Having thoroughly explored the Napa Valley (106 wineries and counting), Sonoma, the central valley (Lodi, Madera), the Sierra Foothills (Amador, Calaveras, El Dorado, Murphys, Vallecito, Sonora), the Central Coast (Santa Cruz, Monterey, Paso Robles, Santa Barbara) and Southern California (Temecula, Ramona, San Diego) I have been eager to explore several more northern Wine Countries. So, on Saturday July 2nd I headed north of Sonoma County to the Alexander Valley and the Russian River Wine regions.
A couple note to my fellow wine country explorers:
First, you’ll notice that in this trip that I am visiting more wineries and tasting more wines than usual. When I explore wineries I usually either carry with me a spit cup or limit myself to two or three wineries and empty most of my pouring into the bucket on the counter. I have absolutely no desire to get intoxicated and subsequently drive illegally nor do I want to numb my senses so that I am not truly perceiving the wine. While spitting into a cup may seem odd to others in the tasting room, in addition to not getting drunk this enables me to taste the entire sample rather than pouring it out and I can explore more wineries. The only drawback then is palate fatigue in that while I am not getting a buzz from the wine my tongue is sort of experiencing burn out. But, frequently consumption of water can minimize the problem as well as taking a break to eat lunch without any wine in between wineries.
Second, you’ll also notice that I purchased over a dozen bottles on this trip. In the summer it can easily get up to 120+ degrees in your car so if you are on a wine tasting road trip during this time of year, do your wine a favor and bring an ice chest with you. Otherwise, any corks in your bottles will get pushed up (if not out) and your wine will become maderized (oxidized).
Robert Young Estate Winery – Alexander Valley
Although my primary goal in exploring the Alexander Valley and Russian River was to hunt for Pinot Noir, my first stop was on the East Side of Highway 101 where you will primarily find Chardonnay and Bordeaux varietals.
The layout of the Alexander Valley wine country is a little challenging to navigate. Whereas the Napa Valley has two primary roads (Highway 29 and the Silverado Trail) on which are located all of the valley wineries with more in the mountains, the Alexander Valley and the Russian River consists more of back road vineyards and wineries tucked away here and there. Then as you begin to explore the valley you can’t help feel overwhelmed by the vast quantity of wineries to choose from as you are surrounded by an ocean of vines.
In preparation for my trip I had checked out numerous web sites, read several back issues of the Wine Spectator but I still was not sure exactly where I wanted to go. So, I decided to just “wing it” and visit the first winery that really caught my eye.
My first stop was at Robert Young Estate Winery. One of the great things about visiting this winery was having the opportunity to sample two side by side tastings of the same wine from two different vintages. Tasting wines in this fashion enables one to experience not just different wines, but learn the differences that vintage variations can have on a wine.
My first two wines were the 2008 and 2009 Alexander Valley Chardonnay. Both of these wines are from clone 17, are barrel fermented, and went through full malolactic fermentation. Both of these wines were served a little too cold so I had to swirl and cup the glasses in my hands a while until they were closer to room temperature and they would open up on the nose. Once they arrived, they expressed exactly what you would expect from this style of Chardonnay – pineapple, red apple, ripe figs, caramel, a little vanilla, toasty nuts and what I perceived as pie crust in a very prolonged finish on the palate. Between the two, I preferred the ’08 as it seemed more aromatically expressive. The ‘08 sells for $40 and the ’09 is $42.
This was followed by the 2009 Area 27 Chardonnay, a blend of Clones 17 and 26 fermented 100% in stainless steel. This is more of my style of Chard - crisp apple, concentrated pear, bright acidity and a slight tropical finish. This is a prime example of the best of what California can produce and it sells for $44.
My next side by side tasting was the 2006 and 2007 Scion Cabernet Sauvignon. Although labeled as Cabs, these are actually Bordeaux blends. The ’06 is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, 7% Cabernet Franc and 3% Petit Verdot. The ’07 is slightly different, it is a blend of 78% Cabernet Sauvignon, 13% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Franc and 4% Petit Verdot.
