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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.

  1. GrapesRGreat says:

    As a young-ish wine consumer, I even long ago stopped being impressed simply by a Russian River indication on the label, and now buy only what I would consider “quality minded” producers that I am either familiar with, or whose reputation has been confirmed by a recommendation from a trusted source.

    Unfortunately, when a region such as this expands and expands and becomes diluted to “commodity” status, I find that bargain hunting becomes a futile exercise. For RRV and Sonoma Coast pinot, for example, I may have previously looked for wines in the $15-$20 range that tasted like $25-$35 wines. Now I look for $35-$45 wines that taste like $60-$70, and if I’m not willing to spend at least $35, I go somewhere else, because 90% of the time I’m going to be disappointed below that. Thank goodness there are still plenty to chose from, as you mentioned (Williams-Selyem, Anthill Farms, Kutch, Failla, Hartford Court, etc.)

  2. Steve,

    I have a question about the expansion(s) that you talk about. It seems to me that the expansions have, going down to Cotati and into Green Valley in 2005 and the more recent one, in 2011, have generally taken the region into cooler areas, and into areas with more fog rather than less. That’s not usually considered to be moves that would lead to lesser quality wines.

    I find myself wondering more about some of the original Appellation boundaries….up by Chalk Hill, north of Windsor to Healdsburg, etc. I wonder if Pinot Noir has been planted more in those areas, due in large part to the general popularity of Pinot Noir.

    Any thoughts?

    Adam Lee
    Siduri Wines

  3. Larry Brooks says:

    The European ideal of appellation, which holds that soil, meso-climate and aspect should be as uniform as possible is rarely true in the new world. Among California Pinot Noir appellations only Santa Lucia Highlands fits within this rubric. The other major appellations have too little uniformity to be true appellations. They are much more accurately regional collections of vineyards or producers. More often than not political boundaries and economic interests determined California appellations than wine-growing criteria. Russian River is notoriously lacking in uniformity. There are places in Russian River that can ripen Cabernet – that alone should be reason enough for a redrawing of borders. No one should be the least bit surprised that there is variation in quality and character from this appellation.

  4. KC in Texas says:

    As an outsider, but a customer of Sonoma Pinot, I have become very selective about what wines I will buy (Chasseur, Benovia, Failla, etc). I think the idea that “RRV Pinot” automatically means high quality disappeared a couple of years ago.

    That said, there are many great pinots produced in that area and they, by and large, seem to represent their place quite well. I’m still a fan.

  5. I was opposed to the expansion of Russian River Valley, thinking it was more of a marketing move by large wineries than anything else. That said, the Russian River Valley was already so diverse you could find all different styles of Pinot Noir everywhere within it based on many different factors that are almost impossible to predict. In the end the expansion just makes it more interesting. But marketing the Sonoma Coast Appellation as more exclusive always makes me scratch my head as that AVA is so huge it includes almost all of the Russian River Valley. I don’t mind the mini AVA’s like Green Valley, but they should stand alone and not be nested unless they want to carry that theme all all the way out. It gets ridiculous: Green Valley of Russian River Valley of Sonoma Coast of Sonoma County of California.

  6. Wendy, yes the Sonoma Coast ava is ridiculously huge which is why I pinpointed Fort Ross-Seaview and hoped that some day the northern and southern ends also will be appellated. Thanks.

  7. Thanks KC in Texas!

  8. I would not rule out that expanding the AVA also brought in a few great properties with the right soil and exposure to the AVA…and expanded, maybe not the percentage, but the total number of good wines produced.

    I can think of no appellation that is a reliable indicator of quality. However, it is still helpful to know the appellation if you don’t know the vintage, vineyard, and producer. With all four types of designations…producer, vineyard, AVA and vintage you have a shot at making the right buying decision.

    Short of that, maybe there is someone who tastes a majority of these wines and can give you their opinion. Like a critic.

  9. Dave in SoCal says:

    The flip side of your observation about commoditizing RRV Pinot is that for those of us with modest budgets, but who like a glass or two of wine with dinner every night, the quality of the [i]vin ordinaire[/i] Pinot has been moving substantially upward in the last couple of years. It now is much easier to find nice Pinot for less that $15 and sometimes less than $10.

  10. @Dondoeswine says:

    As a winegrape grower in the Alexander Valley and a student of wines…I appreciate the importance of the early planting efforts of RRV PN. We are still one generation into the provenance of PN. Let’s not rush to judgement that we are swimminging in a sea of PN. There is much still to be determined that the natural selection of fruit, our soils types, micro-climates and winemaking influnces will have on building levels of (if you will classes of) quality. I like to refer to the RRV as the next Burgundy region…Then let’s talk about the wonderful influenc of terrior and a culture TBD. This will be a map for consumers, critics and vintners to create together. The factors that will help determine where the best of the best can be grown and who is making this luscious wine…are ahead of us.

