Meandering through vineyard-covered hills and dales, the Russian River presents one of the prettiest sights in California wine country. Forested mountains in the distance seem to touch the broad sky.
In summer, the valley exudes pastoral charm, sunny and rainless. Wintertime gales roaring down from the Gulf of Alaska make a B&B with a fireplace, bottle of wine and your sweetie look pretty good.
Such is the Russian River Valley’s appeal. The city of Santa Rosa bustles a few miles away, while the San Francisco Bay Area lies a mere hour to the south.
Time seems to have stood still along the valley’s twisting lanes. Little farmhouses with tire swings hang from apple-tree boughs. Aging Redwood barns and the occasional herd of cows signal a 19th-century lifestyle.
But these days, there are fewer apple orchards and Holsteins than there used to be.
The land has yielded to a crop far more lucrative: wine grapes. And of all the varieties in the valley, none costs more to produce, or demands a higher price once it becomes wine, than Pinot Noir.—Steve Heimoff
The Russian Connection
For all the fame of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, it only recently emerged a star. Russians, after whom the valley is named, established vineyards along the Sonoma Coast sometime after 1812. However, the grapes they planted were certainly not Pinot Noir.
No one knows precisely when the first Pinot was planted, although a few wineries (including Korbel) produced it in the 1930s. Its two modern pioneers, Joe Rochioli Jr. and Joe Swan, planted it in the late 1960s and early ’70s.
Although their properties were only a few miles apart, they sat on opposite sides of the river. Neither knew, in those pre-Internet days, what the other had done.
Yet, their eponymous wineries put Russian River Valley Pinot Noir on the oenophile’s map. By 1990, critics and restaurateurs were swapping tales of funky, small wineries in the valley whose Pinots, they swore, rivaled the great red wines of Burgundy.
Pinot and the Boomers
The booming economy of the 1990s fueled interest in fine wine among Baby Boomers. As a result, wineries producing Pinot Noir in the valley grew exponentially. Most were small family businesses, using grapes grown in their own little vineyards or purchased from local growers.
By the mid-’90s, vintners realized that the greater Russian River Valley appellation, which had been approved by the federal government in 1983, was not a simple place from a climate and soils point of view.
Its 96,000 acres contain a wide array of growing conditions, or terroirs. The valley is cooler in the south and west, where it’s most open to coastal winds and fogs, and hotter in the north and east, where it abuts the warmer Dry Creek Valley and Chalk Hill appellations.
For years, area vintners have talked of dividing the Russian River Valley into as many as six or seven smaller AVAs, based on fog and temperature patterns and, to a lesser degree, soils. But the process has become so politicized—as have many similar discussions in other California AVAs—that no change seems likely anytime soon.
Cool-climate Pinots are generally higher in acidity and more tannic, while those from the warmer zones are softer and more approachable. Neither style is better—they’re just different. The winemaker’s technique also impacts the wines.
Oddly enough, both styles age well, presuming the wines are well made.
Pick of the Pinots
It’s risky to name the best producers. Someone’s always left off the list, while new brands come on the market seemingly every day. (It’s relatively easy for a newcomer to buy grapes from top vineyards.)
However, here are some of the best cool-climate Pinots: DeLoach, Dutton-Goldfield, Joseph Swan,Lynmar, Marimar Estate and Merry Edwards. Rochioli’s and Williams Selyem’s finest vineyards are located in the slightly warmer north.
Their wines show early opulence, yet can develop for up to 20 years.
The best wines are produced in small quantities and are expensive. Compared to top Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, however, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir remains a bargain.
Pinot Noir has become popular throughout California’s coastal regions, from Santa Barbara up to Mendocino. But history will show that in the Russian River Valley, modern American Pinot Noir was born and came of age.
Riding the Russian River
If there’s a Middle Earth in California, it sprawls along the winding, two-lane Highway 116, in the northwestern part of the Russian River Valley.
After the road turns west above Forestville, you almost expect to see a hobbit scurrying amid the little wooden cabins up on stilts, or disappearing behind a Redwood tree. The forests plunge down from the coastal hills.
Here and there where the sunshine pokes through the canopy, you might glimpse color-splashed pools of wild iris, lupine and buttercup. The quaint old bridges that span the silvery Russian River themselves are fairytales.
The houses are on stilts because the River floods in wet years. Little villages like Rio Nido, Monte Rio and Duncans Mills hardly hold more than clusters of homes, a gas station, a little food market or a bar.
The main town, Guerneville, has long been a summer getaway for fog-weary San Franciscans. It’s best known for its beaches, counterculture lifestyle and for the LGBT community.
Beyond Guerneville, Highway 116 emerges into the broad, sunlit plain of the Russian River estuary. Here, the hills lower, the river widens, waterfowl flock the skies and the air smells of the sea.
Where the Highway meets the coast road, Route 1, the Pacific Ocean shimmers in all its glory (that is, if the fog isn’t hiding it).
On the dramatic shoreline, giant waves crash onto massive seaweed-covered rocks and wide-swath soft sand beaches smattered with enormous strands of kelp. Sea lions bask and bark on the beach, while the occasional whale spouts just offshore.
Here, you’ll find Jenner-by-the-Sea, a town out of another time, which offers bed-and-breakfasts and some good restaurants. The rugged mountains that soar above Jenner, the coast highway and the beaches are home to Sonoma’s newest high-altitude appellation, Fort Ross-Seaview.
Just north of Jenner is a replica of the old, wooden Fort Ross (right) that Russian fur traders built in the early 19th century. Now a State Historic Park, it is a must-see if time allows. Beyond the fort, the road twists around precipitous cliffs that plunge seaward creating a series of isolated coves.
Sonoma’s Top Varieties
From its cooler regions, Sonoma produces Pinot Noirs of complex deliciousness. Silky and elegant, the wines balance fruit-driven power with subtlety.
Surprisingly adaptable across all of Sonoma’s growing regions. The best are ripe in tropical fruits, apples and pears, usually with oaky complications.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux-style red blends
From the slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains come rich, sturdy wines to rival Napa’s. Cabernet from the valley floor can surprise.
Comes in two styles, warm climate and cool climate. Both exhibit Zin’s spicy, briary character. Alcohol levels can be heady.
From this sprawling county come Sauvignon Blancs of delicacy and poise. Frequently barrel-fermented, they’re crisp and dry, with citrus and green apple.