My favorite spot in California wine country is the deli deck at Korbel Champagne Cellars. I can sit at a table with a glass of bubbly and a piece of fruit. And I can reach over and touch a redwood tree that seems 100 feet tall, and so wide I couldn’t reach halfway around it with both arms.
I’m in the western half of Sonoma County, in the Russian River Valley — one of the prettiest places on earth. The Russian River, which flows south out of Mendocino into Sonoma County, then takes a right turn near Santa Rosa and flows to the Pacific Ocean.
It takes its name from the Russian explorers who came south from Alaska before the state-to-be was purchased by the United States.
It’s a cool, green region of towering forests, rolling hills, farms and orchards and, increasingly, of vineyards. As you drive the 30 miles from Santa Rosa along the river to the Pacific Ocean, the area gets shadier, with bigger trees, as you drop 160 feet in altitude to sea level.
This is what makes the area perfect for wine — warm, sunny days to ripen the grapes, cool, foggy nights and mornings to preserve the acids that give crispness to the wines.
Growers and winemakers in the valley’s 110 wineries take advantage of their idyllic conditions to make pinot noirs and chardonnays that are light and crisp, with intense fruit flavors tinged with minerality. They seek ripeness for the flavors of cherries, strawberries and blueberries. They ferment at cool 45-degree temperatures and make part of the wine in stainless steel tanks for crispness, and part in expensive new French barrels seeking toasty oak aromas. The climate does the rest.
▪ 2014 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc, Russian River Valley: hint of oak, fruit-blossom aromas, complex flavors of ripe apricots, oranges and apples, hint of minerality, tart finish; $32.
▪ 2013 Gallo “Signature Series” Chardonnay, Russian River Valley: lots of active bubbles, aromas and flavors of tart pears, lemons and spice; $33.
▪ 2014 Balletto Rose of Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: pale salmon color, intensely fruity aromas and flavors of tart strawberries and cranberries, light, crisp and mineral-scented; $18.
▪ 2013 La Crema Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: hint of oak, aromas and flavors of black cherries and mocha, complex, rich and smooth, long finish; $40.
▪ 2013 MacMurray Estate Vineyards Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: hint of oak, aromas of flowers and vanilla, black cherry flavors, smooth, long finish; $30.
▪ 2013 Medlock Ames “Lower Slope” Chardonnay, Bell Mountain Estate, Russian River Valley: hint of oak, floral aromas, flavors of ripe apricots and tart lemons, crisp acids, creamy body; $40.
▪ 2013 Gary Farrell Vineyards “Russian River Selection” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: aromas of flowers and red berries, flavors of black raspberries, licorice and earth, smooth, long finish; $45.
▪ 2013 J Vineyards & Winery Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: hint of oak, aromas of raspberries, strawberries and other red berries, flavors of blackberries, anise and spice; $40.
▪ Nonvintage J Vineyards & Winery “Cuvee 20” sparkling wine (50 percent chardonnay, 49 percent pinot noir, 1 percent pinot meunier): persistent tiny bubbles, aromas of bread dough, lemons, limes and almonds, flavors of ripe apples and spice, $35.
▪ 2013 Trione Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley: toasty oak aroma, flavors of black cherries, dark chocolate and earth, long, smooth finish; $39.