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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.

  1. Yeah for Green Valley of the Russian River Valley being in the vanguard.

  2. If a wine maker in the “old” RRV is concerned that Gallo is going to come in to the “new” RRV and steal his thunder, he has more to be concerned about than the lines on the map. While Gallo is capable of making some very nice wines, it remains to be seen whether they will from their now-RRV property. If they do, then they have upheld the notion that RRV is worth something more and have helped its brand perception among the wine buying public.

    If Gallo doesn’t make “RRV worthy”wines, then that same segment of the wine buyers to whom it *is* important will make their displeasure known — they won’t buy Gallo wines (they probably aren’t buying much of it now); they will talk about it amongst themselves and to anyone else who will listen, across many platforms; and they will pursue a remedy, such as the sub-appellation process.

    Part of the give and take of the political process that even us wine geeks must live in.

  3. To make the RRV AVA meaningful for serious wine lovers, it should be carved up into numerous sub appellations a la Green Valley. The RRV Promotional Body likely opposes this as it would be seen as a move that dilutes the overall marketing effectiveness of the larger RRV appellation. Too bad, that.

    At this point, RRV, Sonoma Coast, and Napa Valley are among the more meaningless CA AVAs if you expect to derive any significant information from these words appearing on a label.

    Again, too bad, that.

  4. Paso too needs some breaking up, but I understand that is in the works.

  5. RRV would be wise to get a regulation passed like Section 25240 of California’s Business and Professions Code, which provides that any wine labeled with a viticultural area appellation of origin other than “Napa Valley,” and which is located entirely within Napa County, shall bear the designation “Napa Valley” on the label in direct conjunction with the sub-appellation (in a type size not smaller than 1mm less than that of the viticultural area designation.) It will keep RRV front and center. Otherwise the greater RRV appellation will gradually fade in importance and useage as the sub-appellations promote themselves independently. That will probably be Gallo’s next step.

  6. Definitely think that sub apps would make the region more interesting.

  7. Bill McIver says:

    As usual Steve, you’re an idiot. This story is just another in a long line of Gallo’s political clout. Gallo gets what Gallo wants. When Jess Jackson tried to establish “Coastal California.” Who opposed that and defeated it? Gallo, of course, because it would benefit JJ and K-J, not Gallo, who depended mostly on Central Valley juice and didn’t want competition from another “California” appellation.

  8. Dear Bill, thanks for weighing in!

  9. We’re all thankful for you, too, Steve. And David Jones… Jose and I still miss him a lot, too. He had a way with words, loving them as much as life, much like yourself. Have a great Thanksgiving with Gus. Slip him a piece of turkey for me. LOL

  10. Well, how did I end up in this story. I’ve GOT to get a new prescription for my glasses!

  11. Folks, in this country, thank God, it comes down to the brand. You can fool some of the people some of the time…etc. But, the brand is with us always.


  12. Agree with Brice! It is the brand. Even more than that, it’s the individual bottle.

  13. With all due respect, I think you have oversimplified here.

    Take a label like Sebastiani. Under Bill Foley, it is doing a better and better job with Pinot Noir. But there is a reason why the Sebastiani Russian River Pinot costs more than the Sebastiani Sonoma County Pinot. While the difference in price may also be a reflection of a qualitative difference, the appellation difference is the driver here first and foremost.

    That is why the diminution of the RRV AVA by excessive expansion is a problem about which we need to be concerned. If we are not, as Brice Jones seems to suggest, then we should do away with all AVAs and appellations, do away with vintage dates, do away with required label statements and just rely on the name of the producer.

    We tried that recently with bank deregulation. Look what it got us. A giant recession. The death of Lehman Brothers. Trillion dollar deficits. Sorry boys, but brand is nothing more than one measure of expectation. Appellation is another, and it matters when AVAS get so big that their meanings are diluted.

  14. Charlie, I don’t think it’s quite accurate to equate the expansion of RRV with the Great Recession! And you didn’t really explain why you believe that the Cotati area is inappropriate for RRV. Like I wrote in my post, the climate seems quite cool and foggy down there–and that is the essence of RRV terroir: maritime influence. Look at it this way: if that area had been included in the AVA from the start, no one would be clamoring for it to be taken out, would they? So for me, this doesn’t dilute the meaning of RRV. Sonoma Coast is diluted. San Francisco Bay Area is ridiculous. Even Santa Cruz Mountains is a fuzzy AVA. I mean, Pinot on the west-facing slopes, Cabernet on the east-facing slopes: where is the unity there? And Napa Valley is super-diluted, but you never hear people complain about it because of all the sub-AVAs. So let’s get on with sub-appellating RRV instead of complaining about it.

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