A visit to Russian River Valley is a trip back in time to a California that’s fast disappearing.

Like an old Currier & Ives print, there’s something comfortably retro about the Russian River Valley.

Maybe it’s the trim farmhouses, with their flower gardens and vine-filled backyards.
Maybe it’s the little wineries, housed in barns, with tasting rooms that sell souvenir potpourri and coasters alongside the wines. It’s probably all of these things that make the Russian River Valley not only one of California’s best wine regions, but one of the most unpretentious and comfortable to visit. In the summer, when festivals and open-air markets abound, the valley feels even more like home.

Only 60 miles from downtown San Francisco, the Russian River Valley, which was approved as an American Viticultural Area in 1983, is worlds away from the hustle of even nearby Santa Rosa, the Sonoma County seat. The valley (and the river that runs through it) was named for Russian explorers who dropped anchor at Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast, in 1812, when California was Spanish territory. The Russian settlers did not do well, eventually abandoning their little village and disappearing from California forever. But the Italian-American immigrants who followed at the turn of the 20th century thrived as winemakers. Some of these “first families”—including Foppiano, Sebastiani, Seghesio, Rochioli, Pedroncelli and Martini—are still making wine in Sonoma County today. These wineries were initially known for their “field blends,” or wines whose grapes came from vineyards that contained a mishmash of varieties, including Carignan, Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Syrah.

After the University of California at Davis determined in the early 1960s that the Russian River Valley was too cool for Cabernet Sauvignon, area growers began looking to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Pinot is the reason many area wineries are so well known today. Among them was the winery of Joe Rochioli, whose family planted their first Pinot grapes in 1968, in the section now called East Block. “Everyone thought I was crazy!” Joe Rochioli laughs.

Nowadays, the Valley is still best known for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; its Zinfandel has, within the last 10 or so years, also become regarded as some of the best in the state. Whatever your favorite grape variety, it’ll be the Valley’s rusticity and the hearty welcome that you get from its inhabitants that will keep you coming back for more.

Tasting your way through the Valley
As you turn west at River Road from Santa Rosa, the present melts away a little bit more with every passing mile. You find yourself breathing easier. Traffic, buildings, business parks, malls and crowds suddenly seem like bad dreams. You can “do” the Russian River Valley in one day, but that wouldn’t do it, or you, justice. Besides, rushing around all helter-skelter goes against the grain of the Valley’s own spirit. A better plan is to spend two days touring and tasting. Try the southern half one day, with visits to the wineries on and below River Road, and then hit Westside Road the next day.

Unlike tasting rooms in Napa Valley, where limousines clog up Highway 29, Russian River Valley’s tasting rooms tend to be lower-keyed affairs. In many cases, you’ll actually find the owner or winemaker behind the bar doing the pouring. If you’re lucky, he or she will even crack open an old bottle, or give you a personal tour of the grounds.

Navigating the Russian River Valley is easy, particularly if you are armed with a good map (you can get one from the Russian River Wine Road, The region is box-shaped and relatively compact, just 15 miles on any side, and is well served by local roads. Four towns anchor the Valley’s corners: Santa Rosa, Sebastopol, Guerneville and Healdsburg. In the southeast is Santa Rosa. I seldom venture there (if for no other reason than to avoid the city’s notoriously horrible traffic). One attraction worth a visit is Kendall Jackson’s California Coast Wine Center just off Highway 101 north of town.

The Center is especially interesting in summer when the demonstration vineyards allow visitors to identify the wide rangeof California varietals. The elaborate gardens are worth a visit as well.
Santa Rosa also has some good restaurants going for it. Sassafras Restaurant & Wine Bar (1229 North Dutton Avenue), on the far west side of town, is a favorite among winemakers. John Ash & Co., at the Vintners Inn (4350 Barnes Road) was one of the first true gourmet restaurants in the county. It still offers one of the best wine-oriented menus around.

In the southwest corner of the valley, just 15 miles from Santa Rosa, is Sebastopol and its satellite villages, Occidental, Graton and Forestville. This portion of the Valley seems to exist in its own little universe, and is also
the coldest; it’s a straight shot westward to Bodega Bay, 20 miles away on the coast.

Forestville is home to many a Pinot winery, including Joseph Swan Vineyards. In 1973, Joe Swan released his first Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, made from grapes grown a few miles away on the south side of the River, a place so cold and damp that Joe Rochioli, Jr. derided it back then as “swampland.” Between them, Rochioli and Swan, who died in 1991, charted the early course of Pinot Noir in the Valley, and the styles they developed—Swan’s earthy, tannic and ageworthy, Rochioli’s fruitier and more delicate—have defined Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ever since. In a kind of Biblical series of “begats,” Swan inspired the likes of Martini & Prati, Tom Dehlinger, Iron Horse’s Forrest Tancer (who used to barrel-taste with him) and Merry Edwards.

