Best Pinot Noir: Russian River Vineyards


“Simplicity is the beauty of winemaking. I find the most superior grapes and then just help them along the process, turning the grapes into wine.”—Gio Balistreri, winemaker

On a trip to Wine Country, visitors can experience a variety of venues—from castles and grand chateaus to cozy tasting rooms. But for those who prefer to simply lounge in the sun with a glass of Pinot Noir and chat with friends, Russian River Vineyards is the place to go.

The expansive patio features plenty of tables, framed by ancient redwood trees. Six acres of vineyards surround the property, offering sweeping views of the Russian River Valley. The menu offers delectable light bites and there is live music several nights a week. “The goal is to make people feel like they’re in their backyard, just relaxing and having a glass of wine and listening to music,” says Winemaker Giovanni “Gio” Balistreri.

This was his vision when he and some partners bought the winery out of foreclosure in 2008. After working under his business partner and esteemed winemaker Anthony Austin, learning everything he could about winemaking, Balistreri took over complete management of the business in 2017. “Great music, great people, great atmosphere, great wine. I just wanted to grow that,” says Balistreri. “That’s what we’ve done since 2017, and the readers and the public tend to agree.”

The public has certainly voiced their approval, as Russian River Vineyards has won “Best Pinot Noir” in NorthBay biz’s annual “BEST OF the North Bay” readers’ poll for the second time.

This is also quite an accomplishment because Pinot Noir is commonly known as the “heartbreak grape.” It’s tough to grow and susceptible to mold, Balistreri says. Then in the winery, making the wine is even more challenging. “It’s so finicky. If you let the fermentation get too warm, it throws off the yeast and changes the trajectory of the wine,” Balistreri says. “And, if you miss step during production, you could mess up the batch or the lot of Pinot.”

Gio Balistreri

What makes the winery’s Pinot Noir stand apart from others? It comes down to the way the grapes are grown, says Balistreri. Russian River Vineyards sources from 12 different sites and the largest is only 3 acres, which allows for a more specialized approach to farming. “Every place has a different terroir and it’s extremely unique compared to all the other vineyards that are out there,” he says. “Some people don’t want to farm these little 1-acre vineyards but you can just do so much more with the vineyard.” Each wine is made from a single vineyard, except for the Classic Cuvee, which is a blend from multiple sites.

The winery’s most popular Pinot Noir remains the Horse Ridge Pinot Noir from the Green Valley neighborhood. Rich and complex, it features aromas of blueberry and blackberry with notes of cigar box spice, tea leaves and a hint of smoke. “It showcases a great balance and is a fruit-forward Pinot Noir, which is classic Russian River Valley,” says Balistreri.

His winemaking philosophy is to showcase the grapes and capture what each site wants to express. “Simplicity is the beauty of winemaking,” Balistreri says. “I find the most superior grapes and then just help them along the process, turning the grapes into wine.”

In Spring 2023, Russian River Vineyards will release The Austin Collection, named in honor of Balistreri’s winemaking mentor. The wines will change from vintage to vintage and will consist of the best barrel of each lot, or the best blend of a few barrels from each lot. The Austin Collection allows for a blank canvas, which gives Gio the ability to make the most complex, unique and rare wines Russian River Vineyards can offer.

Shop Russian River Vineyards wine online or at the estate in Forestville.

[Photos courtesy of Russian River Vineyards]

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