Down by the River
By Kerry Winslow
Russian River-April 18, 2010
The Russian River Valley never ceases to amaze me and I find new hidden corners and gems each time I visit, plus I have habits that need feeding, so I swing by some of my usual suspects almost each time I get up that way. Now that I live in the backyard basically, it was an easy drive on a wondrous and warm spring day, and my mood for adventure has just that much brighter. Off Highway 101 at Healdsburg, resisting to strong pull to slip into town and hang out on the plaza, I lefted and headed into the wine country on Westside Road that is the line between Dry Creek Valley and the Russian River Valley regions. Westside veers left about a mile down and you fast approach the fancy of my heart, Rochioli and the gateway to the wineries in the area though a series of twists and turns down the river itself at certain points along the way. For me, a long time fan of Rochioli, I just can’t pass the place, even to just stop and taste the current releases and see the winery cat, but alas Sweetpea wasn’t hanging around the busy tasting room on this day. Rochioli had only wines that I have reviewed and talked about at length just recently, so it was on to something new.
With early green leaves sprouting and a hot and brilliant sun shining through the vines, it was truly a magical drive and still without the slowpoke summer travelers to hold me back. The vineyards are beautiful all year for me, but spring is a special time to see them, especially when they are framed by so much green, in the hills and trees and everything thing takes on a sharper dimension, bluer sky and greener leaves come more vibrantly into focus at this time. Passing these scenes just gives you a bigger smile, a feeling of well being, and may even make the wine taste that much better. I pulling off at the old Davis Bynum property, now called Thomas George Estates, these guys are new and I’ve not heard a word about them yet, so here was the chance to get my first impressions. I must say, they have done massive upgrading to the place and I was awed by the commitment they are putting into a small family winery, everything is new and well planned out, and they even dug a cave into the hillside, very rare for the Russian River, and no detail has been overlooked. They are new here and are still filling the cave up with their red wines, from the 2008 and 2009 vintages, while the 2009 whites are under the winery keeping cool. I got a great tour from Eric Demuth, an up and coming wine maker in his own right, who is helping out at Thomas George Estates. Eric’s dad used to have an Anderson Valley winery name Demuth, but has since sold out and retired, though still selling his older vintages out of his Mini Cooper. Eric’s label is Demuth Kemos, and has some limited Cabernets and a Chard available, and I will get back to you on them when I get chance to visit his own winery at a future date.
Back to Thomas George, and their wines all of which are well made and the whiles were especially refreshing. I enjoyed their stainless steel fermented and aged Viognier and Chardonnay, then Eric showed me the 2007 Pinots, one from estate vineyards and a special bottling of an “Allen Vineyard”, those who know the famed Williams-Selyem and Gary Farrell would have heard of this top vineyard, similar to Rochioli “West Block”, and finally a tasty Dry Creek Zinfandel. The Pinot Noir selection was the highlight, and both showed great on this day, but that “Allen” really got my attention. I am looking forward to coming back here regularly to see how things progress, and hike up to the vineyards again, they put a path in that leads up a steep forest grade to a vineyard that overlooks much of the valley and helped give me my exercise for the day.
Pushing on South in direction I made my way to one of the long time old school wineries of the region, after leaving Westside Road, twisting east on River Road, I exited up Laguna Road and tucked away about a mile is Joseph Swan Vineyards, close to Forestville and one of the pioneers of the region. I used to have Swan often by in the eighties and nineties, though have not followed them that closely in recent years, so it was fun to go here and see how the wines taste now. Joseph Swan is still very old school, and the wines are packed with tannins and acidity, making drinking young wines next to impossible, except for the Chardonnay.
These wines take me back, though I must say, they seem very had and out of date when compared to what is available of great quality on the market from the region. The contrast is dramatic, but I’m sure those who put a few bottles away, or like to cellar their wines will be rewarded by stocking away some of the 2007 Joseph Swan Pinots, especial the powerful and tight “Great Oak Vineyard” wine. The Chard was very clean and ripe, the 2006 Cuvee de Trois Pinot was almost ready to drink and quite enjoyable, the monster Hermitage like 2005 “Great Oak Vineyard” almost ripped my palate to shreds, you might give this one another decade, then there was an odd ball, the 2006 Tannat “Matthew’s Station Vineyard” that was very raisiny and had a Port like character, not to my taste at all, but it seems to sell well and have homes to go home to, though it is nothing like a good Madiran (a Tannat wine from South West France). Swan also does lots of Zinfandel, and I tried the 2005 “Mancini Ranch” and again thought it would be best to give it more time as it was too tight and spicy still. No question, if you want to taste some throwback wines, that really are for the cellar, Joseph Swan is your must visit place when you get up here, they continue to produce wines in their iconic and classic style, true to their heart.
