We had it all planned out. A day touring vineyards in the Russian River Valley in Sonoma, where I think some of California’s loveliest wines come from. But a client’s mini-crisis, the promise of a scorching day and an *ahem* late night at the Dry Creek Kitchen in Healdsburg conspired against us. We left late and the siren call of a cooling pool was too loud to ignore. In the end we visited a princely two vineyards. We tasted some nice wines, had a lovely drive and took lots of pictures. What’s not to like?
We passed twisted old vines laden with fruit, and newly grafted vines – that were still establishing themselves (below). The tall, wind turbine-like structure in the back is to prevent frost by moving air through the vines. Temperatures in parts of the Russian River Valley can dip dramatically at night.
Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the main grapes grown in the Russian River Valley, which is generally cooler than its neighbouring AVA (American Viticultural Area), the Dry Creek Valley. You will find other varietals (a wine that is made primarily out of one variety) for tasting at cellar doors here, but they are usually grown elsewhere. For example, at Gary Farrell Wine there’s a Sauvignon Blanc from the Sonoma County AVA. Although Pinot Noir is winemaker Gary Farrell’s varietal (sic) of choice, I was quite taken with his 2008 Russian River Selection Chardonnay. It had a divine smell of white toast dripping in butter, and it managed to feel sprightly and fresh despite its creamy peachy roundness. My kind of buttery Californian Chardonnay.
The tasting room is perched on a hill and worth a trip if only for the view.
Wineries here don’t have restaurants due to planning regulations. So, a good few landscape their grounds to encourage people to bring picnics. Why not enjoy some wine with food? (Though you don’t have to buy a bottle to do so.) And just because there’s no restaurant attached doesn’t mean you can’t hold a wedding there either. Arista looks perfect for a small celebration, with its Japanese garden. It was a pretty good spot for our take out lunch.
We got off to a shaky start at the tasting room at Arista when the first wine served was a 2010 Sauvignon Blanc made by Mark David, a winemaker who is a part owner of Arista. The grapes used are a clone called Sauvignon Musque, which makes a comparatively softer and more exotic tasting version of Sauvignon Blanc. To give it even more body and depth, the winemaker ages it in oak and then bottles it directly from the barrel, unfined and unfiltered. So far, so good. It always makes for a more savoury wine. But serving clumps of the dead lees in a small sample glass – when you don’t actually get much wine, and when I was going to be spitting it out – was not my thing. A Philistine, maybe. However, despite being told “the winemaker wants it served that way”, I did get a fresh glass.
Things got better with the three Pinots we tasted. Different vineyards, different styles, all good. My favourite was the 2009 Toboni Vineyard Pinot Noir, a striking purple colour and a satisfying medium-heavy weight, with tastes of fresh raspberries and red roses.
Like most of the neighbouring wineries, limited amounts are made of each wine and the home vineyards around the estate provide grapes for wines you can only get if you are on Arista’s mailing list. (Oh, and they don’t ship their wine to anywhere outside the US – and not even to some states within.)
After our picnic, shaded from the piercing sun, we called it a day. Lightweights, I know. But after a lousy British summer, every ray felt sacred. We headed back to Healdsburg, knowing we had a full itinerary in the Dry Creek Valley the next day.