Raeburn Chardonnay 2016, Russian River Valley
Cost: $19-21
T he Russian River Valley has been an official wine region for for about 35 years, but it has been only in the past 10-15 years that it has become known as a source for spectacular wines.
I remember about 30 years ago when a friend in the wine industry kept telling me about the great wines coming from the Russian River Valley. I didn’t know anything about them, so when I visited him he took me to several wineries.
I was blown away by the chardonnay and pinot noir that was being produced in the region and have been a big fan ever since. I also loved the scenic beauty of the Russian River Valley, with many hillside vineyards and a gorgeous river running out to the Pacific Ocean.
Derek Benham started making wine in the region about that same time, under various labels. His latest is Raeburn, and their chardonnay and pinot noir are spectacular, and great bargains.
Derek Benham: “Dinner without wine feels naked. It feels like the food is bland.”
“When I started in the Russian River Valley, there were more apple orchards than vineyards,” Benham said in a phone interview. “It was the apple-growing epicenter of the country, if not the world.”
As growers discovered the Russian River had ideal soil and climate conditions for growing chardonnay and pinot noir, they started buying apple orchards and turning them into vineyards.
“You’ve got this consistent climate and the maritime influence from Bodega Bay and the rivers, and that’s ideal for those grapes,” said Benham. “What the Napa Valley with its intense heat is to the Bordeaux varietals (cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc), the cool-climate Russian River Valley is to the Burgundian varietals (chardonnay and pinot noir).
“I honestly don’t think there is a better place for pinot. There are really good pinot and chardonnay pockets down the coast range, but acre for acre, vine for vine, I’ve never found a better place to grow pinot and chardonnay.”
Russian River chardonnays are known for their great acidity and crisp apple and pear flavors. The Raeburn chardonnay ($19-21) is a great example. It is an elegant wine, with flavors of pear and green apple, with a hint of nectarine. Toasted oak, vanilla and a suggestion of creme brulee smooth out the bright fruit flavors. It has a long, lingering finish.
The vineyards are cooled by daily fog from the Pacific Ocean. As the fog burns off, temperatures can rise by 35-40 degrees. This allows the grapes to ripen slowly, over a long period of time. The flavors get more intense and the natural acidity keeps it all fresh.
After a gentle pressing, 75 percent of the juice is fermented in French and Hungarian oak barrels, 50 percent new. About 75 percent of the wine then goes through malolactic fermentation. The wine spends six months aging sur lie.
“We don’t 100 percent barrel ferment, or 100 percent malolactic, but we give it enough to give it a creme brulee hint,” said Benham. “We don’t want to over-oak. I don’t like a cloying chardonnay. Oak adds a little weight and balance, but you have to be careful with it.”
The Raeburn pinot noir at the same price is just as good. Pleasant aromas of baked apple and vanilla lead to lush raspberry, blackberry and blueberry flavors. It has a smooth and graceful finish after 11 months of agin in French oak barrels, 25 percent new.
Winery: Raeburn is the latest brand for Derek Benham, founded to honor his mother Phyllis and her love for the northern California outdoors. Two egrets on the label are a nod to her love of nature.
“She knows every plant and every bird,” Benham said of his mother, who is 92 and still kayaks. “I carry her concern for nature and will carry it to my grave. Raeburn is my ode to her.”
Raeburn is an old English term that means “the river where one goes to drink.”
Benham grew up in Bakersfield at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. In the summer he would work the fields, pulling weeds, picking potatoes and trellising grapes. He and his mother would hike up into the Sierras, camping out for days as she recorded her bird observations.
When he graduated from the University of California, he worked in sales for a Lodi wine company. Then he and his brother founded Cordera Wine group and created the Blackstone brand. After seven successful years they sold Blackstone and Derek started Purple Wine Company. Raeburn followed in 2012.
The winery is eco-friendly and water efficient, gathering rainwater and working with Tesla to install commercial batteries. They recycle 90 percent of all winery packaging materials.
“We work hard at what we do,” said Benham. “People throw around the word value along with craft. We put the work behind it and make it mean something.”
Benham doesn’t own any vineyards, nor does he have a tasting room.
“My dad was a pistachio grower, and it was hard work,” he said. “I like to let the growers do their thing, and I work with them. We’re all about making great wine and getting it out to people.
“We go after the restaurant business, so that is our tasting room. I’ve never had a tasting room. Wine should be enjoyed in a comfortable environment that has food available.
“Dinner without wine feels naked. It feels like the food is bland.”
Besides chardonnay and pinot noir, Raeburn produces a rosé that Benham told his winemaker not to make. It is mostly zinfandel mixed with pinot noir and grenache. It was first released last year and Benham calls it “amazing.”
Benham also makes a Scattered Peaks Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon that sells for $40 and has gotten high scores.
He also started making spirits, Benham’s Gin and Redwood Empire rye/bourbon blend.
Benham also is reviving two wine brands: Four Vines and Avalon.
Goes with: Sometimes I like to try pairings that are not what you would expect for a particular wine. With that in mind we had the chardonnay with bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches and the pinot noir with homemade chicken noodle soup. Both pairings were perfect.
The crisp acidity of the chardonnay was just right for the tasty bacon, while the creamy smoothness of the pinot blended nicely with the warm flavors of the chicken soup.
Both of these wines are versatile and will pair well with a variety of meals.

If you have questions about wine you can email Dennis Sodomka at dennis@bottlereport.com

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