The Russians are believed to have
planted the first grapes in Sonoma in the 1800s. Today, their
influence is still evident in the region's stellar Pinot
In 1775, the Spanish naval lieutenant Francisco de la Bodega y Cuadra explored the coast of what is now Sonoma County, California. Blissfully unaware of the coming Sonoma real estate boom, he never even bothered to set foot on land. Instead, he shrugged and sailed away, leaving his name to the inlet known now as Bodega Bay, which was later made famous as the setting for Alfred Hitchcock's brooding avian masterpiece The Birds.
Since Bodega and his crew neglected to come ashore, the first Europeans to tromp around Sonoma were actually Russian fur trappers, who came south from Alaska in pursuit of sea otter. The Russian influence is still felt in Sonoma. Fort Ross, for example, was originally a Russian settlement called Fort Russ. Another reminder of Sonoma's unique link with Mother Russia is the woodsy Russian River, which flows into the Pacific just north of Bodega Bay.
These days, the hottest commodity in the Russian River Valley isn't otter, it's Pinot Noir. The cool, ocean-influenced climate there seems perfect for this finicky grape, making the Russian River Valley appellation one of the best Pinot Noir terroirs in the New World. Here are three of the best. Too bad Bodega didn't stick around.
WILLIAMS SELYEM 2000 PINOT NOIR ($39)
Like many a rock-and-roll band, Williams Selyem started in a garage. Burt Williams and Ed Selyem started their winery in a rented garage in Fulton, California, but their success with Pinot Noir in the mid-1980s turned them into cult sensations. The wines were sold by mailing list to a devoted following whose clamor for Williams Selyem pushed them into the same good-luck-getting-your-hands-on-these league with some of Napa's most rarified Cabernets.
When John Dyson - owner of Villa Pillo in Tuscany and Millbrook Winery in the Hudson Valley - purchased the winery in 1997, die-hard fans of the Williams Selyem style were in a panic, fearing that their pet wine would undergo a sea change. Fortunately, the winery has continued on a rock-solid course. Winemaking is now under the direction of Bob Cabral. The wines are still sold by mailing list and the wait is about a year. It's worth it.