Gary Farrell: Benchmark Russian River Pinot Noir

The Russian River meanders for 110 miles through Mendocino and Sonoma counties before reaching its estuary north of Bodega Bay. The name traces back to the Russian-American Company, a venture designed to create both trade and colonization, which was chartered by Tsar Paul I in 1799. Although Russians established a vineyard near the modern town of Graton in 1836, they couldn’t thrive in California; they sold their land to John Sutter in 1842 and left the state—prematurely, as it turned out. Seven years later, Sutter discovered gold.

Today’s Russian River AVA contains more than 60 wineries, and they range from prosaic (La Crema and Korbel) to stellar (Littorai, Martinelli and Siduri). Gary Farrell learned the trade of winemaking from some of the best: Joe Rochioli, Robert Stemmler and Tom Dehlinger. He became head winemaker at Davis Bynum in 1978, and 20 years later built a facility on a hilltop overlooking Healdsburg to produce his namesake Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Farrell sold the winery in 2004. It went through several changes of ownership before landing under the umbrella of Bill Price, who also owns the Durrell Vineyard and the remarkable Three Sticks winery in Sonoma.

Gary Farrell has two Pinot Noirs in general distribution. The Russian River Selection is the cornerstone of their production, blended from top vineyard sites in the region. The nose of the 2015 ($45) offers a fragrant profusion of red berry flavors mixed with clove, nutmeg and smoke. It enters the mouth effortlessly, displaying a firm palate imprint paired with a smooth and elegant texture. Bright and vivid flavors of wild strawberry, red raspberry and cranberry carry over from the mid palate to the finish. The wine displays tart, prickly acidity that keeps the fruit alive from beginning to end.

The 2015 Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir ($55) has a dense, saturated purple color and a nose filled with aromas of grape skins and black raspberry essence. It is big-boned and forceful in the mouth, with an imposing texture and flavors of Damson plum, prune and black cherry jam. It displays a richness and earthiness that would make it a perfect match for wild game. The tannins are still youthful, and it would be fascinating to revisit this wine in five years. If the Russian River Selection is Chambolle-Musigny, this is Morey-St-Denis.

In addition, Gary Farrell releases a range of single-vineyard wines that are available to members of their wine club, Grand Crew. Foremost among them is the 2015 Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir ($80), sourced from the celebrated plot purchased by Joe Rochioli Sr. in 1938. The nose is lilting and graceful, infused with aromas of black cherry and forest floor. In the mouth, the wine displays mouth-watering acidity that highlights flavors of red berries, cocoa and rhubarb. Seamless yet persistent, the earthy notes of red fruits reverberate on a long finish.

If you think these wines are expensive, you haven’t shopped for Burgundy lately. Prices along the Côte D’Or have been pushed into the stratosphere, fueled by consistently limited supply and intense demand from Asia. It’s difficult to find a Premier Cru from a good producer for less than $100, and a Grand Cru will easily cost double that amount. Considering that, the home-grown gems from Russian River are a bargain.

Mark Spivak is an award-winning writer specializing in wine, spirits, food, restaurants and culinary travel. He has written several books on distilled spirits and the cocktail culture. His first novel, Friend of the Devil, is available on; his second novel, a political thriller set during the invasion of Iraq, is due out in Spring 2019.

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