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Happy Birthday Russian River Valley!

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I’ve had a love affair with the Russian River Valley for the nearly 30 years I’ve been going up there to visit wineries and taste wine. My first visit was in 1985; two years before that, the region received its official status as an American Viticultural Area, the 26th California AVA (preceded, oddly, by such non-entities as Paicines, Lime Kiln Valley and Cole Ranch). So 2013 is the valley’s thirtieth birthday.

The original 96,000 acres, now expanded to 126,600 acres, was thought of as a cool-climate growing region, although it’s fair to say our understanding of the valley’s complex terroir has increased vastly since then. There are areas that are quite hot (due to elevation above the fog), and the snaking pattern of the maritime influence is as complicated as the terrain of the hills and wind gaps that shapes it. Still, there’s a reason Cabernet Sauvignon is not widely grown in the RRV: the weather is patently too cool. Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and sparkling wine are the valley’s specialties, but Zinfandel, Syrah, Petite Sirah and “field blends” also star.

The valley is not difficult to get to from my home town, Oakland. Up the 80-east corridor through Berkeley to the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge, past the San Quentin peninsula that I always think would be a fabulous place to live (it’s sheltered from the fog, with gorgeous Bay views), were it not for the inconvenient fact of the prison. Then it’s onto the merge with the 101, made easier in San Rafael since they completed the new ramp. Up through Marin, past Frank Lloyd Wright’s Civic Center, across the Sonoma line through Petaluma and Cotati (where the first vines appear), then to Santa Rosa (which can be trafficky), and there you are: You can take River Road for the valley’s southern fringe, or go up to Westside Road for its northern.

From the ground, it’s hard to appreciate the larger-scale topology of the RRV. Certainly the Petaluma Gap, west of the freeway, a gigantic spoon-shaped plain that funnels cold air and moisture right into the valley’s southern flank, is informative. As is, on a clear day, the sight of Mount St. Helena, in the northeast: that’s Napa Valley. I remember a day, years ago, when I was in a Rodney Strong vineyard right beside the 101 freeway, looking at St. Helena, looming in the purple distance. I picked up a piece of black stone a geologist later identified as basalt that came, most likely, from St. Helena, or from one of the other Napa mountains, that blew its stack, millions of years ago, during the last period of volcanic activity. But between the Russian River Valley and Napa Valley stands a major obstacle: the wall of the Mayacamas, rising (at Cobb Mountain) to 4,700 feet. This formidable barrier tends to stop the marine influence in its tracks, which is why Napa is considerably warmer than the RRV.

The valley has changed a lot over decades. Symbolically, Williams Selyem no longer is made in a ramshackle wooden barn but in an ultra-modern facility. There are many more wineries now than then; more people, too, in towns like Sebastopol (where The Barlow is the biggest thing to happen in years). Yet along River and Westside roads, and the country lanes that crisscross the river itself, things still feel countrified; time hasn’t exactly stood still, but has advanced slowly, a tortoise to Napa’s hare.

The highest score I ever gave to a Russian River wine was 100 points, for Williams Selyem’s 2007 Litton Estate Pinot Noir. (They had to drop the Litton a few years ago, after Ridge complained.) Most of my highest-scoring RRV wines have also been from Williams Selyem, but Merry Edwards is dependably up there, as are Lynmar, Rochioli, Joseph Swan and Gary Farrell. There are many tiny little wineries whose wines I’ve never had, because there aren’t enough hours in the day to taste everything. Sometimes I wish I specialized in Pinot Noir, but I don’t: my beat is inclusive of all wine varieties and types.

The highest score I ever gave a Russian River Valley Chardonnay was 97 points, for Rochioli’s 2010 South River Vineyard. That was followed, a few months later, by another 97 pointer, for Williams Selyem’s 2010 Allen Vineyard. Those two vineyards are nearby, on opposite sides of Westside Road, but both in the so-called Middle Reach of the valley. I do believe the Middle Reach is the tenderloin of the Russian River Valley–a sort of Grand Cru stretch–but so much also depends on whether the vintage has been cool or warm, and also upon viticulture.

There’s been talk, endless talk, of sub-appellating the valley. I think it’s a good idea, but then, I have no economic or egotistical investment in the outcome. Were I King, there would be a Middle Reach appellation, a Laguna Hills appellation, perhaps a Santa Rosa Plain. One can even argue for a Western Russian River Valley AVA, for that cool, mountainous portion north and west of the Green Valley, inclusive of Guerneville (but not of Fort Ross-Seaview, just over the Cazadero hill, to the northwest; there, everything is different). Such distinctions make sense from a terroir (mainly climate but also elevation) point of view. But I’m not holding my breath. If it hasn’t happened already (and it obviously hasn’t), it probably won’t for a long time.

  1. GrapesRGreat says:

    I fell in love with the Russian River Valley when my wife and I honeymooned there in 2009. We’ve gone back every chance we’ve had since and we are currently trying to build up the courage to dump our jobs and house here in Ohio and move out there. Financially it is tough, clearly, as we are still a young family without a ton of stability or track record, but I would love to quit my Engineering job and take a HUGE pay cut to go be a cellar rat and break my back everyday somewhere in RRV. Good Read Steve, thanks.

  2. Nice wrap up of RRV, Steve. Strangely enough, our team was touring River West Vineyard yesterday evening. National sales meeting time. Rick was there to share the history of Rod’s early influence on the region… along with Davis Bynum’s. The valley has surely become known for some of CA’s best Chardonnays and Pinots, if not hands down best. Cheers.

  3. Our one and only trip to Sonoma/Napa was based right in the heart of the RRV just outside of Healdsburg. Wickedly awesome terrior and wines, great Chards and even Zins/Cabs. Porter Creek with its shack for a tasting room and vineyard dog was a stand out. Thanks for the background on it. Cheers!

  4. Alejandro Moreno S. says:

    The RRV is by far (to me), THE most beautiful region in California wine country. Napa has the name and fame, but Sonoma has the beauty, vistas and vibe (and its wines stand up to any other region’s). And yes, re Pinot Noir, RRV rules like a boss, it’s “cool climate” Zin is turning heads as well. RRV – where vineyards meet redwoods, mountains, and a river runs through it, all the way to the Pacific Ocean.

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