Wait, Russians in Sonoma?
Yes, Russians explored the coast of Northern California in the 1700’s and 1800’s and even established a colony above Bodega Bay. Hence, the Russian River. The Majestic Mt. St. Helena that looms above Sonoma, Napa, and Lake Counties is named for a Russian princess. On the Sonoma coast Fort Ross was a thriving Russian colony that has been preserved as a historical landmark.
The Russian River is a major geographical feature and vital water source in Sonoma County that runs northeast to west and spills into the Pacific at Jenner. From an agricultural view, the Russian River Valley acts as a sort of coastal fog funnel, where the marine layer caused by cold air from the ocean meeting land flows in and out of the valley on a daily basis during the growing season. Early farmers found this fertile and cool region to be ideal for hops, apple orchards and vineyards – especially Zinfandel. Remarkably, many of the historic Zinfandel vineyards still exist, their longevity due to their inherent health, wine quality and family traditions.
In more recent times, along with old vines Zinfandel, the Russian River Valley has proven to be ideal conditions for the grape varieties of Burgundy – Pinot noir and Chardonnay. It’s fairly common now to see Russian River wineries producing all three varietals – and at the very tops of their categories!
Russian River Valley earned its AVA status in 1983 and is now home to over 70 wineries. With so many wineries on and off the beaten track we recommend having a plan to tackle a Russian River Zinfandel expedition. Two days is necessary to get in some must-visits while allowing some time for picnicking, hiking, biking and nibbling your way around some of the amazing artisanal food producers.
Healdsburg, with it’s crossroads position at the Russian River, Highway 101, and neighboring Dry Creek Valley is an ideal place to set up base camp for your two days of venturing among the vines. A once not-so-glamorous working town based on timber, ag and modest river resorts has been transformed in recent years to an enclave of first class hospitality, luxury, and haute cuisine – all woven into the old fabric of farming, families, and bohemians.
For lodging, we recommend either the traditional Healdsburg Inn, or the more modern and stylish Hotel Healdsburg. Excellent options to hotels are the gorgeous historic bed and breakfasts – either the Grape Leaf Inn, or the Calderwood Inn both of which are lovingly maintained and operated by the acclaimed Wilson Winery family.
All of these lodgings are within walking distance to the busy and centrally-located Healdsburg Square. If you’re feeling the urge to splurge, you can settle into the luxe accommodations at either Single Thread in town or the fabulous new Montage at Healdsburg. Down Highway 101 closer to Santa Rosa on River Road are the now classic lodgings and favorite foodie haven – John Ash, and very nicely appointed rooms are bookable in advance at the beautiful Farmhouse Inn.
Here is a two-day suggested route around Russian River Valley’s finest Zinfandel producers, that includes a couple suggested non-wine activities and dining options.
Green Valley and Forestville
From your base in Healdsburg, save some appetite for lunch later and start out with a breakfast of French style pastries and mingle with locals and winery folks at the Costeaux Bakery, take a stroll around the quaint square and familiarize yourself with some of the tasting rooms, restaurants, cafes, and galleries before heading out for the road.
Hartford Family Winery
To start your first Zinfandel day through Russian River, drive west on the well-travelled and scenic River Rd. off HIghway 101 for about 8 miles to Forestville and make a left turn onto Mirabel Rd. Head south 2 miles to Highway 116 and make a right on Martinelli Rd. (On your right will see some legendary and truly historic old vines: the near vertical Martinelli Jackass Hill and the Banfield Vineyard.) Make a left on Dennon Lane, cross the bridge at Green Valley Creek and you will see the Hartford Family Winery off nestled in the valley to your left.
Since they founded their winery in 1994, Don Hartford and Jennifer Jackson Hartford (whose father was Jess Jackson, founder of Kendall Jackson) have personally grown their home’s old vine Zinfandel vineyard in Green Valley into a prestigious collection of some of the most acclaimed Pinot noirs, Chardonnays and Zinfandels in California – 35 single vineyard designates in all – 5 of which are old vine Zinfandels. Production of each is limited and sell out quickly!
Their fruit-forward and expressive house style is designed to coax all the personality from what each small and low-yielding vineyard site has to offer. Today, with Founders Don and Jennifer at the helm, Hartford Family’s daily operations are under the direction of the Hartford’s daughter Hailey Hartford Murray and General Manager/Winemaker Jeff Stewart. “Signature Exploration” tastings at the home estate winery are sit-down style by reservation, outdoors on the garden patio, and typically include five Hartford vineyards with at least one of their consistently great Zinfandels. For those wanting to stroll and taste in central Healdsburg, Hartford Family offers tastings at the winery’s tasting room in downtown Healdsburg on Healdsburg Avenue.
