Nestled in idyllic Sonoma wine country is a unique farm and garden, one you’re not likely to encounter in this part of the world. While the combination of wine and roses isn’t unusual, it is if most of those roses are Bulgarian, grown for their exquisitely fragrant oil. The Russian River Rose Company is California’s only estate producer of rose oil perfume and rose water. The farm also produces sauvignon blanc and chardonnay grapes and maintains a nursery brimming with roses, irises, perennials, and other unusual plant finds—the fruit of one family’s vision, creativity, and energy.
Seeking an idyllic farm and lifestyle to raise their family, Michael and Jan Tolmasoff relocated from Southern California and, together with their dog Dandy, moved into the original 835-square-foot 1950s home on Christmas Eve in 1976. The 15-acre property included 440 Bartlett pear trees, 4200 French prune trees, and a lone ‘Peace’ rose. Having dabbled in home winemaking and taken some viticulture courses, they settled on this gem of a property, in part, on the advice of a local Italian farmer who said, “this ranch has some of the best land around, and that’s the important thing!” Another attractant was the gorgeous 1910 three-story redwood barn that housed a treasure trove of fruit lugs and drying trays.
The family designed a mediterranean-style home inspired by Michael’s youthful admiration of homes in Southern California and trips to the Marina and Sea Cliff neighborhoods in San Francisco. Construction began in 1983 and was finished about five years later, evolving as the family grew and incorporating many environmental conservation measures for heating, cooling, and power production into the home’s design.
The evolution of the property occurred in stages as well. Between 1979 and 1982, four acres of pear trees were removed and planted with wine grapes. For nearly eight years, they endeavored to revive the prune orchard, but the trees never really thrived so ten acres were replanted with chardonnay grapes. Michael and Jan tended the vineyards—from pruning through harvest—for the next 20 years. The grapes were growing in heavy clay loam with excessive levels of magnesium, an artifact of centuries of erosion from the surrounding serpentine hills washing into the Russian River Valley floodplain. High levels of magnesium interfere with the uptake of potassium, critical to the healthy growth of plants. Their valiant attempts to correct this imbalance by adding massive amounts of gypsum when planting was not as effective as they hoped it would be. And then the grape plants began to fail. The Tolmasoffs quickly learned that the feared phylloxera epidemic impacting Napa was now in their own backyard. These tiny aphid-like insects feed on Vitis vinifera roots, stunting vines or killing them outright. With 14 acres of grapes now threatened and limited funds to replace plants with resistant varieties of rootstock, they made the decision to contract out the land to someone that could replant and care for the grapes, allowing them to focus on newer elements of their business. Today, the vineyard thrives and grapes grown on the property are sold to two premium Sonoma County wineries.
A $100 gift from Jan’s grandmother in 1981 launched what would become a life-long passion for roses. Five plants each of ‘Charisma’, ‘Cherish’, and ‘Europeana’ were planted at the end of the grape vine rows, serving as ornamental rather than sentinel plants. The plants flourished and Jan became enthralled by the enticing catalogues of Roses of Yesterday and Today and Vintage Gardens. Inspired by the writing of renowned heritage rosarian Miriam Wilkins, she developed her philosophy of “Just say yes” to buying more roses. Following that impulse for 30 years has resulted in a collection of over 650 varieties including ancient roses to recent introductions, native species, and many “found” roses. In addition to roses from North America, there are representatives from around the globe: Europe, the Middle East, China, India, Australia, and New Zealand. You’ll find themed collections: the Shady Lady Rose Garden, Wine and Roses, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the Culinary Rose Garden, the Fragrant Bouquet Garden, the Butterfly Garden, the History Trail—and my favorite—Hollywood and Vine, where the likes of ‘Ingrid Bergman’, ‘Cary Grant’, ‘Marilyn Monroe’, and ‘George Burns’ decorate the beds. There are even four varieties that have been registered with the American Rose Society, hybridized with the help of then 10-year-old grandson William.
