Tasting at Russian River Vineyards, an iconic winery in Sonoma County.

Wine Tasting at Russian River Vineyards

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You can go right ahead and say that Russian River Vineyards is an 'iconic' winery of Sonoma County — that overused, sometimes-misused term does apply to this rustic survivor from yesterday's wine country, before the boom times.

Yet, despite the winery's age and advantageous appellation, the wines of Russian River Vineyards are not limited to the lucky, on allocation, or sold at flashy auctions for astounding sums. At times, it's even been a bit of an underdog. All but hidden off a main route through the county, it may be the longest-running hidden gem in Sonoma County.

On a recent visit, it was a joy to visit Russian River Vineyards — like reconnecting with an old friend on an open-ended, sunny autumn afternoon.

The History of Russian River Vineyards

russian river vineyards wine tasting area

Originally planted in 1963, these Russian River-area vineyards preceded official recognition of the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) by 20 years. The old vines have finally been retired, and a new planting of Pinot Noir is underway in 2018.

The winery buildings, edging up on the half-century mark themselves, were styled after two architectural icons of nineteenth-century Sonoma County: hop kilns, from this area's hop-growing heyday, some of which you may still glimpse on a drive through the valley; and the Russian colony at Fort Ross, established in the early 1800s.

Longtime Sonoma County wine lovers may best remember the nearly 30-year Topolos era, when fulsome Zinfandel and purple-black Alicante Bouschet was poured in the downstairs tasting room. Today, the winery is run by a partnership that includes winemaker Giovanni Balistreri. After a rocky start — they reopened in late 2008, as the economy was about to perform that famous swan dive — they've really improved on this old place, which admirably resists attempts to stylize and modernize too much so. 

Sips and Bites

russian river vineyards wine tasting bites

In good weather, which is most days in Sonoma County, the garden tasting area is the place to be. In dappled light amid redwood trees and other flora, while the occasional cat — this one is named Truffle — may saunter by, and well-informed staff pour wines from an outdoor tasting bar and promptly bring orders of small bites from a menu that includes mussels swimming in butter and saffron sauce ($18), a cornucopia of a cheese plate detailed with sweet and savory edibles ($22), shishito peppers ($12) and meatier fare like lamb tenderloin ($16).

If the small-plate feast attracted the bees on my recent visit, at least they were actual, fairly demure honeybees, not pesky yellow jackets!

New in 2018, the old wine cellar has been handsomely remade as an inside tasting room. The bar offers seating for a elisurely tasting, and tables are surrounded by artwork depicting the winery over the years.

Savory and sinewy, the 2014 Two Pisces Vineyard Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($65) tops the Pinot list. Old school Zin fans will still find a wine to love if they ask about the olallieberry-fruited 'Chester' Zinfandel, named for a beloved winery dog, RIP 2007–2017. Pair the 2016 Valley's Hand Sonoma Valley Gewürztraminer ($32) with seafood—it's spicy, but not sweet.

russian river vineyards wine tasting pinot

Wine Geek-Proof Your Game

When talking freely and knowledgeably about the Russian River Vineyards you have visited, it's best to be sure you're talking about this establishment in particular, which is located within the Russian River Valley AVA, and makes wine from several Russian River Valley vineyards. See the difference?

While a few casual listeners might be confused, it's a bit of technical point that's even more relevant when considering Sonoma: to say a wine is 'Sonoma' does not say enough, as there's a Sonoma Mountain, a Sonoma Valley, and a Sonoma County viticultural area.

Hit the Road

backyard dining

Since a visit to Russian River Vineyards isn't for a fast-paced, superficial, wine-pounding tasting itinerary in the first place, the best way to access this property is via the West County Trail bicycle trail, which is a Sonoma County Regional Park that connects Sebastopol's Occidental Road to the town of Forestville. (The gate may be easy to overlook, as the replanting of the estate vineyard has obsured the trail to the winery a bit — just watch for the iconic roofline on a hill south of Forestville, then keep close to the fence line and walk your bike!)

Currently, there's just a little detour through quiet side streets at the trail's end, to reach the town's small range of excellent restaurants, like Backyard. Heading south, take the wide shoulder on Occidental Road to a bike path that leads to Andy's Produce Market on Highway 116, your go-to stop for ready-to-eat picnic supplies — and there's a bike-friendly coffee shop on the side.

Russian River Vineyards, 5700 Highway 116 N. Forestville, 707-887-3344; open daily, 12–8pm, tasting fee, $20. 

James Knight