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Russian River, here I come!


I want to write an article later this year or early next on Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and how it varies from place to place in that big, rambling appellation. And it is big: at 96,000 acres, it could swallow up the Santa Lucia Highlands, Santa Rita Hills and Mount Veeder, with room to spare.

When I wrote (2005) my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River (for some reason, the editors at University of California Press determined that the word “along” did not deserve a capital “A”, and I never did understand why), I began delving into the RRV’s different climates, or micro-climates. But in the years since, I more or less dropped the topic, which seems more important than ever, because — given how great Russian River Pinot Noir is — it’s only a matter of time before the region is carved up into smaller AVAs; and these, I think, will be based more on climate than on soil differences.

I see 4 main regions in the Russian River Valley. First is Westside Road, or the Middle Reach (so called, I believe, because it was the bend in the river where the gravel was deposited).This area extends from just southwest of Healdsburg to at least the Wohler Bridge; I guess an argument could be made that it goes out past Gary Farrell, but I’m not sure. The Middle Reach is the warmest part of the RRV, because it’s furthest inland and away from the maritime influence that comes up from the south. Certainly this is true the closer you get to Healdsburg. In my experience, Middle Reach Pinot tends to be bigger, darker, riper, softer and higher in alcohol than from anywhere else in the valley. Williams Selyem defines this style.

Another distinct region by contrast is little Green Valley, which is contained within the greater RRV. It was given AVA status only a month later than RRV, because (I assume) it was so easy to prove the case. Green Valley may well be the chilliest part of the valley. Wide open to the winds and fog that come in (via the Petaluma Gap and from Bodega Bay), Green Valley Pinots are a little lighter in texture, paler in color and crisper than Middle Reach Pinots, and their flavors tend toward cola. Iron Horse and Marimar Torres define the region.

Moving east from Green Valley, you get to a very famous stretch of River Road that includes many RRV Pinot pioneers: Joseph Swan, DeLoach, Dehlinger. Merry Edwards refers to “The Golden Triangle” to define this section; its bullseye may be where Olivet Road hits River Road. This also is a cool, damp region, and I’d love to have the opportunity to more closely study its climate data and compare it to Green Valley’s.

Then you get to the big Windsor area in the east, but aside from some bottlings Merry Edwards used to make she called Windsor Gardens (I think she lost the use of that vineyard some time ago), I haven’t had many Pinots from there. It would be warmer than either Green Valley or The Golden Triangle, but for me it’s largely terra incognita.

Anyway, that’s how I divvy up Russian River Valley in my mind, but remember, this is based on interviews and research I did 5 and 6 years ago. That’s why I want to revisit the topic in depth, in the form of an article. That will give me the opportunity to really dive in, with extensive interviews, tastings and research. It’s the only way to begin to understand a region, but alas, there are too many regions and not enough time to ever do the job properly, even when you’re reporting on just one region like California, rather than the whole world.

When I do get around to writing the article, probably the first person I’ll call is Bob Cabral. He makes so many different single-vineyard Pinots that he definitely has a feel for regional variations. Dan Goldfield also would be helpful, as will Merry Edwards herself. So will Adam Lee, at Siduri. Those are my “usual suspects.” But part of the joy of writing a big, juicy article like this is that it invariably leads you in new, unpredictable directions. Somebody refers to somebody else you never heard of, and that person turns out to be a treasure trove of knowledge. And who knows? Maybe some of my super-smart and appreciated readers will write in. This is an article I can’t wait to begin.

  1. Steve
    If you want I can ask Marilyn why the non capitalized a. The project editors downstairs seem to know things that the rest of us do not. (and since one of them made that call. . .)
    Also, for those who do not have it already, paperback to come this fall. Are there changes beyond the new preface?

  2. Steve,

    I’m there for you!

    One thing I would say, at least when it comes to looking at the wines from the various parts of the RRV, is to be careful not to base broad generalization about those areas on the 2008 vintage. 2008 was widely, but irregularly, frosted and many of the differences that occured in the wines stemmed as much from whether or not the vineyard was frosted as it does from the general character of the sub-region. — I’d look at 2009 (and 2007) as more representative.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines & Novy Family Winery

  3. Adam, is it that simple? I mean, to say that some years better reflect regional terroir than others?

  4. Hi Amy, sure, ask. I’d love to know why. Always did wonder about that.

  5. Steve, even though Healdsburg is technically within both Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley AVAs, its climate (Region IV; 3,630 pts.), like Alexander Valley’s, is best suited for growing warm climate/late ripening varieties; and significantly different from the rest of the AVA, which is a fairly homogeneous Region II (Monte Rio-2,586; Guerneville-2,791; Green Valley: [Forestville-2,970; Graton-2,601; Sebastopol-2,730]; Windsor-2,622).
    Winkler System’s heat units can be misleading, though. What really changes fruit character as you go up river in this huge Region II area, are the diminishing amounts of rain (Monte Rio-9.3 inches during growing season; Windsor-5.8 inches) and fog; which slowly and gradually increase solar radiation levels and lengthen the growing season.

  6. Laura Harger says:

    Steve, to respond to your query: “Along” is a preposition, and prepositions, according to Chicago Manual of Style (the manual that we and most other presses use), are lowercased in titles.