  11. Dave in SoCal, I’m afraid I can’t agree! I find the vast majority of under-$15 Pinot, and especially under-$10, pretty simple stuff.

  12. Steve- I don’t think one can reasonably compare the wines of the commune of Vosne (“there are no common wines…”)and those of the entire RRV appellation. A more reasoned comparison would be Vosne (at 380 acres of PC and Village wine) and perhaps the Westide Road portion of the RRV as oppossed to the entire appellation. Candidly, I think you’ll rarely find “common” wines from Westside Road, just as one rarely finds “common” wines from Vosne.

    A more apt comparison might be the Cote du Nuits to the RRV appellation, and not just their size. Inspiring wines aplenty form both places. And undoubtedly, in recent years, in response to market forces (demand), more vineyards have been planted in “lesser” places in the RRV (just as there are in Nuits). The grapes from these plantings tend to find their way into lower priced (and yes, less inspiring) wines.

    I drink my share of burgundy (and a few other folks’ shares as well). And while my heart and winery are tethered to Sonoma County, I love Burgundy. But I also know that there, as here, it is a pyramid of quality. At the top of the Burgundy pyramid rest the best examples, wines that make “transcendent” seem commonplace; but there is also a sea of average to sub average wine from Burgundy (or “common” wine”).

    We have a quality pyramid here as well, but that “sea” of “common” wine is decidedly smaller here, there is a boatlaod more of that produced in Burgundy than here. On balance, the RRV is still producing some of the greatest Pinots on the planet, and decidedly less “commodity” wine than Burgundy (and a lot of other places).

    Should the appellation have been expanded? A lot of us had differing views on that- but it happened for better or worse. But can we really begin to divide things into “micro” areas based on the limited time (decades not centuries) we have made wine here? While there may well come a day we can do so (and a lot of us evaluate local wines we drink on the fundamental point of wherein the RRV they came from- which in my mind suggests we may get there some day)

    That said, I think perhaps you have painted with a much wider brush than is reasonable. Does the denomination RRV guarantee anything? Perhaps not in terms of ultimate quality, any more than the denomination “Burgundy” or “Bordeaux” guarantees anything. But the voice of this place, with all its many shades, still shines through, and still represents great value at the various pricing levels.

  13. The new sign along Hwy 101 in Gallo’s Two Rock Vineyard (Cotati) urging us to protect the Russian River Watershed speaks volumes about the expansion of the Russisn River appellation. Though technically within the RR watershed this vineyard is classic Petaluma Wind Gap, not quite the marketing panache of RR. The most recent expansion of the RR appellation now includes (surprise, surprise) Two Rock Vineyard. For our small Sebastopol vineyard (also newly in RR boundary) we prefer to use the Sonoma Coast moniker as the wines made from our fruit have more in common with true Sonoma Coast wines then Russian River. What we’d really love to see is a Sebastopol Hills appellation.

  14. Dear John Holdredge,thanks. I think on analysis we’re both saying the same thing.

  15. Rod Strong was among the first modern wine pioneers with a vision to plant Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley. in 1968, he planted our heritage River East Vineyard in the alluvial clay-loam soils adjacent to the winery in Healdsburg. Today the Russian River Valley is well established as one of the premier Pinot Noir growing regions in the world and we continue to rely on the original River East Vineyard as a core contributor to our estate vineyard bottling. Those are all things I know about Pinot Noir.

  16. Even within its earlier versions the Russian River AVA was always diverse from the west Santa Rosa plain to the foothills that roll from Westside Road through Graton and Sebastopol. But, the one thing (for myself anyway) that truly defines the RR AVA is the transition where the foothills merge with the steeper coastal terrian and where oak trees give way to redwoods. There’s magic in that band.

  17. Keasling says:

    Hear, hear Greg Pearl.

  18. Mark Lyon says:

    I got the impression from Jon Bonne; being nostalgic for the “true” Russian River Pinot’s from the past. Yes, welcome to the ever expansion world of corporate influence to stretch AVA’s to the point of commodification. As I have posit in the past; depends of what kind of Pinot’s will come from these expanded boundaries. Gallo, clearly was the big winner, and I hope so for their and RRV winegrower’s collective sake that they do make outstanding Pinot’s from their Cotati and 3 Rock vineyards. Finally, I do agree the sub-AVA’s within Russian River Valley is the answer, as is the case with Napa Valley Cabernets.

  19. diana blomgren says:

    Thanks for this review.
    I was thoroughly dissatisfied
    with a friend’s Kenwood Pinot Noir:
    thin with no bouquet. Now I understand:
    it’s a commodity wine. Appreciate your analysis.


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