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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.

Wednesday wraparound: European palates and “a hole in the middle”


I was talking with a Russian River Valley winemaker the other day, and she told me that, of all the American critics she follows, I have the most “European palate.”

I was surprised, although I didn’t say anything, because I always think of myself as having a Californian palate. After all, I love our wines (at their best), even as others—mainly Europhiles and New Yawkahs—slam them for being too ripe/sweet/fruity/oaky/alcoholic/name your insult. I’m a sucker for a complex Chardonnay, captivated by Cabernet, sent into swoons by a great Syrah, tickled pink by Pinot Noir, and since I’m running out of alliterative steam, I’ll stop here.

But my fondness for California wine doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate wines from Old Europe. I’ve tasted a lot of Spanish, Italian, French and German wines in my time, and been knocked out by great bottles old and new. The winemaker who told me I have a “European palate” did so, I think, because I give her Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays high scores, even though they’re comparatively acidic and tannic compared to many of her California colleagues’ wines that are riper and more accessible. So she figures I must like a more austere wine, one that only shows its glories with some bottle age—in other words, that I have a European palate.

The truth is, I like to think I have a catholic [small “c”] palate, which is to say I appreciate quality no matter how it expresses itself. That’s why I can never understand these California bashers. After all, if I can find pleasure in a European wine, then why can’t they find pleasure in a California wine?

* * *

In another conversation I had, with a second Russian River Valley winemaker, we were talking about the 2012 vintage (which believe me is being hyped up and down the state like no other vintage in years), and he offered the only criticism I’ve heard so far. “At the very least it’s a very good year,” he began. “The easiest thing to tell early on [with a vintage] is when it’s a bad year!” Then he added, “If I have a worry, yields were too high, so we did a lot of bleed off, saignée. Like in 1997, some of the wines developed a bit of a hole in the middle, and that’s a concern this year.”

This concept of “a hole in the middle” refers to wines that may smell great and enter powerfully, but then something falls off in the concentration or intensity that lowers the score. I find this a lot, and it’s always disappointing; it can resemble the effects of overcropping. In any wine, you want concentration that’s consistent all the way through. That doesn’t mean sheer power. Power by itself is boring. Concentration means power + elegance. Clearly, the Russian River Valley winemaker’s concern is that the high yield will dilute concentration, especially in that middle palate which is so sensitive to the slightest variations of intensity. That is why the winemaker practiced saignée, which normally is used in the production of rosés. The juice is drained or “bled” off after limited contact with the skins, meaning that the remaining juice has greater time on the skins and presumably becomes fuller-bodied.

I’m not sure that’s the best way to restore concentration. After all, if it’s not there initially, then skin contact isn’t going to restore it. But a wine with a hole in the middle can be made to feel fuller through this method. However, I haven’t heard this concern from any other winemaker in the few months since the vintage ended. Indeed, last week in Santa Barbara they were practically turning cartwheels over 2012. Winemakers always fib about vintages, of course; even in a notoriously bad one they’ll tell you that their neighbors suffered from frost/smoke taint/mold/rain/whatever but they didn’t. But in the case of 2012 the hurrahs are so widespread I just have to assume there’s a “there” there. We’ll see.

Bold and brassy doesn’t go over in NYC? That’s weird


There’s something ironic about the fact that the New York contingent of wine writer/critics hates brash, in your face California Pinot Noirs. After all, isn’t that the essence of New Yawkahs–brash and in your face?

The latest would be John Mariani, writing this piece in Bloomberg decrying “blockbuster,” “fleshy,” “muscular,” and “hedonistic” Pinot Noirs, as though his delicate sensitivities as a Big Apple denizen allow him to covet only wines of timid, tremoring restraint. It’s passing strange.

But enough of the snark, let me defend why some of these high alcohol Pinot Noirs merit their place in the pantheon. Consider, for example, Armanino’s 2010 Amber Ridge Pinot Noir, from the Russian River Valley ($55). It clocks in officially at 15.1%, which in reality means the actual alcohol level may be slightly higher.

The overwhelming fact of that wine is deliciousness. In my review, which will be in the May 1 issue of Wine Enthusiast, I called it “vastly rich.” Amber Ridge Vineyard, which was planted in 2000, is just west of the 101 Freeway, near the town of Windsor and south of Healdsburg, making it somewhat warmer than, say, areas further west and south, such as Green Valley or the Laguna Ridges. That extra kick of heat no doubt accounts for the ripeness that translates into alcohol.

