The Russian River Valley in Sonoma County is one of California’s most distinguished wine-producing regions.
Many of the 150 wineries in and around the Russian River Valley are small, family-run operations. Some have tasting rooms as chic as the bar in an elegant restaurant, while in others, visitors stand amidst barrels and stainless steel drums, sampling wines that have been poured by the winemaker himself.
The Russian River Valley is also known for its commitment to artisanal cheeses and locally grown produce, making the region appealing to both food and wine aficionados.
The Pelligrini family has been growing grapes for four generations. During Prohibition, Italian immigrants Nello and Gino sold fruit to families for their own wine production. In 1933, the brothers founded the Pellegrini Wine Company in San Francisco. Today, two generations of Pelligrinis produce 35,000 cases a year near the Russian River Valley, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from grapes grown on their 65-acre Santa Rosa vineyard. Inside the winery’s main building, nestled amidst barrels of wine, are an elegant tasting room and an inviting gift shop, which is chockfull of gourmet snacks, wine glasses, and other wine-related paraphernalia.
Wine-maker Bill Frick runs a one-person operation near the Russian River Valley, single-handedly growing grapes on eight acres and making 1800 cases of wine yearly. He also runs tastings on weekends inside a unique “tasting house” that is decorated with colorful artwork created by his late wife. Frick’s wines include some lesser-known varieties, including Viognier, Cinsaut, and Carignane. The Red/Red, a house blend, is particularly popular. A hand-out describes which foods best accompany his wines, everything from fish quenelles to spaghetti squash to “turkey with all the stuffings.”
Ed Sbragia grew up learning the wine business from his father, who grew and sold Zinfandel grapes. In 2006, Ed created Sbragia Family Vineyards near the Russian River Valley, which he runs with his son, Adam, who is the winemaker. Sbragia produces 6,000 cases a year, including Zinfandel, Merlot, and Chardonnay. The facility, located in Geyserville, is a modern structure with an abundance of windows. It includes a tasting room set amidst a spacious gift shop that sells a variety of housewares and decorative items. The multi-story building is large enough to host weddings and other events indoors and on its terrace, which offers spectacular views of the vineyards and surrounding countryside.
A visit to the Battaglini Estate Winery near the Russian River Valley is like a quick trip to a Tuscan winery, complete with roaming cats, a tumbledown barn, and a warm and welcoming winemaker, Giulio Battaglini. The 30-acre Santa Rosa winery focuses on Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, and Chardonnay, many of them award winners. True wine connoisseurs may want to join Giulio Battaglini on the wine tour of Italy he conducts every summer.
There’s nothing more down-home than standing in the Nalle family’s garage-like winery in the Russian River Valley, tasting wines poured on a folding table by winemakers Doug Nalle and his son, Andrew. The family’s first vintage was in 1984, and they currently produce 2,000 cases a year of Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. The small family-run winery is open only on weekends or during the week by appointment.
The mood at Hawkes Wine in the Russian River Valley is casual and fun, with special events such as a Chinese New Year celebration providing additional reasons to lift a glass. This winery focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon, with some Merlot and Chardonnay offerings. Owner Jake Hawkes also brews pots of tea for designated drivers. In fact, the walls of the bright, open air tasting room are decorated with his dad’s collection of antique teapots from the United States and England.
After meeting in a wine bar, Dylan and Tobe Sheldon traveled the world learning how to make wine. In 2003, they celebrated their shared passion by launching Sheldon Wines in the Russian River Valley. The Sheldons produce only about 1200 cases a year using Old World techniques. They include Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Petite Sirah, and a blend they’ve dubbed “Vinolocity,” a word they created to describe the wine’s “yumminess.” Their tasting room in Sebastopol, located in an Old Southern Pacific Rail Caboose inside renovated Gravenstein Station, is billed as West County’s smallest.
Sapphire Hill is one of several boutique wineries clustered together in downtown Healdsburg in the Russian River Valley. Its owners, husband and wife team Tim Meinken and Anne Giere, produce 2500 cases a year, including Sapphire Hill’s signature wine, Russian River Estate Pinot Noir. Their 2005 Chardonnay won the gold medal in the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition. The small tasting room’s clean lines give it a sophisticated ambience, and its location only a few blocks away from Healdsburg Plaza, the picturesque town’s main square, makes it a convenient stop for visitors.
John Pedroncelli founded the Pedroncelli winery in 1927 with 90 acres. Today his children and grandchildren produce 60,000 cases of moderately priced wine a year. Pedroncelli’s hallmark wine is Zinfandel, but it also produces a popular Chardonnay a family member describes as “fruit in the nose, crisp in the mouth.” The family has also produced rosé for 52 consecutive vintages. The Pedroncelli Winery in the Alexander Valley near the Russian River Valley houses a large tasting room with spectacular views of the vineyards, plus a substantial gift shop brimming with wine-related items.
Betsy and Bill Nachbaur founded the Acorn Winery in the Russian River Valley in 1994 after Bill stumbled upon a vineyard that was up for sale while taking a grape-growing class. The Nachbaurs grow their own grapes on 27 acres and produce fewer than 3,000 cases annually. Some of their Heritage Vines date back to 1890. Acorn wines include Cabernet Franc, Sangiovese, and a Medley that varies from year to year. While there is no formal tasting room, the winemakers are happy to pour samples in their reception building that overlooks the vineyards.