Pinot Noir Winery Crawl – Sonoma, Russian River, Dry Creek

Stryker Sonoma Tasting Room
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Stryker Tasting Room on a lively weekend

What better excuse for a three-day crawl through Sonoma on July 20 – 24 than to observe our four-year wedding anniversary and to continue our search for the perfect pinot noir? Our wanderlust took us to several wineries that were new to us. The wineries we liked best among all the ones we visited included the Hartford Family Winery, Zichichi Family Vineyard and Winery, Stryker Sonoma Winery and Vineyards, Acorn Winery, Selby Winery, and Copain Wines.

In the Russian River area, the Hartford Family Winery, with it’s lovely, tasteful chateau-like winery and grounds, is making pinot noir and chardonnay wine the way we prefer it — fruit forward, not much tannin or oak, and drinkable now (but also ageable for a year or two). Their yummy 2004 Three Jacks chardonnay ($45/bottle) features a citrus nose with a lemon-vanilla finish and is sourced 100% from three different chardonnay grape vineyards. Unfortunately, this chardonnay is in limited quantity and is available only at the winery. (We’ve bought a enjoyed a couple bottles since the visit.) The 2006 Fog Dance pinot noir ($45, Green Valley of the Russian River vineyard) has black cherry aromas followed by cranberries, red cherries and allspice on the palate. (We’ve bought and consumed about six bottles of this elegant pinot noir since our first winery visit.) Finally their 2006 Dina’s Vineyard zinfandel($50, Russian River Valley) is a big, chewy wine that needs at least two years in the cellar. I can give no better description than the winery’s own tasting notes, “deep, dark colors along with highly focused blackberry and blueberry aromas and flavors with a broad multi-layered texture and wet stone finish.” (We’ve put aside a couple bottles in our basement.)

Update on Hartford, April, 2009. After enjoying our initial July 2008 bottle purchases at home over the summer and fall of 2008, we decided to join their wine club (reds) on a visit in late 2008. We have been very happy with our quarterly shipments and have used the member discount to load up on special favorites – like the 2006 Fog Dance pinot noir.

Truett-Hurst Vineyards and Winery is one of the newer wineries in the Dry Creek area.  The new owners bought the former Martin winery and renamed it  They’re also revising the production model; when we visited there were about 20 acres outside the tasting room that were growing weeds.  Jim, the winery manager, explained to us that the land was lying fallow for three years and would be farmed biodynamically when grapevines were planted.  They intend to move toward zinfandels and petite sirahs.  Truett-Hurst actually has two other labels in addition to their own.  They still own the Martin label, although that will be retired once they sell off the remaining inventory.   The other label is Stonegate, an ultra-boutique wine from the Napa Valley.  Truett-Hurst is using telemarketing to sell the Stonegate label, unusual in the industry.  (April, 2009 update: the winery web site is a single page.  It appears that progress may be slower than they had anticipated.)

Zichichi Family Vineyard and Winery, Dry Creek ValleySonoma, is a new hill-hugging winery with an unpretentious, contemporary, rustic wooden architecture building for tasting, featuring a charming family-sized deck with a view of a vast expanse of vineyard below. Owner Steve Zichichi is a New Orleans refugee from hurricane Katrina, a physician, and father to vivacious coed triplets and also to a new younger brood. (Busy, busy, busy.) He bought his 22 acre Sonoma ranch in 2000 well before Katrina and was planning to retire to Sonoma at the usual age. However, when Katrina devastated New Orleans, he decided to leave the city with his family rather than stay and try to rebuild his business. Steve’s misfortune is our good luck. He has hired a wine maker (see picture) who has a real knack for producing the kind of traditional Zinfandel wines we like.

Zichichi winery has stumbled into an unusual business model. They only produce two or three wines and you usually can’t even buy the bottles in the tasting room. That’s because Zichichi fans so love the wine, that most of their (small) production is pre-sold in the futures market. Fortunately the minimum futures order is six bottles, so it’s at least a somewhat affordable. Even though the winery was begun in 2000, they have been producing estate wines for only the last two years. We were fortunate to try a barrel tasting of their 2007 “Old Vine” estate zinfandel. We immediately bought a six bottles future, our first purchase ever in a wine future. This wine promises to be very fruit forward with soft tannins and exceptionally mild spice for a zinfandel. The wine will be bottled in November, 2008 and shipped in March, 2009. We can hardly wait.

Update on Zichichi, April 2009. It’s early April 2009, and we are drooling with anticipation of delivery of our six bottles sometime this month … we hope.

