Russian River Vineyards
Russian River Vineyards
Where fine dining and great wine are blended with rustic charm and a bit of history to produce an unparalleled wine country experience. Russian River Vineyards offers Wine Education with Food and Wine Pairings.
Located in the heart of Forestville, California.
- Great wine, delicious food, and scenic wine country views!
- Meeting / Conference Facilities:
- Wedding Facilities:
- Picnic Facilities:
- Dog Friendly:
- Winery Tours:
- Wine Tasting:
- Art or Architecture:
- Organic / Biodynamic:
- Wine Club:
- Lodging / Bed & Breakfast:
To Russian River Vineyards Winemaker consultant and partner Anthony Austin, winemaking is a symphony and he is the conductor.
“It’s a complicated effort of taking all the instruments — vineyards, fruit, climate, barrels, bottles, technology and so forth — and drawing them together to create something of pleasure,” he explained. “You have to use guidance rather than force to elicit the best performance — and make the very best wine.”
For more than 35 years, Anthony has employed his philosophy of minimal intervention to create some of the finest wines in California. Born in Healdsburg, he is a fourth generation Sonoma County native. While working on an associate’s degree in philosophy at Santa Rosa Junior College in the early 1970s, he got a job as a cellar rat at Simi Winery in Healdsburg, where he had the good fortune to learn from one of the masters of winemaking — Andre Tchelistcheff. He loved working in the winery’s large stone cellar, “basically doing exactly what people had done in 4000 B.C.,” he said.
Anthony chose to pursue winemaking at a time when the industry was just beginning its metamorphosis — working 30 hours a week at Simi and carrying 19 college study units. When he received his degree in enology and viticulture from the University of California at Davis in 1974, there were only 16 people in his graduating class.
With high recommendations from Tchelistscheff, Anthony became the first winemaker at Firestone Vineyard in Santa Barbara County, where he spent nine productive years. He then started his own winery, Austin Cellars, focusing his efforts on crafting premium Pinot Noir wines. In 2001 he decided to return to his roots and made his way back to Healdsburg. The next year, in partnership with John Drady, Anthony co-founded Sonoma Coast Vineyards. His handcrafted Pinot Noir wines under the Sonoma Coast Vineyards label have won numerous awards and are highly regarded. Although the winery was sold in 2008, Anthony remains its chief winemaker.
Anthony has introduced his winemaking expertise to Russian River Vineyards newest winemaker Giovanni Balistreri. Together they form an unstoppable team as their latest release of wines have been garnering accolades and awards at prestigious wine competitions in the North Bay, including the San Francisco Wine Competition.
The vineyards on the property — which include some of the very first Merlot vines ever planted in Sonoma County — were originally established in 1963, a time when most of the agriculture in the area was devoted to apples and prunes, surrounded by forests of Redwood trees. Even the name — Russian River Vineyards — came long before the Russian River Valley was officially declared an appellation in 1983. Prior to the grapes, the vineyard was a hay field. And many generations previously, in the ancient time of the Native American Pomo, it was a tribal village.
In 1969, Robert Lasden built the iconic winery, architecturally inspired by two distinct Sonoma County structures — the myriad of hop kilns that dotted the landscape at the time and historic Fort Ross, a stockade built by Russian settlers in northern Sonoma County back in 1812. The winery was a perfect adjunct to Lasden’s very successful restaurant, which was operating in a converted 1890s farmhouse on the property. The winery-restaurant combination, which still exists today, is one of only five in California, grandfathered in as a “legal nonconforming” business because it preceded planning commission rules that prohibited mixing agricultural operations with commercial businesses.
In 1975, Russian River Vineyards was purchased by Jack Lowe and Roy Georgi, Jr., who were real estate developers from San Francisco. They later sold the property to Norman Chan. Winemakers Mike and Jerry Topolos maintained the vineyards for Mr. Chan and used the fruit in their wines. In 1979, the Topolos brothers exercised a purchase option and assumed ownership.