  7. Steve
    Laura reports that: It’s a preposition, which according to Chicago Manual of Style (the manual that we and most other presses use) is lowercased in titles.


  8. Unless it’s the first word in the title, i.e. “On Human Nature.”

  9. Exploring regional diversity! A topic we pursued at Appellation America with much commmitment and industry conjecture. You might have a far better chance with it. Wish you the best and will love to see the article

  10. The RRV is fascinating to me… I’ve visited twice and been throughout it, but feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s such a fascinating area just from a terrain standpoint… I can’t wait for the article and was planning on picking up the book anyway. More importantly, I can’t wait to visit again.

  11. Steve
    Microclimate is the condition experienced within the canopy. Mesoclimate is the milieu of a vineyard. I think weather is vastly more important than soil. Soil texture, structure, water-holding and cation exchange capacity are important, but climate trumps all. Go to the east coast. Similar soil profiles to those we have produce profoundly different wines. The “vintage” variability in Europe is obviously due only to weather. The vines are immobile.

  12. Hey Steve, I’ll be looking forward to that article. I hope you can delve into the Geological aspects of the Russian River valley.

  13. Steve,

    I don’t know that it is simple, but I do believe that certain vintages are more aberrational than others. A number of growers described 2008 as being a once in 30 year type of frost. We had vineyards that normally get 2-3 tons per acre yielding .6 tons per acre.

    In my opinion, vineyards are like mirrors – they reflect. They reflect the vintage, the place, the human input. To ask them to not to reflect is impossible, it is what a mirror does. Some mirrors are more fine than others but most are pretty accurate – but occasionally you come across a Fun House Mirror, that both reflects and distorts. I think 2008 was one of those.

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  14. Steve-
    While I’m sure many wineries (marketing machines) are only to willing to share their views…I think the true story is with the growers – these guys(gals) live, walk, work in the real dirt and know not only the fruit, but the winemakers and their influence on the end product. One vineyard can have 3 winemaker’s creating wine from their fruit with 3 different results. For RRV-Westside the obvious is Joe Rochioli, For Green Valley it would be Kirk Lokka and for Windsor/Forestville I would reach out to Warren Burton – then there is always the vineyard managers – like Mitch Patin or Ulyses Valdez…the have seen it all. Happy researching. Denise (PS – Downtown Healdsburg is split RRV/AV at Healdsburg Ave. – I called the map store some years ago during a heated disagreement)

  15. Denise, thanks. Good suggestions.

  16. Interesting observations. Looking forward to the article. In the meantime, sounds like an fun tasting (or two) to put together with a few other RRV pinot lovers.

  17. Hmmm… yes, it’s been a while since you explored RRV, Steve, if you haven’t yet defined the southern area of the AVA, now commonly called Sebastopol Hills (and bound for its own AVA recognition in the near-future, as exasperating as these divisions may be to those who like to keep things simpler).

    In fact, the Sebastopol Hills sub-region was added to the RRV AVA barely five years ago (wines from there were formerly bottled under the Sonoma Coast AVA), and is more distinctive in terms of its cool, Petaluma Gap influenced micro-climate than any other part of the RRV. Not an exaggeration, since the pinot noirs from there are commonly considered closer to “true” Sonoma Coast in style (lighter in feel but more finesseful, cohesive in structure, with accents on strawberry/raspberry qualities of the grape) than to RRV.

    Also: Green Valley is not so easily pigeon-holed. It is indeed cooler in the lower elevation sections (below 800 ft.) than most parts of the RRV’s Middle Reaches, but in higher spots (above fog line) it can be nearly as warm. Good wines are made throughout this sub-AVA, but they can vary in weight, style, texture, etc. considerably, depending upon the site.

    I’m being nit-picky because if you do do a revised piece, you might consider these distinctions for the benefit of consumers who do look for certain styles. In any case, you have your work cut out since those styles vary to the point where they do merit delineation.

  18. Randy, wouldn’t it be true that the higher elevs in Green Valley are more for Zin than PN?

  19. re: Steve, even though Healdsburg is technically within both Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley AVAs

    I’m thinking it’s also part of the Dry Creek AVA too..

  20. Steve, there are no mid to long term weather stations in the higher areas of Green Valley, but there is an excellent proxy: Occidental (Sonoma Coast AVA) is 3-4 miles from GV boundary, at 1,000 ft. alt.; and the climate is pretty cool (Region I; 2,390pts.; 9.9 inches Prec.). Kistler’s “Cuvée Elizabeth” and “Cuvée Catherine” (Pinot Noir) grapes are both from vineyards (Bodega Headlands and Occidental Rd., respectively) in this area.
    Climate data from Occidental has also a tremendous statistical adherence to Monte Bello Vineyard data (Skyline Ridge Preserve, Santa Cruz Mts.).

  21. Eric, in my Russian River book, I called Healdsburg No Man’s land because it’s in the middle of all those AVAs.

  22. Hope to read about Keefer Ranch and Ehren Jordan’s delicious Pinot Noir, too.

  23. re: in my Russian River book, I called Healdsburg No Man’s land because it’s in the middle of all those AVAs.

    That’s good, we locals call it “Beverly Healdsburg” , and Westside Rd is the “Rodeo Drive” (of Pinot)

  24. Eric: funny!

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