In the good old days before Napa Valley became the land of millionaires and celebrities, most folks got into the business because they were grape farmers who wanted to try their hand at wine making, not become wealthy darlings of the media. This lack of vanity has always been the norm in the Russian River Valley and it’s still possible to find committed people toiling away with nary a care for their 15 minutes of fame. Many wineries in Russian River Valley are still owned by families or couples with a fierce sense of loyalty to unfettered wine making and love of their craft.
The Estate: A Historic Site for Wine
When you visit the ACORN Winery and Alegria vineyards it’s easy to understand the attraction of this pastoral spot just south of Healdsburg. The rolling hills and stunning views are breathtaking, but Betsy and Bill Nachbaur didn’t merely succumb to the lovely landscape. They were astute enough to appreciate the historic significance of the Alegria Vineyards blocks whose roots could be traced to the Sotoyome land grant of 1841. When the couple decided to buy Alegria Vineyards in 1990, Bill was still a practicing attorney and he and Betsy were both grape growing neophytes, but they recognized possessing premium vineyard land with a long history of producing wine was the kind of advantage budding wine growers needed to succeed.
The Nachbaurs realized they were part of a long legacy of grape growing that began with Virginia transplants George and Summers Brumfield who purchased 850 acres from the land grant in 1852. It wasn’t long after that the Brumfields planted the first Mission and Zinfandel vines doing so at least until 1896. Over the next century, subsequent grape growers cultivated and tended the vineyards at Alegria and then in 1947, Americo Raffianelli took possession of the land and planted Sangiovese grapes in 1950. He then sold the vineyards in a year later and the property passed through the hands of two other owners until finally being purchased by Bill and Betsy.
The People Behind the Wine
In just a few years Alegria was a highly regarded source of grapes for quality winemakers in and around Sonoma Country, and by 1994 the Nachbaurs realized they were ready to take the plunge and try their hands at wine making too and founded ACORN. As they say on their website, “An acorn is a popular symbol of prosperity, good fortune, and potential. (Everyone knows mighty oaks from little acorns grow.). We are tiny like an acorn. Our winery is framed by tall oak trees. Our wine is aged in oak barrels. So ACORN seemed the perfect name for our winery.” Charming, dedicated to quality, intimately connected to the land, all of these are àpropos terms to describe ACORN’s wines, winery, and owners.
Instead of full-scale uprooting and replanting of more mainstream stocks, Bill and Betsy decided ACORN would continue growing field blends, and it didn’t take long for ACORN’S wines gain renown for their character and quality, which can be attributed to the winery’s unique use of field blends, old vines, and the sites’ terroirs.
The Wine: A Cocktail Blend of Varietals
What makes ACORN different from other wineries in Russian River Valley is the Nachbaur’s devotion to historic vineyard plantings, their determination to continue practicing traditional field blend viticulture, and their insistence on co-fermenting the blends straight from the field, rather than ferment by varietal and then blend finished wines. For centuries, field blends have been the norm in wineries in Italy and Portugal and the practice continues today at ACORN with different blocks offering different blends depending on the vintage or vines replanted on any given season. Bill, working closely with local consulting winemaker Clay Mauritson, creates outstanding wines with depth, complexity, and prove top quality wines can be produced using this old method of making wine.
The areas first planted with Zinfandel are known as the Heritage Vines Zinfandel blocks they are a mixed planting of different grapes, some never planted in Russian River Valley, which include 78% Zinfandel, 10% Petite Sirah, 10% Alicante Bouschet, and the remaining 2% composed of varying amounts of Carignane, Trousseau, Sangiovese, Petit Bouschet, Negrette, Syrah, Plavic Mali, Tannat, Muscat Noir, Peloursin, Beclan, Mataro, Cinsault, Grenache, and the white grapes grapes: Palomino and Monbadon. The Nachbaurs, “…believe that the mix of inter-planted varieties evolved over the years. As a vine died and was replaced, it wasn’t necessarily replaced with the same variety.”
In 1990, Bill and Betsy replaced adjacent pasture land with Syrah and Sangiovese grapes, and harvested their first Sangiovese wine in 1994 and then released it in 1996. Over the years they have also planted blocks of Cabernet Franc and Dolcetto and in addition to continuing to sell of their grapes to other wineries (including some designated as Alegria), ACORN now produces seven of their own uniques wines:
- Zinfandel Russian River Valley
- Axiom Syrah Russian River Valley
- Cabernet France Russian River Valley
- Sangiovese Russian River Valley
- Dolcetto from Russian River Valley
- Medley and Acorn Hill, two proprietary blends
Staying Relevant and Sustainable
We think ACORN Winery and Alegria Vineyards should be at the top of your bucket list of must-try-wines and wineries to visit–and so do Fodor’s, who selected ACORN as one of their tops choices of things to do in Napa and Sonoma and awarded ACORN the Fodor’s Choice Star, and The Daily Meal who listed them in the Top 101 Wineries in 2014. In 2014, the winery celebrated its 25th harvest and despite having “arrived,” the owners continue to do things the old-fashioned way: they make good wine using sustainable practices in the vineyard and cellar and eschew designer wines, expensive wine consultants, and fancy machines and gadgets. They consider themselves stewards of the land for future generations and are dedicated to sustainable farming, hand tending, and hand harvesting to better manage the health of the soil, vines, workers, and grapes and make sure the wine is produced in clean, pollutant free micro-climates.
To reduce both their footprint and pollution, Betsy and Bill took sustainability one step further, in 2011 stopped using foils (or capsules) on the tops of their bottles. They made this decision because the foil tops of wine bottles aren’t recyclable or biodegradable and end up in landfills. The silver lining for ACORN is the bottle profiles look cleaner and more streamlined and ACORN gets a second branding opportunity by stamping the tops of their corks with an acorn that’s clearly visible when the bottles are laid on their side on shelves.
In addition to her role as the DC Wine Examiner, Summer is also the D.C. City Guide Editor for The Daily Meal, the world’s #1 site for food, drink & lifestyle. Find more of her travel and culinary writing here and follow her on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Pinterest.