Prices are good at Santa Rosa's cavernous discount liquor warehouse, the Bottle Barn. Real good. But $12 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir? Generally, not that good. Generally, that's not real. Unfamiliar with the name, I guessed it was a second label of some better-known winery, an anonymized knockoff meant to move some surplus out the back door in a hurry. It is not. In fact, River Road has its own second label, MacKenzie, available in local independent supermarkets. So, for the love of the good, dead grape, why in the world, and in this day and age, would a winery not advertise loudly, change fresh balloons daily, barbecue on weekends and feed us tweets every day in between? Because they're doing quite well without all that, thank you.
"You know, if I was starving," muses winemaker Gary Mills, "I might scratch around for some other approach." In business for 30 years, Mills oversees production of 40,000 cases of value-priced Sonoma County and Russian River Valley appellated wine a year, with an antipathy for dead inventory and a business model as stable as a barge. Admitting that he's not really suited for the "dog and pony show" of marketing, Mills sells mostly though East Coast distributors and makes custom-label cases of some of the balance for outfits like the Fairmont Hotel and St. Francis Yacht Club.
Such customers often don't bother to taste, taking it on faith that the 2009 Sauvignon Blanc will have lemon-lime and honeydew melon aromas with a zippy palate that'll give one gooseberries. Less buttery than nutty, the 2009 Russian River Valley Chardonnay ($16) is styled rich and chewy, something like grated cheese over smokehouse almonds.
A boutique-scale release, the 2008 Russian River Valley Pinot Meunier ($16) is vinted from the second crop of this more productive cousin of Pinot Noir, and owes its concentration to late-picked, Lilliputian clusters. Wild grape, violets and juicy Beaujolais-style flavor finishes on a firm, plum skin note. Just one year in the making, the 2009 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($18), hinting at orange zest, is a perfectly serviceable, if currently shy, representative of the region that may repay revisiting in a few months.
A special bottling really shows off what River Road can do. Assembled from select barrels for an East Coast account, the 2008 Vanessa's Pinot Noir ($34) shows bacon-fact smokiness from big-ticket cooperage, and dense flavors of licorice and dried cherries. Hard luck that limited releases like this may not be always available, let alone not at those aforementioned, real good prices. Unless, of course, one is given to haunting cavernous wine warehouses from time to time.
River Road Vineyards, 5220 Ross Road, Sebastopol. Tasting by appointment only, Monday–Friday. 707.887.8130.