Story and Photos by John Sundsmo.
“Hurry up and drop your bags. We’ve been waiting for you”, urged Jersey Tom from the door of a white van. Thinking we were on time, but observing a full van, my wife and I quickly dropped our bags in the lobby of The Applewood Inn and rushed to take our seats. After our leisurely drive from San Francisco to Guerneville neither of us expected to be late for our Russian River rendezvous with friends, wine, river, trails, kayaks, art, cuisine and more wine. Positioned in the Sonoma Coast AVA, the Pinot Noir grown, crushed, fermented and aged (French Oak) in the Russian River Valley has its very own unique award winning features that are well known to judges and connoisseurs alike, (the Chardonnay is also star quality). We had a long weekend ahead of us with plans to enjoy it to the max. AND, Yes! The Russian River, survivor of fires and floods, is fully open for business, with the river swimming just starting. Lucky for us, it is not too busy yet.
Jersey Tom’s Wine Tours was our first jump-off introduction to the Russian River Valley. We were glad for it. Named the Slavyanka River (Slav River) by Russian fir traders in the 1800’s, the Russian River Valley has come into its own as a premier wine region. We never found out if Tom was from New Jersey, the Island of Jersey near the Normandy coast, or just an enthusiast of the Jersey Boy’s rock music – but his encyclopedic knowledge of the vintners, wine making and the local history led us to believe he was just a local Big-Bottom boy. “Big-Bottom” because Guerneville in logging days was filled with giant redwood trees in the low lands along the river – hence, the Big Bottom land. Then, in the 1900s when the trees were felled by the two man teams with their buck saws, the town became known as “Stump Town”. Finally, as trendy wealthy San Franciscans sought weekend escapes in their Model-T roadsters, the city became “River City”. Now, with the award winning local wines, outstanding cuisine and fine art, the Valley is perhaps best known as “Enter-prising”. So ‘enter’ and be prepared for a sur-‘prising’, as we were.
Westside Road Wineries
Just parallel to the main River Road and less than ten minute drive from downtown Guerneville, Westside Road is home to fine historic Thomas George, Davis, Farrel, Korbel and Moshin vineyards. Established in the 1980’s, these vineyard wineries focus on letting each block of grapes speak for itself. At Thomas George Estates, our first stop, the vineyard blocks included The Amber Block at Starr Ridge Estate, the Son & Daughter’s Ranch and the Backbone Block at Baker Ridge. Each wine created by Parisian Winemaker Nico had its own language, (maybe even a little French), surpassed only by the beauty of the surroundings. With an onsite high cuisine kitchen under construction for executive chef Michael Phillips, this destination is one we plan to come back to on future weekend visits.
Second stop on Jersey Tom’s list was the exclusive Gary Farrell Winery. With sales primarily through their wine club ($45-80) and tastings by appointment only, their Pinot Noir wines boast a barrel load of awards: e.g. the 2015 Fort Ross Vineyard Pinot Noir (93 Pts. Wine Enthusiast; 92+ Pts. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate; $70); the 2014 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (95 Pts. Wine Enthusiast; 95 Pts. The Corkscrewer Report; 93 Pts. International Wine Review). Tastings are normally 5+ wines for a fixed price, so by this time, we were glad Tom was driving and all we had to do was sit back and savor the experience.
Next stop Moshin Vineyards, an all Pinot Vineyard where winemaker Rick Moshin has developed a truly unique gravity flow process without any pumps. The process is designed to preserve the complex undertone flavors in Pinot grapes. Focusing on small lot, hand crafted wine – and especially Pinot Noir – we were duly impressed. We sampled wines from Callliope Vineyard (2014 Pinot Noir), Larrick Vineyard in the Dry Creek region (2017 Sauvignon Blanc) and were especially impressed by “Perpetual Moshin” (2012 Perpetual Moshin, Dry Creek; $75). (For us, this was a wine club worth further exploration – so we joined.)
Final stop was the grand-daddy of Russian River vineyards – the Davis family winery at Porter Creek Vineyards – here Alex Davis continues to add to the legacy created by his father George Davis. Trained by his father and French winemakers Christophe Roumier, Bernard Michelot and Marcel Guigal, Alex’s focus is organic, single vineyard wines with grape varietals from the Burgundy and Rhone regions. Our favorites were: the 2017 Viognier from the Hayley Marie Vineyard (Estate Bottled, $36) and the 2016 Pinot Noirs from the Fiona Hill and Hillside Vineyards ($52; $72).