Yes, this region doesn’t yield your typical Russian River Valley Pinot Noir. The same vineyard, Amber Ridge, has been source to excellent Novy Syrah. But the Lees, who own Novy, also make an Amber Ridge Pinot Noir from their Siduri brand, with excellent results. And just to the south of Amber Ridge is Starr Ridge, a rather famous vineyard in its own right due to Gary Farrell’s consistent production of rich, ageworthy Pinot Noirs. So it’s not like this is no-man’s land for Pinot Noir. There certainly are cooling influences, from gaps that allow maritime air to filter in from Guerneville as well as the last punch that comes up through the Petaluma Gap. (Things heat up quickly as you cross the 101 and move into Chalk Hill, where the heat bunches up against the 1,500-foot Coast Ranges.)

Isn’t diversity of style a large part of the charm of Pinot Noir? Burgundians rave about the spectrum of wines within the Côte de’Or, everything from a big, sappy Vosnes to a lighter, more delicate Beaune. If there’s room for a spectrum in Burgundy, why not in California? That Armanino, and Pinots like it, shouldn’t be mindlessly thrown under the bus just because it doesn’t conform to a “Burgundian” template. Nor, I should add, ought a wine like the Patz & Hall 2009 Jenkins Ranch Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast, $55), with its alcohol level of 15.8% (another producer Mr. Mariani picked on). These wines may not be for everyone. But I’d like to see critics who don’t like that style at least credit them for being high-level examples of that style, instead of saying, “They’re not Burgundy.” They’re not supposed to be Burgundy. Their creators don’t want them to be Burgundy. They are legitimate expressions of their terroir, and they reflect house styles that have proven to be popular with many wine consumers and critics–including me.

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.

Finding the perfect context for wine appreciation


Of all the things I’ve done over the last 30 years to understand wine–reading countless books, tasting 100,000 wines, interviewing hundreds of winemakers and growers–nothing has so “filled me with the spirit” of wine as when I wrote my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, which was published in 2005 (but reissued, with a new introduction, last year by University of California Press).

That effort took the better part of two years. I saturated myself in wine, not literally, of course (I just had an image of me taking a bath in Pinot Noir), but in the sense that, for almost every day in 2003-2004, I awoke on a day that began precisely where the previous one had left off: immersed in this book. I thought about it constantly, edited myself all the time, dreamed about it at night, worked out the conceptual structure as I drove my car, came up with new ideas in the shower, and spent every minute I could traveling along the Russian River, by every conceivable mode of transportation, having adventures and meeting people, exploring vineyards, eating and drinking on the river, and even, on one unhappy but memorable occasion, almost drowning in water so cold in winter snowmelt, it gave me a case of hypothermia that permanently discombobulated my internal thermostat. I was trapped in whitewater rapids, hanging on for dear life to a “strainer,” a fallen tree whose gnarled limbs looked ominously like wizened fingers, clutched in a death grip to which I clung lest the angry current sweep me away.

In retrospect, it was the perfect metaphor for the way I conducted my research: when someone says they plunged themselves into their work, I can say I did it literally! One of the things I was proudest of in that book was that it contained no wine reviews. I might have filled it with formal notes, but decided not to, because I wanted to write a book that would stand the test of time and be interesting and relevant to future readers. And there’s nothing staler or duller than old wine reviews.

The culture of wine always has appealed to me at least as much as its science, or even as much as tasting. By “culture” I mean the places, the natural formations (rivers, cliffs, mountains, fields, marshes, streams, landslides, forests, wildflowers, gullies, estuaries) that are indigenous to every wine region. The animals too: snakes, deer, wildcats, winery dogs and cats. And the people! The wine industry is never devoid of characters, that’s for sure. There’s a context to every wine that’s important to comprehend, if you’re to fully experience a wine in its fullness. To drink a glass of Robert Mondavi Tokalon Fume Blanc in that vineyard, with Tim Mondavi: that’s context. To witness the Rochioli Vineyard, the source of so many great wines I’ve had over the years, at various times of the year–in the full bloom of harvest, completely underwater during a ferocious winter storm–to have climbed up its bank, as the gravelly dirt slid out from under my feet, is to have given my next experience of a Rochioli wine added depth and imagery. To have known the Rochiolis, Joe, Jr. and Tom, further compounds my appreciation of their wines. To have been present at the creation of Williams Selyem’s estate vineyard [formerly Litton Estate], as the bulldozers broke ground and pulled mountains of rocks out–to have been there the day an arborist warned Bob Cabral he’d better pull out some century-old trees before a storm blew them down on somebody’s head, only to have Bob decide that, No, he couldn’t do it, and instead to persuade his boss to save the trees, with all the expense that implied–and then, years later, to have tasted the Estate Pinot Noir and be able to give it 100 points–and, after that, to see the magnificent new winery building erected on the very spot that had been a wasteland of mud and stone, just seven years earlier–that is context. That is continuity. That is experiencing a wine in its fullness. I have griped before, and often, about how I wish certain winemakers would not insist on having me come to the winery to taste their wine (hello Dalla Valle, Alban, Staglin, Screaming Eagle and all you others!), instead of sending it to me at home, like most wineries do. But the truth is, I totally understand. They wish for me to know their wine in the very context I have described, and I can’t blame them for that. Were I a winemaker, I’d probably do the same thing.