To the north, Rochioli’s grapes, now made into wine by Davis Bynum, inspired Gary Farrell and a host of others, so much so that the stretch of Westside Road between (roughly) Healdsburg to the east and (approximately) Gary Farrell’s winery in the west—a stretch called the Middle Reach of the Russian River—arguably produces California’s greatest and most glorious Pinot Noirs.

Joseph Swan’s little tasting room is hardly an elegant affair, but it’s as real as Russian River Valley gets. Don’t be put off by the dirt parking lot or the lack of winery amenities. This is not meant to be a chichi wine-tasting experience; visiting Swan is up-close-and-personal touring and tasting, the way it used to be. Filled with barrels, it’s little-changed from the days when Joe himself worked there. On any given day, you might find his son-in-law and winemaker, Rod Berglund, manning the tasting bar. Sometimes Berglund pops the bung out of one of those barrels and lets guests sample last year’s wine.

One of the homiest places to stay in Forestville also has one of the region’s best dining rooms. The Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant (7871 River Road) offers picture-postcard lodging in the Russian River Valley, and is also an ideal place for tourists to stay, because it’s located right where Wohler Road hits River Road. The main lodge, which includes the restaurant, is in a renovated old farmhouse (hence the name) in a garden.

The rooms are in charming bungalows right next door. Most of them have an in-room cedar sauna and Jacuzzi. Windows open to the dense redwood and fern forests that surround the property.

The Inn’s restaurant is famous for its rabbit preparations, but anything from the chef’s small, workaday kitchen is bound to be good. The menu changes daily, depending on what’s fresh and in season. Don’t miss maitre d’ Joseph Bain’s locally famous cheese cart, the perfect way to end a rich meal (and to finish off that bottle of wine). Bain, one of the friendliest hosts I’ve ever met, is also an expert on Burgundy and Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. He’s a patient teacher and passionate guide.

In the Valley’s northwest corner is Guerneville, surrounded by the river hamlets of Rio Nido and Monte Rio. Guerneville is one of the most flood-plagued areas in California, but for a century has been a summertime getaway for fog-weary San Franciscans. Like much of western Sonoma, Guerneville is home to habitues of alternative lifestyles, and the funky four-block downtown can be positively zoolike in its array of human fauna. Beyond the town and to the west, along twisting, turning Highway 116, is nothing but rugged mountain wilderness. If you have an afternoon, and especially if it’s sunny, it’s worth the ride out to Jenner by the Sea, where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean in a tidal estuary, and sea lions sunbathe on the sandy, shell-strewn beaches.

Visiting Guerneville’s Korbel Champagne Cellars (13250 River Road) isn’t just an excursion to a winery tasting room. It’s like going to the circus or the amusement park, a destination in itself. Winery staff calls the various buildings and grounds a “campus,” because the place is so big. Located in the western part of the Valley, in an old redwood forest, the campus offers a good restaurant, a rose garden, tours of the sparkling winemaking facility and complimentary wine tastings. (If you didn’t know, Korbel doesn’t just make bubbly. Its still wines are quite good, and reasonably priced.) Korbel is also a logical place to stop if you’re driving further out Highway 116 toward the Coast.

The Applewood Inn (13555 Highway 116) is the best place to stay around Guerneville, both for its luxurious suites and Italian cucina. Its name alone conjures up feelings of warmth and coziness, not to mention thoughts of good food. Rather elaborate by Russian River Valley standards, the inn is set on a campus setting of pinkish, Spanish-Mediterranean stucco-style villas around a central plaza. Rooms are spacious and luxurious to the point of sheer hedonism, but there’s absolutely nothing stuffy about the atmosphere that owners Darryl Notter and Jim Caron have created.

From the minute you see the old dog wheezing just outside the office, your relaxation level soars. And the Inn’s restaurant is a marvel. Almost anything off the menu is authentically Northern Italian-meets-Sonoma and delicious, from the rack of lamb and ribeye steak to the gnocchi. The wine list is a particular joy: The owners have concentrated on small, hard-to-get Sonoma bottlings. Look for Pinot Noirs from Flowers, Gary Farrell, Dutton-Goldfield, De Loach and others.

The owners are committed to the concept of Italian food, and chef Brian Gerritsen is a serious student of it. They’ve even started a cooking school, La Buona Forchetta, where you can learn how to prepare truffled roasted turnip soup or a traditional osso buco. Located on Highway 116 just outside Guerneville, the Applewood is a good launching pad for excursions to Bodega Bay or Jenner.

Metropolis of the Valley
Once you get to Sonoma’s warm, northeast quadrant, you tend to leave the valley’s rusticity behind. In recent years, little Healdsburg (which is also a hub for the Alexander and Dry Creek Valleys) has gotten as boutiquey as St. Helena. Downtown, centered around the Spanish Colonial-style square, nowadays is very gentrified and offers more fashionable dining.