By now, it was late afternoon and our palates were fully exercised with luscious flavors that reached every corner of our mouths and resonated far back into your mental consciousness: deep unique cherry flavors, complex oaky tannins and a variety of smoothly satisfying after tastes created by good wines. Every vineyard block has its unique language and we found all the wines in this little terroir deeply and uniquely satisfying. What a wonderful start to our Russian River Rendezvous! Sad to part with Jersey Tom, we headed back to our hotel to freshen up for dinner (and yet more wine tasting).
Award Winning Cuisine
Boon and El Barrio – Situated next to each other on Main Street, the Boon restaurant is neighborhood-casual and El Barrio bar-casual. Both are the creations of owner and visionary Crista Luedtke – winner of the Guy’s Grocery Games 2015 “Battle America!” where she represented the West Coast in a competition with East Coast, Mid-West and South. She won the title of Grand Champion with West Coast halibut dishes. Enamored with the beauty and entrepreneurial spirit in the Russian River Valley, she recently moved from San Francisco to open Boon and El Barrio. Open every day for lunch, during slow season Boon features excellent pop-up dinners prepared by Coastal Catering (Gina and Aaron) and Red Hot Momma.
The Chef at Boon, Carlos Mendez, turns out Crista’s amazing creations focused on organic locally sourced produce, cheeses, bakery goods, sea food and lamb. When we visited, black cod was in season served with English peas, charred savoy, hen of the woods mushrooms and fingerling potatoes in a broth. Spring lamb was also in season and Chef Carlos prepared it as a lamb burger with goat cheese, arugula red onion, cucumber yogurt paired with roasted red pepper soup and truffle fries. Crista has moved to the other side of the table now as a culinary judge and has become a regular with episodes airing this 2019 Fall on the Food Network. She also stars in the indi-film “Empire on Main Street” a Sundance and Cannes award winning documentary about her entrepreneurial enterprises on Main Street in Guerenville.
Paul Mathew Vineyards – We were lucky enough to be in El Barrio when Paul Mathew was showcasing some of his fine wines. A former winemaker at Moshin Vineyards, Paul recently branched out on his own with a focus on small vineyard, small productions made with passion using his unique approach –i.e., his risky natural yeast fermentation. As a microbiologist, I know that it can be extremely tricky to control a natural fermentation process, but Paul’s done it. He attributes the unique flavors of his wines to that natural fermentation technique. Whether it’s his choice of vineyards or his fermentation
technique he is producing some really interesting fine wines. We sampled his Ruxton Pinot, 2015 (175 cases, oak aged 10 mos., from the two acres at Ruxton Vineyards; $50) and TNT Pinot, 2015 (187 cases, oak aged 10 mos., from the 2 acre TNT Vineyard; $50) and found both excellent value and quality. We also enjoyed his Cab-Franc, 2016 (200 cases, stainless – no oak, from the 5 acre Alegria Vineyard; $29). The tasting room for Paul Mathew is in the nearby town of Graton, so we decided to stop by there on our way back to San Francisco.
Guerneville Bank Club – Wandering back to our car from dinner and tastings at Boon and El Barrio, we couldn’t help but notice all the happy people coming out of a historic bank building – but with ice cream. We joined the crowd of locals in line for fresh homemade pie, local Nimble & Finn’s artisan ice cream, shakes and espresso. I’m not sure where we put it, but the chocolate ice cream was too good to resist.
Fully satisfied, we said good night to our friends and agreed to a Russian River rendezvous in the morning for kayaking at Rivers End in Jenner.
Rivers End Kayak Eco Tours
A short drive from Guerenville brought us to Jenner by the Sea at the mouth of the Russian River. Kayaks from WaterTreks Eco Tours awaited our group. Considering our prior day’s debauchery we were perhaps a little under the weather and the idea of a lazy cappuccino in a deck chair was (sadly) more appealing that a paddle in a kayak, so we chose to order coffee and tea in Café Aquatica and sit it out on the deck while watching our friends paddle off on their eco tour of the nearby sand bar seal nursery, islands and birds.
Lunch time found our group headed back to Guerenville. En route, we stopped in at Duncan Mills General Store for sandwiches. Unfortunately for me, the antique store next to the General Store had an amazing collection of 60s-70s vinyl records ($1.50 each) – but I didn’t have time to browse it all! Oh well, there’s always next time. Walking out with The Bread “Baby I’m A Want You” and the Electric Light Orchestra “Oleelo” albums, I knew there needed to be a next time.
