It’s hard to keep wine regions straight. Probably the most famous one in America is the Napa Valley. North of Napa is St. Helena. South is Los Carneros. West is Sonoma. West of Sonoma is the Russian River Valley (RRV). Ruth & I had been to all of these except Russian. Any RRV wine we had sampled had been exceptional and we were driving toward the Bay Area, so it was time to find out why.
Russian River Valley is basically a geographic triangle on a low plain with the cities of Healdsburg, Santa Rosa, and Sebastopol in each corner. The triangle became less congested and far more rural and relaxing as we traveled away from Highway 101 going west towards the Pacific Ocean, just like the actual Russian River. The Pacific is what gives RRV wines their character. Its nearness means foggy mornings and warm afternoons that create ideal conditions for growing cool-climate grapes. Only 10,000 of RRV’s acres, about 1/13th of it land, is vineyard.
I thought that the Russian River Valley was a relatively new viticulture area. Wrong. There were already 120 wineries here before Prohibition according to Kim Caffrey, an Inman Winery rep. Now there are 130. Wine Road, an authoritative website, informed me that the RRV grows 30 different grape varietals.
At our 1st stop, J Vineyards we learned that the RRV was mostly known for Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays. Every one of the 7 wineries we visited after J told us pretty much the same thing. When Ruth & I balked at $20 to sample both and then about $50 for each bought J wine, the rep observed an incoming, affluent-looking group and abandoned us.
Ruth and I also moved on, to a much smaller winery, Inman, where Kim sincerely welcomed us and we talked for a long time without her once using the words mouth-feel, velvet, or tannins. Ruth & I learned about the winery’s cat and the soil at nearby hilltop vineyards around Chalk Hill that was appropriately called moonrock. Kim said that she could arrange free shipping because of the holiday as she offered free samples of Inman’s sensational, highly rated Rosé. It was so good that we bought 25% of what they had left. We were lucky. Because it was the 2nd last day of 2014, Kim was only there to pick up an order. Many of the wineries in RRV can be visited only by appointment.
The appointment-only info came in handy when we stopped at La Crema, one of RRV’s oldest wine producers, where we made one to visit Hartford, one of its Jackson Family wineries in Forrestville. Before going there in late afternoon, Ruth & I stopped at some excellent, smaller vineyards–Russian Hill Estate, Sonoma Cutrer, Lynmar, and Balletto. They all had busy, friendly tasting rooms. The wine pourer at Russian Hill said that this valley was the best place in the United States to grow pinot grapes. This was, of course, hype; but we ended up leaving Russian River Valley with 5 bottles of wine, all Pinot Noirs.