The third day of the Sonoma County wine tasting tour was reserved for Russian River Valley. The Russian River winds through much of northern Sonoma valley, and is the river that creates Alexander Valley as well. But it is a pretty large AVA. The Alexander Valley wineries are right around the river or on the slopes of the mountains around the river. The Russian River Valley is a broader area, where wineries are miles away from the actual Russian River. There are lots of hills on which to grow grapes.
In California at least, these wineries have tasting licenses that are only good for 6 hours a day. They seem to open at random times between 10 AM and noon, and close between 4 PM and 5 PM. And in the Russian River Valley, you are never 10 minutes away from another winery as long as you aren’t in a remote corner of the AVA. So I stopped at Russian Hill Winery because it was close and opened at 10 AM. It was a great introduction to Russian River Pinot Noir, which is what they wish to be known for. And this is the AVA in Sonoma county for Pinot. All of my marks for Russian Hill Pinots were either 4.5 (awesome) or 4-4.5 (pretty good but not quite awesome). I tasted three Pinots here, the 2012 Estate, Tara vineyard, and Ellen’s block. I have been told 2012 was a good year for the valley. It was not expected to be great as there was a lot of rain, but the conditions ended well. And everyone was in the good position of having a large harvest of good fruit. Economics being what they are, this also meant that prices were reduced. Good for the consumer!
The 2012 Estate had a lighter fruit nose and was moderately fruit forward with a brighter taste. The Tara’s vineyard was one of the two styles I now associate with Russian River Pinots. It had an earthy and darker nose. But it did not taste earthy at all. Instead it has a bit sweet and tart taste almost like a dark candy apple with a lighter aftertaste. The Ellen’s block had slight tannins. Medium fruit that didn’t really taste like cherry but was about as heavy, and was a bit sweet. This is the second style that came up repeatedly during the day. It makes you want to go to some immense farmer’s market and buy one of every fruit so you can better describe what it tastes like.
They also had a Syrah, a Syrah port, and a 2012 late harvest Viognier. The regular Viognier was sold out. If you like dessert wines, there are a lot of interesting ones in Sonoma. At my final winery of the trip, I figured out why. There are ports made from a lot of random wines that are used for blending. That’s because they often had bunches of grapes that had too many raisins to make a proper wine. Instead of throwing out the grapes it is more efficient to make port from them. I don’t know if this is also true of the late harvest Viognier, but it would make sense.
Our second winery was Pelligrini. This was the first place where the land was completely flat. Kind of strange as I’m not used to quality wine where the grapes are not grown on hills. This was an appointment only place, but as it was the off season they let us have a tasting when we called from their front gate. This place also had a lot of good wines. I’m not a big fan of Chardonnay, but that and Cabernet Sauvignon and money grapes for this region. The 2014 unoaked Chardonnay had a crisp apple nose. It tasted the same and had none of the cream/butter taste I happen to dislike. It was outside and in the 50’s, so the reds were a little too cold to taste. My favorite Pinot was the 2013 Hurst Vineyard Pinot Noir. It had a nice and funky cheese nose but was rich and silky. This was also my first introduction to Russian River Valley Zinfandel. Although a lot of Russian River Valley Zinfandels tastes a lot like a cousin of Pinot but with a little spice, this one did not. The vines were planted in the 1940’s and it had a very full dark fruit taste while still being smooth. The aftertaste had a nice hard pepper zing to it.
The third place on my list was J Vineyards. I saw it was next to Rodney Strong on the map. Rodney Strong is a very large producer that was exactly what I didn’t want to try on this trip. J Vineyards was probably owned by the same people. They even shared the same parking lot. It was a tasting room that looked very high end and had some very high end prices. I didn’t taste and went to the northern part of the AVA to work my way down.
After going through the northern border of the AVA, I started to hit a few more places. Rochioli had a Chardonnay and a Pinot Noir. The Chardonnay was OK (remember I’m not a fan of the grape) and the 2013 Pinot Noir was pretty good. But I didn’t think it justified the price.
Thomas George Estate
Next was Thomas George Estate. This place has a wine cave built into the hill, but it is not as extensive as the wine cave we saw at Deerfield Ranch. They had a Pinot Tasting and an overall tasting. I opted for the overall tasting, but it was a difficult decision to make. They had a Viognier and a few Chardonnays. The Zinfandel was very good. But the two Pinots were my favorites. The 2012 Pinot Noir Estate had that flavor profile with the earthy nose and dark candy apple taste. I thought it was awesome. But the 2012 Pinot Noir from Starr Ridge was between awesome and perfect. It had a mushroom earth nose. The taste had almost nasal tones that I don’t recall having before in a wine. There was a lot of earth and medium to darker fruit with a full finish.
The next place was Porter Creek. I’ve been to places like this. Tiny with very friendly people working there. They make a lot of different wines. And all of them are OK. A fun place, and my favorite was the 2013 Viognier. It had a bright lively fruit. Lighter than apple but not really citrus.
Copain was a place where we had to make a reservation in advance. They email you back with a code for the gate! It is a beautiful property and they give you very good service. Since it was a bit nippy, all the tastings were indoors at tables. But I’d prefer to taste indoors anyways. And if we had the better weather of the busy season, I probably could not have gotten in with less than a day’s notice. If you want to drink a lot of good wine with friends and have a light lunch with good friends and a great view, this is the place for you. Much of their wines were sourced from outside of Sonoma county. Some from Anderson Valley, which is not to be confused with Alexander Valley. They were all very good. My favorite was the awesome 2005 Rousseau from the Chalone AVA. I had no idea where this was. And I don’t think I have ever heard of a grape by that name. Google tells me it is a tiny part of Monterey county further south in California. Copain tells me it is a burgundy tradition grape. You can’t find it on their website right now, but if you want to get something from them I would call up and ask for it. It had a nice nose with a distinct berry smell. It was very fruit forward with a silky taste, a bit of acid, and some tannins.
My second favorite wine was their 2006 “Les Copain” James Berry. This is a GSM blend (Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvedre) blend from Paso Robles. I’ve been told this is a standard Rhone blend, and is excellent if done well. If the plane ticket to get to Sonoma was not a few hundred dollars less than the ticket to get close to Paso Robles, I would have been there this week. It is an underrated AVA that probably has some awesome wines at reasonable prices. No complaints! I’ll probably be there sometime in 2016.
The final winery was Mueller. They used to have a tasting room near Copain, but have moved to having a storefront tasting room in the town of Healdsburg. Those tasting rooms don’t have a big appeal to me, but I wanted to go there anyways and they were open until 5 pm. So I was able to get there before they closed. They make mostly Pinot Noirs, and everything is pretty good. They had the first Pinot Noir Rose of the trip. My favorite wine was the 2013 Pinot Noir Hogan’s Run. It had the darker fruit and mushroom nose. There was an earthier taste and darker fruit with an elegant aftertaste. Pretty awesome. This is the second style of Pinot Noir I found prevalent during the day, the first being the dark candy apple variety. They had other Pinot Noirs made in that style as well. As well as the Zinfandel made throughout the AVA.
The next and final day I decided to devote to Dry Creek Valley. If I make another trip, the first day will be devoted to Dry Creek Valley and I’ll figure out what to do after that.