As a wine writer and reviewer I have visited numerous domestic and international wine regions, and love many varieties and styles of wine. Home is where the heart is and two years ago I moved to the Russian River Valley of North Sonoma County to surround myself in its beauty, food and wines.
Over 200 wineries can be found in the North Sonoma Wine Road, in a 30-mile radius. If you are looking for ‘palace’ wineries, head to that ‘other’ valley. lmost all here are small, artisan and family owned.
At its hub, is Healdsburg, a small town with world class restaurants, over 20 downtown wineries, and a great array of bakeries, coffee shops, bookstores in more. You can stay or live off the grid yet be 10-15 minutes away from a Michelin-rated restaurant. Only miles apart, the four main wine regions, Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, and Sonoma Coast, offer an incredible diversity of climate and terroir variance, this resulting in many different wines.
Day One:Santa Rosa/Fulton – The Santa Rosa Wine Trail
Santa Rosa has become home to a growing number of wineries, including the growing ‘Urban winery trend.’ While people often envision a vineyard attached, this is not often reality for many small producers who buy from high quality winegrowers, whom themselves may make little or no wine.
I used to turn my nose up to ‘urban’ wineries, until I discovered how many amazing small microwineries I was missing.
Recently, ten of the wineries have started the Santa Rosa Wine Trail, a new group offering incentives to consumers to visit them, as well as at local restaurant, Willi’s Wine Bar.
Stop One: Siduri/Novy Wines
Make sure you start with a good breakfast, and call ahead to make an appointment at one of Sonoma’s original urban warehouse wineries. Started by Adam and Diana Lee in 1994, Siduri makes over 20 different Pinot Noirs, from all over California, and even Oregon. Their second label, Novy Family Wines makes non-Pinot varietals, including Syrah and Viognier.
Stop Two: Sheldon Wines, Santa Rosa Vintners Square
Next stop is Santa Rosa Vintners Square, home to 5 great wineries; Krutz, Sheldon, MJ Lords and next door is Santa Rosa Vintners Plaza founder - D’Argenzio. While it’s hard to pick only one, the Rhone lover in me is especially fond of Sheldon Wines, whose Vinolocity & Vinolocity Blanc red and white Rhone blends are favorites. Sheldon makes other wines; a hard to find Graciano, Pinot Noir, & Chardonnay.
Time permitting, and spit cup handy, do try any or all of the others.
Stop Three: Old World Winery
Visit Old World and be transported back to wine made the way it used to be, including native yeast fermentation, crushing via foot stomping and more. Owner/winemaker Darek Trowbridge offers a range of interesting styles and varietals, ranging from Old Vine Zin, white wines with skin contact, barrel samples of varietals like Abouriou you likely have never seen, and more.
Stop Four – Your Choice
There are many great choices in a few miles. Love Zin? Go visit Carol Shelton or Robert Rue. Fan of more French style Viognier, Chardonnay, Sauvigon Blanc? – drop in on Inspiration Vineyards. Italian wine? – D’Argenzio. Pinot Lover? – Krutz and MJ Lords. Make an appointment at Donelan Wines, a near cult status, but laid back winery, with unique, brilliant wines or hit the Kendall-Jackson Center and do one of their special food and wine pairing offers.
Dinner That Night – Willi’s Wine Bar
Most of these wineries have limited production and distribution, so you bought at least a few bottles, right?
Head to one of my favorite North Sonoma restaurants for many years; Willi’s Wine Bar. Willi’s is consistently picked as a top Bay area restaurant, and again made the San Francisco Chronicle Top 100 in 2011.
Willi’s specializes in creative small plates, and changes the menu seasonally. As they do with their wine list; which they offer dozens of interesting choices, in as small as 3 ounce pours. Start by sharing a flight of a few wines, pick from one of theirs or just make your own. Then hand the server one of your purchases from the 10 Santa Rosa Wine Trail wineries for free corkage!
Day Two – A Day of Pinot Noir in The Russian River ValleyThe Russian River Valley is home to dozens of great wineries. This is a cool climate region, and renowned for its Pinot Noir. Narrowing this down to four is no small task.
Stop One – Inman Family Wines
Kathleen Inman is a small producer, known both for her restrained, elegant wines, as well as her widely recognized focused on green and sustainable practices. (Including the first electric car recharging station.) Her Pinot Noirs are made with minimal intervention, modest alcohol and great acidity. If she is pouring her chardonnay (often sold out) and her Pinot Noir Rose’ (made only every other year) you are also in for a treat.
Make sure you take the time to get a tour of her new winery and tasting room, all made from recycled, reclaimed materials, full water reclamation, and more.
Stop Two – Lynmar
Drive deeper into the Russian River Valley and enjoy yourself at the elegant Lynmar Estate. Lynmar has an in-house chef and does food pairings on certain days; so call ahead to check. Sit outside in their gorgeous gardens and sip your way through Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. If you are lucky enough and they are pouring their Syrah that day, enjoy. Lynmar’s wines are highly rated by Wine Spectator, and will contrast as bigger than Inman’s, and are a good way to compare two styles, both different, and excellent.
Lynmar makes a wide assortment of small production lots, often showcasing individual vineyards, and even many block designates. (A specific section of a vineyard.) This is an excellent way to experience just how different Pinot Noir, even from the same vineyard can be.
Stop Three – Iron Horse Vineyards (Note, this is also an excellent place to start with sparkling.)
Enjoy your rustic, relaxed drive into Iron Horse. Park your car and enjoy their simple tasting room that’s mostly open air, with stunning views. Iron Horse is one of Russian River Valley’s few sparkling producers with excellent still wines, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, as well. Select from tasting flights of sparkling, whites, or Pinot. Or share one of each. The staff is always friendly and accommodating, and will often allow changes if asked nicely.
Stop Four – Your Choice
Select from the many other dozens of wineries. Care for a producer of Rhone and Burgundy wines – head to Copain. Old World and interesting wines like sparkling Gewürztraminer and cool climate Zinfandel – try Harvest Moon. Make an appointment at Wind Gap Wines.
More great Pinot is to be had at many producers: Arista, Dutton Estates, Moshin, Deloach, Freestone, and more. One could easily spend a week.
Dinner at zazu
Wind your way back to your hotel, or grab an early dinner at zazu restaurant and farm. zazu is highly awarded both for their local food sourcing and sustainability focus, and their fresh, innovative cuisine. Their wine list is spectacular too.