Under the Topolos’ stewardship, the vineyards became a model for organic and sustainable agriculture practices and in 1987, Russian River Vineyards was one of the very first in Sonoma County to be certified organic. As part of their devotion to “green” farming, the Topolos, who inherited a small bat colony with the winery, greatly expanded its population. Over time, the winery became famous for its bat launches. Visitors to the restaurant were treated to a spectacular show every evening from April through October as the bats would evacuate the winery roof, tearing through the night sky to devour virtually every insect in their paths.
In its heyday, Russian River Vineyards was also the site for countless romantic occasions and family celebrations. Many of today’s visitors share fond memories of marriage proposals and weddings amongst the vines — plus festive birthday and anniversary parties.
Chris O'Neill - Managing Partner:
If life imitates fairy tales, Chris O’Neill is firmly planted in Cinderella. And Russian River Vineyards is proudly wearing the glass slipper.
A real estate developer by trade, Chris has a knack of finding obscure, neglected, distressed properties that he seemingly magically transforms into successful ventures. In downtown Baltimore, he took some of the worst apartment communities in the city and renovated them to provide safe, clean housing for low-income and middle class tenants. In Davenport, Iowa, he’s working to rehabilitate an historic department store — a project that will help revitalize the city’s downtown core.
So it was no surprise that Chris — in search of a winery for his next life adventure — immediately fell in love with Russian River Vineyards. As one of the older wineries in Sonoma County, its days of splendor were on a steady course downward. Maintenance had slipped and the previous owners wanted to sell, not invest. In the wine industry, it was recognized as one of the ultimate fixer-uppers.
“The minute I drove in the driveway, I saw a vision of what it could be, even in all its disarray,” Chris explains. “I’ve always said if there are no problems, then there are no opportunities.”
The son of a building contractor, Chris has worked in construction since the age of 12. He was born near Boston and graduated from Linn High School before joining the U.S. Marine Corps. He was stationed in Japan, Korea, the Philippines and several other locations — not exactly hotbeds for the production of wine. He admits to an “on-and-off-again relationship with wine over the years,” and relishes the role of novice when it comes to being a wine geek.
It was his wife, Barbara Sattler, who helped instill the “wine bug” by planning frequent vacations from their home in Baltimore to the Wine Country. Over time, the couple became bicoastal and began meeting more of the movers and shakers in the wine industry, including Anthony Austin and John Drady, two of Sonoma County’s best winemakers. Anthony and John helped Chris learn to make wine, using Pinot Noir and Syrah grapes.
And while he thoroughly enjoys his new-found avocation, Chris readily admits that his real desire is to bring back the glory days at Russian River Vineyards and restore its patina.
The twelve acres of vineyards on the property — which include Pinot Noir and some of the oldest Merlot vines in Sonoma County — will be replanted solely to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, although Chris plans to retain one block of Merlot for its historical significance. He also plans to get the vineyards recertified as organic, noting that Russian River Vineyards was one of the very first in California to embrace organic and biodynamic farming methods.
His vision includes building a new, state-of-the-art, “totally green, totally sustainable” winery, while transforming the current winery facility into a restaurant. The restaurant that exists on the property will be made into a tasting room and event center.
“My philosophy is to eat well and drink well. And I’ve been looking for something to do, something that could utilize my skills,” he explains. “This is the perfect site. While some may think it looks like a lot of work, compared to some of the properties I’ve owned, this is a piece of cake.”
Barbara Sattler - Partner:
Barbara Sattler quickly fesses up to the fact that her new role as co-proprietor of Russian River Vineyards was part of a conspiracy.
A nurse and the director of the Environmental Health Center at the University of Maryland School of Nursing, Barbara spent several years working at San Francisco General Hospital early in her career and never lost her love for the Bay Area. While she moved back East and eventually met and married Chris O’Neill, the idea of someday moving back to California was always in her mind. So she embarked on an action plan.
The couple first came for a week, spending time in a quaint rented cabin at Point Reyes, making day trips to Wine Country. “The visits became more frequent,” she says with a smile, “and after awhile he said, ‘Okay, Barbara, I get it.’ Chris was looking for something to do, and his buddies challenged him to buy a winery. So, here we are!”