Update on Zichiichi, July 2009.  We received our six bottles and sampled one.  Our futures baby has turned out to be a very big berryiful wine, almost viscous in texture, yet still dry through all the fruit. At 16% alcohol, we expect to consume it as an an aperatif rather than as a table wine.

 

Stryker Winery Architecture

Stryker Sonoma Winery and Vineyards, Alexander Valley, is another hill-hugging winery. It has a very exciting, very stylish modern glass & steel tasting room overlooking the entire north valley – this is a really spectacular view. (picnickers welcome). There is also an unsual “view” from an interior glass wall in the tasting room which looks down into the murky winery aging room with its hundred of bottles and fork lift trucks racing to and fro. Opened in 1999 Stryker has an extensive list of over 50 wines, mainly reds and predominately zinfandel and cab. On any day, they have 12 or so open for tasting with fees for the “reserve” wine flight. Quite popular, their room can get crowded on weekends, but the pouring hosts remain efficient, friendly and knowledgeable, so you’ll have a good time.

On this our first visit we found an intriguing 2005 100% petite verdot ($32, Speedy Creek Vineyard, Knights Valley). My notes say, “Too much verdot, not enough petite.” But if you like big, brawny red wines give this one a try. Wines that we preferred included the 2005 Martinelli Vineyard Russian River Valley chardonnay ($25). My notes say “candy.” The winery’s notes say “elegant yet playful, with an inviting nose of honeysuckle and vanilla. When chilled, flavors of melon, pineapple, and pear unfold on the palate and then give way to subtle notes of oak and vanilla in the finish. At warmer temperatures, the wine exudes hints of crème brulee, lemon, and honey.” Either way we liked it a lot. The 2004 Sonoma County Cabernet Sauvignon ($24) includes soft tannins and oak, probably needs 6 months to a year in the cellar. But our find of the day was the Alegria Vineyard, Russian River Valley, Zinfandel 2005 – fruit forward, yet with some characteristic spice, medium-bodied (aka no jam).

Update on Stryker, April 2009. We enjoyed the Alegria so much that on a return visit we decided we trusted Styker’s “taste” enough to join the wine club (reds only). We’ve been happy with our shipments and have used the member discount to buy another six bottles of the Alegria 2005 Zinfandel.

Acorn Winery & Alegria Vineyards, Russian River, is a small gem, producing only 3.000 cases annually. We decided to visit them because we had just tasted the Stryker Sonomia wine-maker’s version of zinfandel using 100% Acorn- Alegria Vineyards grapes. We were quite curious about what the original grape sourcer might produce with the same grapes.  At Acorn, we found that winemakers Bill Nachbaur & Alison Green Doran offer tasting from a small, utilitarian converted store room. Think garage, very real, very rustic, a real farm. You need to call for an appointment because Bill and Alison are busy doing real chores. Bill was a very congenial host, providing valuable snippets of information about the wine business, viticulture, and local competition. Bill also pointed us to Selby wines in downtown Healdsburg.. We especially enjoyed the 2005 Alegria Vineyard “Heritage Vines” zinfandel ($34). Whereas Stryker used 100% Alegria grapes for their Alegria zinfandel , Bill and Alison have added 10% each of alicante bouschet and petite sirah to the Alegria grapes (which themselves are actually a “field blend” of 9 varietals among the mostly zinfandel) to produce a wine with “aromas of ripe blackberry, vanilla, and toasty oak. Smooth luscious layers of plum, black raspberry, cocoa, and spicy black pepper mingle with the essence of strawberry from the Carignane and Cinsaut. The Petite Sirah and Alicante provide subtle tannins and structure and add to the lingering flavors of dark-skinned fruit.” (from the winery’s tasting notes). Much to our surprise, because we don’t usually like sangiovese, we bought a bottle of the 2005 Alegria Vineyards Russian River Valley sangiovese ($26). This wine was aged in Hungarian oak with one barrel out of every 40 smoked. Again I can’t do better than excerpts from the winery’s tasting notes: “Smoky aromas of dusty tannins mingle with hints of vanilla, mocha and black pepper. … luscious, toasty center through to the broad spicy finish… . Creamy mocha and vanillin oak notes join classic flavors of plum and dark cherry.” All these wines say Bill and Alison know what they’re doing.


