Northern CA Wine Country: The Merry Wines of Windsor

The title of this post is an homage to Shakespeare’s comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor. Windsor, CA makes a superb base for a visit to Northern California’s wine country. Dozens of wineries have a Windsor address; this post features five that represent the breadth of experience possible. Both IHG and Hilton have properties just a stone’s throw from US101 (take Exit 498 for “Central Windsor”). Wyndham operates the WorldMark Windsor, a sprawling timeshare property near the Charles M. Schulz – Sonoma County Airport (call letters “STS”) with 1-, 2- and 3-bedroom units which are bookable for 15,000 points/night. In addition, there are many home-share options (book early for the best selection). 

Guerrero Fernandez Winery

The unassuming home to Guerrero Fernandez Winery is at the back of a row of warehouse-style units at 7724 Bell Road. Martin Guerrero and his wife of 36 years, Olga Fernandez, who emigrated to Sonoma County from Mexico as newlyweds, do everything at this family-oriented winery. Martin worked his way up the ranks over 20 years at the legendary Korbel Champagne Cellars. Olga (CEO) manages the tasting room, maintains their website, and – in her spare time – runs marathons all over the world! Many of their wines are named after family members: “Daisy,” their Sauvignon Blanc, is the name of their niece and goddaughter; “Bella,” their Rose of Merlot, is named after their American Bulldog who died in 2018 but “…lives on through his label” and every label includes the American Sign Language symbol for “I love you” in honor of their son’s hearing impairment. 

I don’t usually review specific wines because, by the time readers visit, that particular vintage may no longer be available. But I would be remiss if I didn’t extol the virtues of their single clone (Pommard) 2014 Pinot Noir ($45). Its intoxicating nose is matched by its lush mouthfeel; Olga suggests pairing it with salmon. We also took a bottle of their 2014 Old Vine Zinfandel home with us because, even though there is no legal definition of the term “old vine,” the fruit used in this bottling was the final harvest from a 114-year-old vineyard. If they still have any when you visit, it’s a bargain at $44. 

Guerrero Fernandez Winery is open for tasting by appointment only Friday through Sunday from 11am – 5pm. The $20/person tasting fee is gladly waived with each $40 purchase (think of it as a nice discount on a great bottle of wine).

Colagrossi Wines

Colagrossi Wines is located nearby, in the Artisan Alley Beverage District, home to an eclectic mix of wineries, a cider works, a distilling house, and a beer café. The beverage artisans here host a block party called “Friday Evenings in the Alley” on the 3rd Friday of each month from 5-8pm (tasting fees apply).

The owner of and winemaker for Colagrossi Wines, Craig Colagrossi, traces his roots to Puglia, the region forming the “heel” of Italy’s “boot.” Both passionate and knowledgeable about winemaking, Craig is accessible and eager to share the story behind his excellent and fairly-priced wines, most of which (like the wines of Puglia) are red, richly flavored, and pair well with a wide variety of dishes. His Barberas are a prime example of how Craig stays true to the iconic expression of the varietals he produces. In Italy, there are two styles of Barbera: Barbera d’Asti and Barbera d’Alba. Both are full-bodied, but Barbera d’Asti tends to be lighter in color and elegant, while Barbera d’Alba tends to have a darker color and more intense flavors. Craig uses fruit from the Pauli Ranch in Mendocino to make a lighter, Asti-style Barbera in the spring and fruit from Moon Mountain in Sonoma Valley to make a more robust, Alba-style Barbera in the fall. In a stroke of genius, Craig did a Zoom tasting he called the “Battle of the Barberas” when COVID restrictions mostly shut down in-person tasting. Sadly, the Pauli Ranch Barbera was sold out when we visited but we happily took a bottle of the Moon Mountain Barbera home with us.

Craig’s other Italian varietals include Sangiovese, Dolcetto, and Vino Rosso (Bordeaux-inspired, Italian-styled) and he will soon be releasing a super Tuscan, La Catola (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sangiovese) as an homage to his family home in San Marco la Catola, Puglia. The outdoor tasting lounge, fire pit, and comfortable seating (pictured here) at Colagrossi Wines (7755 Bell Road) make for a relaxed and memorable tasting experience.

Martinelli Winery

It’s hard to believe that my first visit to Northern California’s wine country was in 1987. Since then, my wife and I bought an investment property in Windsor and even “lived the dream” there for 2½ years. Over those 34 years, it’s fair to say I’ve done hundreds (if not thousands!) of tastings. What never ceases to amaze me is that I discover new (to me) wineries and I still learn something new about the art of making and enjoying wine on each trip. I especially appreciate when an exceptional educator hosts my tasting – which was certainly the case at Martinelli Winery. Judy Schutz was a fountain – no, a geyser – of information about and insight into the history, philosophy, and trajectory of Martinelli Winery!

And history is what greets you as soon as you enter the old hop barn where your tasting begins. In the 1880s, 19-year-old Giuseppe Martinelli, who was already a winemaker in Italy, eloped with his 16-year-old wife and emigrated from Tuscany to the Russian River Valley. Within 2 years, he had saved enough money to purchase a hillside parcel dubbed Jackass Hill (click on the link to view an amazing video) because, the family quipped, “you’d have to be a jackass to farm a hill that steep!” Jackass Hill, the steepest, non-terraced vineyard in Sonoma County with a 60°-65° slope, is planted in Zinfandel and Muscat of Alexandria, one of the oldest, genetically unmodified vines still in existence. Wine Advocate gave Martinelli’s 2017 Jackass Hill Zinfandel 98 points and awarded 93 points to the 2014 Jackass Hill Muscat of Alexandria which Judy Schutz described as a “food coma cure.”

