Whenever I venture north (of Marin County that is, not Market Street) I think to myself, “Wow, I should come up here more often.” I’ve been to wine regions in several countries, and as beautiful as Tuscany, Wachau and Douro may be, Northern California is every bit as picturesque.
Every August, I attend a friend’s wine dinner in Sonoma. This year, instead of spending the rest of the weekend poolside, I voyaged over to the Russian River to check out some wineries.
The Russian River is a cool region, relatively speaking, and the grapes that do best here are chardonnay and pinot noir. The growing conditions produce wines that have high acidity, a plus for those who are sick of flabby, buttery chardonnay and pinot noir that tastes like candy and cough syrup. Additionally, syrah and zinfandel fare well, creating renditions that have more acid and less alcohol than most from other parts of the state.
There are many places to visit, but here are a few that you should not miss:
Porter Bass: 11750 Mays Canyon Road, Guerneville, (707) 869-1475, tasting by appointment
This incredibly modest, family-run business is making some of the best wines in the state. There are no bells and whistles, just roosters and ladybugs. Purchased by the Bass family in 1980, Porter Bass supplies fruit to Ted Lemon and others. In 2001, under the direction of son Luke Bass, Porter Bass started making its own wine. Now a fully fledged Demeter-certified producer, Porter Bass truly walks the walk. All of the wines are restrained but still expressive and, above all, balanced. If there is one to try — just one — it is the 2009 Heintz Vineyard chardonnay ($30).
Porter Creek: 8735 Westside Road, Healdsburg, (707) 433-6321, open daily 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., no tasting fee
Porter Creek is a must-stop if for no other reason than the chickens and roosters that greet you on the way to the tasting room. The staff inside are just as friendly and also really know about the wine. Founded by George Davis in the 1970s, his son Alex is now the winemaker, and he converted the estate to organic and biodynamic viticulture. Fruit is sourced from other vineyards as well, but the real standouts here are the two pinot noirs, one from the Fiona Hill Vineyard ($42) and one from the smaller-production Hillside Vineyard ($65) that is made from 44-year-old vines.
Merry Edwards, 2959 Gravenstein Highway North, Sebastopol, (707) 823-7466, open daily 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., no tasting fee
Merry Edwards has become a darling of the alternative pinot noir movement (wines that have balance and are not all fruit and alcohol) in the past five years. Prior to this, she had cult status since founding her winery in 1997. It is hard to narrow down one wine to taste. She makes a sauvignon blanc and a chardonnay that are both worthy, in addition to her variety of pinot noir. Go taste for yourself, as several wines are always open.
- Marimar Estate: 11400 Graton Road, Sebastopol, (707) 823-4365, open daily 11 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., tasting fee $10 to $45
- Joseph Swan: 2916 Laguna Road, Forestville, (707) 573-3747, open 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturday-Sunday, no tasting fee
- Littorai: 788 Gold Ridge Road, Sebastopol, (707) 823-9586, tasting by appointment, $30
- Balletto Vineyards: 5700 Occidental Road, Santa Rosa, (707) 568-2455, open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., no tasting fee
Pamela S. Busch was the founding partner of Hayes and Vine and CAV Wine Bars, and is a wine educator and writer.