The Art Scene
As the San Francisco Bay Area has become too pricey for up and coming talented young artists, many have moved North to greener pastures of the Russian River Valley. Guerenville is experiencing a real Renaissance with collage artists, sculptors and painters all contributing works to the four local Main Street galleries that we visited: Russian River art gallery; Lifvendahl studio and gallery (Mark Lifvendahl); Blue Door Gallery and Douglas DeVivo gallery. Just around the corner, off Main Street, Coffee Bazaar with its organic coffee, espresso, pastries and books gave us a needed break and an opportunity to visit a genuine local gathering place.
Enjoying the local laid-back atmosphere as we walked back along Main Street, we noticed that the Big Bottom Market restaurant, (formerly co-founded by Crista Luedtke of Boon with the present owners Michael Volpatt and Donna Prowse), was having a locals “Community Dinner” night, so we decided to join in – and we were glad we did. The restaurant features “Lumberjack Chic” –“The Market is hip yet retro, simple but diverse, refined yet slightly irreverent, and in general, a mix of local and modern sundries as well other whimsical must have products” – and if that’s the way local lumberjacks eat, I’d like to know where to sign on. The meal was served with local fresh mixed greens, local olive oil dressing, award winning biscuits, (Oprah’s Favorite), California wildflower honey and a very tasty Moroccan Chicken dish with gourmet mushrooms, goat cheese and vegetables – paired with a wonderful Thomas George Estates Chardonnay.
Dinner and friends good-nighted, we retired to our hotel hot tub after agreeing to our next Russian River rendezvous for breakfast at the Michelin star Farmhouse Inn Restaurant.
“What happens when 2 fifth-generation Sonoma farmers, a Michelin-starred chef, a world-class maitre d’ and a team of sommeliers conspire? Some call it magic…”
Joe and Catherine Bartolomei started the Farmhouse Restaurant in Forestville in 2001 and year after year have improved it. With Chef Stevo’s help they have had a Michelin star hanging at the door for 13 years and are #3 on the 2019 Condé Nast Traveler Gold List in North America after being voted #4 in 2018 for the Top 25 Best Hotels in the West (Sunset Travel). – Yes, it really is that good. Our breakfast was amazing.
Sad that the weekend was ending, we bid adieu to our friends and left for a family-style lunch in Forestville with Erica, Roger and Rickey Stanfliff of Trombetta Family Wines . Rickey and her daughter, Erica, now a winemaker, started making family wines more than two decades ago and their successes morphed into a family business that is now all consuming for a small winemaker with less than 1000 cases/yr but with high 90+ ratings from Wine Enthusiast. (Erica is also winemaker for Furthermore Wines.) The family helped successfully champion formal recognition of the new Petaluma Gap AVA. The terroir comes with wind and coastal salty fogs similar to the Carneros region, but with the warmth, soil and hills characteristic of the Sonoma Coast. The Petaluma Gap vineyards are being showcased on the Ama Waterways “Melodies of the Danube” Spring Cruise, April 6-13, 2020 aboard AmaViola.
Our weekend complete and our car trunk laden with wonderful wines, it was time to head south for San Francisco and chilling in a comfy chair with a fine glass of wine.
IF YOU GO:
Winemakers: Thomas George Estates – tastings $25/5 wines (refunded if you join the wine club)- 8075 Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448 – 707-431-1036; Gary Farrell – tastings by appointment only – 1 0701 Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA – 707.473.2909; Moshin Vineyards – Open 11AM-4:30PM for tastings – 10295 Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA. 95448- 707-433-5499; Porter Creek Vineyards – 8735 Westside Rd., Healdsburg, CA. 95448. – 707-433-6321 – firstname.lastname@example.org; Paul Mathew – Tastings Thursday – Sunday, 10:30am – 4:30pm – 9060 Graton Road, Graton, CA 95444 – 707-861-9729; Trombetta Family Wines –By appointment only – Forestville, CA. 95436 – 707-887-7814 – email@example.com .
Taxi Service: Bill’s Taxi – 707-869-2177 – firstname.lastname@example.org
Cuisine: Coastal Catering – Gina and Aaron, ; email@example.com ; Boon and El Barrio – 16248 Main St., Guerenville – 707-869-0780; Big Bottom Market – 16228 Main St., Guerneville – 707-604-7295; Farmhouse Inn – A Michelin Star restaurant since 2014 – 7871 River Road, Forestville, CA. 95436 – – 707-887-3300 .
Guerneville Accommodations: Sonoma Orchid Inn – 12850 River Rd., Guerneville – 707-887-1033; Applewood Inn–13555 Hwy. 116, Guerneville, CA 95446 – 707-869-9093; River’s End Lodging – 11048 Highway One, Jenner – 707-865-2484 .