Anyone who’s lived in the Bay Area for more than a year or two has probably been to the Russian River, and anyone who is from the Bay Area probably has a story of a lost weekend spent there; however, you can easily speed though the valley without giving much thought to wine: if that’s the case, you are doing yourself a disservice. You can’t avoid wine in Napa -drive up highway 29, and the various wineries beckon you inside like a sidewalk sign twirler in a gorilla suit at tax time. The Russian River is more subtle. Whereas Napa has given itself over to development, the Russian River insists on holding on to its wild-west roots. Black Bart robbed stagecoaches here, and supposedly buried the take from a Wells Fargo heist in the hills above Korbel.
Standing on the corner of Occidental Road and the Gravenstein Highway pumping gas and looking across the street at a rental lot for heavy farm equipment, it’s easy to forget that arguably the greatest Pinot Noir in the world is grown right behind the tree line barely 100 feet away. Indeed, you can walk to Dutton-Goldfield, Dehlinger, Lynmar and 10 other wineries from where I am standing.
Much like the whole of France, this area used to be a shallow inland sea. When that sea receded, it left behind a delectable ring of marine sandstone called the Wilson Grove Formation, the jewel of which is the clay and sandstone blend called the Gold Ridge complex. To the west of me is the Green Valley AVA where this combination sits on a bed of fractured rock, and along with the influence of persistent fog accounts for a long ripening process, producing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir to rival all but the greatest Burgundies. The Pinots are filled with blackberries and violets; the Chardonnays with flavors of tangerine and green apple.
Walking out of the tasting room with six bottles stuffed under our collective arms, now comes the question of where to go and enjoy it! Sebastopol doesn’t offer much, Forestville even less. Finding great places to eat here is more of a treasure hunt; it all depends on what you want. If you want a perfect pairing for that Pinot Noir, you need to sample the menu at Highland Dell in Monte Rio, owned by members of the Bohemian Club; the food belies the quiet image of the town. If you are short of time, and need to head home, then Willi’s Wine Bar where River Road meets 101 had the best food you will find in this part of the county.
And here’s the secret that every local knows: the best time to visit is between now and the end of October; the weather is mild, but sunny and the tourists have gone home. So if you have time in the next few weeks, then head north. You won’t be disappointed.