I have a confession to make: Although I live in the fortuitous California wine country, it’s pretty rare that I visit tasting rooms. I remember back before I relocated to Sonoma County from Florida, I would ask friends who lived here what tasting rooms I should visit. I sought out the small, the family-owned, the tasty… and many had no insight. At the time, I was like, “What?? You don’t go tasting on the weekends and loll in the vineyards?” I was aghast.
As I learned quite suddenly when we moved out here… no, wine country residents don’t often visit winery tasting rooms. It’s unfortunate, but life gets in the way… bill-paying, laundry, cleaning the litter box. You know, the stuff you blissfully leave at home while on vacation.
But I had some Pinot lovin’ peeps coming to Cali and I wanted to show them the best Sonoma County has to offer… Russian River Valley. Iconic in its quality and climate to grow both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the Russian River growing region never disappoints.
I went into research mode. In a panic to look cooler and more informed than I actually am, I found myself asking locals for advice, people you work with who just might… every so often… make it outside their homes to visit winery tasting rooms.
And that advice seeking, along with some independent research, is how I uncovered the perfect Pinot Noir drive through the Russian River Valley. It’ll take about 5 hours, depending on how long you stay at each location, meandering along the scenic backroads of this Pinot Noir Mecca. Have a hearty breakfast, hire (there are companies which will drive your car for you – ask your hotel concierge for recommendations) or appoint a designated driver, then plot out the route (but do this first as cell signal is sketchy) and head out:
10295 Westside Rd.
Lighter, more feminine Pinots with loads of fruit and elegance, including a stellar Rosé of Pinot when its in season (generally April – early summer, while it lasts). Taste everything… you won’t regret it. Small, intimate and downscale tasting room with great customer service.
10701 Westside Rd.
Known for their Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Gary Farrell also has Zinfandel, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. I prefer their Pinots – a little heavier than Moshin and about the same price — but try them all. Gorgeous views. Reserve a table outside and the friendly tasting room staff will bring your wine to you.
7891 Mirabel Rd.
It’s lunch time and Speers Market is a fairly convenient place to grab a sandwich and a side, then picnic at your next stop. It doesn’t look like much from the outside but there’s plenty of gourmet action to be had at Speers. This was my grocery store when I first moved to Sonoma County so it holds memories too.
3100 Gravenstein Hwy N
On the weekends during the summer, Dutton-Goldfield (just down the street from a couple of great restaurants in Graton, if you’d prefer fancier dining) has live music on their patio. It’s next to a busy street but you don’t really notice. If there are a few of you, buy a chilled bottle of their Chardonnay and plop down at an outside table to enjoy the scene and Speers Market sandwiches. But don’t leave without tasting Dutton Goldfield Pinots.
2959 Gravenstein Hwy N
Famed like a cult, Merry Edwards is a darling of many a Pinot collector. Their heavier, earthier wines are not my to my taste but people flock here like bewitched subjects. It’s a different experience at Merry Edwards — an appointment is highly recommended — where you sit in a conference-type room and the wine educator talks to you about each wine. Heavy on the sales pitch but the wines are legendary. Be sure to pet the cute, fat cat.
5700 Occidental Road
Santa Rosa, CA
You might be exhausted by now but don’t miss Balletto. Beautiful setting surrounded by vineyards. They are an expansive winegrower so their offerings go way beyond Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to realms of Gewurztraminer, Zinfandel and a lovely late harvest Pinot Gris dessert wine. In season, they have a tasty Rosé of Pinot Noir as well.
At this point, if you can handle one more alcoholic experience, visit Russian River Brewery. They win international awards for their brews and their chicken wings and pizza are kick ass after a long day.