Expanded RRV fine by me
I personally have no problem with the big expansion of the Russian River Valley AVA that Gallo finally pushed through a couple days ago.
I know that quite a few winemakers in the region were against it. As far as I can tell, the opposition says the expansion, which is roughly 8% of the currant acreage, will dilute the RRV’s purity as an appellation.
For sure, extending its southern boundary all the way down to Cotati will take some getting used to. But the truth is that vineyards have been going into that area for years now. It was a shock to see them that far south when they started popping up in the early 2000s or so, but there they were: and if you’d stopped to think about it back then, it would have been obvious that somebody, somewhere, was going to look toward an appellation better than “Sonoma County.” And who would that somebody be? Obviously, the company that owned the vineyards.
Some people also say that the area in question isn’t really part of the Russian River’s watershed, or that the climate there isn’t really the same as the more northerly parts of the valley. I don’t know if Cotati’s in or out of the watershed, and I don’t care. That’s a pretty technical point to hang your argument on. I do know that Cotati is a climatically cool region, which is what the Russian River Valley is supposed to be–and you can even argue that the more northerly parts of the valley, up towards Healdsburg, are too warm for a cool-climate appellation.
Granted, the new Russian River Valley AVA is a pretty big place. But so is Napa Valley. In fact, Napa’s still more than twice as big as RRV, even after the expansion. Both appellations cover a multitude of different climates and soils, and both are–let’s face it–fairly useless as guides to style. Granted, you can usually depend on a Napa Valley wine to be well-made, but that’s because the wineries there have so much money, they can afford the best viticulture and enology. Anything from the Russian River Valley similarly is likely to be pretty good, although its wines are qualitatively more variable than Napa’s.
Those who are unhappy with the expanded RRV boundaries might find hope in the fact that this is likely to spark renewed interest and vigor in delineating sub-appellations within the greater AVA. Charlie Olken speculated this may be the case yesterday on his blog. “The next best thing is too encourage the good folks in the Russian River Valley to get on with their occasional discussions of smaller, more tightly defined areas,” he wrote. This jives with something Rod Berglund, at Joseph Swan, an opponent of the expansion, told me last Friday. Winemakers in the valley have been talking about sub-appellating forever. Even when I wrote about it in my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, the talks had been going on for years. I’m not sure why they never progressed, except that lethargy set in. The process is a lot more complicated than you might think, it requires a lot of organizing and meeting, and it’s also expensive. The winemakers probably figured they had better things to do with their time and money. But that was then; this is now. I wouldn’t be surprised to see renewed sub-appellating efforts by Spring. They can start with the two most obvious candidates: Laguna Ridges and The Middle Reach. And while I’m not a fan of nested or hyphenated appellations, I should think it’s good to append “of the Russian River Valley” to whatever the new appellations are.