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Get to Know Gary Farrell Vineyards and Winery

Now is a better time than ever to visit Sonoma Wine Country’s iconic Gary Farrell, even if Gary Farrell has left the building.

The last time I saw the past master of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, he was suspended above wine tanks on a lift, transferring wine from barrels with meticulous care — just himself, with no crew in the cellar. But it wasn’t at the namesake winery he founded in 1982 with a bottling of Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir, and that’s been a benchmark of Russian River Valley Pinot ever since.

In 2000, Farrell built his dream winery atop a hill overlooking the Russian River Valley, only to sell to an international wine group in 2004. Then in 2006, he took a hike to start another project (since 2013, the famously reclusive winemaker is just focusing on restoring classic cars — he’s certainly earned a break).

Meanwhile, back at the old winery, Gary Farrell is more than a name on a bottle: Farrell left the winery with its grape-grower relationships intact, and instilled his own exacting protocols in a succession of winemakers, assuring that his style of pure-fruited, bright Pinot Noir is alive and well. Recently, I found that new ownership and a new winemaker are only improving upon his legacy.

Take the Long View
Most people enjoying the view of redwood-studded ridges from Gary Farrell will not also be thinking: Why on earth would someone build a winery on a high spot like this and not tunnel a cellar underground? No matter: Farrell had his plan.

So intensely focused was the winemaker’s vision (of wine tasting, in this case), in fact, that the kind of leisurely sipping and lollygagging that wine tasters like to do, on such scenic terraces as this, was not much encouraged until relatively recently.

Now, the winery offers “Terrace Tasting,” “Fireside Tasting,” and a very tempting cheese plate.

After a series of ownership changes, Gary Farrell Winery was purchased by The Vincraft Group, an investment group whose only other winery currently in the portfolio is the wildly popular Kosta Browne — the respective wine styles will remain distinct, I’m told.

Only the third winemaker the take the helm, Theresa Heredia joined Gary Farrell in 2012. Heredia got her start at Joseph Phelps, leading the winery’s Freestone project. If you’ve followed their Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir and Chardonnay over the past few years, this is good news for Gary Farrell. Heredia says that she’s introducing new twists to the established regimen with care and respect for the house style.

Take a Sip
Wine tasting is at the bar, or at tables with limited seating — reservations are encouraged. A former chemistry PhD candidate, winemaker Theresa Heredia admits to having a bit of “OCD” regarding her 2013 Rosé of Pinot Noir ($28), the winery’s second vintage. Calling it “a white wine made from red grapes,” she whole-cluster pressed the grapes, then picked out the exact color she wanted from a swatch book — adding a bit of red Pinot for a light copper-pink. Tart but creamy, with red pear and apple skin notes, it’s got a long, mineral finish.

Tasting at the winery is focused on single vineyard releases like the 2012 Rochioli-Allen Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($50), imbued with a hint of crisp, pineapple fruit, and the 2012 Durell Sonoma Valley Chardonnay ($55), which shows just a tad more richly, with candied walnut, tingly lemon candy and butter cookie character. 

Elsewhere in the nation, I’d be happy to run across the 2012 Russian River Selection Pinot Noir ($45), with its huge bloom of cherry perfume, hints of dried herb and plush, cherry-fruited palate. At 9,206 cases, it’s the winery’s “hello world” release, but they actually dropped vineyards in other AVAs in order to hone their efforts on their best Russian River Valley sources.

Only at the winery can one taste the 2012 Hallberg Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($55), which is spicier, earthier, longer, and darker than the “Selection,” with brooding pomegranate and cherry fruit flavors. Pinot and Zin lovers will find much to love about the 2012 Grist Zinfandel ($45), with lovely aromas of blueberry and raspberry licorice, deep and plush on the palate.

For the Wood Geek
The factors that influence the aroma and flavor of wine are not limited to the type of grapes, the climate of the region, the terroir of the vineyard, and the specifics of weather and vineyard management. That’s already a long list for wine drinkers to begin to study and understand, but winemakers also have to factor in a long list of oak barrel characteristics, including: The forest where the oak was grown, the curing process of the wood, and the practices of cooperages — there are several methods just of bending the staves, for instance, that may affect the quality of the wine. When winemaker Theresa Heredia joined the Gary Farrell team, she brought relationships with cooperages with her, including a few that aren’t the same old names you recognize from every cellar — if you’re a real barrelhead head.

Glide Down the Hill
To reach the Russian River from Gary Farrell, turn right on Westside Road. After a drive through the woods, the road ends at River Road just east of Guerneville. Get closer to the giant trees at Armstrong Redwoods, walk the historic bridge (LINK:) over the river, then dine at Boone Eat + Drink. Near Guerneville, check in at Applewood Inn, Restaurant & Spa or any one of dozens of motels and resorts tucked into the woods along the river.

10701 Westside Road, Healdsburg. Open daily, 10:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Tasting fees, $15–$15; tours $35; group fees vary. 707-473-2909.

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