of each, featuring single vineyard and blends, is available for tasting.
Golden Bottle Awards – With a Twist
Hop Kiln – This is a winery that even the kids can enjoy! A national historic landmark (1888) with one of the most extensive gift shops of any winery on the River, Hop Kiln is a great stop to taste some economical picnic wines. During the summer, a duck pond attracts several pairs of mallards, and dozens of humming birds dart from one feeder to another. Bring a picnic lunch with you, and once you’ve purchased your favorite wines, enjoy a family picnic next to the pond. A Thousand Flowers and Big Red blends are favorites of mine.
Meeker – Wines that you can bank on! I met Meeker wines a number of years ago during Winter Wineland. They were serving wines and grilled sausages from a giant teepee. Meeker has changed venues – they now occupy the 105 year old Geyserville Bank building – one of those stately casualties of the Great Depression. But there is nothing depressing about Meeker wines. Several flights of Meeker Four Kings are royally ensconced in my cellar. Their wines have been rated as among the best in the world and best buy by Wine Spectator. The staff here has always had a playful approach to fine wine, and my friends and I have had some enjoyable times in the Meeker tasting room.
Suncé – One big step up from small Russian River wineries that have earned the moniker “garagiste”. But Silicon Valley’s great success stories began in a garage! Their wines … top notch. Suncé may be serving hors d’oeuvres with your tasting, and, much like a Dairy Queen, they’ll serve you through the back window where you can picnic while enjoying a game of bacci among the roses.
Limerick Lane – When this non-descript winery first organized in 1977, its quality grapes were sought by David Bynum and Gary Farrell, among others. In 1988, shortly after Limerick Lane began producing its own wines, while exploring the outer extremities of the Wine road I stumbled onto their Collins Vineyards and its vines dating from 1910. I’ve returned to Limerick Lane every year since and watched their collection of silver and gold medals grow. With 5 – 10 year aging qualities, their spicy, peppery, chocolaty Zinfandels and very-berry Syrahs, or uncommon Californian Furmint (Hungarian Tokaji) are ready to impress your friends now or a few years away.
Francis Ford Coppola – Wine shopping is not just for adults anymore. This one’s for kids, too. The Francis Ford Coppola winery in Geyserville has an amusement-park atmosphere with its Wine Wonderland swimming pool, Movie Gallery museum, and showcase of 4,000 vintage olive oil cans. There’s also an outdoor Godfather-inspired Pavillion for artistic performances and a bocce pitch. If you are hungry, there is the Coppola RUSTIC restaurant and two different cafes. Oh, yes, you came for the wines!!
Seghesio Family Vineyards – With 115 years of wine growing genes in their family tree, the Seghesios craft a remarkable selection of American wines with some Italian flair like Barbera, Zinfandel, Carignane, and Omaggio. If your vacation plans are flexible, plan to include one of their lively parties in your itinerary: Wine and Food Pairings at the Family Table, Annual Summer BBQ, Chef’s Harvest, and special wine release parties.
Whatever wineries you visit, as you taste, remember that many wineries produce wines that are not offered for general tasting. Some may be available for an additional tasting fee. Others you’d select based on your enjoyment of the wines offered for general tasting. If your pallet and the wine fall in love, ask about limited release or library wines that may be for sale, too.
Costs Associated With Wine Tasting and Shopping
Tasting fees are a relatively new issue for wine tasting rooms across America. I think college kids discovered a cheap way to get some good wine. That said, most (not all) wineries will deduct their nominal tasting fee from the purchase price of any wines you buy. Yet, if you plan on finding that bottle of wine that only you have dreamed existed and your goal is to hit as many tasting rooms as possible to find it, your ‘bar bill’ may add up to more than the cost of a good bottle of wine. The Wine Road folks, always thinking about getting good wine to great people, have a deal for you! One to three day “Ticket to the Wine Road” passes are available for purchase online. With tasting room fees at $2 – 20 a stop, you can easily spend $50 in a short time, and $50 is the price of the Wine Road basic ticket.
Most wineries have wine clubs that have periodic mailings to their members of newly released wines– at significantly discounted prices. Members may also receive discounts on other purchases as well. So, if you find a winery whose wines grab you, ask about becoming a member of their club before you buy. If they do not have a club, they may have a mailing list which gives priority purchasing new or limited release wines for their mailing-list customers.
Today, it seems that airlines are collecting excess baggage fees for your toothpaste and the hat on your head! However, if you pack thoughtfully (your roll-aboard only), you can save yourself UPS or FedEx shipping fees by purchasing a 12-pack styrofoam or pressed-board shipping box at many of the winery tasting rooms. You do not need to buy all 12 bottles of wine at that winery. Then, using the airport sky-cap or at the ticket counter, check in the box as your luggage. And with what you ‘saved’ on shipping fees, you can really ‘upgrade’ at least one of the bottles of wine that you ship. Remember, with the new TSA rules, you are not permitted to carry even one bottle of wine on the aircraft with you. (In October 2012, the UPS store in Guerneville quoted $50 as a standard shipping fee to Dallas for a 12-bottle case. If you purchase all your wines at one winery, they may ship it for about half the amount you’d pay if they have a contract with UPS, FedEx or some other handler.)
A vacation to Sonoma County, Russian River Valley includes an opportunity to spend time a number of fine lodging establishments that are also members of the Wine Road group. They can provide an ID card which ensures free-tastings at some wineries that have a fee.
In your vacation planning, include a visit to the website of the Northern Sonoma Wine Road folks and order a copy of their invaluable Wine Road map. Other sites to consider are the Russian River Chamber of Commerce, Russian River Valley Pinot on the River , the website of Sonoma County, or the Russian River Valley Wine Growers and their Grape to Glass weekend, August 20 this year. And check out the individual websites of the vineyards that call Russian River Valley their terroir.