Beyond the Pinot in the Russian River

Over the past few weekends I’ve had the opportunity to visit some of the wineries in Sonoma’s famed Russian River Valley. This region is rightfully known for its Pinot Noir, a red wine of suppleness coupled the food-friendly charm of acidity.

Yet there are other wines that delight from this wine region north of San Francisco. The pink wine of Pinot is gaining more fans each year. Certainly the French have long embraced rose made from Pinot Noir. Visit Sancerre, known for its bracing white wines made from Sauvignon Blanc and before you leave the vigneron’s cellar, she’ll surely share with you a rose and a full-on red from the Pinot Noir that the family grows.

In Marsannay, in the north of Burgundy’s fabled Cote-d’Or, more fame has attached to the region’s rose than any other wine. While visiting there in March, I tasted many delicious rose, yet was captivated by the excellence of the Chardonnay grown in the same corner of Burgundy. I often find myself looking for the second-string that isn’t accorded start status.

It is this way with regions on both sides of the Atlantic. We find strength in more than one specialty. The spotlight gravitates to one of the wines, while the others wait in the wings, waiting their turn to be tried, tasted and hopefully loved as much as the local hero.

I was just reading a piece on the science of our perceptions that discussed how the expectation of pleasure certainly influences the degree to which we say that a wine is memorable. When it’s Latour on the table, you don’t expect to be let down. When it’s not the star being poured, we are even more wowed and bowled over, when the pleasure is palpable.

On my recent outings in April and May in the Russian River, Pinot Noir’s stage for stardom, I held my mind open to experience the unplanned-for pleasures of the second team, the grapes and styles of wine outside the spotlight. I realize that my ratings might rise higher when tasting grapes, their wines and styles beyond the favored stars, based on the effect described above by the scientists. Yet, it’s all pleasure anyway; we needn’t split hairs about the degree of pleasure. And often the second team comes in at a priced aimed to please.

Williams Selyem At their spring pick-up party, the folks at Williams Selyem poured a few newly bottled wines as well as barrel samples to treat the loyal customers. This is one of the few ways to taste the wines of this cult winery. Much of their wine is sold through their mailing list, with some opportunities to buy a bottle in restaurants and a trickle amongst retail shops.

As with Roumier in Burgundy, this is it for most people. Get on the list, maintain your allocation and move up to more bottles when they become available. While some wineries take advantage of this leverage, the folks at Williams Selyem truly treat their customers like welcome guests at home.

For those of us who like to know more, winemaker Bob Cabral was on hand to personally discuss the wines. For those who just wanted to taste and collect their prizes, they were not disappointed. 2 wines in the shadow of the winery’s famous Pinot were very delicious.

Russian River Valley Vin Gris of Pinot Noir 2007 Vin gris is an expression that the French use for some of their pink wines. This one is the smell of strawberries personified, super concentrated in the mouth and very long. We purchased a few bottles to share with friends, just opening one last weekend. It was perfect on its own as we were transitioning from Riesling with crab cakes to Cabernet and Bordeaux blends with fillet. The rose was a bargain for a taste of Cabral’s winemaking at $18 per bottle. The wine sold out at the pickup party. I wrote about it not to be annoying, describing pleasure I’ve had that you can’t. Rather I think it’s important to know about a gem like this so you can get on board for next year.

Russian River Valley Bacigalupi Vineyards Zinfandel 2006 There was an intense smell of berry pie and jammy fruit in the mouth. The Bacigalupis were on hand to discuss this vineyard, where the old vines are head pruned and dry farmed. The vines range from a youthful 30 to over 50 years old. Current price at Wally’s in Southern California is showing $69.99.

William Selyem

2 weeks later, I was out again, this time with friends from Australia. Phil and Fiona studied at Adelaide with me, where we worked on our wine business degrees. A day out with them takes a wonderfully practical bent, as we look not only at the quality of the wines, but the approach of the service, the experience of the tasting environment, the marketing message of the wineries, and perhaps most importantly, the price to value relationship of the wines on offer.

Lynmar If ever a winery capitalized on an outdoor setting, this is it. The tasting room, on the inside, is truly gorgeous. Yet beyond that, a step above, is the tasting area just outside. You literally taste wine amongst the garden herbs and vegetables, look upon the nearby vines and can view the tall redwoods that frame the Russian River.

Here again we had the opportunity to look beyond the star Pinot to the no-slouch-in-Burgundy Chardonnay. I say that because here in the states, Chardonnay has been getting kicked around by the old and new wine cognoscenti. Yes, I like the great world of grapes out there beyond Chardonnay too. Many a night we start with a crisp Sauvignon from the local team or far away. We must be careful though, of throwing out the queen of Burgundy with the dirty bathwater. At Lynmar we see why.

Russian River Valley Chardonnay La Sereinite 2006 In the nose there is a combination of oak and bread dough. In the mouth, there is the creamy smoothness that many enjoy in Chardonnay. This is offset by the flavors of green apple and the acidity that comes with those granny smiths. This is what high end Burgundy often offers us: Richness that is braced by acidity, providing length and ageability. Not cheap at $70 but certainly well crafted and worth the splurge.

Russian River Rose of Pinot Noir 2007 Again, the pale side of Pinot is truly worth the departure from its more opaque cousin. Like the Williams Selyem, there is the quintessential smell and taste of strawberries. There is also a sense of creaminess that adds the rich texture that we embraced in the Chardonnay. $20 at the winery.

Lynmar

Hartford Hartford is situated a little deeper in the redwood forests of the Russian River, in the town of Forestville. They also were hosting a release party for their loyal fans, serving grilled shrimp and chocolate dipped strawberries to keep everyone going on a hard day of winetasting.

Russian River Valley Arrendell Vineyard Rose of Pinot Noir 2007 This was another winner of a rose, with candied fruit character. $22 at the winery.

Russian River Valley Zinfandel 2005 This wine is Hartford’s budget Zin, blended from parcels sourced throughout the appellation. As such it is more an expression of the winemaker than the single vineyard Zins for which they are so famous. The smells feature a wealth of dried fruits. The mouth is oh so supple and the fruit drives for a long time. The 15.5 degrees of alcohol is seamlessly integrated into the fruit flavors so that you don’t know it’s there, unless you read the label. $30 at the winery.

Hartford

Williams Selyem, Lynmar and Hartford are rightly famous for their Pinot, just like the larger wine region in which they dwell. Their excellence in winemaking extends further, however, to other grapes we know from Burgundy, like Chardonnay. There’s other styles of Pinot to seek out as well, like the pink versions that will be cropping up more as the weather warms.

And we musn’t forget Zinfandel. I’m often struck by the balance achieved by this grape in the Russian River. Here the old vine incarnations, in the hands of the right winemakers, give us jam in a glass.

About Ray

Ray Johnson is the Executive Director of the Wine Business Institute at Sonoma State University. He writes about food and wine, his travels and the business of wine. He makes his home in Sonoma County, California.
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