A few weeks ago, I met Joe Nagan of Toad Hollow Vineyards at Costeaux French Bakery & Cafe for a morning chat over cups of coffee just a few doors down from the Healdsburg tasting room undergoing renovation.

Toad Hollow World Headquarters on Westside Road, Healdsburg, CA

Joe is the National Sales Manager for Toad Hollow Vineyards and had kindly invited me to meet with him and ask any questions I might have about the winery and wines I might taste for review. Personable, passionate, and knowledgeable, Joe generously fleshed out the history and mission of Toad Hollow.

Cover crop in bloom between the vine rows, lush between rains

Founded by two retirees, Todd Williams and Rodney Strong. Todd Hollow was an opportunity for both to make one more lasting mark in the wine world.

The main office, with porch for serious thinking

Todd Williams, half brother to comedian Robin Williams, worked for Whitehall Lane Winery, as the sales manager for Shafer Vineyards, and honed his wine view at the many bars and restaurants he was involved with.

A view from the office down toward the Russian River

Rodney Strong had sold the winery that bears his name to Tom Klein, but retained the beautiful and bountiful sloping vineyards that ran from his house down to the Russian River.

Mustard in bloom in the vineyards

Together, using Rod’s grapes and winemaking know how and Todd’s national wine sales ability and hospitality industry tested tasting room welcome, the pair created wines of incredible quality and at an unbelievably affordable price that are readily available in 48 states. Toad Hollow Vineyards is just about as Sonoma County as a winery can get.

Green and yellow abounds in the vineyards, but the vines are empty

The idea that great wine can’t be utterly approachable, and even fun, clearly never occurred to Todd and Rod. Wine labels and winery iconography feature Toads (Todd) and Badgers (Rod) from Kenneth Grahame’s children’s book The Wind in the Willows, while wine names include Eye of the Toad and Amplexus, the latter a reference to amphibian “whoopee making.”

The path to the World HQ office door

Sadly, both Todd Williams and Rodney strong have passed away, but Frankie Williams, Todd’s wife, continues to helm the winery.

Frankie Williams has been described to me by more than one person as the “heart” of Toad Hollow. Frankie has had offers and opportunities to sell the winery, she could have sold and retired, but she didn’t. Frankie Williams is the reason that Toad Hollow continues to maintain the feeling of being a family business instead of feeling like just another interchangeable cog in a larger winery conglomerate’s operations.

The sign helps visitors find the tasting room on Healdsburg Avenue

Recently, I stopped by the beautifully renovated tasting room in Healdsburg just one block north of the downtown Plaza at 409A Healdsburg Avenue, and tasted wines with the tasting room team of Jim Costa and Debra Rickards. Two years in a row, the Press Democrat sent reporters undercover to all of the over 150 winery tasting rooms in and around Healdsburg, and for two consecutive years Toad Hollow was named the “friendliest tasting room in Healdsburg.” Together, Jim and Debra (it would be horribly unToadian and stuffy to refer to them as Costa and Rickards) provide the first class, friendly, inclusive and fun wine tasting experience that epitomize Todd Williams’ influence from his days providing customer service in the hospitality industry.

Prices already low, lowered, then end of vintage wines put on further sale.

During my visit, another taster visiting from out of state, remarked that, “the quality high and price low is a unique relief,” before purchasing two cases of mixed bottles.

Todd Williams

As I tasted the wines of Toad Hollow Vineyards, either at home with food, family and friends, or by themselves at the tasting room I kept noting that the wines were soft, drinkable, approachable, fruit forward, delicious; over and over the word “soft” appears in my notes. As a group, the wines of Toad Hollow Vineyards are without pretension, they are just simply delicious.

With the opportunity to choose beautiful wood like this, why would anyone choose stone for a bar?

You don’t have to try to understand these wines, you just need to taste them and marvel at what the Toad and Badger have wrought.

2008 Chardonnay, Mendocino, Francine’s Selection UnOaked – $12.99

Accounting for nearly 40% of all sales, this wine is made from grapes grown near Boonville in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley, an area known for high quality Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit.

Pale straw in color, with aromas of fruit, apple and grapefruit.

The wine undergoes 100% malolactic fermentation and is held in stainless steel tanks, no wood; the result is a round, soft, deliciously drinkable wine with flavors of apple, pear, and citrus. Crisp and sweet, nice acidity and medium long mineral finish.

A nice alternative to oaken and over-oaked Chardonnays, it has been described as Todd’s response to 1990 Chardonnay.

The crisp fruit expression makes me want to pair this wine with some shellfish more typically paired with a Sauvignon Blanc. Nice weight, body, taste and texture. A really terrific food Chardonnay.

2008 Dry Pinot Noir Rosé, Sonoma, Eye Of The Toad – $8.99

A French Bandol styled dry rosé wine, beautiful rich purpley pink, nose of rose petal and fruitless directly to crushed strawberry over ice flavors with good acidity.

Wonderful blush wine for those who want a rosé that isn’t cloyingly sweet – this wine isn’t sweet at all, it is bone dry which makes the fruit expression all the more notably clear.

This wine and a sesame crusted seared tuna, perfect Summer evening. Oh, and a date, I forgot the date.

2007 Pinot Noir, Russian River, Goldie’s Vineyard – $19.99

Goldie’s Vineyard is named for Rod’s mom Goldie.

