Colleen and I are in agreement: The Russian River Valley is one of California’s finest AVAs. It’s the birthplace of some of the New World’s most refined Pinot Noir & Chardonnay because of it’s warm days and cool, foggy nights. This swing in temperature preserves the grape’s natural acidity and extends the growing season which in turn produces wines that have great complexity and excellent age-worthiness. The best thing about the Russian River Valley is that it’s just an hour an a half outside of San Francisco/Oakland. You can easily make this a self-guided day-trip with plenty of time to enjoy the sights and sounds of one of the most beautiful places in California.
The first stop on your day trip should be the fair city of Santa Rosa. She is smack-dab in the middle of the Russian River Valley AVA, home to several awesome wineries, and one of the first cities you will pass on your way to rural RRV backroads.
If you are coming out on a Saturday (but not on a Sunday, because even wine people need a day off), be sure to pay a visit to the Natural Process Alliance. If you’ve ever seen a wine being poured from a reusable Kleen Kanteen, it was probably a NPA wine (you can have these refilled with delicious wine for a discount after a $15 refundable deposit on the Kanteen). The owner and winemaker, Kevin Kelly, also produces wine under his Salinia label. He has a very natural approach to winemaking and produces some pretty interesting stuff. He is very warm and welcoming, and no appointment is needed to visit on Friday & Saturday from 10:30AM to 4PM.
One of our favorite NPA wines is the ’25 Reasons’ petillant-naturel of skin-fermented Sauvignon Blanc. This wine is lightly sparkling, highly aromatic and completely mind-blowing. Kevin recommends you stand it upright in the fridge the day before you want to drink it, letting the sediment settle to the bottom (the wine has lees in it from the pet-nat process). You then carefully pour the first two glasses ‘clear’. This clear wine is subtle and elegant with more obvious mineral notes. Then, you give the last bit of wine a quick shake and serve the rest cloudy. The resulting wine is tropical, fruity, earthy, full of body, and delicious. This would be an excellent wine to pair with pork chops, roasted chicken or vegetarian dishes. If you want to get your hands on some, act quickly. There are only six cases left at the winery. You may be lucky enough to find it in a place like Arlequin Wine Merchant or Bi-Rite Market in SF.
The next stop while in Santa Rosa could very well be Punchdown Cellars (by appointment only!), home to about 30 different wine producers which include Dirty & Rowdy, Ceritas and Lioco. This custom-crush facility provides very small producers the resources to produce fine wine with with the latest equipment and technology. During our visit, we met with Jim from Lioco. They are a producer of high end Sonoma County Pinot Noir & Chardonnay but they also make a lovely Pinot Blanc, Carignan and rosé.
It’s not often, but sometimes you encounter a wine that makes you absolutely lose your sh*t. Colleen experienced this while tasting their Pinot Blanc from the Chalone AVA. It was rich, spicy, fruity, full of body, with complex aromas and balanced acidity. If there’s anything Colleen loves, it’s a complex white wine with body AND acid. At $28 a bottle, it’s definitely a steal. While we loved all of the wines, we felt the other stand-outs were the rosé of Carignan, $18 (which had tons of acid, picked at 19.5 Brix); the RRV Chardonnay, $35 (delicious, classic RRV Chard); and finally the Indica, $20 (a rustic red blend of mostly Carignan with a screw-cap closure, insane QPR).
Now on to the backroads. From Santa Rosa, head down Guerneville Road towards the city of Sebastopol and pay a visit to Iron Horse Vineyards. This spectacular winery is located at the top of a hill in one of the Russian River Valley’s coolest and foggiest subregions, Green Valley. Like many RRV producers, Iron Horse makes Pinot Noir & Chardonnay, but they also produce sparkling wine from these grapes in the traditional method. Colleen is a wine club member here and we love to stop by to pick up her allocation and also taste through their current releases. Their newly released 2009 Summer’s Cuvée was just what the doctor ordered because it was over 100F that day and we were melting. This is a great place to enjoy a glass of bubbles while taking in the amazing view.
While Iron Horse is not a small producer (they even make a wine for the White House!), we love their sparkling wines, friendly staff and gorgeous quince tree at the entrance, which we couldn’t resist taking a photo of. What is a quince, you say? Well, if you’ve ever had that red jelly called Membrillo that you see on cheese plates at fancy restaurants, you’ve tasted a quince. They are a hard apple/pear type fruit which is inedible in it’s raw form but when cooked for hours turns a lovely pink color and develops a floral flavor.
We feel that three wineries is the right number to visit in a day. If you visit these three, you will not be disappointed. That said, check out our very own Tasting Room Guide for more wineries not only in the Russian River Valley, but other surrounding areas. If you are going to Iron Horse, Dutton-Goldfield is nearby and is definitely worth a visit. If you plan to head further West towards Guerneville, call and make an appointment at Porter-Bass. If you’re heading North to Dry Creek, take a detour along Westside Road and stop at Porter Creek Vineyards along the way. You’ll definitely find something you love.