The ’06 has black cherry, black currant, cocoa, anise, a hint of herbs and cedar on the nose and palate with supple tannins and a medium length finish. The ’07 is very similar but without the anise and it seems to me like it may need another year or two of maturity as it wasn’t as eager to express itself. Yet, I could see that it is a classic Cab with great potential to continue to improve over the next five years or more. Both of these wines sell for $46.
Here is where context can affect one’s perception of wine. It was a hot day, around 90 degrees with a higher than normal humidity (41%). Although the tasting room was air conditioned, after I ran around taking pictures when I stepped up to the tasting bar I wasn’t in the mood for a big Cabernet. So, my perception of the Cabs was that they were just “okay” and so at their price range I wasn’t eager to purchase anything.
Having said that, from my perception while Robert Young wine are highly commendable and deserve the high praise scores that many wine critics give them, in this tough market in a wine glut there are many wines available out there that are comparable for $20-$25 less.
To visit or for more information:
Robert Young Estate Winery
4960 Red Winery Road, Geyserville, CA 95441
Hop Kiln Winery – Healdsburg
I then headed to the west side of Healdsburg, on the west side of Dry Creek Valley, to explore wineries along the Russian River in search of vine Pinot Noirs.
My first stop was at Hop Kiln Winery. The architecture of the winery is very interesting for it is the last thing one would expect – a converted facility that was once used for making beer. Built in 1905 for drying hops to make beer, it has a barn-style architecture but you won’t find any beer here – only fine wines and an array of artisan foods available for purchase for pairing with you’re their wines. It is a great place to pick up olive oils, mustards, and vinegars.
All of the wines were served in a Pinot Noir glass, which was great for the Pinot Noir Rosé and the Pinot Noir, but made picking up the aromatics of the Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay a little challenging as they seemed somewhat muted. I have no doubt that if they were served in a different glass they would have been more expressive on the nose.
My first wine was the 2010 Pinot Grigio. On a hot day, this wine is the type you want to be sipping as it is very refreshing and won’t break the bank at $25. Unfortunately the wine was being served a little too cold so I had to cup the glass in my hands and warm it up a bit. Once the frost dissipated on the glass, on the nose I picked up a classic floral profile, followed by orange peel, tangerine and fresh pineapple with great acidity and a lingering finish on the palate.
My next wine was the 2009 HKG Chardonnay, Russian River Valley ($28). The wine was aged in 30% new French Oak, for five months. The wine had a very similar profile to Robert Young’s 2009 Alexander Valley Chardonnay and yet it is $12 less.
My third wine was the 2009 HKG Rosé of Pinot Noir, RRV Estate Grown. Completely dry, this wine has a lighter profile of a classic Pinot Noir, but with some additional strawberry and cranberry notes on the finish. I’ve had many syrah, syrah/grenache and zinfandel rosés – THIS is very different. So if you say to yourself, “I don’t like rosés!” but you like Pinot Noir, then you’ve got to try this wine!
My fourth wine was the one had had been eagerly anticipating – the 2009 HKG Pinot Noir, Estate Russian River Valley. On the nose (or “sniffy sniff” as Gary Vaynerchuk calls it) I picked up cherries, cola, and what I call a “root beer barrel candy” profile that is a distinguishing characteristic of California Pinot Noir. This wine sells for $38.
My final wine was the 2009 HKG Bridge Selection Pinot Noir, Estate which was not on the menu. The wine is similar to the previous Pinot but with more dense and concentrated fruit at it sells for the same price - $38. I took a bottle home to share with friends!
I only have one critique of Hop Kiln, which is that several of the servers are not very attentive. Other than my initial pour I had to flag down a different person each time to get another wine sample. Yet there was one kind older gentleman who was running around like crazy handling the register, pouring wine, opening bottles and so forth all the while there was one young man who was supposed to be serving but he was spending most of his time talking about his favorite comedians. Clearly the tasting room manager needs to have better oversight and discuss with the servers how they can better work together as a team. Having worked in a tasting room before I know that it can be hectic at times but the one server needs to keep in mind that he is there so serve ALL of the customers and not just socialize or entertain himself.
