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Winery profile: Woodenhead in Forestville

The short version: Woodenhead makes damn good wine. Pinot, Zin—yum, yum, yum.

By James Knight

As a diehard Zinfandel fan, I hardheadedly hold out for my idea of the ultimate Zin. The usual press on our heritage grape is that it's a reliable producer of hearty, jammy stuff, while superior examples, expressing the concentrated essence of what it can offer, are maddeningly hard to find. (Mini review for readers unwilling to wade through several paragraphs of palaver to get to the point: Woodenhead makes damn good wine. Pinot, Zin—yum, yum, yum. Now, back to rambling wine talk; that's why I get the big bucks). It was at the ZAP tasting in San Francisco that I first saw Woodenhead. Seem to recall it was neighboring Blockheadia. Yes, it's like rule number one not to prejudge a vintage on the basis of a graphic design-challenged label, but time was short and the wines were many.

Still, seeing one afternoon that this micro-winery had opened a tasting room on River Road piqued my interest because, you know, might be some Zins there. After a U-turn and some wrong turns, we arrived at 4:29pm, but my companion would not get out of the car. With restaurant-industry sensibility, she adamantly refused to walk into a place at closing time.

At a more appropriate hour and in other company, I finally made it to the rambling house that overlooks the Russian River Valley. Inside, it's remodeled in subdued dark earth tones, low-lit, with a little staircase giving it the appearance of a pub stage set. The deck out front looks like an excellent picnic redoubt; bring your own as they only serve a dish of olives. Here I learned that Woodenhead is an old nickname that former deadhead winemaker Nikolai Stez earned for his stubbornness. Nothing to do with, say, barrels. In stainless steel dairy tanks behind the old Topolos Winery he vints only Pinot Noir and Zinfandel, doggedly chipping away at these squirrelly varietals. Must be some magic in those old dairy tanks.

The wine? Absolutely frickin' brilliant. On the ultra-premium end of pricing. Dig deep. The 2005 Russian River Valley Pinot Noir ($38) has an allspice nose and lightly meaty, firm palate, The 2004 Wiley Vineyard Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($46) is a Zin-lover's Pinot, a candied cherry aroma promises and delivers a sweet mouthful of fruit, and the fine dry tannins leave the tongue gullet-bound with reluctant splendor. The 2004 Martinelli Road Old Vine Zinfandel ($40) opens with a lovely aroma of raspberry jelly, the kind that tops a cheesecake and delivers a full gulp of plush rhubarb and raspberry fruit.

And it gets better. At 16 percent alcohol, the 2005 Guido Venturi Mendocino County Zinfandel ($30) is exceptionally balanced, and I forgot what else, because next was the 2005 Braccialani Vineyard Alexander Valley Zinfandel ($35). The riparian, wet, briary aroma evokes a muddy path leading to the edge of the river; a plush river of brambly fruit that washes over the tongue luxuriously, with no complaints on the finish. My notes actually read, "Raspberry velvet love tongue?"

I found myself jealously gripping my glass toward the end of the tasting, although only a drop remained. These are big, but approachable, wines, high in booze decimals but not hot, and layered in fruit with nary a raisin to be found. And there are new releases to come this week, including an intriguing Humboldt County Pinot Noir. I'll be back, and if I'm not feeling so stubborn about my budget (I was kidding about the big bucks), I might even buy a bottle next time.


Address: 5700 River Road, Forestville

Phone: 707.887.2703

Hours: Thursday–Sunday 10:30am to 4:30pm

Price Range: Tasting fee, $5.

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