In Healdsburg, “fashionable dining” is synonymous with Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, located in the Hotel Healdsburg (25 Matheson Street). Even those who have doubts about the hotel’s modernistic design rave about the California cuisine. The restaurant has also taken the lead in the movement against too-high corkage fees. If you bring a bottle of Sonoma County wine, they drop the charge entirely.

The Hotel Healdsburg has been controversial since it opened a few years ago. Some say it’s too big for a little town like Healdsburg. Others find its spare, post-industrial look too lean, especially for the price, which is hefty. I love it. The wide hallways with their plank floors and modern knit carpets; sunken bathtubs, spacious suites, and the quality of the pillows and linens all suggest country lodging at its finest. Plus, there’s the location, right on the Square. You can walk around downtown at your leisure, stopping in all the little shops and tasting rooms.

If you’re staying in the Healdsburg area, Rodney Strong Vineyards (11455 Old Redwood Highway) is a good first stop of the day for tasting. Strong produces wines from several Sonoma County AVAs and so is not a “pure” Russian River Valley winery; don’t miss the celebrated Alexander’s Crown Cabernet Sauvignon. Just across Strong’s parking lot is J Wine Co.’s stylishly modern tasting room. J’s Russian River Valley Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris (not to mention their brut sparkling wine) are excellent.

Davis Bynum’s tasting room (8075 Westside Road, Healdsburg) is famous throughout wine country as being located “in the old hop mill.” In the heart of the Middle Reach, at a well-known bend where Westside Road twists from due south to due north to follow the River, it’s marked by the hand-painted sign that always sits next to the road whenever the winery is open. You turn up the rather narrow driveway, slowing down for the speed bump, go up the hill, and there’s the mill, with its big wooden doors. Inside, Bynum’s tasting room is modest and humble. If it’s winter, they’ll likely have the ancient cast iron stove cranked up. Go ahead and warm your hands. The staff has worked there for a long time, and the feeling is en famille.

Madrona Manor looks like the house in Psycho—it’s a huge, elaborate Victorian thing, with turrets, gothic spires, and third-floor windows that are pointed like spears’ tips or devils’ ears. But there’s nothing sinister about the inn itself, which is as luxurious and undemanding as wine country lodging gets. It’s all about comfort and fireplaces, swimming pools, browsing through old books in the library and de-stressing. The inn is a mansion built in 1880 and set on a slope of tangled vines, berry bushes and trees. Yet for all the rurality, you’d never know you’re just a mile outside downtown Healdsburg, at the busy junction of Westside and West Dry Creek roads. It’s a perfect location to make your home base for exploring these two wine valleys. The restaurant is classic Sonoma cuisine at its most sophisticated. Don’t miss the duck ravioli.

Those who don’t have time for a multicourse meal, or just want takeout food for a picnic, should visit The Oakville Grocery. The “real” Oakville grocery, in Napa Valley, achieved fame for its upscale to-go foods, small tins and jars of condiments, and wine shop. Healdsburg’s branch (124 Matheson Street) is right on the town Square. The takeout is as good as it gets, from the roasted corn salad to the pasta pesto to the rustic, delicious sandwiches, oven-baked pizza and other wine-country faves. The wine selection, while small, is distinguished. You can enjoy your food outside in the alfresco cafe-terrace, where there’s a wood-burning fireplace. In the summertime, they have barbecue every night.

Finishing the circuit back to Santa Rosa from Healdsburg is Windsor, an old town that used to boast the county’s biggest winemaking facilities, in the days before Prohibition. Nowadays, Windsor is a bedroom community, but it’s also home to several wineries, including Martinelli Winery.

Martinelli’s tasting room is a hoot. Part museum, part gift shop, part tasting bar, it’s a big, multi-roomed affair, and the big old red barn it’s in, on one of the most-traveled stretches of River Road just a few miles west of Santa Rosa’s outer limits, is a landmark of sorts. As in all winery tasting rooms, there’s plenty of kitsch, but it’s fun kitsch. There are also lots of wine and cooking books, but the heart of the Martinelli experience is the old tasting bar, in back. The winery is best known for its Zin, Pinot Noir and Syrah, but also makes some good whites. In the summertime, the sprawling grounds right outside the barn are perfect for picnics.

When I have friends or family visit me and they want to go to “wine country,” the Russian River Valley is almost always my destination of choice. You not only get a taste of history, you get a taste of some of the best wines in California, and some of the prettiest scenery as well. More than 50 years ago, a wine writer wrote of the valley’s “wildly romantic” forest scenery, of the “towering redwoods [and] the green craggy country.” By some improbable miracle of preservation, the Russian River Valley remains all that today.

Published on July 1, 2003

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