After Swan, I was interested in seeing the most modern and extreme example of Russian River wines would taste, so I continued East now on River Road to Martinelli Winery, a modern classic if you like. Under the guidance of the famed Helen Turley, Martinelli has become the stuff of legends, making big fruit driven wines that go down well with all the critics. These ripe high alcohol wines sometimes are too much for me, especially the Zinfandels and Syrahs, but as mentioned they have an almost cult like following and get big scores. I must admit, I really do like the Pinot Noirs and even covet their Chardonnay at times, and I must say the Martinelli’s are great people, down to earth and very friendly, so it would be hard not to love their wines.
Today was made even better than I could even imagine, it was their private customer wine pick up day, and they had a special event going where they were pouring some very rare releases and even some 2009 Pinot and Syrah from the barrel! Of course, they would let me in off the street, right? Well, they didn’t call the cops and in fact everyone was amazingly friendly and I got to taste all the wines, both in the tasting room and at the special pouring near the crush pad out back. I must be lucky sometimes, this I know and am grateful, and today was working out perfectly with no problems or even a wrinkle, so I even was able to taste through the Martinelli line up with George Martinelli, a tall charming man that heads up the farming side for the family winery. He took me through all the wine and even pulled wine from barrels for me, again I must thank my lucky stars and thank George as well, as he made an all ready good day great and it was great to hear about the vineyards and vines from someone that is so close to them and knows them all. I was sadly only a taste and spit guy today, which caused some interesting looks from the faithful, though the Martinelli’s understood perfectly, though spitting into a drain on the floor doesn’t look pretty! But, we are professionals here and some of these wines were pushing 17% alcohol, so regardless of not looking cool, it had to be done. That all said, and in good humor, these wines had wonderful depth and flavors that did make me wish I had brought that designated driver everyone talks about.
Martinelli is losing Helen Turley after this year, but don’t worry about a thing the same guy that was making the wine under her is staying, Bryan Kvamme, and he is the real deal and will keep Martinelli at the top of their game for years to come. Bryan was there today as well, holding down the Zinfandel table and pouring the fabled “Jackass Vineyard” to great fanfare I must add, that was a very popular spot today. The wines that really stood out for me, as good as all of them were, had to be the 2006 Three Sisters Chardonnay, the 2007 Bondi Pinot, the really amazing 2007 Moonshine Ranch, the 2008 Bondi Pinot and the 2009 Zio Tony Pinot from barrel. Before everyone screams at me, I will say the Jackass Zin and Giuseppe & Luisa Zin both showed very well too, though the only Syrah that jumped out to me was the 2009 barrel sample. It was interesting to hear that they plan to expand the Syrah line up and that they are looking to it to be their driving force red in the future. Certainly, they know what their customers want and even if they are not to my taste, these wines are very well made and receive lots of great press. And as I said, I really liked the 2009 from barrel, so be your own judge and try them yourselves. There is no doubt about it Martinelli Winery and the Martinelli family, starting here in Sonoma back in 1860, are a class act and it was with great respect and even greater pleasure to see them and taste their wonderful wines.
It is hard to beat the wine county in springtime, and the Russian River Valley is one of my very favorite places to be, and days like today will keep me coming back even more. The people and the region are special treasures and it is an honor for me to call them neighbors now and get to know them on a new and more personal level. It is a joy to have guys like Eric Demuth and George Martinelli enlightening me to the insider ways of the Russian River and to learn about what is next for the areas wines. This place is special and I have high expectations for the future up here, with old and modern ways, old and new clone vines, and good stewards of the land, you can have it all and it tastes sublime.
Rochioli Vineyards & Winery
6192 Westside Road
Healdsburg, CA 95448-8319
Thomas George Estates (Winery)
8075 Westside Rd., Healdsburg, Sonoma County, CA 95448
Joseph Swan Vineyards (Winery)
2916 Laguna Road
Forestville, CA 95436-3729
3360 River Road.
Windsor, CA 95492