Experiencing Wine. . .Sonoma, Part 2–The valleys of the Russian River

Experiencing Wine. . .Sonoma, Part 2–The valleys of the Russian River

By Jim Marsili

By Jim Marsili

Wine Sommelier

As the Russian River twists and turns its way out to the Pacific, valleys and gentle hillsides fan out on both sides. Her banks are strewn with sandy beaches, redwood forests and vineyards of every description. Dozens of wineries of every size and shape sprout out of the sea of vines, presenting county visitors with a baffling array of facilities to explore and tastes to savor. There are three major valleys carved out by the Russian River. The Alexander, Dry Creek and Russian River valleys each have personalities of their own and, as I mentioned last month, serve up wine styles that are measurably more interesting and diverse.

But first, a look at Healdsburg, the hub of the area.

Healdsburg is “winery central” for the northern part of Sonoma County. Framed by the Alexander Valley to the north and east, the Dry Creek Valley to the north and west, and Chalk Hill and Knight’s Valley to the south and east, it’s no wonder that the grapes and wine make the town’s wheels go round. The heart of Healdsburg is a shady park, known as the Plaza, which bears an uncanny resemblance to the town of Sonoma’s grand central square. The parks share the same names, but everything about the Healdsburg version is smaller; the size of the space, the history behind it, the traffic around it. Cool little boutiques, charming inns and the county’s trendiest restaurants form and surround the Plaza. Healdsburg has become chic and the place to visit in Sonoma County.

Just north of Healdsburg is Simi Winery. It was originally founded in 1876 by two brothers from Italy named Simi and is currently owned by Moet-Hennessy/Louis Vuitton. Take the time to visit here, purchase a friendly wine, replenish your picnic basket with gourmet goodies and head to nearby Lake Sonoma for the day. Problems go away there.

Near the Mendocino County border, about 10 miles northwest of Healdsburg, the Warm Springs Dam holds back the waters of Dry Creek, forming the long and skinny serpentine Lake Sonoma. The dam protects the fertile vineyard-covered valley below from infrequent, but potentially devastating, flooding. The combination of well-drained soils and morning fog on the valley floor has proved to be beneficial to white wine grapes, while red soils and higher temperatures in the hills create ideal red grape growing conditions. Vineyardists have taken advantage of these favorable circumstances for more than 100 years, and some of their old vines still exist.

Two somewhat parallel flat roads run along the edges of the valley, accessing a few dozen wineries. Most of the smaller remote facilities request that visitors make appointments before showing up, but there are several that are ready to show off their cellars. If you’re like me and enjoy a spicy, intensely jammy Zinfandel (red), then the next time you’re shopping for wine, ask for one from Dry Creek. Among experts, Dry Creek arguably produces the world’s finest Zinfandel. Look for other gems like Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. Some wineries to look for: Gallo of Sonoma, Ferrari-Carano, Preston, Quivera, Pedroncelli and Lake Sonoma Winery.

By continuing south on Westside Road, you will quietly and unknowingly leave the Dry Creek Valley, and enter into the adjoining appellation, the Russian River Valley. Subtle changes in soil structure and climate, invisible to the traveler’s eye, mean a world of difference to local grape growers and winemakers.

Redwoods reach up to the sky, and vineyards roll into the hills. Wineries are generally small and modest in both appearance and personality. But don’t be deceived. Some of California’s most famous and successful Chardonnay and Pinot Noir vineyards are here. Allen Vineyard, Olivet Lane Estate, Martinelli Winery and J. Rochioli Vineyards (superlative Pinot Noir) are all nestled here. Also, for you fans of the bubbly, Korbel Champagne Cellars, out on River Road, has been creating sparkling magic under the roofs of its handsome stone buildings since 1882. Make sure you visit and get a detailed lesson on how those tiny bubbles end up in the bottle in the first place.

After a few, rough, adventuresome years as a trapper, former Pennsylvanian Cyrus Alexander settled down along the banks of the Russian River in the mid-1800s and ranched and farmed the fertile valley that would eventually bear his name. Among several other crops, Alexander grew grapes which were, no doubt, fashioned into a series of tasty vintages. Modern-day descendants of those wines are internationally known, and several wineries have sprung up in the midst of the 6500 acres of vines, the majority of which were planted over the last two decades. The intense midday summer heat is counterbalanced by nighttime fog, which is held in by the tapered ends of the Valley. Loamy-gravelly soil types encourage high yields and vigorous vine growth. Two smaller appellations, Chalk Hill and Knight’s Valley, lie beyond the southern and southeastern borders, respectively, of the Alexander Valley. Chalk Hill is cooled more by breezes from the mountainsides than by fog, and white volcanic ash (not chalk) is the predominant soil type. Knight’s Valley is a self-contained pocket of an appellation up against the Mayacamas Mountains and Napa and Lake counties.

A trip to the Alexander Valley would be incomplete without a visit to facilities like: Alexander Valley Vineyeards, Silver Oak, Seghesio, Geyser Peak, Clos du Bois, Murphy-Goode and Jordan, to name some favorites. Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon gets my goat, along with good Zinfandels, Merlots and Chardonnays.

Next month, NAPA.

Until that time.

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