As Russian River Valley Wineries continue to grow and expand, owners of Woodenhead Winery, Zina Bower and Nikolai Stez bring an authentic, old-school process that encapsulates the wine region’s early farmer roots. Working with the late Burt Williams of the famed Pinot Noir producer Williams Selyem Estate, they adopted a meticulous approach that Burt employed back in the day.
Zina, a native of Los Angeles, came up to the Russian River every summer as a child and visited with her family. For both of them, the area was very much an extension of their childhood and an idyllic place to be alive and be a kid. In 1992, Zina relocated there full time. Nik has lived on the Russian River since the age of one and has a keen awareness of the North Coast backcountry, as he has traveled extensively throughout the area since he was young. For 17 years he worked with Williams to make Russian River Pinot Noir an American cult wine.
After Williams Selyem was sold, Zina worked at other Russian River Valley Wineries while Nik did construction. Both knew they wanted to take the next step and start a winery. In 1999, they created Woodenhead, named in honor of the nickname from an old girlfriend of Nik’s— for being stubborn and hard-headed. Woodenhead’s extensive network of grape growers granted them access to high- quality fruit and forge partnerships that go back decades, which has served them well.
Their production mirrors Burt’s approach, as everything is done by hand. During harvest, they ferment in open-top dairy tanks, hand punch 3-4 times a day, and do not do pump-overs—they let gravity do its job and be as natural as possible. “Our wines are built to last the way they are made. The 2015 and ‘16 vintages go 8 years or more,” said Zina.
At Woodenhead, all the employees participate in the winemaking from start to finish. They sort grapes, participate in the crush and work the bottling line. “Everybody knows the whole winemaking process and is able to talk about it,” noted Zina.
One of the key challenges this Russian River Valley Winery has endured is finding a reputable distributor to open up a wholesale distribution channel. In 2008, they started their wine club as a result of losing out of state distributors when the economy imploded. Nik was initially against this, as he’s not a big fan of wine clubs, but many of their customers were asking for it and he was ultimately convinced. Customers appreciate that it’s a casual setup. “Nobody is ramming wine club memberships down their throats,” said Zina.
To honor one of their former employees, Bob Thistle, head cellar rat—they created a special blend called Rasta Bob Red. On the label, they did a caricature of him in a beach setting. The blend incorporates all his favorite varieties and pays homage to his interests in drumming, fishing, and Rasta music.
Looking back on a very difficult year, whether it be the Pandemic halting sales or wildfires decimating large portions of the 2020 vintage, Woodenhead continues to have the support of its loyal following. “People tell us they really want us to stay around, which makes me want to cry. We truly appreciate the love and support of our customers,” said Zina.
2015 Pinot Noir – Sourced from the Buena Tierra Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, this wine shows beautiful texture and flavors of cherry, cranberry and raspberry- striking a nice balance between acidity and fruit. At 13.7% ABV, this wine would go great with a pulled pork and veggie plate.
2016 Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley – flavors of black cherry and a little bit of spice. At 14.4% ABV, this wine would pair nicely with a braised lamb or pork chop.
2016 Charbono – Sourced from Guido Venturi Vineyard in Mendocino, this wine shows flavors of blueberry and cherry. Coming in at 12.7% ABV, this wine has soft tannins and a delicate texture. This would pair nicely with a roasted chicken or pasta dish.
2017 Zinfandel – Sourced from Mariah Vineyard in Mendocino Ridge, this wine is bursting with flavors of plum, raspberry and a little touch of black pepper showcasing bold flavors and a generous mouthfeel.
2018 French Colombard – Sourced from Cameron Ranch in the Russian River Valley, this wine has beautiful floral aromatics with flavors of apple, pear and lemon on the palate. Clean and crisp all the way through with high acidity. Pair this with Nik and Zina’s favorite plate — oysters.
2015 Brut Rose’ – Sourced from the Russian River Valley. Beautiful pink with a slight coral tint, this wine has flavors of citrus with a little bit of tart while maintaining a nice earthy minerality. At 11.7% ABV, this sparkling wine would go great with a fruit plate – a perfect brunch wine.