Everyone loves a “Top 10” list, so here are my recommendations, in alphabetical order as they’e all prime picks in that special wine region called Russian River Valley. Besides the fabulous wines, it’s the people and stories behind the vines that make a visit to RRV so memorable and will keep you returning for more!
In the middle reach of the Russian River Valley lies Arista Winery, a family-owned artisanal winery. Specializing in handcrafted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Arista is a true gem. Brothers Mark and Ben run the day-to-day winery operations, and oversee the mini-farm and organic gardens.
The journey from Westside Road is magical and meanders through spectacular Pinot Noir vineyards. At the end of the long gated driveway, you will find a zen-like Japanese inspired facade with manicured gardens, ponds and walking paths. Perfect for a wine-inspired picnic lunch.
By appointment only, the staff is super friendly and extremely knowledgeable and the wines speak volumes. The only downside here is the one-year waiting list to join the McWilliams’ family wine club.
One of the most memorable experiences last year was discovering DRNK Wines, another family-owned winery off Frei Road in rural Sebastopol aka Laguna Ridge growing area. Cleverly named, the initials D.R.N.K. represent inlaws Dale and Nancy Dougherty and Ryan and Katie Kunde who all share a love of family and good wine!
Ryan hails from five generations of vineyard management in Sonoma County and definitely knows how to select the top vineyards and grape varietals, utilizing drone technology. One thing is certain, Ryan’s charismatic nature is endearing and his depth of enology is as impressive as the array of wines.
If you’re lucky, perhaps you’ll be invited to taste some amazing vintage wines in the naturally cooled wine cave. Current bottlings include Rose, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Grenache Blanc, Pinot Noir, Merlot and Zinfandel. Also by appointment, so call ahead and be prepared to be wow’d.
Calling all Pinotphiles… Off the Gravenstein Highway in Sebastopol, you’ll find the highly touted Emeritus Vineyards, another precious jewel along the wine road. Found quite by happenstance, historically speaking, Emeritus‘ Hallberg Ranch is one of the area’s finest producing Pinot Noir vineyards.
An apple orchard in days gone by, the 110-acre Hallberg Ranch is truly a sight to behold. Estate Pinot Noir grapes are also sourced from Annapolis’ Sonoma Coast (Welsly Vineyard) and Sebastopol Hills’ Northern Wind Gap (Pinot Hill). Nothing but heavenly Pinot Noir at Emeritus, but who’s complaining?
A few of the best things about Emeritus, other than the stellar Pinot Noir tasting lineup is the one-on-one seated tasting experience, endless gorgeous vineyard views and the personal interaction with the highly trained staff. Customized vineyard tours are offered throughout the year, with Spring and Summer being especially memorable.
4. Flanagan Winery
One of my newfound favorites is Flanagan Winery, located off Dry Creek Road, five minutes from Healdsburg. By appointment only, this little slice of heaven is sure to impress. You’ll be instantly awed with the sweeping views of Dry Creek Valley and warmly welcomed by the gracious crew
Flanagan is definitely a family affair, with Eric Flanagan at the helm and 20 year old daughter Riley following in his footsteps with her own label, Riley’s Rows. Meeting Riley was awe-inspiring. Her bubbly personality and talent for winemaking is inherent and will serve her well in years to come.
Grapes are sourced from both estate and top vineyards in Bennet Valley, Bodega Bay, Russian River Valley, Petaluma Gap and Alexander Valley. Whether your preference is Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot, Flanagan has something for everyone and is sure to delight.
After much anticipation and a mega-million dollar tasting room and property renovation, The House of Flowers opened their doors this Summer. Flowers Winery is situated off Westside Road, minutes from Healdsburg, on the old VML site. While the vibe is more Napa-esque than the laid-back Sonoma style, Flowers has been well-received and is touted as the ultimate wine and food pairing offering in the Russian River Vall
The artfully prepared food pairings change with the season and compliment the four Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. Definitely a must visit on a warm sunny afternoon!