Less than ten minutes away, on the way to your next winery is a Russian River culinary destination, winemakers’ favorite spot, and some of the best dining to be experienced in Sonoma County in general – Farmhouse Inn.
For a more expeditious wine country lunch, we suggest opting for Farmhouse’s offshoot – Farmstand. Here seasonal, farm-based, healthy, and creative dishes are served in a casual, woodsy setting on the inn’s gardens and grounds.
For an alternate scenic route through Forestville, from the Hartford winery continue on Martinelli Rd. then turn left onto Highway 116 to Forestville, turn left on Mirabel Rd. and continue to Trenton Rd. and make a right turn which takes you back to River Road. Continue, then turn right onto Woolsey Road. On your right you will arrive at the bucolic Gamba Vineyards and Winery.
Gamba Vineyards and Winery
Set among old dry-farmed vines in picturesque Russian River style, the handsome Gamba estate winery is Gus Gamba’s wonderful personal story about immigrant savvy, diligent farming, expert winemaking, and family legacy.
The vineyard is one of the oldest in Russian River and was planted in 1900 by Cesare Barbieri who then sold it on a handshake to Gus’s immigrant father Agostino Gamba. Gus took over the vineyard responsibilities after Agostino passed when Gus was just 17.
Today, Gus is one of the most knowledgeable and respected grower winemakers in Sonoma County and now, along with his wife Paulette, his adult children, and the Gamba team, they have created two wine brands – Gamba(Zinfandels), and Etrusca varietals, rosé, and blends. The Etrusca name is an homage to Gus’s family’s deep roots that date back sixgenerations in northern Italy. The wines are also featured at the Duo tasting room at the Geyserville Inn in Geyserville.
Make a reservation before you go in order to do a personal tasting either in the winery among barrels or al fresco by the vineyard. All four of Gamba’s Zinfandels are highly rated, hedonistic, fruit-driven masterworks but ask about the availability of the MCM Estate or the Starr Road in particular. This is one of those wineries where you want to be included on the pre-release mailing list to ensure getting Gus’s bottles into your cellar!
Martinelli Vineyards and Winery
Martinelli. Sound familiar? At this point you already spent some time driving on Martinelli Rd. Yes, the same Martinelli family that has been farming in Russian River for 135 years beginning with Giuseppe and Luisa Martinelli in the 1880’s. The famed Jackass Hill vineyard that you drove by on Martinelli Road was planted around that date – but due to the lack of paper records in those early days, even the Martinellis don’t know exactly when.
To get to the Martinelli winery which is only a few minutes away from Gamba, head out Woolsey Rd. west back to River Road and, voila! You’re there! Hard to miss, the historic barn-red Martinelli Winery converted hop barn is perhaps the most recognizable landmark in Russian River.
The Martinellis are a farming legend in Sonoma County with 450 acres of prime vineyards from Russian River to the Sonoma Coast with family members overseeing every vine. Martinelli’s five Zinfandels come from the Russian River estate vineyards – mosty old vines. Winemaker Courtney Wagoner crafts them in a Martinelli house style that is best characterized as big but balanced. Softly-textured and with deep fruit, these are luscious Zinfandels that express Russian River to the fullest. Small in volume, they sell out so it’s best to be on the winery’s Members List. Visitors can choose among three different tasting experiences: Make advance appointments for either the Terrace overlooking the winery property, the historic Hop Barn, or the old Baler Bar. Walk-in tastings are available Thursday through Sunday.
Back in Healdsburg after your tasting day, time to unwind and relax. For dinner, there are numerous excellent options that also maintain lists of the best of local wines: We suggest Valette, Charlie Palmer’s Dry Creek Kitchen, or Barn Diva – all in walking distance around the square.
On the East Side
After breakfast at your hotel, start out your second day in the Russian River Valley with an easy hike to stretch your legs, burn off a few calories, and enjoy the Russian River environment itself. Sonoma County has several regional parks to choose from but we suggest the trails around lake Benoist at Riverfront Regional Park. Plus, the park is close to your first winery stop, Bricoleur Vineyards. From Healdsburg, take the Old Redwood Highway south to Eastside Road, turn right and in just about five minutes you will arrive at the park on your right. The park hosts a number of outdoor activities, so be sure to check out their calendar before you go.
Your first appointment is less than ten minutes from the park, Bricoleur Vineyards. Leaving the park, cross Eastside onto Starr Road and follow it all the way to Bricoleur. This new winery, and events center that sits on 42 acres and is buffered by protected land has it all: 22 acres of estate vineyard, solar power, a recycled water system, guest houses, an olive grove, orchards, flower and vegetable gardens, bocce courts, yoga classes, a fish pond, picnic sites, and a culinary program that sets the standard for wineries in Sonoma County. The visitor center is an expansive space with soaring vaulted ceilings that can be configured for any type of group event.
