AVA Wines of Sonoma County: Russian River Valley

Joseph Jewell

It’s fitting that the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) lies at the geographical heart of Sonoma County. This is where some of Wine Country’s best known and most beloved varietals really earned their reputation. It’s the appellation — a legally defined geographic area — that set the standard for California, and perhaps New World Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while remaining home to sought-after old-vine Zinfandel.

Ramey Wine Cellars' Westside Farms vineyard runs along the bank of the Russian River
Ramey Wine Cellars, Westside Farms vineyard

The Russian River Valley is where the top wineries in Napa go to get their cool-climate grapes. True to the Sonoma County spirit, it’s where the leaders of the premium wine boom — now household names — were not wealthy businessmen, but inspired farmers and newspapermen, along with a dancer and a pilot.

The Russian River Valley earned AVA status in 1983, and comprises 15,000 vineyard acres. Today, among its 70 wineries, a new guard toils to get their start in old sheds and urban warehouses.

Top Grapes & Wine Varietals

By wide margins, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel top the charts in this AVA, and in that order. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc are next in acreage, but the small amount of cool-climate Syrah produced here may get more attention among wine collectors. Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer are also important.

The Lay of the Land

Golden and pink hues in the Emeritus Vineyards at sunset in Sonoma County
Emeritus Vineyards

The Russian River Valley AVA does not strictly outline the path of the Russian River, which flows from Mendocino County south-by-southeast through Alexander Valley, makes an abrupt left at Healdsburg, and cuts west through rugged terrain to the Pacific Ocean. Rather like a heart in its shape, roughly 15 miles wide and tall, the AVA occupies a “sweet spot” that’s cool, but not too cold.

In the growing season, warm daytime temperatures plummet when fog regularly intrudes from the Petaluma Gap to the south, and the Russian River to the west. The northern border marks the point where the fog frequently sticks around a while longer in the morning, while Alexander Valley is already heating up.

In the late afternoon, a fog bank can often be seen hovering above the appellation’s border in the hills west of Sebastopol. (When attending a summer barbecue in the Russian River Valley, it’s a good idea to bring a sweater.) The Green Valley of the Russian River Valley AVA is nested within the Russian River Valley. The eastern border arbitrarily runs through downtown Santa Rosa, 2 miles from the Bennett Valley AVA, which is actually considered by some to be colder still.

Notable Wineries

The exterior of Rodney Strong Vineyards in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
Rodney Strong Vineyards

Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens

Easily spotted from U.S. 101, Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens provides an orientation to the area. Admire the colorful display of flowers, fruits, and vegetables on a stroll around the property, then enjoy a seated tasting that pairs limited-release wines with food sourced largely from the estate’s own garden.

Rodney Strong and J Vineyards & Winery

Further up U.S. 101, Rodney Strong offers popular Pinot and Cab harvested from 13 sustainably farmed estate vineyards in the Russian River Valley AVA and other Sonoma County appellations, including the Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, and Sonoma Coast. Be sure to visit their next-door neighbor, J Vineyards & Winery, to taste world-renowned California sparkling wine and other varietals.

Rochioli Vineyards

Legendary Rochioli Vineyards is happy to pour their Estate Pinot Noir, but you’ll have to get on the list for their Single Vineyard Pinots from the fabled West Block — a vineyard that has produced some of the most celebrated Pinot Noirs in California history. Snag a seat in the tasting room to look out over the Russian River Valley floor, or pack a picnic to enjoy on the patio.

Russian River Vineyards

With origins dating back to the 1890s, Russian River Vineyards boasts a historical building, sweeping vineyard views, and world-class wines.

VML Winery

New on the scene, VML strives to bring “the beingness of place into the glass.” As such, it is producing memorable collections of single-vineyard, appellation, sparkling, and “celestial” wines that defy expectations of what a Russian River Valley wine can be. The winery’s biodynamic and butterfly gardens are also a big draw.

Martinelli Vineyard & Winery

A Sonoma County wine-growing family since the 1880s, the Martinellis produce wines from estate-grown Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, and Zinfandel grapes. In their historic hops-barn-turned-tasting room, sip wines like the memorably named, old-vine Jackass Hill Zinfandel.

Korbel Champagne Cellars

In a clearing of the redwood forest along the Russian River, historical Korbel Champagne Cellars presides over a picturesque scene. Forget what you think you know about this household-name brand and sip limited-production bubbly during a guided tasting while learning the fascinating story of the Korbel brothers, who founded the winery in 1882.

More Russian River Valley Vineyards

Vineyards surround Harvest Moon Estate & Winery, Santa Rosa
Harvest Moon Estate & Winery

At Bacigalupi Vineyards, they’ll have you know that it was their family’s grapes that made history at the 1976 Paris wine tasting. On weekends, a visit behind the humble cellar door at Joseph Swan is a Pinot pilgrimage. Dry Gewürztraminer and delicate Zinfandel challenge stereotypes at Harvest Moon, while Old World Winery does it the ancient way.

Where to Eat in the Russian River Valley

Friends enjoy dinner overlooking a vineyard at John Ash & Co.

John Ash & Co., Santa Rosa

Technically lying within the Russian River Valley AVA, Santa Rosa boasts one of Sonoma County’s most diverse dining scenes, including Wine Country’s first Mexican food parkJohn Ash & Co. tops the list of restaurants in this AVA for its central location and longevity — it celebrated 40 years in business in 2020 — as well as legendary Wine Country cuisine. (Sleep it off in the adjacent, deluxe accommodations of the Vintners Resort.)

In the heart of the AVA, the charming towns of Guerneville and Forestville also offer great, local dining at restaurants like boon eat + drinkNightingale Breads, and Big Bottom Market.

Check out more Guerneville restaurants.

Russian River Valley Hotels & Other Accommodations

True to its name, Vintners Resort is a four-diamond, California certified green hotel set on 92 acres of lush Russian River Valley vineyards. Likewise luxurious, the Farmhouse Inn in Forestville is a renowned Wine Country destination that also has its own celebrated on-site restaurant and spa.

Even closer to the river, boon hotel + spa provides modish-rustic accommodations and farm-to-table menus sourced from local food producers, while The Stavrand Russian River Valley is a high-end boutique hotel nestled peacefully in the redwoods. Visitors with a taste for the rustic may opt to camp out at Mirabel RV Park & Campground or dozens of other spots along River Road. Explore more places to stay in Guerneville.

Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.

Explore Sonoma County Appellations (AVA):

Alexander Valley
Bennett Valley
Carneros – Sonoma
Chalk Hill
Dry Creek Valley
Fort Ross – Seaview
Fountaingrove District
Green Valley of Russian River Valley
Knights Valley
Moon Mountain
Northern Sonoma
Petaluma Gap
Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak
Russian River Valley
Sonoma Coast
Sonoma Mountain
Sonoma Valley
West Sonoma Coast

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