There is an especially sweet slice of pinot noir and chardonnay heaven in Russian River Valley, on a short stretch of Gravenstein Highway North between Forestville and Sebastopol.
The legendary Mom’s Apple Pie shop is nearby, a reminder this relatively flat, grapevines-as-far-as-the-eye-can-see area once was overwhelmingly planted with apples. Today’s cash crops are pinot noir and chardonnay, and there is no better place than this 1.7-mile stretch of highway to sample wines from outstanding producers.
From north to south (Forestville through Graton to Sebastopol), five tasting rooms demonstrate the wide range of pinot noir and chardonnay styles that come from the Russian River Valley AVA and its cooler subset AVA, Green Valley of Russian River Valley. Luscious, juicy, fruity, savory, earthy, minerally, toasty, hedonistic, scintillating and intense … all variations of pinot and chardonnay are offered to those who cut through this swath.
As is a bit of history. The emergence of Russian River Valley and Green Valley as vital viticultural regions is largely attributed to Warren Dutton. His family’s Graton-centered ranch was planted predominently to apples — a viable business until the 1980s, when Washington state began taking command of the domestic category and demand for local Gravenstein apples and their juice dried up. Dutton began planting wine grapes, first chardonnay and later pinot noir, while shooing away naysayers who said the region was too cool to ripen wine grapes.
Gosh, were they wrong.
Dutton’s sons, Steve and Joe, took over the ranch after their father’s death in 2001. They now farm more than 1,200 acres of vineyards (and apples, too), keeping some of the grapes for their own wines and selling the rest. Refreshing natural acidity is a hallmark of wines made from Dutton-grown grapes, as they hail from sites cooled by the fog and breezes drawn in by the Russian River. That and a powdery, well-drained soil called Gold Ridge promote intensity in the grapes, with green apple and citrus characteristics typical in chardonnay and dark cherry, berry, cranberry and pomegranate notes in pinot noir.
Many others followed the Duttons to the Russian River and Green valleys for chardonnay and pinot noir production, and there are dozens of wineries to visit along Gravenstein Highway and its side roads. But it’s easy as pie to take this particular tasting route, less than two miles long and so very wide in intriguing wines.
From north to south…
Dutton Estate Winery
Joe Dutton, with his brother Steve, co-owns Dutton Ranch and each owns his own winery. Several chardonnays ($42-$55) come from Dutton Ranch grapes, all of them balanced and vibrant.
For pinot noir, there is the Karmen Isabella ($46) and several pricier bottlings with familial connections. The Kylie’s Cuvee Sauvignon Blanc ($27), named for Joe’s daughter, is a like breath of fresh air on the palate.
The Casual Wine Tasting Experience at the tasting bar or garden can be upgraded to a wine and chocolate pairing, small bites with wine and a 90-minute experience including a visit to a chardonnay vineyard and cellar, followed by a tasting paired with cheeses.
8757 Green Valley Road (at Gravenstein Highway North), Sebastopol, 707-829-9463, duttonestate.com.
Steve Dutton joined former La Crema winemaker Dan Goldfield to establish this winery in 1998. Cherry-picking grapes from Dutton Ranch’s best sites, they bottle elegant, restrained chardonnays and pinot noirs. This is also one of the few area tasting rooms to offer riesling, gewurztraminer, pinot blanc, zinfandel and syrah, from not only Dutton vineyards, but also those in Marin and Mendocino counties.
The Discovery Tasting includes six wines, with appointments appreciated yet walk-ins welcome, based on availability. Reserve the Pinot Noir Road Trip or Classic Wine Experience; do the same for the wine and sushi and wine and cheese flights. If given the opportunity, be sure to taste the remarkably intense Rued Vineyard Chardonnay ($55) and exotic Fox Den Vineyard Pinot Noir ($62).
3100 Gravenstein Highway North, Sebastopol, 707-827-3600, duttongoldfield.com.
Red Car Wine Co.
Carroll Kemp, Mark Estrin and Richard Crowell founded this brand, whose tasting room shares a parking lot with Dutton-Goldfield, in 2000. Their first wine was a syrah, and while syrah remains on the menu, chardonnay, pinot noir and a dynamite rosé of pinot noir have grown in production and stature.
Grapes from the estate vineyard in the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, north of Bodega Bay, get the cold shoulder during the growing season, shuddering as they ripen. Somehow they do, retaining their crackling natural acidity and minerality in chardonnay and heady floral and forest-floor notes in pinot noir. Fruitiness and savoriness are in balance; these aren’t fruit bombs by any means. Estrin died in 2005 and Kemp left in 2017 to pursue personal projects. He turned winemaking over to his assistant, Tanner Scheer, and the wines are better than ever.
A new label and redesigned tasting room add sparkle to the visitor experience, which includes walk-in and elevated tastings, the latter requiring appointments. The wall of rosé bottles is a selfie slam dunk.
8400 Graton Road at Gravenstein Highway North, Sebastopol, 707-829-8500, redcarwine.com.
Merry Edwards Winery
It’s been all change lately at this venerable pinot noir production house. Founder/winemaker Merry Edwards sold the winery and brand in early 2019 to the Louis Roeder Champagne house and officially retired in February 2020. Yet her influence runs deep with Heidi von der Mehden, who worked under Edwards for five years and became the head winemaker before the sale to Roederer.
The pinots, at least for now, are concentrated, intense and firmly structured. The Sonoma Coast ($48) and Russian River Valley ($51) blends and single-vineyard bottlings from the estate and purchased grapes ($63-$68) are standouts. The Russian River Valley Sauvignon Blanc ($36) will please those who don’t favor assertive, herbal styles.
Visits are by appointment, with a new experience recently added: The Library Collection (six vintages of a single-vineyard wine). Or start with the more informal, stand-up Appellation Tasting or the seated Estate Tasting.
2959 Gravenstein Highway North, Sebastopol, 707-823-7466, merryedwards.com.
When he owned Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards, founder Brice Jones focused on chardonnay and built a brand found on restaurant lists throughout the country. After 25 years, he sold the winery in 1999 and created Emeritus as a pinot noir producer, relying on estate-grown grapes. His daughter, Mari Jones, is at the helm these days, with Brice in retirement.
The pinot noirs are on the sumptuous side, mouth-filling yet energetic. Highly recommended are the Hallberg Ranch ($45), Pinot Hill East ($75) and Pinot Hill West ($75) pinot noirs, from estate vineyards. If it’s available, try the Hallberg Blanc ($40), an intriguing, textured white wine made from pinot noir grapes.
Walk-ins are welcome at Emeritus; appointments are suggested and are required for experiences that include tours, tastings of single-vineyard and library wines and small bites.
2500 Gravenstein Highway North, Sebastopol, 707-823-9463, emeritusvineyards.com.