Given Sonoma County boasts 18 distinct American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) with more than 425 wineries across nearly 1,800 square miles, it is likely when visiting that you have ventured between several growing regions without knowing it.
“Northern Sonoma County features three primary growing regions, each with its own makers, artisans, lodging and dining, in the Russian River Valley AVA, Dry Creek Valley AVA and Alexander Valley,” says Beth Costa, executive director of Wine Road, an association of wineries and lodgings throughout these three growing regions that started in the 1970s with just a handful of partners and today has about 150 wineries and 30 lodging partners. The organization is known for several large-scale events (more on that later) in addition to a killer online wine tool.
According to Costa, Alexander Valley has about 49 wineries to date and covers the Russian River from Cloverdale to Healdsburg. It is known for its world-class Cabernet Sauvignon grapes as well as Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc.
“Dry Creek is nestled between the Russian River and the Lake Sonoma Recreation Area and beloved for its Zinfandel, though it also grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and Merlot,” says Costa, noting there are about 81 wineries in the region right now.
Finally, there is Russian River Valley.
“This AVA is obviously also along the Russian River Valley as the others and includes land up to Forestville and Healdsburg in the north as well as Sebastopol and Santa Rosa in the south,” says Costa. “There are more than 100 wineries in the Russian River Valley, and it accounts for about one-sixth of the total planted acreage in the entire county.”
While 30 varietals grow well in the region, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay put the Russian River Valley on the map.
There is no shortage of epic accommodations along the Wine Road, but if seeking to stay directly in Russian River Valley, check out the Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant and Vintners Resort. Eagle-eyed readers of Fabulous California will know Farmhouse Inn from this story but may not know about its recent big news.
“This past winter, Chef Steve Litke retired from the venue after 22 years, during which time he earned the property a laundry list of kudos, including being named to the World’s Best 36 Food Destinations, Best Restaurants in America, Top 100 Restaurants in America as well as Sonoma County’s Most Romantic Restaurant,” says Costa.
But if a foodie; fear not! In recent months, Chef Daniel Beal, a former sous chef at Chicago’s renowned Alinea and San Francisco’s three-Michelin-starred Atelier Crenn, has taken the reins, meaning we are all in for a treat when his menus launch.
The prior staycation story also touched on spa treatments happening in a “wellness barn” briefly, but just scratched the surface. Now a destination unto itself, the 3,000-sq.-ft. Wellness Barn unveiled a full menu of holistic experiences inspired by its natural surroundings in December 2021. Notably, the Barn features a custom massage using actual gemstones, private yoga sessions, energy balancing, a wrap with native sea salt and wild mustard seeds and guided sound bath meditation. Thankfully, the cottages on property – boasting showers that double as steam rooms, heated floors and indoor-outdoor fireplaces – remain just a magical as before (and still have the wine fridges curated to your personal tastes with varietals from nearby).
Vintner’s Inn similarly stuns. The sprawling European-inspired property is located across 92 acres of lush vineyards and beautifully landscaped gardens. It has courtyards and fountains to spare, not to mention oversized rooms and suites, bocce ball court, a jogging trail through the onsite vineyards, access to hot air balloon rides, bike paths and the iconic John Ash & Co., among the most lauded restaurants in California.
“The region is also dotted with some fabulous inns as well as bed and breakfast options and, of course, even some vineyards with accommodations for special events or wine club members,” says Costa, recommending visitors also look into Inn at Occidental, Radford Inn Bed and Breakfast, The Sandman, Gables Inn and Hotel La Rose when planning a trip.
Sip and Savor
Ready to get tasting? Let’s get started!
Any visit to Russian River Valley must include a stop at Gary Farrell Winery (pictured at top of page), a Wine & Spirts Magazine Top 100 Winery in the World. Founded in 1982, the vineyard predates the appellation earning its AVA status (that didn’t happen until 1983) and started with Farrell himself crafting the wine. Today, the winery is owned by Bill Price (notably also the owner of Three Sticks in Sonoma Valley and a handful of other gems) and a team of investors and deftly led by winemaker Theresa Heredia. Before sipping on the wine, take a moment to drink in the views from the tasting room, which sits atop a mountain ridge so high it feels as if in the clouds. Once seated, there are two tasting options: Exploration and Elevation. During the exploration, you will taste from Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, and during the elevation, six extra-special Pinot Noirs will be enjoyed with cheese pairings.
From there, be sure to book at Flowers Vineyard & Winery as well as J Vineyard’s Bubble Room. Then, look into some specialty experiences. Lynmar Estates, for example, has the Collector’s Lunch Pairing. This two-hour adventure takes place directly in the winery’s Quail Hill Vineyard and features a three-course plated lunch with a professional host paired with some of the most out-of-the-world bottles currently offered on property. Bricoleur Vineyards is another big one.
“The award-winning vineyard recently launched a program called Rooted,” says Costa. “A six-course food and wine collaboration between Bricoleur Vineyards’ wines, Bricoleur culinary team and James Beard Award-winning chefs Charlie Palmer and Nate Appleman, Rooted is an epicurean adventure through the fresh produce, edible flowers and herbs from the winery’s culinary garden as well as other ingredients native to California.”
The “plant-to-plate” approach not only brings out exceptional characteristics in each wine but showcases how the wine can elevate truly local ingredients.
“Harvest Moon also focuses on immersive experiences and is well worth the reservation,” says Costa, recommending the Willowside Farm Tour and Tasting.
According to Costa, each reservation starts with a tour of the brand’s Willowside Learning Farm with the actual winemaker, Randy Pitts. Guests can expect to interact with friendly goats and chickens in addition to getting a behind-the-scenes look on what it takes to run a farm and vineyard operations. After the walking portion of the tour, the team puts out a spectacular spread of cheese exclusively from local creameries along with an interactive wine tasting.
Like Harvest Moon, DeLoach Vineyards is also growing far more than just wine on property (though the wine is pretty darned good). This Russian River Valley beauty has its own “Theatre of Nature,” which is a 20-acre organic and biodynamic farm, just off its tasting room. Self-guided tours are encouraged and take about 20 minutes. Expect chickens, sheep and goats as well as a culinary garden. Once you’ve completed that complimentary tour, consider sitting outside and indulging in an estate library tasting, which features both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
A trip to Russian River Valley should also include Thomas George Estates, either for a pizza pairing, bocce game with a bottle or a full-on Wine Safari. Thomas George’s Wine Safari whisks guests across the property in a vintage Pinzgauer (think miniature military van but converted into an open-air luxury wine cruiser) to tour the Baker Ridge Vineyard. Once up, get ready to party. Each couple who books gets a bottle of wine to share as well as a four-course estate lunch to enjoy under a 100-year-old California Black Oak. The tour also includes sips of several other varietals, including rosé and dessert wine.
As far as wineries go, you also must look at Dutton Estate, EnRoute, Iron Horse Vineyards and Medlock Ames while in the region.
“Events are also a great way to spend a weekend in the region. Among those coming up in 2022 are Russian River Pinot Neighborhoods in June and Wine and Food Affair in November, with Winter Wineland set in the region for January 2023 and the annual Barrel Tasting Weekend in March 2023,” says Costa.