Tuscany on the Russian River?
May 29, 2016 8:55 PM   Subscribe

Hey wine buffs, looking for a winery in the Russian River area that sells wines similar to 'a good Chianti from Tuscany' - any leads? (Please go easy on me, I know nothing about wine.)

So, our in-laws from Europe are visiting and my husband and his dad would like to try, and maybe buy a few bottles locally (at a vineyard). We're staying in Sebastopol. Father-in-law is very knowledgeable about wine (can you say widely-drunk?). But of course in Europe there's a different culture around wine and here he's a bit lost, especially since he doesn't speak English. He says he's looking for something that's 'like a Chianti from Tuscany'. Knowing him, that means a really good high class Chianti, not entry level.

Where should we go? So far, the two haven't really found American wine that they like. But maybe we've been looking in the wrong places?
posted by The Toad to Food & Drink (17 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The grape used in Chianti wines is sangiovese. Google sangiovese around Sebastopol / other areas you'll be driving through, and several wineries pop up. That said, the styles are different, and you'll have better luck (I think) showing him good local wine rather than trying to find something that's just like they make in Italy... although comparing California sangiovese blends with Chianti wines could be a fun game in itself. You can't go far wrong wine tasting in Sonoma county, really.
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:15 PM on May 29, 2016

Chianti is made mostly from sangiovese grapes, and Acorn winery seems to be one of the few Russian River wineries selling a sangiovese. The area is much better known for pinot noir, though, so I suspect you'd find better quality with pinots.
posted by lazuli at 9:17 PM on May 29, 2016

Best answer: So, Chianti is a region in Italy. And the way European wines work is that folks call them by their region. Wines from Chianti that can be called Chianti, according to wikipedia, have to be "75–100% Sangiovese, up to 10% Canaiolo and up to 20% of any other approved red grape variety such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Syrah."

In the states we call wine by the grape that's used — Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, etc. So you may have good luck looking for wineries that specifically make Sangiovese.

I would suggest, though, that if you're looking specifically to find a wine that he linkes, you should start at a wine bar or something similar. If you go to one winery that has a Sangiovese and the father-in-law doesn't like it, you won't have many other options. And if he hasn't like California wine in general, a tasting tour might just leave him disappointed, too. A good wine person can show him different things to help him find something that's to his palette.
posted by wemayfreeze at 9:18 PM on May 29, 2016

Alternatively, could it be that he's looking for the best wine for the locale? It sounds a little weird for a person into wine to say, "Napa sounds great, I hope we can find a good Chianti!"
posted by rhizome at 9:33 PM on May 29, 2016

Best answer: If he's open to pinots, Dutton-Goldfield may be worth trying -- I'm basing this on reviews that call their pinots "lean and balanced," which is generally the opposite of "fruity" or "fruit-forward," which is generally how California wines are and European wines aren't.

If he's open to zins (Italian grape, at least?), Ridge is my favorite winery up there, and they make amazing wines that aren't total fruit bombs.
posted by lazuli at 9:36 PM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: That's very helpful, wemayfreeze, and exactly the kind of knowledge we don't have about American vs. European wine culture. And rhizome, the Chianti bit may sound weird, but he likes what he likes, and that's italian wine (so yes, he might never find a CA wine he enjoys...). But we want to give it a try ;)

Maybe let me phrase this a bit differently - if you had a wine guy from Europe come visit you, to which winery in Somoma County would you send them? We have also noticed that good wine here is much more expensive than in Europe. This, again, may be because we're looking in the wrong places...or maybe that's just the way it is?

On preview - lazuli, that's exactly the kind of wine-speak I was looking for! Will translate for my FIL.
posted by The Toad at 9:44 PM on May 29, 2016

Maybe let me phrase this a bit differently - if you had a wine guy from Europe come visit you, to which winery in Somoma County would you send them?

I would go to Ridge.
posted by lazuli at 10:08 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

I like Ridge, too. They taught me how to like zins.
posted by rhizome at 10:13 PM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]

(Though Ridge is officially Dry Creek Valley, not Russian River, if it matters. It's out by Healdsburg.)
posted by lazuli at 10:18 PM on May 29, 2016

I know he wants a "chianti" but just as it was explained, those grapes have a specific flavor because of where they're grown. Different grape varietals thrive better in different appellations. The Russian River is known for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 41% of the grapes grown are Chardonnay and 29% are Pinot. Two consistently excellent wineries that produce highly rated Pinot Noirs in the Russian River are are Kosta Browne and Rochioli.

My feeling about drinking a good wine is: you have to go for what the area's best grapes are. And it looks like you can get some highly rated Pinots in your area. I'm pretty sure there are wine tasting bars in your area that would have these on hand to taste.