To visit or for more information:
Holp Kiln Winery
6050 Westside Road Healdsburg, CA 95448
Rochioli Vineyards and Winery - Healdsburg
When I had mentioned to the servers at Robert Young Winery that I was on a hunt for Pinot Noir they recommended Rochioli, which is right next door to Hop Kiln Winery.
Surrounding the tasting room are numerous picnic tables and a back patio which provides an awesome “bird’s eye” view of their 140 acres of vineyards, from which they make all of their estate wines.
The servers were not only attentive, but extremely friendly, informative and love to “talk shop” about not only their own wines but also offer recommendation of other places to visit. They were not just “servers,” someone who just pours and sells wines, but oenophile wine educators who love their work and paid close attention to all of their guests.
Unfortunately I forgot to bring my Riedel Pinot Noir glasses from home and they were not using them in the tasting room so I had to buy one which they have for sale for around $25. But I’m a stickler for such things and I did not want to taste their Pinot without one.
I tasted three wines - the 2009 Estate Chardonnay, the 2010 Estate Rosé Pinot Noir and the 2009 Estate Pinot Noir.
The 2009 Estate Chardonnay is a blend of two vineyards (30% River Block Vineyard, 70% Mid 40 Vineyard) and it is fermented and aged in the sur lie fashion for nine months in French oak with complete malolactic fermentation. It is similar in profile to the previous Chards I had tasted that day and yet the cost wine is $38 - $10 more than Hop Kiln at $28 but less than Robert Young at $40.
My next wine was 2010 Estate Rosé Pinot Noir which was very similar to the Hop Kiln Rosé but it was more floral, especially red roses, and exhibited more strawberry. Yet it was $4 less so I brought one home.
My final wine in the line up was the 2009 Estate Pinot Noir. A blend from two vineyards (75% Sweetwater Vineyard, 25% from various other estate vineyards) this wine is comparable to the 2009 HKG Bridge Selection Pinot Noir at the winery next door, but with silkier tannins and it cost a lot more - $52!
For more information or to visit:
Rochioli Vineyards and Winery
6192 Westside Road Healdsburg, CA 95448-8319
Everett Ridge Winery – Healdsburg
Normally after visiting 3 wineries at this time I’d call it quits for the day, but since I was spitting the samples into a cup I felt fine and was eager to explore some more!
My fourth winery of the day was a little further up north on the road and then a left turn up a long narrow winding climb up a steep hill. It is basically a paved one-lane road with a couple turn outs so you can pull over if you meet someone coming towards you. In fact, on my way up I had to stop and back down the road into one of the turn outs so the on coming driver could pass.
Well, as I stepped out of my air conditioned car it was clear that the heat of the day was on! As you park your far there is a vine covered hill and as you approach the tasting room, it is surrounded by a patio with numerous picnic tables that overlook more vineyards below. The friendly serves are more than willing to serve your tastings on the covered patio but I wanted to get out of the heat so, after snapping a few shots around the winery, I stepped into the air-conditioned tasting room.
On such a warm day you can’t help but just want something fresh, cool and crisp and my first wine, the 2010 Sauvignon Blanc, hit the spot. This is not your gooseberry, cat-pee style nor a tropical version. It is slightly floral on the nose with Gravenstein apple and pear on the palate, great acidity and a clean lingering finish. This wine sells for $20 and I bought one to take home.
My next sample was another welcome refreshing wine, the 2009 Cole Ranch Riesling. With only 189 acres, the Esterlina Vineyards Cole Ranch American Viticultural Area is the nation's tiniest AVA. This wine is both floral and fruit driven; green apple, peach, slight melon and honeysuckle with a waft of “band-aid” that is characteristic of this varietal from the Alsace. In case you are wondering… that characteristic of Rieslings is caused by a natural chemical in the wine called “TDN” (trimethyl dihydronaphthalene) which is a stable acid and not a flaw. While some people might not like it or if they are not familiar with Rieslings may find it strange – I like it so long as it is well integrated with the fruit and minerality of the wine. This wine finishes clean and crisp and for $20 it sells itself so I brought one home.
