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Napa Valley Cabernet, Russian River Pinot define California greatness

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I love Wine Enthusiast’s database. It’s my brain, with memory: I can barely remember what I tasted 2 days ago, but that database remembers every wine I’ve reviewed since the 1990s. Not only does it remember them, it knows the date of my review, exactly what the score and text were, and–if I entered the data in the first place–what the alcohol was and even the case production.

Those are powerful tools to discern patterns and trends, which are different: A pattern might be, say, that Paso Robles had a particularly good year with Zinfandel in 2010. A trend would be for Paso Robles to have good Zinfandels year after year after year.

If I look at my top-scoring wines over many years, it’s evident that two varieties, clustered into growing regions, really define California at its greatest. Those would be Russian River Valley Pinot Noir (including the Sonoma Coast appellation) and Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon/Bordeaux blends, including all the valley’s sub-appellations.

It’s important for a wine region to have top exemplars. It sets the bar higher for all other varieties and regions, which is vital if a region is to advance, as not all do. Big scores also help to convince skeptics that the region is right up there with the world’s other top wine regions. And they affirm the efforts of those hard working zealots who have labored for so many years. Nobody likes to work hard and have their achievements go unrecognized.

Why Napa should produce such great Cabernets is easy to understand. They’ve been working at it for 150 years. Even if you discount the period during and immediately after Prohibition, when everything was on hiatus, Napa Valley really started getting serious about Cabernet in the 1960s. So they’ve had the better part of 60 years to work at it: figure out the best places to plant (and the inferior places not to), to analyze the soil (which can take decades to properly understand) and combine the right rootstocks and clones to the right blocks, to tinker with canopy management and cropping levels and figure out the most beneficial way to sort their fruit and get it to the winery. And that doesn’t even begin to address the improvements in enology.

Napa’s climate is ideal for the ripening of Bordeaux varieties. Being an extra mountain range (the Mayacamas) inland from the sea than Sonoma County, it has that extra bit of heat. But Napa also has what all inland California coastal valleys have: a pretty fierce diurnal temperature swing. That means that, regardless of how hot it gets during the day, nighttimes cool off rapidly. That’s what Cabernet (and Merlot and Cab Franc and Petit Verdot) need to maintain acidity.

That the Russian River Valley should be so hospitable to Pinot Noir is the surprise of a lifetime, I think, even to the pioneers (some of them no longer with us) who planted it there in the 1960s and 1970s. I mean folks like Joe Rochioli, Jr., Joe Swan, and a couple of others. I don’t think they really understood what they were doing. No disrespect, but they were working more with hopes and fingers crossed than with any foreknowledge of guarantee. But look what they did!

What’s so spectacular about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir is the breadth and depth that it’s achieved in only 40 years. The variety is now widely planted there, from Fort Ross way out (and up) on the coast, through the Goldridge soils of the southerly Laguna Ridges, all the way on up to near Healdsburg, in the northeast. We thus have a wide spectrum of terroirs, with enough wineries in each to make solid generalizations, mostly concerning temperature variations, soil being (IMHO) less important in the Russian River Valley than geographic location relative to the maritime influence.

(I’m still reading and enjoying Allen Meadows’ new book, The Pearl of the Côte, and if I had a dollar for every time he expresses irony or surprise that a particular vineyard performs well despite its soil [i.e. in unexpected, unstereotypical ways], I’d be a rich man. The point being that while much is made of soil and its effects, climate is a much more reliable predictor of wine style.)

No other Pinot region in California besides the Russian River Valley possesses these factors of widespread plantings over a wide region, with a density of producers and a history of production. Not Santa Rita Hills, not Santa Lucia Highlands, not even Carneros. Anderson Valley is beginning to, but it will take a few dozen more wineries to really let us figure it out, and that may never happen, given the peculiarities of doing business in that far-off region, so remote from San Francisco or any other population center.

I feel like Napa Valley and Russian River Valley are California’s Bordeaux and Burgundy. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched. We’re blessed to have such markers to calibrate everything else.

  1. Agreed on all points. Do you find the same with Carneros Chardonnay? Agentinan Malbec? Austrailian Shiraz?

    Cheers!!

  2. Mark McWilliams says:

    Steve,
    Another great piece. It is amazing to think about the progress we’ve made in the Russian River Valley in a relatively short period of time when compared to Napa and certainly Burgundy and Bordeaux. I agree with you too that it’s not just progress but it’s the consistency vintage to vintage, site to site that make the RRV great. Guys like Joe Rochioli, Joe Swan, and Tom Dehlinger were visionaries. The exciting thing to me as the next generation of producers is being able to work from their collective knowledge. The aforementioned pioneers were doing everything for the first time but we know have their experience to build on. We’re only beginning to scratch the surface of the understanding the sub appellations of the RRV but it’s so clear that there are many amazing terroirs yet to be defined. Here’s to the knowledge gained in the next 40 years!

  3. You are absolutely right, my grandfather Charles Bacigalupi always says he “just got lucky” when they decided to pull out Cabernet in the 60′s and plant Pinot Noir. To this day I think he is still suprised at how things turned out.

  4. Honore Comfort says:

    Great points – thank you for writing it, and we whole-heartedly agree with your description of the Russian River Valley’s unique characteristics for growing pinot noir. However, I do think that we need to give credit where credit is due, and some of the interesting areas for growing pinot noir that you mention, such as Fort Ross and areas out on the coast, are actually located in the Sonoma Coast and Fort Ross/Seaview AVA, and not in Russian River Valley. Either way, we are grateful to those early pioneers that planted pinot in the Russian River and out on the coast, and to those who continue to explore and discover what this region has to offer.

  5. Tara Lidell says:

    My father grew pinot noir in Fort Ross for over 30 years before retiring … it was some of the best pinot I’ve ever tasted! (But I’m biased!)

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