Breath-taking views and beautiful vino is always abundant while in wine country, and while the Russian River Valley certainly delivered there, I was delightfully surprised by the wonderful families and rich wine-making heritage of the people who call the weaving river home. During my short stay I was able to visit the wineries of Thomas George Estates, Gracciana, J. Rochioli, and Korbel and had a wide array of experiences ranging from impersonal and corporate to incredibly curated and boutique. In this brief winery review I will discuss my tastings and break down what was so great (or not so great) about each place, and rank them in terms of wine quality and customer interaction.
Wine Quality: 2nd
Customer Interaction: 4th
To say that I was excited to see the grounds of Rochioli would be an understatement of monumental proportions. The history alone is enough to make a wine nerd like myself start salivating, not to mention some of their most prized single-vineyard pinot noirs have a five year waiting list to get your hands on a bottle. The wines exhibited exceptional balance but the way we were shuffled through the tasting with very little face to face time with an employee left for much to be desired. Our tasting was scheduled in the last hour of the day and when we asked to revisit a wine while waiting for our ride service to arrive, we were told, “We close in twenty minutes.” When we were drinking wine, there was very little chance to actually nerd out about the wines, and the staff seemed more interested in informing us on where the best burger in town was rather than what we were actually there for. After paying ahead for a scheduled tasting, I think the money might have been better used on a decent bottle from here rather than what I thought was going to be a guided tasting. Slightly disappointing, but it goes to show that passion for your wine might be more important to a tasting experience than accolades.
Wine Quality: 4th
Customer Interaction: 3rd
Anyone going to Korbel should know what they're getting in to; the place is massive and a corporate giant in the wine world, the tasting “stand” might be the least focused element in their tourist shop and deli, and you'll have to dig pretty hard to find someone involved enough to actually know about the wine making processes. With that being said Korbel provided a fun environment and exciting tasting even though the quality of their wine has lacked over the years. Their list was as large as one would expect from the biggest name in American sparkling wine, and even though the employee pouring for us was not that knowledgeable about their wines, he loved his job, and seeing someone with a love for having fun in a corporate house was uplifting and made for a pretty awesome tasting. The wine was remarkably average but reasonably priced and make for awesome take home bottles after your palate is overstimulated and your BAC a little too high to enjoy the nicer bottles you picked up throughout the day. If you're looking to try a wide variety of wines after a long day of pinots and chards, Korbel is a good last stop.
Wine Quality: 3rd
Customer Interaction: 1st
Gracianna is located only a short walk away from Rochioli, but situated as far as possible in terms of winery values. After catching their fifteen year old son making wine in their garage, the owners of Gracianna decided to start a family venture named after their French Basque grandmother. This small family winery aims at providing an intimate experience with their bombastic wines by taking each visitor in and treating them like family. Each employee was knowledgeable, eager, and involved in every step of operations. Picking grapes from their vines as the owners poured us their favorite wines was the highlight of the weekend and while most of their wines were not necessarily my style, their personable nature and willingness to show off their passion project make this place a definite stop for anyone looking to experience the great people of Sonoma. The winemakers at Gracianna like to push the envelope when it comes to ripeness and make some truly American style pinots. The true gem here lies in their Zinfandel, which is much lighter in its approach and was one of the more exciting bottles that we tried all day.
Wine Quality: 1st
Customer Interaction: 2nd
Thomas George Estates is nothing short of wine nerd heaven and provided the boutique experience that I had been yearning for since purchasing my ticket to SFO. Upon walking in, the first thing that caught my eye was the samples of soil from all of their different blocks on display, and I knew I was in good hands. We had our cave tasting with Miranda, a wonderful employee who was oozing with both wine knowledge and an unmatched fervor for the bottles that they were producing at TGE. (Definitely ask for her if you get the chance) She led us on a wonderful journey of some of their estate pinots and chards of which the Baker Ridge Pinot Noir was certainly the star, and a personal favorite of the employees. All of their wines were extraordinary but the Baker displayed intense depth, balanced structure, and wonderfully pronounced secondary characteristics that were unparalleled by any wine I've had the opportunity of trying from the region. The wines of TGE are expensive, but you're paying for a quality and attention to detail that is rarely seen in the states and especially rare in some of the over explored areas of California. After an unforgettable tasting, Miranda took us inside and let us try the very special Belle's Blend (Grenache Blanc/Viognier), which was the undeniable champion in the battle arena of Pinot/Chard land. Oily, bright, floral, lively, remarkable, and perfectly balanced, Belle's Blend exemplifies the astounding effort and knowledge put into each bottle at Thomas George Estates. The wine and the people at TGE are both amazing and a case of Belle's Blend will find its way to my apartment ASAP.
The Russian River Valley provided everything I imagined and more, and proved to me that California has more to offer than the over-stomped vineyards of Napa. I also learned that the people of this famed AVA have a burning love for their land and their wines, and that showing you care goes a long way when it comes to both wine-making, and providing a memorable tasting experience. Hopefully this short excerpt can lead you in the right direction if you decide to visit this amazing parcel of the US, (which you definitely should) but also know that nothing anyone can say can truly paint the picture for you, and experiencing the Russian River Valley for yourself is the only way to know which experiences are for you.