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Time to sub-appellate the Russian River Valley?

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It’s a big appellation whose 96,000 acres run all the way from Occidental in the southwest to Healdsburg in the northeast, from Guerneville on the river southward nearly to downtown Santa Rosa.

Criss-cross it on any given summer day and one minute you have to turn on the windshield wipers, headlights and turn up the heat, then the next minute you’re in blazing sunshine with the AC on high.

It’s obviously not just one place, particularly when we’re talking about its most famous grape and wine, Pinot Noir. And given the rise to prominence of Pinot Noir in general, this may be the time to have a serious discussion about sub-appellating this broad swathe of land.

One of the chief difficulties in defining and isolating different terroirs in the Russian River Valley is that, no matter what natural distinctions there may be, winemakers are constantly changing their techniques. Beyond experimenting with yeasts, barrels, stem inclusion and other technologies, they tinker with their vineyards, to the extent it’s financially possible, altering row orientations and spacing, changing clones and rootstocks, and playing around with canopy regimes. In general–and I’m hardly the first or only one to point this out–we’re seeing alcohol levels in Pinot Noir (if not in Cabernet Sauvignon) falling. Right before our eyes–mine, anyway–I’m drinking Pinot Noirs that you can actually see through clearly in the glass, instead of being so inky they might as well be from the Rhône. I’m seeing alcohol levels in the 13s–how about that?–and low 14s. And I’m tasting Pinots that are so transparent, they offer tastes and feelings of the earth in which they were grown.

But that’s the good news: with lower alcohol levels, terroir can shine through, which makes sub-appellating the Russian River Valley make even more sense.

I’ve carried around certain generalities in my head for years. Here are a few: Westside Road and The Middle Reach being warmer, the Pinots are riper and fuller-bodied. Green Valley being cooler, the wines are acidic and dry, but spicy. The area south of River Road, being open to the Petaluma Gap, seems to produce wines of firm tannic structure. But these are, admittedly, generalities.

What matters in the greater Russian River Valley are three things: distance from the Pacific Ocean (or San Pablo Bay), conduits of cold air that allow maritime influences to penetrate inland, and elevation. The first two are obvious; we tend to ignore the influence of elevation in the Russian River Valley, but in, say, the Green Valley it is significant: Pinot Noir planted at lower elevations, Zinfandel on ridgetops where it is sunnier and warmer. Soil, in my mind, plays less of a role than climate. As long as the soil is well-drained, it is suitable (and I say that despite the Goldridgers who attest to the superiority of that soil type).

How many sub-AVAs might there be in a reconfiguration, and what would their names be? I have already mentioned The Middle Reach. A case can be made for the Santa Rosa Plain, which is sort of a northerly extension of the Petaluma Gap. Some people speak of Windsor as an AVA. Laguna Ridges, which comprises the area south of River Road wherein Dehlinger, Lynmar, Joseph Swan and others are situated, can be thought of as a part of the Santa Rosa Plain, but its more westerly location argues for a unique status. All of these regions are considerably cooler than The Middle Reach. Joe Rochioli, Jr. used to deride the Laguna area as “swampland” more suitable for Gravenstein apples than the Pinot Noir he was growing on Westside Road.

Winemakers have been talking, on and off for years, about sub-appellations in the valley. So far as I know, at this time there are no serious discussions (and if there are, I’m sure someone will let me know). But there should be. It will take lots of scientific evidence from weather stations and soil analysis, and there are historical factors to be reckoned with, but better understanding the Russian River Valley is something we need to tackle.

  1. Hi Steve. When I was making wine in RRV (1994-2003) we talked often about the areas you discuss. We broke the AVA into four regions: Middle Reach, Santa Rosa Plains, Laguna Bench, and Sebastopol Hills. They are much as you describe and somewhere in my files I have some paperwork that outlines these areas on topos (remember….no google earth in those days!). Perhaps growers and vintners in the area no longer find this relevant or maybe they are all working hard just to keep their brand vibrant. There are clear distinctions in the climates and the soils, although LB an SH share some soil similarities (goldridge moon dust). Would be interesting to hear from RRWG or someone else involved with the appellation.

  2. Hi Eugenia, nice to hear from you!

  3. I read you EVERY DAY! I know that the payola is lousy but those of us who do read wine stuff on the internet are thankful that there is someone offering balanced and truthful info printed right along with all the weird myths and tall tales! Thanks to you for the incredible hard….daily! work.

  4. Steve,
    My question is why do this to peole who enjoy the wines of Russian River Valley? The winemakers and grape growers of the RRV are well aware of our “sub-regional neighborhoods” because across this swath of a region we now have decades of experience that has lead us to discover what we can make of those differences in winemaking and farming. So RRV becomes a platform for a variety of winemaker’s interpretations of Pinot Noir specifically. We consider these sub regions an opportunity to show varied expressions from the whole region that is in its entirety, an uplifted sea bed. Dialing down to the smallest micro-difference may never stop until we have vineyards the size of postage stamps and wine drinkers heads are spinning.

    Lee Hodo
    RRVW

  5. Hi Lee, well, it’s a never ending discussion, isn’t it–I mean, how small to appellate. Each of us has a point of view, depending on where we work in the industry. For me, a writer/critic, it would make it more interesting for RRV to be sub-appellated. But I can understand how that would be an inconvenience to producers. And even producers themselves are often at odds over these AVAs-within-AVAs. I could name you countless examples, but I’m sure you’re aware of them. Thanks.

