A Guide to California’s Russian River Valley

Russian River Valley AVA

This is not a story about new appellations. Nor is it a story about hard and fast lines on a map. It’s about clarifying a set of historically understood subregions within the Russian River Valley. It’s about helping those who love the region’s Pinot Noir to dive deeper into its nuances and sensory points of delineation.

Called the Neighborhoods Initiative, it’s an attempt to gauge whether certain characteristics (aroma and texture, among others) can be attributed to specific areas of the region. While the focus is on Pinot Noir, it could extend to other varieties essential to the appellation, including Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah.

With approximately 16,000 acres of grapes, the Russian River Valley is comprised of many small vineyards. It’s been an American Viticultural Area (AVA) since 1983, with expansions in 2005 and 2011.

Are the nuances imparted by the various subregions recognizable? Most of the local winemakers think so.

“At the most basic level, we all know winemakers and people who love Russian River Valley who think they recognize differences in wines from more coastal sites than those from the Middle Reach,” says Clay Gantz, who farms just under five acres of Pinot Noir in the middle of the appellation, in an area known as Laguna Ridge.

Gantz is VP of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, chairperson of the Neighborhoods Committee and a member of the RRVW Neighborhoods Tasting Panel, which has begun to seek answers via blind tastings among members that include Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan Vineyards and Merry Edwards.

5 Places to Visit in the Russian River Valley

Using samples of 2014 Pinot Noir, they’re trying to ascertain if “specific, consistently identifiable sensory characteristics derive from grapes grown in those neighborhoods.”

“We don’t know what the results will tell us, we just think it’s a worthy endeavor,” says Gantz. “We’re a very successful AVA, and people don’t want to mess with that.”

“I’m all about Russian River and about understanding the different regions,” says Merry Edwards. “What we’re looking for is the common theme that tells us there’s something unique about this area.”

Though experience has taught her which clones do best in specific areas, Edwards doesn’t want to be the one to draw the lines. To her, the map should be “real foggy” and have no precisely drawn borders.

“My problem is if you start something, you better know where you’re going with it.”

Unlike many vintners, Edwards has Pinot Noir vineyards in each neighborhood, capitalizing on their differing characteristics.

“Our whole premise is wine’s from a place and has a personality, and you can foster that personality by planting the right rootstock and clone there, and if it’s an enduring profile, that’s something to capture and bring up every year,” she says. “I wanted to have a number of different Pinots from Russian River. I wanted them to be different. And part of that is being in different areas.”


Middle Reach

The northernmost neighborhood, closest to Healdsburg and Dry Creek Valley, the Middle Reach is anchored by the wineries and vineyards along Westside Road. Among these are J. Rochioli Vineyard and Winery, Bacigalupi Vineyards, Flax Vineyard (of Merry Edwards Winery), Bucher Vineyard, Allen Vineyard and Williams Selyem Estate Vineyards.

It’s also home to many of the appellation’s oldest plantings.

The aromatics are less defined. Instead, the wines are about texture and length, and they tend to be broad and expansive on the palate. Acidity is not the defining feature.

Fog brought in by the Russian River, which snakes through the heart of the neighborhood, keeps temperatures cool enough to grow Pinot Noir.

The warmth here tends to develop Pinots that are dark, meaty and built to last. They display firm tannic structure, but also a lushness that keeps them soft. These wines tend to be ripe and full bodied.

Edwards says that of all her Pinots, it’s the ones from Westside Road, particularly Flax, that take the longest to come around.

“Our proximity to the physical river is key,” says John Bucher, of Bucher Vineyard. “It’s a different water influence than the Laguna de Santa Rosa.”

The fog is densest in summer, allowing his grapes to retain acidity at ripening.

“It’s not exceptionally hot, the sugars don’t go up too much, but flavors have time to develop,” says Bucher. “We get cola spice, dark fruit, earthier, darker and richer, lusher notes on the palate, with an acid backbone. The wines are not vegetative, there’s more ripening in the seeds.”

Middle Reach Russian River Valley

Recommended Wines

Williams Selyem 2013 Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir; $69, 98 points. Seductively smooth, this is an instantly delicious wine, sharing a concentration of cherry, strawberry and citrus that perfectly captures the essence of the fruit, accented by a tease of black tea. Enjoy through 2023. Cellar Selection.

Bucher 2012 Three Sixty Pinot Noir; $50, 93 points. The vineyard is located in the heart of the valley’s Middle Reach. With this bottling, the Bucher family has produced an ageworthy wine that amply displays the vineyard’s terroir. The raspberry and cherry fruits are wrapped into firm tannins, with new French oak bringing sweeter notes of toast and caramel. Drink 2018 through at least 2024. Cellar Selection.

