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The “neighborhoods” of the Russian River Valley

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Last Saturday’s tasting and panel discussion on “The Neighborhoods of the Russian River Valley,” sponsored by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association as part of their winter “Pinot Classic” event, was interesting, as these terroir-oriented seminars always are. But, as I told the audience, for me at least it smacked of “déja vu all over again.”

 

YOGI

 

The theme was to see if we could isolate and identify the characteristics of Pinot Noirs from three different “neighborhoods” of the greater Russian River Valley: Green Valley, Laguna Ridge and the Middle Reach.

 

RRVMap

 

To help walk us through an understanding of these regions were four talented winemakers: Michael Browne (Kosta Browne), representing Green Valley; Rod Berglund (Joseph Swan), representing Laguna Ridge, and Mark McWilliams (Arista), representing the Middle Reach. Our panel moderator was Mike Sullivan (Benovia), whose long career in the Russian River Valley gives him broad, general oversight.

My role, in Rod Berglund’s words, was to be “the cleanup hitter and let us know if what, from an outside observer standpoint, what we say makes sense or if we are all just full of [it].” I thus spoke last.

I must now briefly digress to quote some passages from my 2005 book, “A Wine Journey along the Russian River.” This is from a section called “Carving Up the Valley”:

After the 2001 harvest, a group of [Russian River Valley winemakers] began gathering to taste the wines from different parts of the appellation. Their focus, obviously, was on Pinot Noir … The object was to see whether it made sense to carve up the valley into sub-AVAs … The vintners would get together every so often for a few hours to taste and see whether they could detect consistent differences in the wines … Exactly where these divisions are and what they should be called are years away from being determined … the Russian River Valley Winegrowers Association itself has suggested three sub-AVAs: the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridges [sic] and the Santa Rosa Plain (counted as one), and Green Valley, which has had AVA status since 1983. You can think of this as a warm-cool-cold continuum.

I wrote those words in 2004. Now here we are, ten years later, and it’s as if I wrote them yesterday. Pretty much the same winemakers, talking about the same topic—it’s as if the last ten years hadn’t ever happened.

Why these new AVA processes take so long (and they always do) is a matter of complexity; no small reason is simply because people are busy, and it takes a great deal of effort to come to agreement (especially in so large and crowded a place as Russian River Valley). Still, I confess to finding it surprising that this particular process has dragged on for so long. There’s no question that the Russian River Valley needs to be broken up into smaller, more meaningful AVAs. At 96,000 acres (according to Wine Institute), it’s the 21st biggest AVA in California (of more than 100), bigger than Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain combined—and you can throw Santa Rita Hills in there for good measure and there’s still a skosh of acreage left over.

As I wrote in “Journey,” “[T]he Middle Reach does deserve its own AVA status.” I believe this on several bases: historical (the name “the Middle Reach” is very old, by California standards, and Pinot Noir there dates to the 1960s) and because the wine quality is so high and so consistent across all properties. Indeed, the Middle Reach probably has the greatest quality overall because, being the warmest part of the valley, it ripens the grapes well even in cooler years, whereas a place like Green Valley—the coldest neighborhood—may struggle in a chiller like 2011 and even in the more moderate 2012 vintage to get the grapes to full maturity. A well-made Middle Reach Pinot is spectacular on release, yet we know from the experience of older wineries (Rochioli, Williams Selyem) that the best bottles are capable of twenty years of development.

I think Laguna Ridge also makes sense. You have there wineries whose Pinot Noirs are lush, tannic and earthy, and need time to develop in the bottle. I think the current thinking now is to separate out Laguna Ridge (in the hilly south-central part of the valley) from the Santa Rosa Plain to the east, which makes sense; but that leaves unnamed a huge swathe of Russian River Valley, stretching roughly from Highway 12, east of Highway 116, northward almost to Windsor, and containing some of the Russian River Valley’s most famous wineries and vineyards. It surely deserves appellation status too, and why not Santa Rosa Plain? Although, as I noted in “Journey,” Rod Berglund at that time had suggested a Windsor Hills AVA for the more northerly part of this stretch.

I had written, too, that Bob Cabral had suggested a West River AVA (to pick up where the Middle Reach trails off), while Dan Goldfield had suggested dividing Green Valley into Upper and Lower (based on elevation); and I’m sure there are others with even more creative ideas. So we can begin to see why this process of new AVAs takes so long. This is complicated stuff!

I wish the Russian River Valley Winegrowers well in this latest push. As I wrote in 2004, things then seemed to have been put on hold, “but that has only slowed, not stopped, the momentum for sub-appellating the valley.” My hope is that, with last Saturday’s public event, the momentum has been regained.

(P.S. As I noted in “Journey,” and Rod Berglund again reminded us on Saturday, legally and technically there is no such thing as a “sub-AVA.” All AVAs are created equal, it seems, in the eyes of the government! But for conversational purposes, I have no problem referring to sub-AVAs.)

 

GusWine

Gus was there too

  1. While I’m sure it makes sense to further subdivide Russian River into smaller AVAs, I have a different take on the issue.

    We’ve been using Green Valley of Russian River Valley on our labels for two of the vineyards from whom we source fruit. When I tell people at tastings the wines are from Green Valley, they usually ask where that is. Even though the Green Valley AVA has been around for many years, it’s still virtually unknown to the average consumer, at least from my observations.

    Of course, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t interesting information for the wine geek. But with the new requirement that forces us to also add Somona County to the label, we’ve decided to drop Green Valley altogether. So our wines from Green Valley will now just say Russian River Valley – Sonoma County. Given that it seems (IMHO) that most people associate Russian River with a great place to grow Pinot Noir, we feel not focusing on the AVA may lessen the appeal of the wine to the average consumer.

  2. I got started with AVA work with by my Master’s thesis in 1998 on the Russian River Valley (with the support of several growers in the RRV). In that thesis, I suggested the AVA could be as few as two and as many as five AVAs. This work was based on existing data and research in the area. With more weather stations in place, more soil data, more complete imagining, changes in viticultural practices, and yes, even a changing climate, I can’t help but feel that work is well out of date. What hasn’t changed is that certain parts of the AVA probably shouldn’t be there and other areas could be based on the current characteristics of the place. Changes at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, which have helped improve geographic definitions of newer AVAs, have had the net effect of making it harder to work around antiquated boundaries of older AVAs. To get sub-AVAs that truly make sense, you might need to modify the Russian River Boundary AVA, further complicating the process. Otherwise, sub-AVAs would need to be defined to a point where they are constrained by the current AVA boundaries.

  3. Bob Henry says:

    Brian!

    As a former Angeleno-turned-Lompoc Wine Ghetto denizen, I just always “assumed” that your Green Valley wine came from here:

    http://www.green-valley-lake.com/about-green-valley-lake/

    Who’d a thunk it?

    ~~ Bob

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