HEALDSBURG — It may be that no two entities were better matched than the Russian River Valley and Gary Farrell. Or perhaps it's just that Farrell listens carefully and hears what the grapes are saying.
But for sheer consistency, I can think of no one who has made such high-quality wines that evoke the region's uniqueness, and someone who has improved the quality of his wines so regularly the way Farrell has.
Though his is not a name you've heard mentioned in the company of the world's great wine makers, Farrell has achieved much in the 15 years he's been in this industry and to my mind stands with the great ones.
Yet this bearded gentleman is so quiet and unassuming that even when he's pouring his wines at public events, his soft voice and modest manner make him appear to be no more than a pourer who is cautious about making bold statements about the quality of the wines.
Another reason Farrell's name is known largely to wine connoisseurs is that he is the wine maker for Davis Bynum Winery, a small property with a nonexistent advertising budget. It is a winery that could very well say it's distribution system is an oxymoron.
Moreover, the wines Farrell makes are crafted in a style that is anything but showy. Thus the greatness of his art usually is exhibited in small, delicate, finely detailed works, not giant frescos strewn with bold colors.
This article was prompted by what I consider to be one of the finest American Pinot Noirs I have tasted in years. Released under Farrell's own label, the wine was made in a style that accents the vineyards. More about it later.
I also was inspired by the fact that the Bynum wines, after a hiatus from the marketplace in some areas of the country, are now available again, a welcome end to a drought. And the fact that the Farrell wines are now being made in quantities large enough to write about.
The Russian River area of Sonoma County is a cool region that runs north and west from Santa Rosa, reaching as far north as Healdsburg and west to Guerneville. Included are such towns as Sebastopol to the southwest and Forestville due west, with Windsor at its heart.
It is a region that is actually cooler than the famed Carneros, the swath of land that sits at the southerly edge of both Napa and Sonoma counties and which is renowned for its Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.
To my mind, pockets of the Russian River area produce the finest Pinot Noirs in America, and its Chardonnays are fast becoming recognized as some of the most classic made anywhere.
Dehlinger's 1985 Chardonnay wowed the marketplace with rich flavors in a crisp package; Joseph Swan's wines from Russian River fruit are sought for their depth and potential; De Loach and Sonoma Cutrer Chardonnays are award-winners every year, and some exciting Pinot Noirs have been made by J. Rochioli, Iron Horse, Belvedere and Mark West. (Farrell was Rochioli's wine maker for four years, 1983 through 1986.)
One of the cult wineries of the Russian River area is Williams Selyem, a project of Burt Williams and Ed Selyem, Sonoma County partners who have made a stunning succession of Pinot Noirs from the area.
The 1987 Williams Selyem wines are no exception, either, but they are next to impossible to find and expensive: $30 for the top-of-the- line wine from the Rochioli Vineyard. Still, should you find a bottle, it is worth a try. They are truly exciting wines.
The Davis Bynum winery, founded by the former San Francisco newspaperman who gave his name to the winery, has less acclaim, but the wines are nearly as good. And the property has been around a while.
Bynum celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, and if it stages an open house to celebrate, some guests will get lost finding it.
After eight years making wine in Berkeley, in San Francisco's east bay, Bynum bought a hillside ranch separated from Healdsburg by twisting sidepaths that snake through the foothill oaks. The location was selected, in part, because of the quality of the grapes growing nearby.
"It was an old hop kiln, and I helped Dave convert it into a winery," said Farrell, who arrived just after Davis and Dorothy Bynum bought the place.
Farrell then was a house painter.
"I was a political science major (at Santa Rosa Junior College before earning a degree at Sonoma State), and after school I started a house painting business," said Farrell.
With partner Scott Harris (now wine maker at Arbor Crest Winery in Washington), Farrell painted houses for 18 months. In late 1974, Bynum's first crush at its Sonoma winery facility, "we began helping with the harvest, as cellar workers."
An abiding interest in wine, gained while in college in Sonoma County, prompted Farrell and Harris to become the ultimate cellar workers, spending their off hours studying wine making. Both were soon hired as full time cellar workers, and Farrell "gave up painting houses. I picked up wine making skills on the job," he said. "I took UC Davis extension classes in enology and I made a lot of phone calls to other wineries."