Rochioli 2012 Estate Grown Pinot Noir; $65, 91 points. Savory and structured, it has a supple layering of allspice dancing on the palate, with floral, violet-like overtones. Black cherry and earth make up the soul of this wine; it’s both classy and hearty.


Laguna Ridge

South of the Middle Reach near Forestville, a narrow strip blessed by deep, well-draining sandy Goldridge and Altamont soils, with some Franciscan at its northern end, is the Laguna Ridge, sometimes called the Golden Triangle. It overlooks the Laguna de Santa Rosa, where water pools during winter rains.

In addition to Merry Edwards, Dehlinger Winery, Lynmar Estate and Joseph Swan Vineyards are among wineries located here. Swan was the first to plant Pinot Noir in the Laguna Ridge after Prohibition on the advice of Andre Tchelistcheff, who referred to it as “middle-cool.”

“The Pinot Noirs have a wonderful mouthfeel and moderate acidity, going from red to dark fruit, strawberry, mixed berry, pit-like fruit like plum and nectarine, with a brambly, exotic spice character,” says Berglund.

Not as rich as Middle Reach wines on the palate, yet not as linear as those from the cooler Green Valley or Sebastopol Hills, these wines offer plenty of lushness. North–south running hills separate Laguna Ridge from the Santa Rosa Plain.

The Klopp Ranch and Coopersmith Vineyard of Merry Edwards Winery are on the Laguna Ridge.

“The Pinots are characterized by their great mouthfeel,” says Edwards. “They have a lot of rich, high-quality tannin, and there’s a lot of cocoa in Coopersmith. They’re blackberry-focused, like walking through a field of blackberries, with a leafy smell.”

Laguna Ridge Russian River Valley

Recommended Wines

Ramey 2012 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay; $65, 97 points. This wine is deliciously elegant and yet decadently rich in all the right ways, from a prime longtime vineyard source planted to vines over 40 years old. Honeyed apple comes to the fore amid lush, formidable layers of complexity and high-minded pursuit, never getting bogged down, the minerality perfectly pitched and the oak fully integrated. Editors’ Choice.

Paul Hobbs 2012 Pinot Noir; $55, 94 points. Sourced in part from the Katherine Lindsay Estate Vineyard in the heart of Laguna Ridge, this wine is powerful and lush. It’s a velvety, classically styled Russian River Valley Pinot, weighty and lip-smacking in black cherry and earth, buoyed by finely hued acidity. Perfectly enjoyable now, it’ll also age well, the spicy undertones coaxed to center stage. Cellar Selection.

Merry Edwards 2012 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir; $60, 93 points. Klopp is a mix of California and Burgundy clones, one of the producer’s finest offerings every year, made in an opulent, balanced style. Lush layers of strawberry and cherry are surrounded by truffle-like dirt, the wine concentrated in tannin and subtle oak, while anise marks the measured finish. The wine will benefit from time in the cellar, through 2020. Cellar Selection.


Santa Rosa Plain

A large stretch of flatlands closer to the town of Santa Rosa on the east side of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, this neighborhood encompasses Olivet Road, and the larger Piner-Olivet area. It boasts a deep concentration of vineyards and wineries, including Pellegrini Wine Company, DeLoach Vineyards and Inman Family Wines.

It’s also where many of the Valley’s old plantings of Zinfandel—really mixed black varieties—still remain. Well-known properties in the neighborhood include Barbieri Ranch, Carlisle Vineyard (formerly Pelletti), Fanucchi Vineyards, Montafi Ranch (formerly Tom Feeney), Papera Ranch, Parsons’ Vineyard and Saitone Ranch.

“Zinfandels from this area are marked by healthy acidities,” says Mike Officer, winemaker at Carlisle Winery & Vineyards.

“Another defining characteristic is the fruit profile,” he says. “In Dry Creek, Zinfandel seems to be all about cherry. In Sonoma Valley, [it’s] generally about blackberry. But in Zin from the Santa Rosa Plains, it’s more about raspberry, boysenberry and even mulberry. There also tends to be more spice.”

He says the fruit profile for Zinfandel changes moving north. Carlisle Zinfandels from Limerick Lane Cellars near Healdsburg tend to combine cherry and raspberry.

Martinelli Winery & Vineyards’s holdings sprawl throughout the Russian River Valley and within the Santa Rosa Plain. At Moonshine Ranch, a seven-acre parcel, Pinot Noir is planted in clay and clay loam soils with a bit of cobblestone.

There, they see Pinots exhibiting more red fruit than at Zio Tony Ranch in the Laguna Ridge, where black cherry and cola dominate.

