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Russian River Valley

The Russian River Valley, with its cooling marine fog and fertile soil, produces some of America’s finest wines, including pinot noir that ranks among the best in the world.
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Russian River Valley

by Michele Anna Jordan

The approved viticultural area of Russian River Valley resembles a roughly-drawn square nearly exactly in the center of Sonoma County. The region surrounds about a third of the 120-mile long river and its flood plains, sweeping from Monte Rio to western Santa Rosa and from Sebastopol to northern Healdsburg. Within the boundaries of the AVA are 96,000 acres or 150 square miles and close to 50 wineries, though several use one of the valley’s two sub-appellations, Green ValleyShow on map and Chalk HillShow on map. Excluding these, there are about 39 wineries, scores of vineyards, and over 10,000 acres planted to grapes. The appellation became official on November 21, 1983, though the designation was used for years—Foppiano Winery was first to put it on a label—before the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms formalized it. Although there is plenty for the visitor to see--the river itself is, of course, the main feature--much of Russian River Valley has a wild feel to it, with sparsely traveled country roads shaded by bay, manzanita, and gnarled oaks garlanded with delicate Spanish moss.


     The region is classified as “coastal cool” and defined by almost nightly intrusions of fog, a feature that influences viticulture, agriculture, and quality of life. When inland valleys are sweltering, you can count on this natural air conditioning to keep nights pleasant in the Russian River Valley.

     Although viticultural acclaim came relatively late to this fertile land, the history of grape farming extends back to the Russian period.  Grapes were planted here as early as 1836, when Yehor Chernykh, a Russian immigrant, planted 2000 vines over a three-year period at Chernykh Ranch, which old maps indicate was located near where Green ValleyShow on map and Graton Roads intersect today.
 
     According to historian William Heintz, this represents the third planting of vineyards in western Sonoma County by the Russians, with the first in 1817, five years before Padre José Altimi, founder of the last of the California missions, planted his grapevines in 1923. The padre is generally credited with planting the first vines in Sonoma County;  although the Russians apparently beat him to it, their efforts don’t seem to have influenced viticulture much, if at all.  The door of history won’t open any wider on this early vineyard; we can see the vines through a small crack, but we don’t know a thing about the wine, or even if any was made.
 
     Over the next several decades, through a phylloxera epidemic, a downturn in grape prices, Prohibition, two world wars, and a Depression, viticulture in this area lumbered along as one of many agricultural endeavors, though hardly the most important. There were cattle here, a vast hops industry, prunes, apples, and market gardens. The success of Korbel Champagne CellarsShow on map, founded by three brothers in 1882, did not spawn an early boom.


     Today, grapes outstrip every other endeavor, in acreage, in reputation, and, alas, in controversy. You’d have to be living under a rock not to know that old apple orchards are making way for new vineyards, a fact that many of the area’s residents find distressing, especially when they consider the transition without benefit of historical perspective. Yet in the Atlas of Sonoma County published in 1877, there is no mention of apples even though planting had been underway since 1869. By 1915, apples were all over the West County, displacing grapevines at a rapid rate. Apple prices were high, grape prices were plummeting, and farmers were struggling, then as now, to make a living. Crops, like fortunes, fluctuate in cycles that cannot necessarily be understood by taking a short view.

     The economics of farming is complex. Today apples prices are depressed everywhere, influenced by low prices on the world market. The demand for grapes, especially ultra-premium grapes, is high. This season, the best pinot noir has been commanding $3500 a ton. Even the finest apples--the early ripening Gravenstein--bring a fraction of that, somewhere around $160 a ton.

Grapes


     Myriad grape varietals thrive in the fertile alluvial soils of Russian River Valley, and because of the relatively moderate days, they develop their flavors slowly, which in turn results in wines with depth, finesse, and regional character.  Foggy nights enhance the acid necessary for a properly balanced wine. Many of Sonoma County’s best known vintners are here, including Korbel, of course, DeLoach Winery, Hanna WineryShow on map, Mark West Springs Winery, Rodney Strong VineyardsShow on map, and Hop Kiln WineryShow on map. Dutton RanchShow on map and Saralee’s Vineyard--it was gewurtztraimer from Saralee’s that took the Sweepstakes for white wine at the recent Harvest Fair--are among the best known vineyards.
 
     Chardonnay, both for still and sparkling wine, is highly successful in Russian River Valley, and J. Rochioli’s sauvignon blanc is considered one of the best examples of the varietal in the state. There are scattered vineyards of old-vine zinfandel, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, a clone of gamay known as Valdiguie, and more than a dozen other varietals. Yet a single grape may be responsible for the frenzy of attention Russian River Valley is currently enjoying. 

It’s the Pinot


     Everyone, it seems, wants pinot noir from this valley, and well they should. Joseph Swan VineyardsShow on map, founded in 1969, enjoyed early acclaim for its zinfandels, but was also one of the first successful producers of this seductive grape. As knowledge of its wily ways has increased and as viticultural techniques have improved--pinot noir, arguably more than any other single grape, is made in the vineyard--Russian River Valley pinot noir has taken center stage. The list of outstanding producers is growing yearly. Dehlinger, one of the region’s most consistently excellent producers, appeared in 1975, and has been joined in recent years by Kistler, Lynmar of Quail Hill Vineyard, Keegan Cellars, and J Wine CompanyShow on map, which makes still pinot noir in addition to sparkling wines.
 
     Yet to fully understand the evolution of pinot noir in this valley, you must look to Westside Road and Joe Rochioli, who was growing luscious fruit long before pinot noir became the county’s most sought-after grape.


     The Rochioli family settled here in 1938, a time when most of the valley floor was planted to hops, with the occasional abandoned patch of pre-prohibition vineyards. Rochioli planted his first vineyards in 1959, continued planting throughout the 1970s, and sold his grapes for about $200 a ton. The fruit’s superior quality remained a secret, eclipsed by dozens of other grapes in an inexpensive bulk wine known as California Burgundy.
  
     In 1971, Davis Bynum Winery became the first winery on Westside Road, and the first to credit a grower. Their inaugural vintage, 1973, included the label notation “From the vineyard of Joseph Rochioli, Jr. on Westside Road in the Russian River Valley”. By the early 1980s, the brilliant Gary FarrellShow on map, who came to Davis Bynum for summer work and stayed on first as a cellar worker and soon as winemaker, was attracting increasing attention with his finely crafted wines. In 1982, Farrell made Bynum’s wine, wines for the newly established J. Rochioli label, and for his own label, as well. By 1986, Joe Rochioli, joined by his son Tom, had built their winery and Tom had taken over as winemaker.  Today the vineyard designated wines of J. Rochioli are among the best in the country.

Gary FarrellShow on map

     Gary FarrellShow on map’s impact on the area’s winemaking can’t be overestimated, though in certain ways he may have worked against his own best interests to some degree.

     “My philosophy has always been to credit the grower whenever possible with vineyard designations, but I’ve seen it go straight to their heads and then the price goes through the roof,” Farrell said last week as he was in the midst of crush. This year he’s paid the top price for pinot noir, and as much as $3000 a ton for zinfandel.
 
     Although Farrell may have inadvertently contributed to the rise in prices, he can hardly be faulted for making spectacular, inspired wines and for offering well-deserved credit to the growers. And his reputation serves him well.  New vineyard sources approach him all the time and occasionally something truly remarkable comes along, he says.  And just a few weeks ago, construction began on his new winery, located on Westside Road just south of Wohler BridgeShow on map.

     “I wasn’t sure I’d always be included in the plans at Davis Bynum,” he says to explain his new direction, “and I wanted to be sure I’d have a place to continue making my wines.” The new winery, which will have a tasting room, should be in operation by harvest 2000; Farrell will continue as consulting winemaker at Davis Bynum. Although this is somewhat of an expansion, he’ll remain the hands-on winemaker he’s always been, using open-top fermenters and punching down by hand, and will continue to focus on vineyard designated wines.   Farrell is also developing his own vineyards, including 25-acres of pinot noir  on Starr Road on the east side of the river. Because it’s a young vineyard, Farrell didn’t expect a lot from it this year but in fact he was overwhelmed by the quality; the 1999 vintage may become a vineyard designate. 

Market Gardens

     Viticulture may be the biggest news in Russian River Valley, but it is not the complete story. There are about a dozen market gardens tucked along Westside Road, including Warm Springs Farm, where Larry Tiller, who sits on the board of directors of Select Sonoma County, grows tomatoes, onions, sunflowers, shallots, and several other crops, which he sells at farmers markets in Napa County, Marin County, and San Francisco, but not Sonoma County.  Tiller is probably best known for the peppers he roasts in his custom-made basket roaster, and it’s our loss that he doesn’t sell locally. The customer base just isn’t here locally, he explains. As someone who earns a full-time living from the land and pays the wages of several employees, Tiller needs the volume offered by a busy market like the one near San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza, where his peppers have an enormous following.

     More accessible than Tiller’s gorgeous but secluded farm is the 62-acre Westside Farms, purchased in 1988 by Pam and Ron Kaiser. Throughout the year, the Kaisers raise Border Leicester sheep, several vareities of berries, winter squash, ghords, and decorative corn.  During harvest, they are open daily for their “October on the Farm Celebration”, with hay rides and pick-your-own-pumpkins.  (Westside Farms is open daily from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. through October 31).

Polyculture Pioneers


     With premium grapes and wine at a record high, is monoculture inevitable?  Environmental experts such as Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts & Ecology Center predict a collapse of agriculture if land continues to be degraded as it is by large wineries that strip the land of every living thing, fumigate with methyl bromide, alter water patterns, and force vines to produce high yields with herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers. Certainly, some of the current conversion to vineyards seems motivated by greed, by a desire to exploit the good work of farmers and vintners who have spent years and decades slowly perfecting their craft and respecting the land.
 
     Yet in the midst of the furor, there’s reason for optimism, and once again, it seems that Davis Bynum Winery may lead the way. The family-owned winery has been practicing organic farming for years, and recently began working with Sonoma Permaculture of Bodega BayShow on map to establish polyculture, a 2 1/2-acre non-contiguous area that will include dozens of species and varieties planted to fit the contours of the land and incorporate native species. There will be oranges, pomegranates, avocados, guavas, figs, lavender, caperberries, hazelnuts, olives, and three-quarters of an acre of old-clone zinfandel. As plants mature, there will be a year-round harvest rather than a single fall frenzy. This polyculture is being planted both for its own intrinsic value and also to explore what sort of interplanting might be possible in existing vineyards.

     Mention organic grapes in certain circles--among, say, many long-time growers--and everyone changes the subject, or looks at you askance.  No one, it seems, wants to admit the obvious, that grapes, like every other living thing, are best grown naturally.  It might be becasue the first wines to bear an organically made designation on their labels were dreadful.  But it was because they were poorly made wines, not because the fruit was organically grown.

     “There is a misconception about grapes that if you farm them organically the quality will go down.,” Hampton Bynum, manager of the winery and Davis Bynum’s son explains, “and that is simply not true. It’s the same as vegetables you buy at an organic farmers market.  They taste better.” Bynum also disputes the idea low yield is a problem when you grow grapes organically.
“Yield is a matter of what you want anyway, not a matter of how much you can get,” he says, “we get the yields we want without any problem.”

The Future

     Look for changes other than new vineyards and a resurgence of responsible farming in Russian River Valley. For two years, members of the board of directors of the appellation organization, the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, have been carefully studying the area’s boundaries. The group will submit a petition to the Bureau of Alcohol, Tabacco, and Firearms before the end of the year, requesting that the boundaries be redrawn.

     “None of the appellations were drawn very scientifically,” Louis Foppiano Jr., who was involved in the intial AVA approval process, explained to me a few years ago.  “When the government wrote the law, they said you couldn’t say “estate bottled” unless the winery and the vineyard were both within an official AVA.”  Occasionally a grower was unhappy with a boundary--the right designation can increase the price of grapes--and would petition the bureau to be included.

     “Our process represents the coming of age of the AVA system,”  explains Robin Odin of J Wine CompanyShow on map and chair of the committee that includes Judy Jordan, Saralee Kundee, Rod Bergland, Lou Foppiano, Warren Dutton, and Paul Ahvenainane, winemaker of Korbel. The proposed new boundaries are not influenced by politics, marketing, or gerrymandering. They are based primarily upon a fog map drawn years ago by Robert Sisson, farm advisor emeritus with UC Davis Cooperative Extension, and based upon 30 years of observing the fog patterns in the area.
 
     The project has been well received by the members of the organization, Odin says, because of its objectivity. The new boundaries seek to exclude those areas that do not share the definitive characteristics of the region and to eliminating overlaps with the boundaries of adjacent AVAs. Studies have also identified five sub-appellations, including Green ValleyShow on map, already an established AVA, Los Molinos, Santa Rosa Plain, the Middle Reach, and Sebastopol Hill.

 

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