Been-there-done that with popular wine regions like Napa, Sonoma, and Healdsburg? Meet West County, Wine Country's best kept secret.
Like the stepchild of Sonoma County, West County is a locally coined nickname for a collection of small towns along the Russian River—including Sebastopol, Guerneville, Forestville, Graton, and Occidental—which if you look at a map, are not actually all that west.
The term instead affectionately refers to the local flavor. Adjectives like quirky, funky, and off-beat are often thrown around to describe these lovable communities, whose only crime is that they take Wine Country living less seriously and at a slower pace than their neighbors. Where do we sign up?
All the Wine
(Courtesy of Gary Farrell Winery)
When proprietor Akiko Freeman started this winery with her husband Ken in 2001, she didn't know very much about making wine. But after seven years apprenticing under original winemaker Ed Kurtzman, she took over the winery operations and has been turning out premium, elegant pinot's with minimal oak treatment ever since, stating, "Oak to wine is cosmetics to girls. You just need little touch ups; there's no need to cover up." Make an appointment for an intimate tasting in the Freeman caves and ask Akiko about her real life romcom meeting Ken during a hurricane. // 1300 Montgomery Rd. (Sebastopol), freemanwinery.com
Russian River Vineyards
With a history that dates back to the 1890s, Russian River Vineyards is unique in that it's one of the only Sonoma County wineries with an actual restaurant on site. Book an al-fresco table for their Friday and Saturday night dinner series, choosing either the four or seven-course menu, sourced mostly right from their organic farm. Can only swing by during normal business hours? You can still sample the gorgeous property and pure talent of executive chef Ben Davies, who has worked in several Michelin-Starred establishments, during a food and wine pairing. // 5700 Hwy 116 N. (Forestville), russianrivervineyards.com
Gary Farrell Winery
Located high up in Russian River Valley, Gary Farrell recently revamped their tasting room in order to better highlight their million-dollar, wine country view. The results are as spectacular as their pinot noir. The winery crafts 14 single-vineyard pinots, plus seven chardonnays, and their 2015 Russian River Selection Chardonnay was recently named the No. 1 wine by Wine Enthusiast. We suggest booking the Inspiration Tasting ($75), featuring six, totally-diverse pinots paired with three gourmet bites, like a savory buttermilk muffin with gruyere, cream cheese, and pancetta. // 10701 Westside Rd. (Healdsburg), garyfarrellwinery.com
From vegetable farm to winery, Balletto is perhaps best known for two things: pinot noir and its Field of Dreams, a regulation-sized baseball field tucked within their vineyards (stop by on a Sunday and you might get to witness the bats cracking). But there's also a lot more to taste and discover at this family-focused estate, including chardonnay, gewürztraminer, and a killer sparkling brut rose. // 5700 Occidental Rd. (Santa Rosa), ballettovineyards.com
Dutton-Goldfield had us at wine and sushi pairing ($40). This tasting room has a casual, urban feel, but don't be fooled: the wines are sourced from some super-serious vineyards. Consider it a real treat if you run into winemaker Dan Goldfield during your visit, an adrenaline-junkie and adventure enthusiast who went heliskiing for this last birthday—he's the epitome of West County culture. // 3100 Gravenstein Hwy North (Sebastopol), duttongoldfield.com
Horse & Plow
The husband-and-wife team at Horse & Plow is on double duty, crafting both wines and ciders. Their natural wines come in a wide range of varieties, including the hard-to-find carignan, while they work with more than 30 varieties of apples for their ciders. Unlike traditional wine tasting experiences, Horse & Plow's dog-friendly tasting barn oozes chill and beckons both locals and tourists with expansive picnic grounds upon two acres of gardens and orchards, roll-up doors, and a record player. // 1272 Gravenstein Hwy N. (Sebastopol), www.horseandplow.com
Iron Horse Vineyards
Iron Horse sparkling wines have been White House and bipartisan-approved for 30 years, so it's safe to say it's some really good stuff. Plus, the views from their outdoor tasting room are so stunning that on a clear day, you can actually see all the way to Mt. St. Helena (which, if you're not great at geography, is pretty damn far). Drop by on a Sunday in the summer for oysters and bubbly. // 9786 Ross Station Rd. (Sebastopol), ironhorsevineyards.com