Nice acidity making you want another taste.

Great, round, smooth, soft, delicious rose and soft cherry flavors making you want another taste.

Face it, you’re going to want another taste.

2007 Zinfandel, Paso Robles, Cacophony – $13.99

Soft. Unbelievably approachable. I love Zinfandel, but many folks who don’t love Zinfandel will love this one.

Juicy raspberry jam fruit on a soft tannin background. All the fruit with just the right notes of spice, cocoa, and pepper.

Lushly drinkable.

I would love to pair this with some of the wild north coast venison or boar I hunted in my youth. Lamb would also provide the right wildness to pair with this wine.

2005 Merlot, Russian River, Richard McDowell Vineyard – $17.99

I opened up the 2005 Merlot Reserve, Richard McDowell Vineyard, Russian River Valley, 14.5% alc, to pair with a hearty beef stroganoff I was cooking. It was a beautiful rich purpley burgundy color. I used a cup of the Merlot in the recipe in place of water, and I served the stroganoff with the wine.

My first thought, putting nose to glass was “WOW, that’s a nose!”

The nose is just full of big, bold, juicy, ripe fruit. Deeply floral, plum, rose, dark stone fruit, black cherry, black berry and cassis.

The mouth is incredible smooth and drinkable, open, and ready (I forgot it was a 2005) to drink. Black cherry and black berry, anise. Nice balance of acid and tannin.

A really soft wine with a nice lingering tapering finish.

The wine is gorgeously elegant, loaded with lush fruit through and through.

Thoroughly delicious and a QPR (quality to price ratioo) steal at $16, the 2005 Toad Hollow Merlot reserve is made from 100% Merlot grapes grown on a sandy bench three miles south of Healdsburg and Toad Hollow proudly claims a wine that demonstrates a sense of place, or terroir.

I poured myself a second glass about an hour after dinner, for dessert, and as I put my nose to the glass, again my first thought was “WOW!”

Translated, that means I loved this wine and was just completely impressed and delighted with it.

Several weeks after first tasting this wine at home, I was delighted to hear some visitors attempt to pass over this wine at the tasting room, Jim and Debra’s cries of “noooo” were joined by my own. This is another wine where the result is so much better than the boring offerings of so many other wineries. The folks who didn’t want to taste Merlot ended up buying a bottle.

2006 Rod’s Pride, Russian River Valley Pinot Noir Reserve – $39.99

Four clone, single vineyard, 100% Pinot Noir.

Darker, richer fruit tones of black cherry, blackberry, and brambly raspberry, elegantly balanced acid and tannin. Soft and smooth. Weightier body.

A special meal for a special wine; I paired this Pinot Noir with grilled teriyaki marinated fresh wild salmon, served on a Thai Som Tom inspired salad of shredded green papaya, orange carrot, purple cabbage, and red grape tomatoes dressed with passionfruit mango salsa that I buy at the Island Deli at Lucas Wharf in Bodega Bay.

2005 Cabernet Sauvignon, California, Concinnity – $15.99

Cabernet Sauvignon with a touch of Petite Sirah, Syrah, and Cabernet Franc, the grapes coming from Napa, Paso Robles and Lake County.

This wine is a joy, one of those wines you can happily sniff forever before even tasting.

Soft tannings that you can drink right through to flavors of lush blackberry and blueberry fruit.

Juicy and delicious. While it pairs with a glass just fine, I would love to taste this wine with a good steak.

Amplexus Crémant Brut Sparkling Wine, Limoux, France – $15.99

Light yeast, lightly streaming bubbles and crisp apple and cream flavors mark this blended sparkling wine of Chardonnay, Mauzac, and Chenin Blanc grapes.

Completely drinkable, and lovely flavored. Perfect balance of crispness and fruit.

Risqué, Methode Ancestrale, Sparkling Wine, Limoux, France – $13.99

I poured Toad Hollow’s Risqué, a low alcohol, good sweetness, 100% Mauzac bubbly with boneless chicken wings for Superbowl snacking and drinking.

This sparkler has great tart green apple and pear fruit, nice bubbles, and non cloying sweetness. Crispness of fruit cuts through bbq sauces on boneless wings, and is balanced by light sweetness.

Perfect pairing.

A note about prices: many of these wines are less than indicated, on sale, at my local store, one example is the $15.99 Merlot officially being listed at $2 more.

Erik the Red, an 18 varietal proprietary blend Toad Hollow wine, explains the Viking helmet on the back bar.

I write about wine, hoping to influence regular folks to try wine with a meal instead of iced tea or soda, trying to demystify wine, looking for great wines at affordable prices. In the wines of Toad Hollow Vineyards, all of my goals are met.

Debra Rickards pouring Toad Hollow wines for tasting room visitors

A perfect winery would eschew pretension, focusing on drinkably delicious fruit forward wines that taste great by themselves but pair well with foods, treat their customer well, and would remember to inject some fun and joy in what they do – all at prices that folks can afford to be able to make wine enjoyment an integral part of daily life. By that definition, mine, Toad Hollow Vineyards is a perfect winery.

Debra Rickards and Jim Costa of Toad Hollow Vineyards’ tasting room

DISCLOSURE: I received 5 bottles of Toad Hollow wines to sample – the others reviewed above were tasted at the tasting room