The next closest area is Sonoma, and they produce, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Pinot Noir and Merlot in that order. You could probably find some nice Cab blends that would do the job.

Lastly, go to a good wine store, and ASK. I have found so many great inexpensive wines by asking the help at the wine store. And they'll often be lesser known names that you wouldn't have any clue about.
posted by generic230 at 10:21 PM on May 29, 2016

Viansa has Italian style wines and a bunch of them. It's a market, not a winery. If you're looking for amazing wine take him to Martinellis. Although sticker shock.
posted by fshgrl at 10:48 PM on May 29, 2016

Try vinovisit.com to see wineries in your area.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 11:25 PM on May 29, 2016

Response by poster: Great, thanks. We will also try wine stores (we're in Berkeley so have several great choices, it seems) but it's complicated by the fact that he doesn't speak english and is also not super verbal about why he likes what he likes. Thus, the cryptic 'chianti' description...I think he's not the 'wine bar' type. Will pass on your excellent suggestions!
posted by The Toad at 7:11 AM on May 30, 2016

So the Russian River/Sebastapol and Dry Creek regions don't really do "Chianti" grapes. They're not very inherent to the region. The primary grapes grown there are Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Syrah. These tend to be more fruit forward wines especially the ones in that region.

Instead of trying to find Tuscany, and trying to fit a square peg in a round hole, there you're better off trying to explore the grapes native to the area and there are some great ones. In the Sebastapol area there's Iron Horse. Ridge mentioned several times is always a safe bet, they'll also have a greater variety because they produce wines from all over the state.

Unti is fantastic and makes some Italian style wines including their "Segromigno" which is a Sangiovese based wine (the main Chianti style grape).

If you want something that "feels like a tuscan villa" you can hit Ferrari Carano (Who also make a Sangiovese). This is a popular destination but not really my style in wines.

Some other great places to hit for fun small family style places

Nalle, small family owned.

Porter Creek Some great old vine Zins.

While I'm not always a fan of all the wines I like hitting up Frick winery. He grows some grapes that are uncommon to the region like Cinsaut and Counoise which makes it fun to taste here to experience some very different wines.

Some other popular places are

Preston and Bella

I'd recommend hitting up Unti and talking to the folks there, hopefully the dad or sons who run the joint are working then ask them where to go next and for more recommendations. Some of my best tasting trips have been ones where we just follow from recommendation to recommendation. Dry Creek has some great small producers.

A few of these places might be appointment only, check the websites. Don't let that scare you from being spontaneous. I've almost always been able to call an appointment only winery on my way over and get an appointment... some places have to do this for legal reasons or because they're super small.

Oh and in Berkeley hit Solano Cellers, on Solano, nice knowledgeable staff.
posted by bitdamaged at 7:19 AM on May 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

To put this in context from an Italian perspective, in this day and age, someone who's into Chianti is someone who's into traditional wines, so: not too much upfront fruit, not a lot of oak at all (historically, Chianti producers were mostly using age-neutered chestnut casks, or cement vats), moderate alcohol (12,5% max), and nothing too round/soft (classical Sangiovese-based Chianti has a certain typical acidity up front, since vineyards weren't really geared to low-yield/maximum ripeness). So go for somewhere that's not following the latest fashion - unless the latest fashion in Russian River is to do away with all the afore-mentioned tricks ;-)

If he's open to zins (Italian grape, at least?)

Though a distant relation to the (extremely un-Chianti) grape called primitivo, what zinfadel has become in the U.S. bears absolutely no relation to any Italian counterpart.

The Russian River is known for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir, to an Italian (pinot nero) means northern Italy (if not directly Bourgogne) - though you might take him up on his Tuscan penchant by pointing out that a number of Tuscan producers have tried their hand at Pinot Noir - and some quite successfully (Villa di Bagnolo, Tenuta San Michele, Podere Fortuna...), and that in fact there are perhaps more similarities between Burgundy and Chianti than one might at first think.
posted by progosk at 8:22 AM on May 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Progosk has it - traditional European wines, and traditional Chianti in particular, are drier and more acidic than almost all California wines. If "they haven't found any American wines that they like", that could be the reason. I'd steer away from California pinot - they tend to taste sweet & fruity to someone used to Eurpopean wines. Honestly, zinfandel, while it's not really much like Chianti, could be a more interesting option, as could Petit Syrah, and even Charbono. I've always thought Rafanelli did a pretty good job with their zin, structured and not too fruity. Looks like they will see visitors by appointment.
posted by mr vino at 5:16 PM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]

You could pick up a ~$10 bottle each of California Sangiovese, Pinot, Zin, and Cab for a little taste test, just to get a direction.
posted by rhizome at 7:03 PM on May 30, 2016

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