Time to sub-appellate the Russian River Valley?


It’s a big appellation whose 96,000 acres run all the way from Occidental in the southwest to Healdsburg in the northeast, from Guerneville on the river southward nearly to downtown Santa Rosa.

Criss-cross it on any given summer day and one minute you have to turn on the windshield wipers, headlights and turn up the heat, then the next minute you’re in blazing sunshine with the AC on high.

It’s obviously not just one place, particularly when we’re talking about its most famous grape and wine, Pinot Noir. And given the rise to prominence of Pinot Noir in general, this may be the time to have a serious discussion about sub-appellating this broad swathe of land.

One of the chief difficulties in defining and isolating different terroirs in the Russian River Valley is that, no matter what natural distinctions there may be, winemakers are constantly changing their techniques. Beyond experimenting with yeasts, barrels, stem inclusion and other technologies, they tinker with their vineyards, to the extent it’s financially possible, altering row orientations and spacing, changing clones and rootstocks, and playing around with canopy regimes. In general–and I’m hardly the first or only one to point this out–we’re seeing alcohol levels in Pinot Noir (if not in Cabernet Sauvignon) falling. Right before our eyes–mine, anyway–I’m drinking Pinot Noirs that you can actually see through clearly in the glass, instead of being so inky they might as well be from the Rhône. I’m seeing alcohol levels in the 13s–how about that?–and low 14s. And I’m tasting Pinots that are so transparent, they offer tastes and feelings of the earth in which they were grown.

But that’s the good news: with lower alcohol levels, terroir can shine through, which makes sub-appellating the Russian River Valley make even more sense.

I’ve carried around certain generalities in my head for years. Here are a few: Westside Road and The Middle Reach being warmer, the Pinots are riper and fuller-bodied. Green Valley being cooler, the wines are acidic and dry, but spicy. The area south of River Road, being open to the Petaluma Gap, seems to produce wines of firm tannic structure. But these are, admittedly, generalities.

What matters in the greater Russian River Valley are three things: distance from the Pacific Ocean (or San Pablo Bay), conduits of cold air that allow maritime influences to penetrate inland, and elevation. The first two are obvious; we tend to ignore the influence of elevation in the Russian River Valley, but in, say, the Green Valley it is significant: Pinot Noir planted at lower elevations, Zinfandel on ridgetops where it is sunnier and warmer. Soil, in my mind, plays less of a role than climate. As long as the soil is well-drained, it is suitable (and I say that despite the Goldridgers who attest to the superiority of that soil type).

How many sub-AVAs might there be in a reconfiguration, and what would their names be? I have already mentioned The Middle Reach. A case can be made for the Santa Rosa Plain, which is sort of a northerly extension of the Petaluma Gap. Some people speak of Windsor as an AVA. Laguna Ridges, which comprises the area south of River Road wherein Dehlinger, Lynmar, Joseph Swan and others are situated, can be thought of as a part of the Santa Rosa Plain, but its more westerly location argues for a unique status. All of these regions are considerably cooler than The Middle Reach. Joe Rochioli, Jr. used to deride the Laguna area as “swampland” more suitable for Gravenstein apples than the Pinot Noir he was growing on Westside Road.

Winemakers have been talking, on and off for years, about sub-appellations in the valley. So far as I know, at this time there are no serious discussions (and if there are, I’m sure someone will let me know). But there should be. It will take lots of scientific evidence from weather stations and soil analysis, and there are historical factors to be reckoned with, but better understanding the Russian River Valley is something we need to tackle.

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