Russian River Pinot Noir too often is commodity wine. Get used to it.
Jon Bonné in his wrap-up of the 2011 Pinot Noir vintage in California uses the extraordinary phrase “mission creep” to describe the great expansion of acreage in the Russian River Valley area over the years, “from the core of the appellation near Healdsburg and Forestville” to places “far afield.”
Historically this is an accurate statement. In 1988 (25 years ago), Sonoma County contained 1,968 acres of Pinot Noir, almost all of it in the relatively concentrated area mostly stretching along River Road in the south and Westside Road in the north.
Last year (2012) by contrast Sonoma had 12,062 acres of Pinot Noir (bearing and non-bearing), an increase of 512%, and while some of that acreage was outside formal Russian River Valley AVA (mainly along the Sonoma Coast), most of it was from within the valley, and a great deal of that was due to the 2005 expansion of the appellation’s boundary southward, toward Cotati, which added 30,200 acres, or roughly 30%, to its total size.
So Jon is entirely correct in his summation of history. But I have a different take on the question of his correlative assertion that this expansion, or “mission creep,” has come at the expense of overall quality.
Jon’s right, in this sense: Certainly the overall quality of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir has been diluted. But then, there are a great many more Pinot Noirs from the Russian River Valley than ever before (and the quantity will explode once the enormous 2012 vintage hits the market), and as with all such things, that means there are a great many more mediocre Pinot Noirs than ever before. This is solely a function of the Russian River Valley’s explosion in size, and not necessarily because its winemakers have failed to “make a stand for a sense of place,” as Jon puts it. Any large region contains many mediocre wines, Bordeaux being a prime example (and Burgundy, too). Therefore, to assume that Russian River Pinot Noirs “need to take a step up in quality” is not the correct interpretation. That is something that the wines–broadly speaking–cannot do: “Russian River Pinot Noir” now has become a generic branding of the varietal, producing many commodity wines. The words “Russian River Valley” on a label of Pinot Noir are simply a guarantee of origin, and a certain Pinot-esque quality of flavor and mouthfeel. Beyond that, the consumer no longer should expect anything more.
This argues the case for two new things to consider: The first, obviously, is the reputation of the individual Pinot house. If one seeks Pinot Noir at the highest level, one buys, not “Russian River Valley Pinot Noir,” but Wiliams Selyem, or Hartford Court, or Merry Edwards, or Lynmar, and so on; and fortunately there are a great many top houses to choose from. The second consideration is less obvious, and more controversial: now that “Russian River Valley” by itself is largely meaningless, it is time to break the greater Russian River Valley AVA into smaller ones.
So sticky has this issue become that no one wants to talk about it anymore, because every time the subject comes up it causes heartache, anger and recrimination. But really, that is the thing to do now. Jon is right to bemoan the fact that “Russian River Valley Pinot Noir” has lost traction to (say) Sonoma Coast (the “True” one, and we now have a Fort Ross-Seaview appellation to officialize it, followed, I hope, by Annapolis in the north and Occidental or Freestone or something else in the south). But neither he, nor we, ought to set our hearts on a general “step up in quality” in the Russian River Valley proper. The horse is out of the barn, his rump disappearing beyond the last bend in the road; and nothing will lure him back. Russian River Valley Pinot Noir no longer is the elite club of Davis Bynum, Joe Swan, Rochioli and Burt Williams, laboring in his ramshackle barn. It’s a big, ungainly consortium, and like all consortia contains a multitude of the good, the bad and the ugly.
It’s sad, in a way, for me to come to this conclusion about Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, but it was inevitable that it would happen. Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon is in much the same boat. “There are no common wines in Vosnes,” I once read (it might have been Hugh Johnson or Michael Broadbent paraphrasing someone else), but there indeed are common Pinots in the Russian River Valley and we might as well get used to the fact and stop criticizing the valley for not being what it can no longer be.