The visionary founders behind Bricoleur are Sonoma natives Mark and Elizabeth Hanson who chose a name that means “without a plan” and a tour here leaves the impression that they are just getting started. The Hanson’s winemaker is a legend of California wine, Cary Gott, who not only founded two successful wineries (Montevina and Corbett Canyon) but has worked as winemaker and consulting winemaker at several illustrious California wineries. Gott knows a thing or two about Zinfandel!
Bricoleur tastings always involve food pairing. The full time chefs team helmed by Evan Castro works with the winemaker to create dishes that pair perfectly with Bricoleur wines. There are several tasting flights to choose from and if you like to go big you can arrange to experience a seated group dinner at the table in the state of the art kitchen. The winery can provide you with box lunches if you prefer to picnic at one of the venues on the extensive grounds, and you can even arrange to have a group food and wine event paired with bocce ball!
Rodney Strong Winery
From Bricoleur, head north on Starr Road for three miles then turn left onto Old Redwood Highway. In 1.2 miles you will see a Russian River landmark on your left – Rodney Strong Vineyards – a groundbreaking, innovative winery that over 60 years ago was instrumental in elevating the quality and reputation of Sonoma County wines – and California wines in general. Rodney Strong left his career as a dancer on Broadway and in Paris in the 1960’s to turn his full attention to his passion for wine and winemaking. He would go on to establish new estate vineyards according to microclimates: Chardonnay in Chalk Hill and Pinot noir in Russian River. Three new Sonoma County AVAs (Chalk Hill, Russian River, and Alexander Valley) were established due to Strong’s leading efforts.
The innovative winery was built in 1970 near the River West estate vineyard and today features a garden terrace, amphitheater, expansive lawns, and newly opened- a beautifully refurbished (by-appointment) tasting room that is perched above the winery and cellars. In 1989 Tom Klein and family, who Strong worked with for years, assumed ownership and reinvested in acquisition of additional prime vineyards, and in improvements of the winery such as new equipment, solar power, sustainability programs, and water conservation. The Kleins other brands include Rowen, Davis Bynum, Upshot, and Knotty Vines.
Under winemaker Justin Seidenfeld, Strong produces a series of Zinfandels from Sonoma County – when you visit, (make a reservation in advance) ask lead tasting room host, raconteur, and wine guru, Ron Washam, about tasting one of the special old vines bottlings from Dry Creek Valley. A hot tip for a locally-sourced picnic lunch, arrange in advance for one of the winery’s cheese and charcuterie picnic boxes which include a selection of salumis from Journeyman Meat Co., historic-vineyards scion Pete Seghesio’s artisanal cured meats operation that was recently established on Center St. in Healdsburg. You can also arrange for gourmet picnic boxes from Healdsburg’s Oakville Grocery.
Limerick Lane Winery
Some devout Zinfandel aficionados might say that you’ve saved the best for last as you complete your Russian River Zinfandel odyssey as you’re less than five minutes away from the venerable Rodney Strong. Time to regroup and refresh as you’re in for a treat!
Turn left onto the Old Redwood Highway, turn right onto Limerick Lane and proceed one mile to Limerick Lane Winery which is on the left. You are now in the breezy northeast corner of the Russian River Valley AVA which Limerick Lane grower/proprietor Jake Bilbro refers to as the “banana belt” of chilly Russian River. To Zinfandel people this neighborhood is a little slice of Zinfandel heaven.
A little sunnier and not quite so affected by the marine layer, this Zin-zone is a little more elevated and hilly than RRV in general. Ancient vines from the turn of the 20th Century thrive on the soils here and Bilbro allocates small amounts of the estate Zinfandel to fellow Zin-makers who treasure grapes from old vines such as these. The Bilbros also work to perpetuate Zinfandel with plantings of new, old selection vines from the estate vineyards. Here, a winemaker with a deft touch and impressive resumé, Chris Pittinger, is at the top of his game.
The tasting room adjacent to the vineyard is quaint and modest by comparison due to the winery’s smaller scale and limited production. Here you can taste through a selection of Limerick Lane wines in a quiet, intimate, relaxed, and agricultural setting. Take what you can get, but ask in particular about the availability of the Limerick Lane Estate, Banfield, Katz Vineyard or Marquis – all excellent examples of Russian River Zinfandel.
After your Limerick Lane Winery finalé, it’s a short drive back into Healdsburg for down-time and re-charging for evening dinner plans. For wine enthusiasts we suggest Chalkboard, Willi’s, Matteo’s, or if you want to go all-out – Single Thread which offers progressive seasonal menus that are sourced daily from their extensive gardens just north of town.