Many a thirsty traveler has undoubtedly emerged from a winding, redwood-shaded drive up Highway 116 to cross the Russian River and arrive in downtown Guerneville, only to wonder, “So, where are all the Russian River Valley wineries?”
A sleepy hideaway on the Russian River, Guerneville has surged with crowds of vacationers every summer for a century — and lately has gained buzz as a hip wine country dining and shopping destination for weekenders. But although it’s technically situated on the western edge of the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA), until recently there’s been nary a wine tasting room to be found along downtown Guerneville's half-mile stretch of Main Street.
That changed with the opening of the tasting room for Inizi Wines (16290 Main St., Guerneville, 707-604-6938). Co-founded by A.J. and Jen Filipelli with John and Kirsti Harley, Inizi (which means "beginnings" in Italian) produces an eclectic mix of Italian and regional French styles: a Sangiovese blend, a rare Tocai Friulano (an Italian white grape), and the very rare, typically deeply hued but food-friendly red varietal Charbono. The tasting room is located in the remodeled interior of the 1921 Bank of Guerneville building. Now called the Guerneville Bank Club, the building was designed in classic, solid style by a renowned architect of the day. The building takes its name from an old bar once located across Main Street, the “Bank Club.”
While on the main drag, you can also taste wine at the retro, foodie-friendly Big Bottom Market (16228 Main St., Guerneville, 707-604-7295), and at restaurants like the contemporary bistro boon eat + drink (16248 Main St., Guerneville, 707-869-0780).
Just outside of town, two more wine tasting opportunities reflect Guerneville’s eclectic mix of mainstream tourism and alternative paths: American’s favorite sparkling wine producer, Korbel Champagne Cellars, and little Biodynamic and family-owned Porter-Bass Winery.
Free tours of Korbel Champagne Cellars (13250 River Road, Guerneville, 707-824-7316) start at the visitor center, which was formerly a station on the San Francisco and North Pacific Railroad. Inside the iconic brick winery building you’ll learn all about the property’s redwood logging days and get a tutorial on the champagne method; see a short, fun film; and end up at the old-school tasting room for sips of sparkling brut, extra dry, and winery-exclusive brut premier sparkling wine. There’s a deli onsite and you can picnic under the massive, second-growth redwoods.
At Porter-Bass Winery (11750 Mays Canyon Road, Guerneville, 707-869-1475), owner Luke Bass works among an eclectic collection of Chardonnay, chickens, and a coonhound dog. Glance at some of Northern California restaurant’s wine lists, and you’ll find Porter-Bass, if you’re lucky. The wines are highly acclaimed, and available nowhere else but Guerneville.
The tiny, 1,000-case winery and cellar is built into the side of the earth, and when it comes time for tasting, guests gather beneath a walnut tree next to the vines, on a gentle slope overlooking breathtaking views of vineyards and forest. The bar is a slab of wood resting on two barrels, and the menu is hand drawn on a board tacked to the tree.
The estate is mere minutes from downtown Guerneville, but a whole other world in a private canyon. In addition to vineyards, the property is home to pigs, bees, chickens, and sheep, and the pond attracts ducks, geese, and herons, as well as an abundance of frogs and dragonflies.
Winemaker-earth child Bass bottles and corks all of his excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel by hand. Bass leads the hour-long tours personally, sharing details on his certified biodynamic practices, and introducing guests to his heritage chickens and tail-wagging Coonhound and Saluki dogs.
Tastings are $10 per person and by appointment only; when you call, it’s Bass who answers the phone. The winery also periodically hosts intimate winemaker dinners and casual wine release parties.
And after wine tasting in Guerneville, you won’t have to travel much farther to enjoy your wine in the great outdoors: tuck a chilled bottle in your knapsack to enjoy on the beach while watching the canoes go by, or slip a few nips in a canteen for a hike through the redwoods in the 805-acre Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve (17000 Armstrong Woods Road, Guerneville, 707-869-2015) or exploring the adjacent 5,683-acre Austin Creek State Recreation Area (707-869-9177).
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight