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Green Valley Sonoma

The famous grapes of Burgundy—pinot noir and chardonnay, for both still and sparkling wines—are responsible for Green Valley’s reputation as a world class wine region. The highly-prized Gravenstein apple and the world’s biggest collection of hydrangeas thrive in the area’s famous Gold Ridge soil, which is inhospitable to the dreaded phylloxera louse.
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Green Valley

by Michele Anna Jordan

     The Green Valley viticultural area forms a jagged rectangle in the southeast corner of the Russian River ValleyShow on map appellation.  It is defined by its sandy Gold Ridge loam and an almost daily intrusion of fog.  Nights are cool. The pinot noir grape and the Gravenstein apple are the acknowledged stars of Green Valley, though scores of other agricultural products flourish in the mild climate. 

     This is where the spring apple blossoms drape the hillsides like unfurled bolts of lace, and where the late summer light baths the hillside orchards and vineyards in gold.  Country roads curve through flower farms and market gardens, and wind up hills towards spectacular views of Mt. St. Helena.  From the highest points, you can see the Pacific Ocean, and watch the fog creep inland.

     Forestville, Graton, and northern Sebastopol are within Green Valley’s border, which was established in 1983 largely through the efforts of Barry Sterling of Iron Horse VineyardsShow on map. There are a total of 32,000 acres, with over 1000 acres of grapes and more than 600 acres of apples.  Bordered on the east by Highway 116 to Forestville, the boundary of Green Valley stretches north along River Road from Mirabel Heights to Rio Dell.  On the west, it stops short of Occidental and reaches south to a point just beyond Ragle Ranch Park in Sebastopol, encompassing an eastern arm of Burnside Road and much of Gold Ridge Road in its embrace.  All but the southernmost tip overlaps the Russian River ValleyShow on map viticultural area. 

     Currently there are nine wineries and dozens of vineyards, with more of both planned for the near future.  Prior to Prohibition, three wineries thrived in Green Valley but during the dry years, most vineyards were converted to apples.  The reverse is true today; grapes are going in and apples are coming out. 

     To understand the changes taking place here, you need at least cursory knowledge of the economics of apples.  Warren Dutton, who has been farming in Green Valley since 1964 and currently maintains 200 acres of apples and over 500 acres of vineyards, explains that apples are a commodity traded on the world market, sold as concentrate in 55 gallon drums.   Local farmers neither set nor influence the price. 

     “We went through a pretty rocky year last year,” Perry Kozlowski of Kozlowski FarmsShow on map in Forestville explains,  “ . . .  Argentina, Chile, and especially China . . . are dumping concentrate on the American market.   We’re getting the same price for our apples as we did twenty years ago.”

     Those who sell fresh apples have a hard time, too.  At the peak of the industry, there were 18 major apple packers in the West County; today, there is one. What is the problem?  

     “Sebastopol apples are ugly but they taste better,”  Kozlowski says.  “The fog can be problematic as far as appearance goes.  Our apples aren’t as pretty as apples from Washington or even the Central Valley, but they taste a lot better.  But people buy with their eyes.”

     But don’t worry that the beloved Gravenstein apple will disappear.  This is virtually the only place in the world where it thrives; there will always be a market for it. The Gravenstein is highly sought after by distributors in the summer, when it is the first of the year’s apples to ripen.  The major processors in Watsonville recognize the superiority of this fruit, too; they add it to sauce and to juice made from other apples to improve the flavor.   Green Valley Gravensteins taste better in all forms, fresh, dried, made into juice, or cooked into sauce. 

     As the price of apples has remained stable and even declined, grape prices have skyrocketed.  Premium pinot noir brings close to $3000 a ton.  Compare that to under $200 a ton for the very best apples and it’s easy to understand why so many farmers are planting grapevines.  Some are replacing their apple orchards entirely; others are adding vineyards.  Still others who have never farmed a thing in their lives are putting in grapes.

     “I’ve grown apples my whole life, but I don’t see a very stable future here for apples,” Perry Kozlowski says.  “We have such a demand for grapes from this area that it makes no sense not to plant them.  I held out as long as I could.”  Kozlowski will maintain 60 acres of apple orchards; he’s putting in 15 acres of pinot noir later this year.

      So, why exactly does temperamental pinot noir--widely acknowledged as the most difficult grape to grow and the most challenging wine to make well--thrive in Green Valley?  It all comes back to climate.  The long, cool growing season allows the fruit to gain depth and complexity without developing the thicker skins and harsher tannins characteristic of fruit grown in hotter areas.  Cold nights maintain the grapes’ acidity.

     “Green Valley pinot noir has a distinct style.  It is much more fruit driven, with bright fruit flavors, lush textures, and good, crisp acidity,” Forest Tancer, who has been winemaker at Iron Horse VineyardsShow on map for nearly three decades, explains.

     “And it is distinctly California . . .  one of the cool things about Green Valley,” Tancer continues, “is that it allows us to stop looking over our shoulders at Burgundy.”

     Pinot noir is the signature grape of the Burgundy region of France and for decades, California shuffled along in its shadow.  Now we’ve come into our own;  Green Valley is increasingly recognized as one of the best places in the world for growing pinot noir.  