Martinelli Winery offers a variety of settings for its tasting experiences. Seasonally, Vineyard Terrace Tastings take place on the hilltop terrace in the Hop Barn Hill Vineyard (pictured above, $35/person) or you can book a private, behind-the-scenes walking tour through the estate vineyards ($75/person). In the historic hop barn, the Heritage Tasting ($60/person), focusing on single-vineyard bottlings, is conducted at the Baler bar and a seated tasting of 95+ point wines, accompanied by local cheeses, is held in a private room ($95/person). 

Mueller Winery

Welcome to the future! Mueller Winery’s tasting room is in the Grand Cru Custom Crush building (1200 American Way) at the south end of Windsor, just a 3-minute drive or a 14-minute walk from the WorldMark Windsor (see introduction). This cooperative venture gives small, independent winemakers access to the latest and best production technology as well as elegant tasting salons (customized by appointment). Out of the 22 member wineries listed on the Grand Cru website, I was familiar with exactly 1 – Mueller Winery! While Grand Cru was built in 2017 to support small artisans (no member winery produces more than 5,000 cases), it also presents an unparalleled opportunity for oenophiles visiting Windsor: book one or more tastings with the winery/wineries of your choice (tasting fees range from $30 – $100/person) or sample a rotating selection of wines from member wineries accompanied by a tour of the state-of-the-art production facility (60 minutes, 6 wines + tour, $30/person).

Knowing that quality wine begins with quality fruit and that the soil and climate conditions of the Russian River Valley are ideal for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Bob uses fruit from this region exclusively for his wines. Pinot Noir is the backbone of Mueller Winery’s production, supplemented with lesser amounts of Chardonnay, Zinfandel, and Syrah. Emily’s Cuvee Pinot Noir ($52) is named for their daughter who was born just as the fruit for the first vintage arrived in 1994; one might say his daughter and his first Pinot Noir were delivered on the same day! Wine Spectator calls it “…one of Russian River Valley’s best Pinot Noirs at any price,” While it will stand up to some aging, it will be difficult to delay gratification when it comes to this wine! 

Few people know the Russian River Valley appellation better than Bob Mueller – owner, winemaker, and host for our tasting! This might have been our first tasting where the glass from which we drank cost more than the wine we were drinking! Created by Rene Gabriel, author of the Weinbibel (“Wine Bible”), the lead-free crystal stemware we used is shaped to enhance the aromatics and flavor of any style of wine. One can book either a 75-minute private seated tasting ($30/person) or a 105-minute private seated tasting with Bob from the Mueller Winery website ($45/person). My suggestion? Book the latter; Bob is extremely personable and as good a storyteller as he is a winemaker!

La Crema Winery

Where annual production for Colagrossi Wines is about 1,000 cases and 1,200 cases for Guerrero Fernandez Winery, over 1,250,000 cases of La Crema wine were sold in 2020. Where the winemaker led our 90-minute seated tasting at Mueller Winery, we were one of several tables assigned to our host at La Crema. At Guerrero Fernandez Winery and Colagrossi Wines, you’re in an industrial park; at Mueller Winery, you’re ushered to a private salon in a state-of-the-art cooperative; Martinelli Winery and La Crema Estate at Saralee’s Vineyard offer a variety of tasting venues (including vineyard tours) centered around historic buildings. Readers should infer no value judgment from drawing these comparisons; just as everyone’s preferences in wine are different, so do people experience wine tastings differently. La Crema has a 4.6 rating on Google reviews and 4.5 on Yelp. 

La Crema, along with Kendall-Jackson, Siduri, and Stonestreet (all of which distribute nationally and may be available in your grocery store), is one of the iconic brands belonging to Jackson Family Wines (JFW), the largest wine company headquartered in Sonoma County. In 2016, JFW completed a massive renovation of the 12,000-square foot, a four-story barn that had been the home of Richard and Saralee (hence, the name of the vineyard) Kunde. This amazing building has multiple tasting venues; we looked out onto a vineyard from our table on the ground floor patio. If you can, be sure to ride the elevator to all four floors; it makes a different barnyard animal sound as the door opens at each level!

The emphasis here is on Pinot Noir and Chardonnay which are highlighted in the Estate Tasting ($30/person, tasting fee waived with each 2-bottle purchase). Golf cart tours of the estate followed by a tasting are also available ($75/person) and you can reserve a table for a DIY picnic with a minimum purchase of one bottle.

Closing notes

Depending on the order in which one visits these five wineries, the total driving distance can be as little as 7.5 miles! From structures steeped in local history to one that offers a glimpse into the future and from “mom and pop” operations to a corporate behemoth, the wineries above hint at the breadth of wine tasting experiences that are possible and these are just five wineries among dozens in Windsor, hundreds in Sonoma County and thousands in Northern California. Cheers! Saluté! Prost!

Jim Fatzinger

Jim Fatzinger