My third wine was the 2010 Diablita Rosé. Made from estate Syrah grapes, this tasty dry wine has some simple berry flavors and although it is very affordable ($14), I didn’t care for this one.
I then transitioned into the reds beginning with the 2008 Anderson Valley Pinot Noir. While displaying an easily recognizable Pinot profile, something about this wine seamed a bit “stripped.” It was a little too light and I suspect that it may be just an example of a very difficult vintage.
In 2008 the region was struck a record amount of thunderstorms from June 20 to June 21, which sparked countless fires. The Humboldt, Trinity, Del Norte, and Mendocino County area counted at least 1,500 lightning strikes with subsequent 600 fires. This had a huge impact on many wine regions as many grapes were reported to have a smoky character to them. Some wineries chose to produce their wines “as is” at a discount while others used various methods to attempt to remove or reduce the smoke, such as reverse osmosis. The problem with using such a method is that it can strip the soul out of a wine, which I suspect this one may have fallen victim. At $45 a bottle, I had to definitely say, “pass.”
My next wine in the lineup was the 2007 Estate Zinfandel. While zins are known to be spicy and peppery, this one has an overwhelming character of clove extract. Unfortunately it overshadowed the fruit character of the wine, though I was also able to pick up some plum and vanilla as well.
My final red wine was the 2007 Estate Petite Sirah. A Medium-to-full bodied wine, with a bold display of black fruits (black cherry, plum, black berry) with hints of tobacco and chocolate with fairly high acid. A great example of this varietal, but a little steep at $32 a bottle.
By this time it was just passed noon so I decided to take a break and eat lunch. So, I enjoyed the view of the vineyards dining on a Chicken Caesar that I brought which I enjoyed with a bottle of iced green tea.
Everett Ridge Winery
435 West Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
After lunch I then headed a little further north to a winery that I had read about in the December 15, 2006 issue of the Wine Spectator in which they listed this winery as producing one of the top 30 Pinot Noirs in the state listing four of their wines in the 91-94 point range (page 80).
All of their grapes are sourced from the finest vineyards in the region and their tasting room is located at the former Timber Crest Farms location which now hosts a mall of tasting rooms.
My first wine was the 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir which is a blend of Pinots from four different vineyards. This is a lighter style wine displaying a class profile for Pinot and it sells for $46. Nice, but over priced.
The next few pours each became a little more intense and concentrated in character, with more developed fruit and earthiness.
The 2008 Elsbree Vineyard Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, has more dense fruit and more grip on the palate than the previous wine. Ruby red in color; bright red cherry and cinnamon stick aromas followed by red cherry flavors earthy notes. An improvement over the previous wine but the price isn’t justified at $54 a bottle.
My next wine was the 2008 Leras Family Vineyards Pinot Noir also from the Russian River Valley. There is a very noticeable transition from the previous wine, both in concentration of fruit, complexity and boldness. Dark cherry aromas with hints of black tea and sarsaparilla; noticeable tannin and oak, good backbone, well balanced and a prolonged finish. THIS is what I was truly looking for in my search for Great Pinots! It also sells for $54.
My next wine was the 2008 Pinot Noir Peters Vineyard Pinot Noir also from the Russian River Valley. This wine is very similar to the Leras Family Vineyards Pinot, only marginally bigger with slight more tannin and more grip on the palate. It also sells for $54 and while the price is a bit steep I brought a bottle home.
My final wine was the 2008 777 Clones Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley. This wine is made from grapes harvested out of the Leras Family Vineyard, Peters Vineyard, Nunes Vineyards, Windsor Oaks, Vin Noy and Saralee’s Vineyard. Very similar to the two previous wines but it sells for $70! A great wine no doubt, but I can’t see justifying the significant price increase.
For more information or to visit:
Papapietro Perry Winery
791 Dry Creek Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Phone: 707-433-0422; Toll Free: 877-467-4668 (877-GO-PINOT)