The Spirit of Northern California

Seeing Through the Smoke

Russian River AVA – Sonoma County

The Camp Fire, one of the most destructive fires in California history, continues to rage just 80 miles from our house as the crow flies. The question I keep asking myself is, ‘Will I ever think of this as normal, and what would it mean if I did?’

The smoke, which was initially being kicked out to the ocean, has drifted back to the east, backing up in the foothills. So Sacramento to Placerville, all the way down to Lodi and other parts of the Central Valley are pretty well screwed. The air quality has been moderate at best, which is still dangerous for most outdoor activity.

Veteran’s Day weekend activities were called off throughout the area. The paths around our house were mostly empty (when we were out anyway), and it seemed like most people were staying indoors.

We woke up Saturday morning with the notion of going on a road trip with the dogs to escape our plight. We had to get out. And we went the wrong way for all the right reasons.

Route 50 past Sacramento was STINKY. All of the fumes were funneling into town, and even driving quickly through that area was enough to make my throat feel itchy and a little raw. Even as I write this a couple of days later my throat feels itchy and raw. Fire season really sucks eggs.

As we approached Napa, we thought we might see the smoke clear a bit. We were wrong. In fact, the smoke didn’t clear at all, and we were stuck in a hazy, overcast day that didn’t actually have any cloud cover. The sun glowed a creepy orange-red as it tried to burn through the thick smoke overhead.

And it didn’t let up in Sonoma either. We stopped off at a few of our clubs for wine pickups — VJB and Kunde along Highway 12, and then Martin Ray north of Sabastopol. All 3 wineries offer stuff we love, though it’s tough to go tasting at these places only because there are so many new wineries to try!

On the drive down, we solidified our plan. We’d try at least a couple of wines in the Russian River Valley area, and try to hit up a couple of our favorite areas: Goat Rock Beach on the coast and the Armstrong Redwoods if there was time.

A note: Driving to Sonoma takes over 2 hours, so time is always a little more limited than we like. But we love Sonoma and have for almost a decade, so driving for around 7 hours in a day is totally worth it for both of us.

With the dogs in tow, we also managed to find a little park just outside of VJB where we could go for a small but meaningful walk (if you get my drift) before heading out to the Russian River Valley.

After Martin Ray (one of our favorite wineries to visit), we headed toward Guerneville and the coast. The roads started to twist through the trees, we lost cell signal, and we were all of the sudden in a very familiar and delightful place.

Hartford Family Winery

Tough to see the vines through the smoke at Hartford Family Winery

Off the beaten path is what is probably a gorgeous estate when the smoke isn’t so bad. And they’ve got a lot of wine that isn’t so bad either, as long as you’ve got a thick wallet.

Hartford is a family-owned artisan winery (whatever that means) that produces more than 25 different wines each vintage. Their menu is filled with Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Zinfandel selections, most of them bottled from a single vineyard. So this is small production per wine. Like, “under 300 cases a year” small production.

I find that rarely does a high price tag mean extra high quality or tastiness. In fact, that’s usually a big turn off for me. It’s even a bigger turn off for me when traveling through Sonoma, which I consider to be far less hoity-toity than it’s sister wineries in Napa.

Unfortunately, that was also the case with Hartford. There were 4 wines on the tasting menu, one of which goes for $100/bottle. I’ve had more than my fair share of wines that hit the century mark, and this did not match up.

While their wines were enjoyable, we just couldn’t justify spending even $65 for a bottle. Anything over $45 needs a discussion between us, and these didn’t even merit that, with one caveat. The tastings were $15 each. Already being $30 in, we decided to buy a Zin for an additional $30 so that we could walk away with something good, but not fantastic.

I understand that Hartford is a small-batch winery that can’t afford to sell their wines at prices more in line with the region. But at that point, they need to either produce much better wines than their neighbors or make larger, more consistent batches for a little more moderate price. Either that or they should have their tasting room in Napa. 😉

Korbel Winery

Known for their big production sparkling wines, Korbel sits on the River Road just outside of Guerneville. Korbel knows their identity and their place in the business, and they offer it up to everyone.

Loads of people pour through their tasting room every day, so Korbel offers 3 free tastings off of their menu plus another tasting for more “sophisticated wallets… I mean pallets.” So belly up to the bar for some sparkling!

The wines are nothing to write home about, at least the ones I tried that day (including a “still” pinot noir). Korbel has a huge production, so you will probably not hear words like “artisan” being flown around, even on a windy day. But hey… the prices are cheap and it’s bubbles. Can’t we celebrate THAT too?

And the Rest

Goat Rock Beach is a long stretch of beach just south of the mouth of the Russian River… nothing much to it. But it was the dogs’ first time at the ocean, which was a particular treat when they both went in for a drink only to be shocked by the taste. Maybe next time we’ll dare to let them off leash for a little bit to play, but Rachel will be the one who checks my impulses, as always.

Afterward, we headed directly to Armstrong Redwoods State National Reserve back up by Guerneville. Unfortunately, the dogs weren’t allowed to walk around the hiking paths, so we were limited to the asphalt… which runs out pretty quickly. But it was a good last stop before driving back into the thick of things. And by things, I mean the smoke.