Russian River Valley is growing some of the most respected pinot noirs and chardonnays in California. Never heard of it? That’s probably because it’s tucked into a corner of Sonoma County and less well known thanks to the fame of nearby Sonoma and, of course, Napa. And, it’s not small, and there’s plenty of wine being grown there. With over 180 wineries and 16,000 acres of vineyards, the Russian River Valley AVA is well worth the visit on a trip to Northern California’s wine country.
Within Sonoma County, in fact, there are 17 different American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), most of which you’ve probably never heard of, and Russian River produces a sixth of the wine in the county. But, if you’ve tasted a Sonoma County pinot noir, you may have had wine from the Russian River Valley.
The valley gets its name from a south-flowing river that snakes its way from a mountain range in Northern California’s Mendocino County, through the hills and valleys of Sonoma County, finally spilling out dramatically into the Pacific. The valley is sandwiched between Sebastopol and Santa Rosa to the south and Healdsburg and Forestville to the north. It’s centered around the Russian River, but the AVA doesn’t technically include the entire valley, which extends into Mendocino County.
What makes Russian River grapes so happy?
This growing area is close to the Pacific coast, which means the climate is cooler here than it is in Napa, Sonoma or other, more inland, growing areas. This climate, it turns out, makes pinot noir and chardonnay grapes very comfortable. Finicky grapes, pinot and chardonnay need to be kept cool to produce their best wine.
The marine layer (also known as fog) creeps in from the Pacific in the evening, covering the vineyards in the valley in a cool, damp blanket that sticks around until mid-morning. Then, as the sun rises higher during the mid-morning hours, the fog gives way to the summer warmth, but it’s ready and waiting once the evening rolls around. This warm-cool cycle continues throughout the summer and creates the perfect climate for pinot noir and chardonnay grapes. The cool nights give the grapes a break from the warmth of the sun, which slows the ripening process. This area is also characterized by its “Goldridge soil,” sandstone created from ancient volcanic ash. That terroir, which varies even more throughout the AVA, helps to create a distinctly Californian taste in the wines grown in this region.
Where to Taste
To have a more off-the-beaten-track experience, Russian River is a great choice over the traffic-heavy, overcrowded towns of Napa and Sonoma. Book an Airbnb in Healdsburg or Sebastopol and spend your entire trip on this side of the County. There are plenty of wine-country-quality restaurants, shops, and goings-on that will keep you busy. And, of course, there’s wine tasting.
You’re bound to taste something you like at any of this area’s vineyards. The question is, do you prefer a cool vibe or a stunning view to accompany your wine? Here are some of the best wineries to visit when you’re in Russian River:
If it’s sparkling wine you’re in the mood for, Iron Horse is the winery to visit in the Russian River Valley. With bubbles that were tasty enough to be served at the White House, this winery continues to produce quality chards, pinots and sparkling wines. A rustic slab of wood outside is the tasting room, with a vast vineyard view as the backdrop. The experience is so simple it might just be the most memorable.
Laid back is the motto here, and the wine is truly memorable. Ask if Oliver is around, and maybe you’ll get to sample his unconventional peach ring-wine pairing. No matter who is pouring for you, you’ll be drawn to the patio where you can sit lazily under a shady umbrella and take in the view of what seems like the entire valley.
The views here are best enjoyed from the stylish patio and tasting room. Coming up the drive, you’ll be taken aback by the juxtaposition of the sweeping vineyards with the modern structure of the tasting room. It’s a unique space set against an idyllic backdrop that’s made even more unique with an award-winning pinot in hand.
Incredible views make the tasting experience at Paradise Ridge truly unique. Boasting one of the highest vantage points in the entire valley, this spot is pouring a variety of wine that will have you sitting and sipping as late as you possibly can. Speaking of which, wine club members can stay even later to take in the sunset vistas with live music and food trucks.
Gorgeous views – some of the most stunning in the whole area—await you at Gary Farrell. Call ahead or make an appointment for a terrace tasting to get the most out of this lovely winery. If they’re pouring, try the Skin Fermented Chardonnay, a Russian River take on traditional orange wine.
Gardens and flowers abound at this winery that’s crafting some of the finest wines in the area. Even those who aren’t fans of chardonnay will be able to sip and enjoy their pour at Lynmar. It’s laid back with great wine and a great view. What else do you need?
VML couples beauty with a laid back, family-style atmosphere. The interior of the tasting room is decked out in apothecaric greenery and art, and even the artistry is darling, you’ll want to enjoy your tasting outside, where you can enjoy the winding gardens, lawn games and occasional live music.
Great wines and a great property - complete with lots of lawn space and a traveling kitchen - make this maybe the best winery to party. Wine club members can enjoy rocking pickup parties here, and they throw fun parties for non-club members, too, like the recent Winegazing Star Party. Any winery that likes to party this much is OK in our book.
Though the tasting room isn’t located on the vineyard, they’re pouring outstanding wines here with even more outstanding service. After traveling only a few minutes from the town of Sebastopol, it’s a great first stop, and you’ll be greeted with a smile and a front patio. Ask about the sushi and bright white pairing for an extra treat.
This winery is the most unique among the others on this list. Located in downtown Sebastopol (a bumping town of 7,500 residents) at a chic complex called The Barlow, the tasting room is modern and bustling without losing that old-school hippie vibe that resonates throughout town.
If you get through all these recommendations and can’t take another sip of wine, don’t worry, there’s plenty more to do in Russian River! Grab a floatie and head down to the river for a very lazy ride or a barbecue on the shore. Or hit the brewery.