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.