  6. Steve, I think you are spot on. It’s just the expression “sub-appellate” that sounds a bit obscene!

  7. The Côte-d’Or is sub-appellated into the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune and then into villages and vineyards. So, why not do something similar in RRV? Wineries would not be required to put Middle Reach AVA on the label if they didn’t want. So, what’s the big deal? It could provide more information and allow consumers to more easily experience the differences of RRV just like with the sub-appellations in the Napa Valley AVA or in Burgundy.

  8. Hi Steve,
    Although “sub appellating” the Russian River Valley might make it more clear for us industry professionals in understanding what specific area our wine is coming from, the average consumer of wine still confuses the town of Sonoma with Sonoma County. I hear it in our tasting room on a daily basis. Do we really want to further complicate something that isn’t even clear on a basic level of understanding when it comes to wine regions. As growers and wine makers we have to think about what is going to work to sell our product to the public. Further confusing consumers when most don’t even understand the basic’s is not what we should be focusing our efforts on.

  9. Marlene, yeah it’s kind of a weird term. Actually, the TTB once told me that, legally and technically, there’s no such thing as a sub-appellation. All AVAs are AVAs, whether they’re included within a bigger one or not.

  10. Nicole, I’ve heard that argument for a long time. What you’re basically saying is, the average consumer is ignorant, so let’s pander to their ignorance and let them stay ignorant!

  11. Steve, Of course I do not think the average consumer is ignorant. I talk to wine savy customers all the time. However, you can’t ignore that people are still trying to grasp the concept of appellations as whole. For time being lets not complicate things and focus on educating consumers on the exisiting appellations first.

  12. Hello Nicole.

    With nesting of sub-AVAs on labels, you can ignore the fine print and focus on not educating the public. Sell what you need to while ignoring the specific info that may start to pop up on labels. Cool. But why stop the rest of us from going further? Just ignore those efforts as you would the sub-Ava on a label. Wouldn’t want you to work too hard.

  13. Nicole and Lee–

    With all due respect and friendship and thanks for your efforts, I have to disagree with you. Good information is never the enemy.

    It is always easier to generalize than to be specific. Thirty years ago, there were no wines with a Russian River Valley appellation. Obviously, you both now like this smaller than county-size designation, and so do I.

    But, I see no reason why a series of smaller AVAs will do any harm to your efforts. It has not harmed wine or consumers to have over a dozen such AVAs already in Sonoma County or in Napa County. I don’t see the Napa Valley growers and wineries losing sales or sleep over the organizations that represent and publicize Rutherford or Oakville or Yountville or St. Helena, and I cannot imagine that well-defined smaller AVAs with the RRV AVA would hurt your wines or would hurt the consumer.

    The RRV AVA is significant just as the Napa Valley AVA is significant, but both are somewhat less than specifically informative because of their size and the varying growing conditions they encompass. There is no evidence that accuracy in labeling is anything but helpful in the long run.

  14. Charlie,
    I don’t think anyone can argue that accuracy in labeling is good in the long run. However, as one who has been asked more than once (while pouring wine in an event somewhere in the US) “So, where in Russia is your winery?” I would argue that this particular idea is of low priority. As a winemaker, I have to ask: “Will this help make better wines?” The answer is “No”.

    Steve, you ignored a very important aspect in the brief descriptions of the sub-appelations. Clones and vine age. As you get farther from Westside and River Roads you have newer plantings that are heavily based on Dijon Clones (versus Pommard, Martini, Wente, Swan etc) in the case of Pinot and others in the case for Chardonnay. I’d say we give ourselves another 15 or 20 years and see what is planted and where it is planted, to get a better idea of the region. You know that I am a big believer in Capitalism… eventually the right varieties will be in the most profitable locations. Upper middle reach is Syrah wonderland!

  15. Well, Oded, I did write “no matter what natural distinctions there may be, winemakers are constantly changing their techniques…changing clones…” so that seems to give me cover! As for vine age, I admit I don’t totally understand the relationship between age and quality. I know that winemakers are always talking about it (in Burgundy, even here in Cali as with old vine Zin and Cabernet), and I don’t doubt it. I understand the argument about deeper roots. What I don’t fully accept is that there’s a 1:1 relationship between vine age and quality. Not all “older vine” wines [of whatever variety] are better than all “younger” wines. I wish that more information was available to us writers about the precise age of vines (not to mention precise sources: you’d be amazed at how many “technical notes” fail to say where the grapes are from!). That would be helpful and educational to me. Maybe winemakers who read this will be more diligent in giving us specific sourcing — not just “Rutherford” (say) but exactly where? Sometimes they’ll let us know the name of the vineyard/s but they don’t tell us where they are. They assume everybody knows where “Jones Vineyard” is in Napa Valley.

  16. I’m not sure why so many people pose the issue as Sonoma County OR Russian River OR Green Valley. You can put all three on your label. Indeed, the consumer research is quite conclusive that this is the optimal solution with no significant downside. And when it comes to communications, social media or tasting room interaction, wineries can tailor their presentation to the audience as appropriate.

  17. Wow, I cannot believe what a spirited discussion the seemingly no-brainer concept (at least to me) of putting more specific geographic information on a wine label has generated. As a savvy wine consumer I want to know as much as possible about where, specifically, the fruit in my wine comes from. So, I’m guessing that getting some vinification info information on a wine label (TA, PH, RS, etc) is totally out of the question?

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  1. De Loach 2008 Green Valley Pinot Noir, Sonoma County | Inside Sonoma - [...] in 1983, over time, it’s earned distinction. While the debate over further divisions of the Russian River Valley still …

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