As some of you know, I tend to gravitate towards small production, family-owned wineries. There are several reasons for this preference: a) small production lends to a higher standard for quality control, b) privacy makes for a more personal visitor’s experience, and c) the sense of authenticity that you feel when each member of the family is doing their part for the winery. I’m constantly seeking out wineries that fit into this category, and some areas of Northern California wine country are more plentiful than others in this regard. For example, Russian River Valley and Dry Creek Valley provide many opportunities to go off the beaten path, whereas you need to dig a little deeper in Napa Valley. Perhaps this is due to the cost of land, or simply the way the history of wineries has evolved in different areas. I’m hesitant to share my list of favorites with the blogosphere if only so that these places can maintain their low-key status, but I’ve vowed to support these little wineries in every way that I can. So here are just a few of my recommendations from my two favorite Sonoma County appellations.
Dry Creek Valley
A. Rafanelli – I’d been hearing about this place for the last year or so, when GGD mentioned that a former co-worker was part of the Rafanelli family. Then when I was in Dry Creek with my parents in February, they saw a sign for the winery and we tried to go, but could not get an appointment at such late notice. So this was one of the first appointments I made when I planned my recent trip to Healdsburg with GGD, Starry and J³. Not only did we get to meet Shelly, the fourth-generation winemaker, but also her father, David, who coined himself the “winemaker emeritus”. It was his grandmother that started the winery with her husband, Alberto Rafanelli, in the early 1900’s when they settled from Italy. After prohibition, their son Americo (David’s father) took on the winemaking duties and moved the winery to where it is today, planting Zinfandel and beginning to sell the wine commercially in the 1970’s. The winery is very private, with a gate code that is given to you upon making an appointment. And it’s no wonder because Shelly lives on the property with her husband and four-year-old son. During our visit they did not have many wines available to taste because most were sold out, but we did get to sample a delicious Cabernet and their upcoming Zinfandel that had just been bottled. Our host, Bob also gave us a tour of the facility and the wine caves, including their event room where Shelly’s son had constructed his own mini vineyard made of wine corks and plastic play trucks – indeed, it runs in the family.
Preston of Dry Creek – This is a new favorite of mine, and I have a feeling it will continue to be for a long time (especially since my father is a new wine club member). Preston focuses on estate grown Rhone varietals, sustainability and farming. They even make their own olive oil and bread that is available for sampling (and purchase) in the tasting room. The property features beautiful picnic grounds, farm animals, artwork, and some very friendly outdoor cats. The tasting room is brightly colored and artfully decorated with a long bar, usually staffed with 3-4 people, all of whom do a great job providing attention and friendliness during your experience, even when the tasting room gets crowded on the weekends. All of these elements make it a great place to spend the afternoon, but it’s the wine that keeps bringing me back. Their list changes frequently based on what is available, but be sure to sample their Vin Gris (if it’s not already sold out), Rousanne, Grenache Blanc and Madame Preston of the white varietals. As for the reds, my favorites are the Cinsaut, Barbera, Carignan and L. Preston. It’s certainly a nice change of pace to sample such unique varietals in the midst of the more common Cabernet, Zinfandel and Pinot Noir that are abundant in this area.
Nalle – Open by appointment only during the week, and to the public on Saturdays, Nalle produces small-lot Chardonnay and Zinfandel. The land has been in the family since the late 1920’s, and is the winery is run by husband and wife duo, Doug and Lee Nalle along with their son and winemaker, Andrew – all of whom live on the property. I have only been to the tasting room when it was open to the public, but I imagine a private appointment is a more personal experience. That being said, I did get to talk with Andrew and Lee during my visit, both of whom were very friendly and informative about the history of the winery and the land surrounding them. The atmosphere is casual and rustic; the wines are served inside a converted barn with a living roof, at a long card table covered with a colorful table cloth, and cases piled up in the backdrop amongst an old basketball hoop mounted on the back wall. As for the wines, I particularly enjoy their Reserve Chardonnay and Vinum Clarum.