     A mustard-yellow Spanish-style farmhouse sits on a knoll overlooking Graton Road not far from Dutton RanchShow on map.  This is Marimar Torres EstateShow on map, where the first vineyards were planted in the mid 1980s.  The winery’s initial releases--a 1989 chardonnay and 1992 pinot noir--established Torres as one of the leading wineries in Green Valley. 

     Marimar Torres, who comes from the well-known Torres family of Spain, strongly believes that wine is made in the vineyard, not in the winery.  She has no winemaker; instead, a team guides the grapes from vine to bottle.

     “We are shepherding the grapes to produce the best wine they can; we are growing wine,” she explains. The Don Miguel Vineyard, named for Torres’ father, is planted in the European model, with 2,000 vines to the acre, four times the traditional California method and twice as dense as most new plantings in the area.  

     Chardonnay, of course, thrives in Green Valley, as you would expect.  The signature white grape of Burgundy, it prefers the same climate as pinot noir.  Dutton Vineyards produces some of the area’s most sought-after chardonnay; ten wineries currently produce vineyard-designated wines with Dutton grapes. 

     If apple farmers have had a hard time of it in recent years, it’s been even worse for Green Valley’s berry farmers.  It wasn’t so long ago that Kozlowski FarmsShow on map was called Kozlowski Raspberry Farms, but the vines were lost to El Nino.  They did not replace them. 

     Not far from Kozlowski FarmsShow on map, Green Valley Farms grows blueberries first planted in 1942, the first commercial blueberry farm in California.  For years, they grew raspberries and other berries, but the vines were destroyed by the intense storms of 1983.  Bruce Goetz’s family acquired the farm in 1940 and originally planted 19 acres of blueberries, which grow on shrub-sized trees. Unlike raspberry vines, which have a life span of just 4 or 5 years, blueberry trees have a life expectancy of 45 years.  Today, Goetz farms just seven acres; some of the original trees are still producing.   

     “It’s the quality of the fruit,” Goetz says when I ask him what makes Green Valley unique.   “You don’t necessarily get the yield here but if you judge quality based on taste and sugar content, fruit grown in Green Valley is remarkable.”

     Animals love it here, too.  Steven Schack of Redwood Hill Farms Goat Dairy credits Green Valley for the long-term success of the dairy he operates with his wife, Jennifer Bice.  The fog creates a comfortable environment for the goats, and happy animals,  Schack says, produce better tasting milk.   And although the room where the farm’s cheeses age is refrigerated and humidity-controlled, Schack believes the natural fog helps, too.  “I don’t believe we could make our cheeses in San Joaquin, for example.”

     “It really is a heavenly atmosphere,” Schack says about the countryside he so loves, “there is something so special here, everyone who comes to see the goats mentions it.”

     Tucked along Cherry Ridge Road not far from Redwood Hill Farms is the largest producer of cut hydrangeas in the United States, Green Valley Growers.  With 140 varieties on five acres, the flower farm has the largest collection in the world (there are about 320 varieties of hydrangeas).  Owner Jerry Bolduan sells his flowers exclusively at the San Francisco Wholesale Flower Mart. (He also is an assistant in the art department of Martha Stewart’s television show and a contributing editor to her magazine. )

     Nearby on Mill Station Road, Joy and Cliff Silva of Ma and Pa’s Garden grow some of the tastiest tomatoes and most fragrant, long-lasting roses in the county , along with a host of other crops, all of them top quality, throughout the year.

     Just a country lane away is Sullivan Road, where Laura and Allan Bernstein purchased a house and orchard in 1995.  They had no idea that there were seven large chestnut trees among the two-and-a-half acres of apples that they call Iggy’s Orchard.

     “I didn’t realize there were any chestnuts left after the blight,” Ms. Bernstein, a retired physician says, referring to a disease that wiped out virtually all of the  chestnut trees in the United States in the 1910s. 

     “We were very pleasantly surprised to find healthy trees,” The Bernsteins sell their chestnuts to local wineries, restaurants and a few markets, such as Andy’s Fruit Basket and Food for Thought.  Remarkably, a few people who were picking the chestnuts back in the 1930s when it was Sullivan Ranch still come each fall for the new crop.

     “Is there anything about Green Valley that makes a chestnut tree thrive?” I asked Greg Dabel, a writer and consultant with 30 acres of chestnuts and apples on Green Valley Road. 

     “It’s a wonderful place with a wonderful climate,” he says,  “but I think chestnuts can grow almost anywhere.” 

     Eight years ago, Dabel added six acres of chestnuts to his existing orchard of 110-year-old Gravenstein trees.  The farm does not provide a full time living, so he works at other jobs, sells his apples through a contractor, and his chestnuts primarily through the Internet.

     In spite of the enormous diversity of agriculture in Green Valley, for the rest of the world its reputation will be secured by the region’s ultra-premium wines, in part because wines travel farther than many farm products and in part because it is wine that can bear a name on a label. Yet those of us in Sonoma County know that it’s about more than wine.  It’s also about open spaces, natural beauty, thriving farmland, yummy apples, and delicious goat cheeses made in our own backyard.    We can savor both the remarkable beauty and extraordinary bounty of this agricultural treasure.  

     “Green Valley is probably one of the few true appellations in America,” Forest Tancer likes to say, “ We should be very proud of it.”

 

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