Wine Tasting in the Russian River Valley

Mar 8th, 2016 Culinary Travel, North America, Popular Destinations, Seasonal Travel, Weekend Trips

I inhale deeply and its zesty fruit tickles my nostrils. I sip and a crisp zing awakens my tongue. This Chardonnay is an audacious example of a California white from the coastal Russian River area. Bold and pleasantly biting, its flavor resembles a smooth, over-oaked Napa Valley Chardonnay about as much as a pet lizard resembles the famed movie monster. Hence the nickname.

I’m standing in the C. Donatiello Winery tasting room reveling in my first great glass of the day. A double gold-medal winner at the 2007 San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the amber liquid tastes of bright lemongrass and sharp pear. Late morning light streams in the glinting picture windows and bounces off the soaring ceiling.

Guide to California Wine Country - TravelSmith
Photo Credit: James Daisa

Cooler and closer to the sea than Napa Valley, Westside Road twists and turns from trendy Healdsburg to tranquil Forestville. Located in the northwest corner of Sonoma County, this bucolic Russian River road is the great Northern California wine road less traveled – if there still is such a thing.

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Photo Credit: Bryan Maleszyk

Dotted with old sheep barns and small redwood groves, Westside Road is as cute as it is curvy. But I’ve been told to not let that fool me – serious wines are made here.

As in all of foggy Russian River, the vineyards of Westside Road produce wines with a cool-climate intensity. The result is world-class Pinot Noirs, fruit-forward Chardonnays, and grassy Sauvignon Blancs. An occasional Viognier and a few complex reds, such as Zinfandels and Carignanes, also grace some tasting room lists. But it’s these big three that define this little slice of Sonoma County.

Tom, my tasting room tour guide, brings my attention back to the glass in hand. “It rushes over your palette with a roar and fills you with happiness,” he says of the Chardzilla. “I mean, this stuff is addictive. Folks come in and say, ‘I need my fix man,’ and I give them a supply.” I’ve never heard a tasting room employee talk this way. His bouncy theatrics are infectious and the handful of tasters laugh in response. Tom pours a healthy splash of ruby red Pinot Noir into my now empty glass and I’m grateful for the massive pile of French toast I ate an hour earlier at the Honor Mansion, my bed and breakfast in Healdsburg.

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Spicy black cherry with hints of blueberry and cedar, the Pinot is lovely and I want to drink it all. Reluctantly, I put down my glass. I have two more wineries to go.

I bid Tom goodbye and drive a half-mile down the road. Fast moving clouds cast shadows and slanting light over the rolling vineyards. Sheep graze on the hills out my right-hand window. Sunflowers and thistle grow in vibrant patches along the roadside. Mesmerized by the scenery, I almost miss my turnoff.

An unassuming little winery, Rochioli is nevertheless a mighty player in an extremely competitive industry. For years, the winery has produced only one each of the three classic Russian River varietals. Ratings on this trio never, and I mean never, drop below 90. Producing only 10,000 cases of estate wine per year, wine lovers scurry to buy the masterful vintages of long-time winemaker, Joe Rochioli.

Spending time in the Rochioli tasting room is almost meditative. Voices are hushed as visitors Zen out to the panoramic vineyard views. Purring loudly, a tortoise shell cat winds between my legs while I relish the lime-tinged tartness and mineral overtones of the 2005 Sauvignon Blanc. Scanning the countertop, my eyes land on a laminated card. It’s a review of the very wine I’m drinking by Joshua Greene of Wine & Spirits magazine. “Rochioli’s chardonnays and pinots are great, but for me, the sauvignon blanc is the jewel of the estate–consistently one of the top white wines of California,” he writes. I can’t help but agree. He rates it a whopping 93.

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I turn left out of the Rochioli parking lot, weave around a wide bend and continue southwest through a grove of arching trees. Suddenly I see a barrel perched at the edge of a dirt road announcing my next destination: Davis Bynum.

Secluded in the woods, the rustic tasting room resides in an old hop barn. The scent of fermented grape wafts through as I chat with the tasting room crew and learn a thing or two. The oldest winery on Westside Road, Davis Bynum was one of the first vintners to create a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir with grapes from only one vineyard. Davis Bynum the man essentially built the area’s reputation as a powerhouse of Pinots and spent his entire winemaking career ensuring the bright future of this regional appellation.

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With such history and dedication behind these wines, I’m practically quivering with excitement to taste the latest vintage. My enthusiasm earns me a special invitation to the barrel room. I follow winemaker David into the cool, cavernous warehouse. Stacks of the rotund containers rise to the ceiling in neat rows. Producing a long glass tube called a wine thief, David dips deep into a barrel and traps the purple juice. “Although you don’t want to mess with the wines too much, barrel tasting allows you to see how the wine is progressing and assess its future potential,” he says. Pouring equal amounts into his glass and mine, we sip. Closing my eyes, I tune into the flavors but can’t quite discern the subtle nuances of the young wine. Slurping and rolling the liquid around in his mouth, David looks skyward, wrinkles his brow and swallows. “Ripe strawberry with a hint of red licorice,” he pronounces. I’m amazed. Guess that is why he’s the winemaker and not me.

Back in the car I reflect on my day on Westside Road as I cruise to my final stop – dinner at the acclaimed Farmhouse Inn in Forestville. I realize I’ve experienced each of the region’s three classic varietals at their very best – the Donatiello Chardonnay, the Rochioli Sauvignon Blanc, the Davis Bynum Pinot Noir.

Dropping down into a valley and over the Russian River on an old railroad trussle bridge, the road leads me straight to the restaurant’s door. Once seated, I scan the wine list to decide what will accompany my wild coastal salmon. In the middle of the white wine section I see it. Chardzilla.

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If You Go

From the San Francisco airport: Drive north on Highway 101 through the city and all the way to Healdsburg (about 90 minutes). Take the Central Healdsburg exit, turn left onto Mill Street and stay straight to go onto Westside Road.

From the Oakland airport: Drive north on 880 to 80 N towards Sacramento. Exit on the Richmond/San Rafeal bridge, which exits at Highway 101. Go north to Healdsburg. Take the Central Healdsburg exit, turn left onto Mill Street and stay straight to go onto Westside Road.

Honor Mansion

Billed as a resort inn, Honor Mansion doesn’t disappoint. Rooms and suites ($230 to $600) offer detailed amenities, such as exquisite European linens and imported Tuscan toiletries. The grounds feature a lap pool, putting green, and croquet, tennis, and bocce ball courts.
14891 Grove Street
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Phone: 800-554-4667.

Farmhouse Inn

Delicious, wholesome and intensely flavored dishes rely on what is seasonal and at its peak. Entrees ($35 to $40) often include a Pacific white fish, such as halibut, and a slightly exotic meat, such as rabbit.
7871 River Road
Forestville, CA 95436
Phone: 800-464-6642

C. Donatiello Winery

4035 Westside Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Phone: 707-431-4442

Rochioli Winery

6192 Westside Rd
Healdsburg, CA 95448

Davis Bynum Winery

8075 Westside Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448
Phone: 707-433-2611

Dawn Hagin is a travel writer, photographer and web designer from Eureka Springs, Arkansas. She and her partner, photographer Adam Policky, specialize in travel destination websites. Wine is one of her passions.