Intrigued by an article in Smithsonian magazine about Bulgarian rose oil production, Michael, who has a background in chemical engineering, researched the subject believing here was an enterprise compatible with Jan’s rose passion. Michael and Jan took a trip to Bulgaria to learn more about roses and the process of rose oil production where they visited (under guard!) the Research Institute for Roses, Aromatic, and Medicinal Plants and decided they would try their hand at producing rose oil. Returning home, they set up a test plot with 12 different varieties of roses known for their rose oil productivity and after two years selected their top four varieties. Later they expanded the crop to 800 plants, predominantly planting the Kazanlak rose (R. ×damascena f. trigintipetala), a medium pink, damask rose. To create their potently aromatic signature mixture, three other varieties are used: a Persian Portland rose, a French hybrid perpetual, and a French climbing hybrid tea from 1920; a unique combination not found in any other rose oil in the world.
Harvest season is brief, just five weeks during the spring bloom. Participants in Russian River Rose Company’s “Perfume Rose Harvest Tours” help pluck and process the aromatic petals, beginning as morning light breaks and finishing up by 8 am to prevent loss of the volatile oils. Petals are processed immediately using steam extraction; it takes about a ton of petals to produce four ounces of pure rose oil. In Bulgaria, the extremely valuable oil is stored in bank vaults and sold to only the most prestigious perfumers of France. At Russian River Rose Company, the oil is used to create their signature fragrance, Rose Embrace. They also produce rosewater, a by-product of the steam extraction process, which is used for cooking and cosmetics.
Cultural requirements for roses and grapes are similar and compatible. Warm days and cool nights are conducive for wine grapes to develop ideal sugar to acid ratios. The property is in a coastal mediterranean climate that receives 30 to 40 inches of rain each year, a dozen or so days of hard frost, and three to five days of triple digit temperatures.
Roses and grapes aren’t the only things showcased at the garden; there are also about 120 varieties of regal, tall, bearded irises planted among the roses, or as Jan describes them, “Orchids you can drive over.” A large butterfly garden attracts and supports beneficial insects, with sightings of more than 14 varieties of butterflies, eight species of honeybees, native bees and wasps, ladybugs, lacewings, soldier beetles and others. Providing both pollen and nectar sources, this habitat garden includes alyssum, buddleia, cosmos, gaillardia, lavender, marigolds, morning glory, salvia, statice, sunflowers, tithonia, zinnias and more, all woven together into a delightful tapestry of color and texture.
Early environmental enthusiasts, Michael and Jan participated in the very first Earth Day and advocated composting at a time when it was revolutionary thinking. Their cultural practices reflect an integrated pest management approach, with a focus on promoting healthy plants through appropriate plant selection, vibrant soil, adequate water and air circulation, excellent garden sanitation, and of course, mulch, mulch, mulch. The farm has its own water source—a very productive well; solar panels on the west roof of the house have supplied hot water since 1980. And tucked at the end of the rose allee is a five-megawatt solar photovoltaic power plant installed in 2011 that provides all their electricity.
Each spring, once pruning is complete, four inches of what they call “rough mulch” is added to all the planting beds. It is fully composted green waste from Sonoma Compost that has not been screened, giving it a substantial texture and nice contrast between the rose beds and walkways. The Tolmasoff’s compost their own green waste to use elsewhere in the garden and the trimmings from the grapevines are chopped immediately after pruning and added right back to the grape beds.
The Russian River Rose Company was officially born in 1992; the name references their location one-half mile from the Russian River and also Michael’s Russian ancestry. In addition to the wine and perfume roses, their plant nursery is an integral part of the business offering rare and specialty roses with a focus on varieties that grow well in Northern California. Jan and Michael propagate most of the plants they sell, as well as purchase starts of newer, patented varieties.
The display garden is not just a pretty place; it’s also a teaching venue. Spring weekends feature educational workshops about growing roses and other plants and enticing beneficials to the garden. And if you’re up for something really different, try an “Afternoon Tea in the Perfume Garden” replete with rose petal sandwiches, rose jam, rose sorbet, and other rose-inspired delicacies.
It is amazing what enthusiasm, vision, and plain hard work can accomplish. That is clearly evident wherever you look at the Russian River Rose Company where the motto is: “Practicing random acts of beauty—one rose at a time.”