Wending through some of the most picturesque wine country in California, Wine Road, Northern Sonoma County, takes visitors on a sensually gratifying journey of natural beauty, sublime tasting experiences and memorable personal encounters with the state’s most devoted and individualistic winemakers. Even for veteran wine travelers already well acquainted with California wine country, Wine Road is likely to be uncharted territory, sure to imbue a fresh sense of discovery. Along the way are some of California’s oldest wineries, run by vintners whose commitment to tending the vines and producing world-class wines, true to the appellation, runs back generations.
Founded 40 years ago, Wine Road is an association of wineries and lodgings in the Alexander, Dry Creek, and Russian River Valleys of Northern Sonoma County. From its modest beginning as an organization of nine wineries, it has grown into a spirited constellation of 200 wineries and 50 lodgings. It’s not actually a “road” in the sense of a single, continuous stretch of paved highway, but more of a treasure map to the many jewels nestled among the hills and valleys of a region where fresh air, fine wine and exquisite cuisine await those who traverse it.
This lively and committed organization has created a myriad of programs, events and services certain to enhance any visitor’s experience of the region, among them three major events: Winter WINEland, Barrel Tasting and Wine & Food Affair . A complimentary Wine Road map is the key to exploring the glories of the area and is also available online at www.wineroad.com. The area is nothing if not rich in history. The Russian River takes its name from the Russian fur trappers who established a trading colony in the early nineteenth century, and following on their heels were French and Italian immigrants who brought their own centuries-old traditions of winemaking to the area. Wine has been made in Sonoma County for over 130 years. Even during the Prohibition years (1920-1933) many wineries continued to make wine for medicinal and sacramental purposes.
The Russian River itself meanders among three AVAs of vineyards that, combined, represent a pastiche of micro-climates and soils that yield a startling diversity of ultra-premium varietals. To be sure, each appellation has its stars: Russian River Valley’s are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay; Dry Creek Valley is known for its Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc; and Alexander Valley is known for its Cabernet and Merlot. But literally dozens of other international varietals are grown in all of these regions, including Barbera, Carignane, Dolcetto, Sangiovese, Grenache, Reisling and Gewürztraminer, just to name a few.
The region’s winemaking traditions were forged in large part by Italian immigrants who must have experienced a sense of déjà vu when beholding the landscape that would become their home, as many parts of it do indeed resemble Italy. They planted a mix of their favorite varietals, which to this day result in interesting field blends not to be found elsewhere. This early Italian influence is still very much in evidence at venerable establishments like the Simi Winery, founded by brothers Giusseppe and Pietro Simi at the northern edge of Healdsburg in 1876. (Originally named Montepulciano, this proved too difficult for non-Italian locals to pronounce, leading to the more approachable name, Simi Winery.) In 1981, French investors Möet Hennessy Louis Vuitton bought the winery, and helped turn Simi into a financial and critical success. And then there were Italian immigrants Edoardo and Angela Seghesio, who planted vineyards in 1895 and added a winery in 1902. But the Russian River Wine Road is also where modern, state-of-the-art wineries such as Kendall-Jackson and Ferrari-Carano co-exist with small, artisanal producers for whom making wine is a way of life, completely intertwined with the responsibilities of home and family. From Italian-style villas and French-style chateaux to small garagiste wineries (a name coined because many began making wine in their garages!), the Russian River Wine Road provides a kaleidoscopic array of glimpses into the world of winemaking.
This makes traversing the Wine Road a uniquely personal experience and visitors will find their own enthusiasm for great wine reflected in the appreciation of these passionate producers. There are also plentiful picnic areas—with many wineries offering patios, decks and gardens for leisurely lunches—and wine-worthy food available for takeaway at such beloved, timeless outlets as the Dry Creek General Store and the Jimtown Store. All of which makes a trip along the Wine Road breathe new life to the poet Omar Khayyam’s notion of the ingredients for a perfect moment: “A loaf of bread, a jug of wine, and thou.”