Russian River stories

Now that consumer DNA testing has become a popular thing, a lot of us have tracked down more details than we had known about our ancestry and heritage.

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Like many Americans, my results mirror the early immigrant streams that populated the nation: English, German, a little Scandinavian, a little French, a little Southern European. For many of us, these are the strands that make up our history, as others trace their heritage to Asia, Africa, and around the world in this vast mosaic and melting pot.

As it was for our families, so it was for wine: Most of the grape varieties that make our wine trace their heritage back to the lands of our ancestors. France, of course, but Italy too, and Germany and Spain; Zinfandel, the wine we thought was really American, traced its heritage to the Croatian grape Tribidrag when its own DNA testing was done.

But most of us rarely recall the Russian connection with American wine … until we pick up a bottle of Russian River Valley wine. One of California’s most beautiful rivers, the Russian flows 110 miles from Ukiah in Mendocino County, making a sharp turn west near Healdsburg in Sonoma County, from where it tumbles down through vineyard country past Geyserville to run into the Pacific Ocean not far north of Bodega Bay, where, coincidentally, Alfred Hitchcock filmed “The Birds.”

Ramey Wine Cellars, Westside Farms vineyard, Russian River Valley

Ramey Wine Cellars, Westside Farms vineyard, Russian River Valley

So what’s the Russian connection? In one of the less familiar chapters of American history, in the early 1800s, while Mexican settlers were pushing north along the California coast and a few Americans were trickling west, Russian fur trappers employed by Russia’s Russian-American Company were moving south. Having built forts along the Aleutians and Alaskan coast, they ventured out, looking for sea otters to hunt for fur and a warmer location for growing crops.

On a cloudy day in March 1812, while the Americans were busy on the other coast with the War of 1812 against the British, a Russian ship landed on the Sonoma coast and started building a village that they called Fort Ross. (If you wonder why they chose a Scottish name, think again: “Ross” – Pоcc in Russian lettering – means, well, “Russian.”)

The settlement didn’t last long. The Russians hunted the region’s sea otters to extinction, and the cool, foggy climate wasn’t as good for farming as they had hoped. The Russian company tried to sell Fort Ross to Britain and to Mexico, but got no takers. Finally an American settler named John Sutter bought the property in 1841, offering an unsecured note for $30,000 that he never paid.

Eight years later, Sutter found gold on his property in Sacramento, and the Gold Rush began.

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Russian River stories

Sutter’s California investments paid off, and the rest is history. (If you’re a real history geek, by the way, you may be wondering if there’s any connection with the nearby Sonoma town of Sebastapol. Nope! It was named in 1850 in honor of the British siege of the Russian seaport Sebastopol during the Crimean War.)

So the Russians came, the Russians left, and they left their name on this beautiful river valley. The region’s American population grew and California’s wine industry began. The Sonoma wine pioneer and purported Hungarian nobleman Agoston Haraszthy purchased the Spanish Salvador Vallejo vineyard in Sonoma in 1855, renaming it Buena Vista. Still in existence, Buena Vista is the oldest functioning winery in California.

Buena Vista has passed through many hands and is now owned by the French Boisset Collection. Sonoma’s Gundlach-Bundschu, on the other hand, founded just two years later than Buena Vista, remains under the same family ownership, now in its sixth generation, after all these years.

Napa Valley soon joined in, with vineyards planted in the 1860s. And by 1876 growers had planted more than 7,000 acres of vineyards in the Russian River Valley, recognizing its cool, foggy, but very long growing season as ideal for high-quality grapes, particularly those similarly suited to Burgundy’s cool and foggy slopes: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

I’m celebrating the Russian River Valley this week with an appealing Chardonnay from Sonoma producer B.R. Cohn Winery & Olive Oil Company. Cohn’s Russian River Valley Sonoma County Chardonnay is a good one, textured and complex, boasting appealing nectarine and tangerine aromas and crisp, medium-bodied green-apple and citrus flavors. built on a sturdy 14.5% alcohol but well-balanced all the same. My tasting report is below.

Our WineLovers Discussion Group’s September Wine Focus: Back to Basics with Chardonnay, continues through the end of this month before we shift to a new topic. Drop in by Monday, if you like, and share your reports on this classic variety.


Today’s Tasting Report

B.R. Cohn 2015 Russian River Valley Sonoma County Chardonnay ($21.99)


This clear, straw-color wine’s fresh-fruit aromas start with nectarines and pears, a whiff of tangerine, and a subtle back note of oak that plays as a spice without dominating. Bright and freshly acidic on the palate, medium-bodied green-apple flavors joining the chorus with a touch of citrus. It’s dry and appropriately acidic, with a snappy, food-friendly finish. The label claims 14.5% alcohol, but I don’t get a hint of alcoholic heat. Very pleasant, appealing and balanced. (Sept. 26, 2019)

FOOD MATCH: The winery suggests enjoying it as an aperitif or serving it with salads, seafood, and other light fare. I enjoyed it for sipping alone with paper-thin slices of Parmigiano Reggiano alongside.

WHEN TO DRINK: It’s drinking very well now, and with the taint-free Diam cork, it should hold up nicely for a few more years.

I paid a few bucks above’s $18 average retail, but it’s an above-average California Chardonnay at this price point; I’d buy it again.

Here’s a winery fact sheet on the 2016 silver label Chardonnay.

Find vendors and compare prices for B.R. Cohn Russian River Valley Sonoma County Chardonnay on

Follow this Wine-Searcher link to locate vendors and prices for B.R. Cohn’s similar Silver Label North Coast Chardonnay.

Read more about Russian River Valley wines of all varieties and browse an extensive list of wines and vendors: Browse this Wine-Searcher link.


More affordable wines

Want tips to still more good, inexpensive wines? Here are Wine-Searcher links to vendors and prices for a bunch more wines for $10 or less that I’ve told you about during the past year or two. Please tell us about your favorites!

  • Laroque 2016 Cité de Carcassonne Cabernet Franc ($9.99)
  • Domaine de Pouy 2016 Côtes de Gascogne ($7.99)
  • Alamos 2015 Salta Torrontés ($9.99)
  • Alamos 2015 Mendoza Malbec ($9.99)
  • Caposaldo 2014 Chianti ($8.99)
  • d’Arenberg 2012 McLaren Vale “The Stump Jump” ($9.99)
  • Oveja Negra 2014 Maule Valley Cabernet Franc – Carmenere Reserva ($9.99)
  • Côté Mas 2016 “Rouge Intense” Sud de France Pays d’Oc ($12.99/1 liter)

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