Owning vineyards and a winery is serendipitous for Barbara, who is steadfast in her support of all things organic, sustainable and “green.” As a professor of environmental health, she’s uniquely attuned to the importance of being good stewards of the land.
“I think we must understand that we’re all connected. The decisions we make in our lives in regard to just about everything, whether it be energy, food sources or basic business practices have an impact on everything else,” she explains. “We can’t just look one generation ahead — we have to consider the implications of our actions far into the future.”
Russian River Vineyards — one of the very first certified organic vineyards in Sonoma County — provides the perfect template for Barbara’s interests. “We’re so lucky that we don’t have to play catch-up,” she says. Among the projects she’s particularly looking forward to is establishing a kitchen garden on the Russian River Vineyards property so the restaurant — Corks at Russian River Vineyards — will have ready access to the freshest organic herbs, fruits and vegetables. She’s also planning to take steps to restore the natural wetlands that meander throughout the property. Enthusiastic, hard-working and efficient at multi-tasking, Barbara will play a key role in the evolution of Russian River Vineyards. “Right now, it’s distressed, but Chris has the ability to look beyond the façade. There are good bones here,” she says.
Both Barbara and Chris are hoping that their two daughters — Lea and Erica — will follow them to Wine Country. Lea is currently a pastry chef in Chicago and Erica just received a degree in engineering from Northwestern University. “It would be nice to have both of them close by us and be able to utilize their unique talents as we embark on this adventure,” Barbara said.
Barbara is a native of the Bronx and went to nursing school in Brentwood, NY. She later earned a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science at the University of Baltimore and received both her Master’s and Doctorate degrees in Public Health at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
Several years ago, while teaching a class that helped educate real estate professionals about residential inspections for lead-based paints, she encountered a rather charming student — Chris O’Neill. He invited her out for dinner, but she declined until after the final exam.
“I wanted to see how he did on his test,” she says. “He missed one question and got a 96. He still says he should’ve gotten 100 points. On the bottom of the exam, I wrote him a note: If you still want to go to dinner, we should make it sooner rather than later.”
And the rest, they say, is history — or “herstory.”
Giovanni Balistreri - General Manager / Winemaker:
Giovanni Balistreri (we call him “Gio”) is the “go-to guy” for just about everything at Russian River Vineyards. Officially he’s our Winemaker and General Manager, but there have been times when he’s been pressed into service as a vineyard hand, advertising wizard and even a waiter. We’re glad his life philosophy is to “roll with the punches.”
Gio was born to the agriculture business. A native of Sonoma County, he was raised in the far outreaches of Freestone, where it’s cold, foggy and windy. In Gio’s words, the Balistreri Family “lived off the land,” raising sheep and other animals and growing produce for the family dinner table. In 1999, on four acres of their property, they planted a Pinot Noir vineyard. In the decade since, Balistreri Family Vineyard, which now covers 11 acres, has become one of the most highly regarded grape growing parcels in the emerging Freestone appellation.
Gio studied wine business marketing and management at Fresno State University, earning a Bachelors degree in Agriculture Business in 2004. After a brief stint as a commercial sales manager in San Jose, he returned to the more friendly confines of Sonoma County and the family wine business.
Gold Medal - 2008 Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
Silver Medal - 2009 Riesling, Marin County
Double Gold Medal- 2009 Pinot Noir, Estate Grown
Double Gold Medal 2009 Merlot, Estate Grown
NORTH OF THE GATE WINE COMPETITION:
Blush Wine Sweepstakes Winner - 2008 Rose of Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast
White Wine Sweepstakes Winner - 2013 Gewurztraminer, Sonoma Coast
Double Gold Medal, Best of Class - 2013 Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast
NORTH COAST INVITATIONAL WINE COMPETITION:
Double Gold, 96 pts. - 2012 Pinot Noir, Benedetti Vineyard, Russian River Valley