Wow! The wine in California is good, good, good. If you have never been to “Wine Country” absolutely put it on your Bucket List, assuming, of course that you like wine. We just got back from a week out west and we had a fantastic experience. I am a Pinot Noir lover and prefer California to Oregon so my bulls-eye was the Russian River Valley in Northern Sonoma County, about 60 miles north of San Francisco. This is one of the more rustic and laid back areas of the California wine world which suited me just fine.
Wine is made in many areas of California (as well as Oregon and Washington State) and is absolutely world class. The best known, and most popular for tourist wine lovers, is Napa County with its wide, flat valley of vineyards stretching from the Carneros region to the south, through Napa, St. Helena, and Calistoga over a 40 mile region along Routes 29 and 128. Separating Napa from the Pacific Ocean is a line of hills and then Sonoma County, the second best known wine region of the area. To be stereotypical and unfair, Napa is considered to be the area of “corporate” wine makers focused on high volume, and Sonoma is the area of small batch family wineries. The truth, of course, is not so simple and there are plenty of volume makers as well as boutique wineries in both regions.
The Russian River area of Sonoma is best known for Chardonnay and, mostly, Pinot Noir. Pinot is a fickle grape that likes cooler temperatures and the Russian River area is a cooler region with hilly geography of redwood trees, winding roads and morning fog – very different from most of the region. The vineyards are small pockets of vines in isolated flat areas and hillside terraces, perhaps 3 to 5 acres in size, not the grapevines as far as the eye can see in some areas of Napa Valley and other places in Sonoma and elsewhere.
This agricultural intimacy is what makes the Russian River Valley so special and what creates a culture of “oneness” with the land that is shared by the wine people in the area. They all know the land, they know it acre by acre, they know who is growing which grape clones on which parcels, where the old vines are that are worth paying attention to, and on and on. It is a close knit and intricate society that we can all benefit from if you enjoy drinking top shelf, “hand-made” wines.
My goals for this trip were to focus on the “good stuff” – the wines that are not available for purchase in our local wines shops, and to learn how we can take advantage of the new law just passed in Maryland that allows direct shipping from wineries to your home. We have been one of the “no fly zone” states for a long time and have been missing out on the world of private “wine clubs” – more on that below.
In Sonoma, and I presume elsewhere, there are many very small wineries that produce a very high quality “boutique” product. Their wines generally consist of a signature wine that they are best known for and then very small specialty bottles – often “single vineyard” wines. The quantities are often very small – 3000 cases total for a winery and special bottling that may be only 50 cases a year of a particular wine. Many of these small wineries do not sell their products through “distribution” (selling wine to distributors who put the products into the retail pipeline) but sell only to restaurants and wine club members. WARNING – this is not a world for the faint of heart or the skinny wallet. I told my wife that it was time to go home, and quick, when $50 a bottle started to sound like a reasonable price for a good wine.
But, if you don’t mind shelling out big bucks for really good bottles then “Wine Clubs” might be right for you, at least as a good source for “special occasion” wines. The concept is that you join the club of your favorite winery, usually for free, and then they will ship you 4 to 6 bottles of their specialty releases 3 to 4 times a year. All you have to do is pay the bill for wine plus shipping – $50 a bottle is probably a good rule of thumb if you are updating your household budget. The benefits are that you are getting the best products that the winery has to offer, getting wines that you simply cannot get anywhere else, and you get invited to what I imagine are spectacular parties at the winery once or twice a year. One place even had two apartments at the winery and you get to use them for free two nights a year if you join their club at the six case a year level. Let’s do the math – 6 cases, 12 bottles a case, $50 a bottle is a mere $3600 a year. Shipping is “free” at that level. Choose the clubs you join wisely.
Price aside, the wines are spectacular. We visited about 3 wineries a day for 4 days, mostly in the Russian River Valley except for 2 in the Dry Creek Valley just north of Healdsburg and 2 in Napa on our drive into the area. Most wines we sampled were Pinot Noir with some Chardonnay, some Zinfandel, and a scattering of other offerings including Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Merlot, and Cabernet. Most wineries charge now for tastings – $10 to $25 each for 5 or 6 wines, but the fees are usually waived if you buy something.
As to the wines and wineries themselves, I will list our favorites below but that list is largely irrelevant. We went where we went, albeit with some research, but there were over 300 wineries within a 30 minute drive of our B&B along the Russian River, and that area is amongst the most rural and remote in Wine Country proper. Go a little north to Alexander Valley, south to Sonoma and Santa Rosa, or east to Calistoga and Napa and the list goes into the thousands of wineries.
What I will generalize though is that, at all the places we visited, we were met by people who loved the area, loved wines, and live that life to the fullest. Almost every person we met was happy to tell us anything and everything they knew about wine and the region, the wine business, the weather, their competition, their recommendations of other wineries to visit, restaurants to go to, and on and on. Lots of information is available on-line and I would suggest a cyber tour to start – you will find plenty of pictures, information on the wines, Wine Club details, and everything else you need to get a “flavor” of the different areas and wines. Then plan a trip and go visit, but bring your wallet.
Our personal top 3 wineries that we visited:
Gary Farrell (Russian River), Pinot Noir and Chardonnay www.garyfarrellwines.com
Alysian (Russian River), Pinot Noir www.alysianwines.com
Lambert Bridge (Dry Creek Valley), Numerous varietals www.lambertbridge.com
Other wineries that we visited and highly recommend:
Papapietro Perry (Dry Creek/RR), Pinot Noir and Zinfandel www.papapietro-perry.com
Merry Edwards (Russian River), Pinot Noir www.merryedwards.com
Grgich Hills Estate (Napa), Cabernet www.grgich.com
Rubicon (Napa), Cabernet and Chardonnay www.RubiconEstate.com
Lynmar (Russian River), Pinot Noir and Chardonnay www.lynmarestate.com
Hartford Family (Russian River), Pinot Noir and Zinfandel www.hartfordwines.com