Selby Winery, located in a small shopfront one block off of the Healdsburg town square, was recommended by wine maker Bill Nachbaur at Acorn. Selby had been on our “should visit sometime list” after discovering them on the web. But Bill’s recommendation was the little push that got us to go there at last. Owner-winemaker Susie Selby says, “I’m lucky. Since I only make wines I’d like to drink, I get to choose my favorite varietals and use time-honored techniques to achieve wines that are accessible now – but can be laid down for later.” Our particular favorite was the 2006 Russian River Valley “Dave Selby reserve” chardonnay ($40), named after her late orthopedic surgeon dad … and only bottled in years where the chardonnay is good enough to really honor him. This wine has a surprisingly delicate, fine structure. Susie describes this wine as “soft flavors of apricot and pear expand to a honeyed, rich flavor with broad mouth-feel and hints of spicy oak.” We can’t argue with that. While we recommend trying all Selby’s wines, a second favorite was the 2006 Sonoma County “Old Vines” zinfandel ($28). My notes say “approachable, berry nose, spice and berries on the palate.”

Selby April 2009 update: We’ve just pulled the Dave Selby 2006 chardonnay out of the basement and are looking forward to consuming it at home sometime this month.

Copain Wines was our last stop on this crawl, and a bit of a drive out into the country going south on Eastside Road.  Definitely worth the effort of a side trip, this new “rustic chic” winery is up a hill with lovely views of the river below. The grounds enjoy the same view and would be a perfect venue for a wedding or other event. Copain opened their new facility last year with the first crush in the fall of 2007. Their 2007 Mendocino County “Tous Ensemble” viognier ($20) stands out as the bargain of the trip. Blended with 10% roussanne, the wine exhibits aromas of peach and honey with added flavors of lychee and apricot. We just thought it was delicious. A second find was the 2005 James Berry “Les Copains” Rhône-style red blend ($40). Blending 42.5% each of grenache and mourvedre with 15% syrah, Copain has produced an amazing wine. My notes say “rich blackberry on the nose, berries, spice and soft tannins on the palate. Age one year.” Norma actually thinks two years would be more like it.

Winemaker – owner Wells Guthrie served his apprenticeship at Chapoutier in the northern Rhône. He has brought excitement and style to this new venture. By the way, if you happen across any wine from Chapoutier in your local shop, give it a try.  We’ve been pretty happy with the couple of bottles we’ve tried.

Copain April 2009 update: We’re getting the travel itch and will certainly revisit Copain sometime this summer … after our upcoming April “wine tasting school” at UC Davis and after our June 2009 crawl in Palo Robles.

Contact information:

Hartford Family Winery, 8075 Martinelli Road, Forestville, CA 95436.
Phone: (707) 887-8010 Fax: (707) 887-7158
Email: hartford.winery@hartfordwines.com
Tasting room hours every day except July 4 10 am – 4:30 pm

Lynmar Estate Winery, 3909 Frei Road, Sebastopol, CA 95472
Hospitality Salon: (707) 829-3374 x 118 Reservations: (707) 829-3374 x 102
Fax: (707) 829-0902 Email: info@lynmarwinery.com

Truett-Hurst Vineyards & Winery
5610 Dry Creek Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448
Voice: 707-433-9545  E-mail: info@truetthurst.com

Zichichi Family Vineyard and Winery, 8626 W. Dry Creek Rd., Healdsburg, CA 95448.
Phone: (707) 433-4410 Fax: (707) 433-6358.

Stryker Sonoma Winery and Vineyards, 5110 Highway 128, Geyserville, CA 95441.
Toll Free (800) 433-1944 Local (707) 433-1944 FAX (707) 433-1948
email info@strykersonoma.com
tasting room open 10:30 am to 5:00 pm daily.

Acorn Winery by appointment only.
12040 Old Redwood Highway, Healdsburg, CA.
Phone (707) 433-6440 Fax (707) 433-7641
E-mail: nachbaur@acornwinery.com

Selby Winery, 215 Center St., Healdsburg, CA 95448
(707) 431-1288, (707) 431-8902
tastingroom@selbywinery.com
Open daily 11 a.m. – 5:30 p.m.

Copain Wines by appointment only.
7800 Eastside Road, Healdsburg, CA 95448.
(707) 836-8822 x 104, (707) 836-8877 (fax)
information@copainwines.com

About the author

Tony Lima has been a California wine fan since arriving in California from the east coast in 1974. He's lived the growth and expansion of the West Coast industry first hand. He's seen the fickle California Wine consumer fads pop up and burst... the craze for Zinfandel, then oaky Chardonnay, then Merlot, now Pinot Noir. On behalf of fellow Californian oenophiles, he hunts for great pinot noir and great values in pinot noir all along the West Coast. His day job is Professor of Economics at California State University located in Hayward. His undergrad degree in chemical engineering (MIT) and his MBA (Harvard) and Ph.D. Economics (Stanford) are the root of his interest in the Business of Wine. He is a card-carrying member of the AAWE - American Association of Wine Economists.

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