Russian River Valley
Scherrer Winery – It was J³ that introduced me to this winery when we attended the Spring Release Party. You would hardly know this place existed if it wasn’t for Google maps, and even they can point you in the wrong direction if you’re not careful. The warehouse space is located at the end of a dirt road off of Ross Station Road in Forestville (the same road that takes you to Iron Horse). On the day we went – probably because there was an event – there was a sign directing us to parking and entrance around the back of the warehouse, though J³ said this wasn’t there the last time they visited. Scherrer typically does tastings by appointment only, hosted by the winemaker, Fred. But they also host four release parties a year, where guests get to sample new wines, tasty bites, and mingle with the family. Fred’s father, Ed was hopping back and forth between two pouring stations of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon, while Fred’s wife handled all the administrative duties. I believe their teenage son was helping with packaging the wines that guests purchased, while Fred’s mother was showing and selling beautiful watercolor paintings and cards. Not only do I love how family-oriented this operation is, but also that Fred and Ed both make themselves so accessible to guests. As Fred tells it on their website, he is at the winery every day doing nearly all of the work, with some help from friends and family here and there. And it certainly pays off! Their wines are elegant and true to form; particularly delicious are the Helfer Vineyard Chardonnay, King Family Vineyard Pinot Noir, Old and Mature Zinfandel, and Scherrer Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon. The experience at Scherrer is warm and authentic, and I am so happy to add them to my list of favorites.
Joseph Swan – My father introduced me to this winery many years ago when I first moved to the Bay Area. I remember being the only ones in the barrel room (also acting as tasting room) on a Spring Saturday morning. Fruit flies floated around us while we tasted multiple consecutive vintages of Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah. Although their wines are some of the best in the valley, there are no pretentious vibes or fancy frills here – just real good wine served by real friendly people. As Joseph Swan said it himself, “there are few more Civilized pleasures in life then good company, good food and good wine.” When he began this winery, he believed passionately that small wineries were the best kind of wineries. Since the wine carried his own name, he insisted on overseeing every aspect of fermentation to bottling, and considered himself personally responsible for every aspect of production. As a pioneer of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, he paved the way for the current winemaker and co-owner, Rod Berglund, who is married to Joe’s daughter and co-owner, Lynn. When visiting the winery, it’s likely that you will get to sample an older vintage of Syrah or Zinfandel, and you will taste the depth of ageability that comes from small crops and persistent care.
Porter Creek – Last but not least, Porter Creek is ultimately my favorite winery in Russian River Valley. Whether it’s the friendly conversation with Jonathan (a fixture in the tasting room), the excellent and affordable Pinot Noir and Carignan that I can’t seem to get enough of, the outdoor deck where the sun is always shining, the award-wining chicken coop that’s tended to by the owner’s granddaughters… how can you not love this place? The winery is run by father and son, George and Alex Davis. George started the winery back in 1977 and handed the reins over to Alex twenty years later. Committed to the growing conditions in Russian River Valley, Porter Creek focuses on hillside grown, vineyard designated wines of Burgundian and Rhone varietals. Their Estate Pinot Noir is, to me, the best valued Pinot in Russian River Valley, and their Carignan is available at several restaurants and wine bars in San Francisco, which is convenient for my palate. Fortunately, they do not require an appointment for small groups, so you can pop in the next time you’re driving down Westside Road. Tell Jonathan I say hi.
So there you have it. Some of you serious wine collectors may have heard of a few of these places, and I encourage you to visit them the next time you’re in the area. Bring some new friends, especially if they like small wineries as much as you and I. I’ve intentionally left a few other favorites off this list, but I would be thrilled if you posted some of your favorite family-owned Northern California wineries in the comments section. And soon enough, I’ll let you in on some of my favorite Napa Valley hidden gems. Until then, keep supporting the small guys!