Freeman Winery s a trendy family-owned and operated winery nestled in the towering redwoods off Montgomery Road in Sebastopol. The intimate guided wine tasting is extra memorable and features an array of Russian River Valley’s cool climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. There are several wine tasting experiences at Freeman Winery. Vineyard tours or wine cave tastings can be reserved by appointment.
More than likely, Jessica Gengler will be your hostess or on occasion, winemaker Aiko Freeman may even greet you. Founded by Ken and Aiko Freeman in 2001, their wines have won international acclaim. As a matter of fact, the 2013 Ryo- Fu (Japanese for “cool breeze”) Chardonnaywas served at a White House State dinner hosted by the Obamas in April 2015 to welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife, Akie Abe. Best of all, the camaraderie of the hospitality crew instantly makes your feel like family at Freeman.
For an intimate high-end wine tasting experience (and markedly the finest Chardonnay in RRV), plan a visit to Kistler Vineyards. Set off Eastside Road outside of Forestville, the historic 1920’s Victorian farmhouse is fondly called the Trenton Roadhouse. Tastings are usually held in the farmhouse and special events are hosted in the renovated redwood barn on the lower level of the property. The views overlooking the Chardonnay vineyards are beyond spectacular and stretch all the way east to the Mayacamas.
Kistler produces 13 single vineyard Chardonnay and four single vineyard Pinot Noir wines, all available through allocation only. As if the wines weren’t enough, the charcuterie plate is equally impressive.
Rumored to have been a brothel in days of yore, folklore has it that you might feel the “presence” of a woman who graces the upper level of the farmhouse on occasion.
Decidedly, one of the most upscale and picturesque wineries in the valley is Lynmar Estate. Nothing quite compares to the beauty of the magnificent summer wildflowers in bloom, seasonal vegetable gardens, massive redwood groves and rolling vineyards with a fine glass of wine in hand. It is quite magical indeed. Grapes are sourced from three estate vineyard sites, all producing premium cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, each characteristically unique. There’s plenty of wildlife to spot at Lynmar as it borders the western edge of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, a 22-mile sanctuary of creeks, marshes, wetlands and oak woodlands. Seasonal culinary small plates and wine pairings are available upon request and well-heeled wine club members may book a stay in the Bliss Guest House, situated in the middle of the Quail Hill vineyard.
9. Thomas George
Another cool wine cave tasting experience can be reserved at Thomas George Estates, off Westside Road, halfway between Windsor and Healdsburg. Site of the old Davis Bynum Winery and 1920’s hop kiln, there’s a lot of history in the main tasting room building itself. Bynum was one of the first wine pioneers in Russian River Valley and is credited to bringing Pinot Noir to the forefront in California in the 1970s.
Literally tucked under the Baker Ridge vineyard is the 8,000 square foot cave, which is used for production activities, barrel aging, reserve tastings and special events. The grounds are lushly landscaped with flowers, grassy picnic areas and a bocce ball court.
Other wine experiences include an off-road wine safari via four-wheel truck to the top of the property with views stretching toward the Mayacamas and Mount St. Helena. Best wines at Thomas George Estates are the estate Chardonnay, which taste even richer in the wine cave!
10. Wren Hop
A little birdie told me about Wren Hop, an eclectic little tasting room which is actually more of a fanciful remodeled barn high atop a ridge, a hop, skip and jaunt from Windsor. Isolated and serene, surrounded by Pinot Noir vines, this little slice of heaven is one of my new favorite spots!
Owned by James McDonough and family of Sonoma/Chicago,, the vibe here is a kind of a blend of Old World meets Renaissance as depicted in the whimsical tarot card-like labels. The focus is ultra- premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, with case production topping out at only 1,000 cases a year.
Hostess Ashley Bender is absolutely delightful and will artfully guide you through the wine tasting paired with specialty cheeses from her family’s Valley Ford Cheese Company. Once discovered, you’ll want to be a Wren Hop follower too.