Neighborhoods of the Russian River Valley

Part of the job of a sommelier is to accurately represent wine regions to guests. So how are sommeliers doing when it comes to the wines of the Russian River Valley? Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan Vineyard thinks there's room for improvement. “The Russian River Valley is large, [but] not monolithic,” he explains. And yet, it's not uncommon to see a list boasting a hearty California Pinot Noir selection but showcasing only wines from one corner of the Russian River Valley.

With a list like this, the sommelier has missed something. No one would throw a list together with 20 red wines from Burgundy, all of them from Beaune. It wouldn’t make any sense! As the Russian River Valley Winegrowers (RRVW) community is working to demonstrate, this situation is no different.

History of the Russian River Valley AVA

France, of course, has a leg up on California when it comes to wine law. The AVA system was established in the early 1980s, while the AOC/AOP system loosely dates to the 15th century, when Roquefort was regulated by the French Parliament. The AOC system for viticulture was first considered in the early 20th century, and the first guidelines were composed in the 1920s, though they were not official until 1936. Since then, AOC/AOP laws have evolved, and many new AOC/AOPs have been added.

The AVA system is still very young, and when AVAs are established, they almost universally refer only to an area of land, without any of the quality regulations seen in Europe. One can petition for an AVA to encompass more land than its original demarcation, but shrinking the borders is not an option. There is a great deal of frustration with the state of certain AVAs, leading to the creation of new AVAs within larger ones. As things currently stand, it is only natural for this trend to continue.

One issue with the current Russian River Valley AVA is that it is so large. After having been expanded twice, it houses over 160,000 acres of land. Compare this to Napa Valley, which is larger at 225,000 acres but can be more easily digested by way of the 16 AVAs within the larger Napa Valley AVA. Clay Gantz, owner of Gantz Family Vineyards and the president of RRVW, explains, “The Russian River Valley is large; that’s a fact. To say it’s too large is a judgment. However, the fact that the Russian River Valley is large means, to us, that it is fruitful to explore how wines made from grapes grown in the various Russian River Valley neighborhoods may differ.”

The region itself is distinct due to a layer of marine fog that settles over the vines in the evening, dropping temperatures and retaining acidity in the grapes. It was this fog layer that inspired the original boundaries of the region. And yet, within this perimeter are diverse soil types, various altitudes, and a huge variation in the heat index. It is not surprising, then, to learn that Russian River growers have been using neighborhood terms to define and differentiate their wines for decades, and in some cases, even longer: some of these terms date back to the 1800s.

The Russian River Valley Neighborhoods Initiative

Over the past few years, RRVW has started to look more closely at this topic, leading to the establishment of the Russian River Valley Neighborhoods Initiative. Still in its infancy, the goal of the Neighborhoods Initiatives is to see if there is something to be said for suspected neighborhoods.

Each year, right around February, a tasting panel comprised of winemakers and growers tastes through a sampling of Pinot Noirs from various areas within the valley. To limit variables, the tasting panel is initially exploring this topic only as it relates to Pinot Noir, though there are plans to expand to other varieties in the future. Pinot Noir was picked primarily due to its reputation as a signature variety of the region. And, perhaps more importantly, the grape itself is fairly straightforward, thus clearly reflecting distinct terroirs. Since there are so many winemaking decisions that go into each bottle, for the sake of this experiment, the wines are tasted shortly after malolactic fermentation, before winemaking influences such as oak are stamped onto the wines.

The panel tastes the wines blind, keeping record of their notes. The hope is that over time, they will be able to state definitively that they believe there either is or is not a real distinction between wines of various neighborhoods. Berglund calls the process a “voyage of discovery.” He and Gantz are adamant that the goal is not to establish new AVAs, or to define boundaries before finding reasons to draw them. Rather, they simply aim to explore diversity within their region.

The Neighborhoods

It doesn’t take much time in the Russian River Valley to recognize that it contains a wealth of microclimates. Sebastopol might be slightly chilly on a day when Healdsburg is uncomfortably hot. Beyond differences in both daytime and nighttime temperatures, the soils of the valley are a mix of Franciscan, alluvial, and Goldridge, along with volcanic and clay soils. Furthermore, the altitudes and proximity to other features, such as the ocean and the Petaluma Gap, lead to huge differences in the way vines develop, which has bearing on how the vineyard is managed and when grapes are picked.

To break the large Russian River Valley into neighborhoods proves to be a valuable tool for a sommelier. Below is a summary of the major neighborhoods that many growers and winemakers in the valley identify, along with some characteristics of the wines produced in each.

Middle Reach: Some of the oldest Pinot Noir vines in the Russian River Valley are located in Middle Reach, thanks to Rochioli, Bacigalupi, Allen, and others. It is the northernmost of the neighborhoods and therefore the warmest, though the fog still helps mitigate temperatures at night. The area is due south of Healdsburg and is cut in half by the Russian River. People have different ideas as to where Middle Reach ends; some say it ends once the river curves west, while others say it continues towards Guerneville. These wines are lush and rich, with unmistakable red cherry and red fruit notes. The tannins here are the highest in the RRV, while the acid levels tend to be lower. These wines are best known for their texture.

Laguna Ridge/Golden Triangle: This area is best typified by the wines of Joseph Swan Vineyard and Dehlinger Winery. Laguna Ridge is south of the Russian River, nestled between Green Valley to its west and the Santa Rosa Plains to the east. The “ridge” itself is a set of hills that run north to south. The soils here are mostly Goldridge to the west side of the fault line, with some Altamont and Franciscan soils to the east of the fault line. The climate is more mellow than in the rest of the valley, and this area is significantly cooler than Middle Reach. Grapes here are less prone to frost and have an earlier budbreak and longer hang time, resulting in soft, round wines, often showing red and black fruit with spice notes. The wines are best characterized by their minerality and complexity.

Santa Rosa Plains: The flatland between the hills of Laguna Ridge to the west and Sonoma Mountain to the east is known as the Santa Rosa Plains. This valley floor is rife with various soil types, such as Franciscan shale and sandstone. Vine vigor is high, but the region tends to be cooler than others, since cold air sinks down to the plains. The vines here are susceptible to frost, and bud break comes late. Pinot Noir from the Santa Rosa Plains tends to be soft and red fruited, with a balanced acidity. The region is best known, however, for old vine Zinfandel.

Sebastopol Hills: This neighborhood is the result of the relatively recent expansion of the Russian River Valley. Historically, it was a region devoted to apple growing, but as more people are dedicating themselves to planting Pinot Noir, they have found that wines from this region are age-worthy gems. Littorai's estate vineyard is located here, and Kosta Browne's bottling from the Kanzler Vineyard—labeled as Sonoma Coast—has garnered big press. The area itself falls just south of Sebastopol, and, like Laguna Ridge, the soils are mostly Goldridge. The Petaluma Gap and its southerly location result in a cool, windy, foggy climate that produces lean wines with high natural acidity.

Green Valley: Green Valley is its own AVA, though it is often referred to as a sub-AVA of the Russian River Valley. Both AVAs were established in 1983. Green Valley was identified as its own AVA due to the fog that hovers over the vines for much longer each day than in the rest of the valley. Also noteworthy is its proximity to the ocean, resulting in cooler, coastal winds. There are some high elevations in Green Valley, some of which can escape the fog, but these sites have to contend with wind, which lengthens the ripening period and extends the growing season. Overall, the wines of Green Valley are lean but firm, with nicely developed tannins and a gentle, soft mouthfeel. Notable winegrowers in this neighborhood include Keefer Ranch, Freeman Winery, and Iron Horse Vineyards. Ken Freeman of Freeman Winery describes distinct climates even within this AVA: there is an Upper Green Valley, also known as the Hilltops, and a Lower Green Valley, or the Valley Floor. The northern part of Green Valley is much warmer than the southern part, since the coastal breezes and fog hit the southern part of the AVA before heading north and east.

Cautious Exploration

Identification of these neighborhoods, even casually, provides sommeliers with helpful language for discussing the wines of the Russian River Valley. And yet, the Neighborhoods Initiative is wise to take its time exploring possible differences between the region’s wines before making any decisions or assertions. It took a long time for the lines to be drawn in Burgundy, and this much younger wine region is in no rush to catch up. It will be interesting to observe what the Neighborhoods Initiative concludes in coming years. For now, they can be commended for choosing to be careful rather than hasty.

  • Very insightful! Thank you for putting this together and enabling us to grow our knowledge, keep up the great work!

  • Thanks Becca for this article!

  • Thank you for this! It'll be interesting to watch how it plays out.

  • HELP! Rebecca please excuse my ignorance, after trying to find the answer im still lost. In regards to Kosta Browne sourcing there Pinot Noir from Kanzler Vineyard, why do they lable it Sonoma Coast? Is that where they vinify it? Or something I'm overthinking? Thank you in advance.

  • Troy-

    In regards to Sonoma Coast AVA labeled on Kosta Brown's Kanzler Vineyard - They label it according to the vineyard's location, not that they vinify the grapes in Sebastopol (which is in the RRV).  

    Sonoma Coast and Russian River have always shared a "grey area" of a boarder and some producers tend to choose the most BUZZ worthy AVA when licensing their labels to assist in driving sales and often times the character of the wine produced on that border may swing in one direction or the other creating the deciding factor for which AVA to be placed on the bottle.  I have spoken directly with many winemakers in this area in regards to these labeling choices, having been raised and then a Private Wine Tour Guide in this area for several years.

    Wait till the split off of Petaluma GAP from Sonoma Coast (in process), I believe 2016 will be the first year you may see bottles labeled so.  When that happens a good portion of High End Producers in this area, such as Kosta Brown and their Sunchase Vineyard) will be changing their Labels to rep the new Petaluma GAP AVA.

    Another good resource for clarity on this would be the Winemaker's Evan and Brent at Fogline Winery.  Evan has been advocating for the new Petaluma Gap AVA for several years now, and they make Pinot's from each of these "neighborhoods"

    Giving credit where credit is due and representing the proper terroir accurately Im certain is in everybody's interest.  More importantly, it should be paramount to retaining guest/consumer confidence in ordering wine.

    IMHO

    Jason Craig C.S.

    A Russian River Resident

  • Great read. Good perspective, not swinging to much either way in opinion. Presented well. Nice article, good job!