“Moonshine’s a big juicy bomb with an acid backbone,” says Bryan Kvamme, Martinelli’s winemaker. “It’s accessible.”

The Olivet Lane Vineyard, from which Edwards (among others) sources Pinot Noir, has clay-rich soils and deep-rooted vines. A lot of the sites are planted with Martini clone, one of the oldest clones in the appellation, with large berries.

Santa Rosa Plain Russian River Valley

Recommended Wines

Carlisle 2012 Saitone Vineyard Zinfandel; $46, 94 points. Interplanted with Carignan, Alicante Bouschet and Grand Noir, this Zin vineyard dates back to 1895. It’s velvety in blueberry and boysenberry fruit, with well-honed tannins and a full body. On the finish is a satisfying streak of black licorice and pepper. Cellar through 2022. Cellar Selection.

Donum 2012 Estate Grown Reserve Pinot Noir; $90, 94 points. A wine that begs for time in the bottle, it stubbornly reveals bold, brawny and rich notes of black cherry, coffee and black pepper, girded by a strong presence of dark chocolate. Amid the black cherry are accompanying flavors of brambly blackberry and a suggestion of savory cranberry, all integrating with the tannins. Cellar through 2022. Cellar Selection.

Davis Bynum 2012 Jane’s Vineyard Clone 667 Pinot Noir; $55, 92 points. This is a robust, brawny wine, exuberant in wild strawberry, earthy black pepper and black tea. Leathery layers of mushroom and toasted oak combine for a full-bodied experience that speaks well of the appellation. It’s a concentrated version of one clone of the grape from a single vineyard in a stellar vintage.


Green Valley

The only Russian River Valley neighborhood recognized as an AVA, Green Valley centers around the towns of Graton and Occidental, south of Forestville and north of Sebastopol. It’s populated with redwood and fir trees and underlain by Goldridge soils, with a generally higher elevation than surrounding areas. The heavily forested region is subject to consistent cooling winds from the Pacific Ocean.

In the 1970s, the Dutton family was among the first to plant grapes widely here, followed soon after by Iron Horse Vineyards, which focused on sparkling. The region became an AVA in 1983. A slight tweak was made to its name in 2008, officially known now as Green Valley of Russian River Valley.

Hartford Court, Marimar Estate Vineyards & Winery and Dutton-Goldfield Winery are among the other pioneering producers here, but the area features more vineyards than wineries.

The northern part of Green Valley is warmer than the south, which runs along the Bodega Highway. Many of the sites are sheltered by hills, with a balance between warmth and coolness. Sites at higher elevations are more affected by wind.

Michael Browne of Kosta Browne Winery, who sources from Green Valley’s Keefer Ranch, describes the Pinots as tasting of “red fruits,” like rhubarb, cranberry, pomegranate and tart cherry.

“They’re crisp in aromatics, with a luxurious mouthfeel, precise and clean, beautifully textured,” he says.

There’s a firmness and tension to the wines, which often exhibit a tinge of anise. Well-structured, they retain ample richness in the mouth and are beautifully textured.

“Cooler doesn’t always mean lighter,” says Elizabeth Grant-Douglas, director of winemaking for La Crema, which is introducing a Green Valley-sourced Pinot Noir with the 2013 vintage.

“In Green Valley, you get perfectly ripe tannins but the acids are super high,” Grant-Douglas says. “There’s intensity and density with acidity.”

Green Valley Russian River Valley

Recommended Wines

Dutton-Goldfield 2013 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir; $40, 94 points. Minty fresh and significantly herbal, this is a lighter-styled, stemmy and earthy wine from a longstanding vineyard source that shines from start to finish. Pomegranate, black cherry and tea combine to delicious effect, giving the wine enough body and soul to remain memorable through the long, tea-stained finish. Editors’ Choice.

Gary Farrell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard Clone 777 Oak Tank Fermented 17% Whole Cluster Pinot Noir; $65, 94 points. This wine delivers in flavor and aroma, a refined layering of cherry and strawberry that celebrates what this aromatic clone can do. Orange peel and tart, tight acidity combine around a silky texture, with a ginger-spice finish and lingering hint of rose petal. Editors’ Choice.

Cellars 33 2013 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir; $52, 93 points. This is a terrific representation of all that is spectacularly specific about Keefer Ranch, a relatively cool site in Green Valley. Earthy and spicy in clove and nutmeg, the wine is lightly layered in cranberry and crisp cherry. It’s supple and silky on the palate, with an earthy oomph to the finish. Editors’ Choice.


Sebastopol Hills

This neighborhood is roughly defined as the stretch of land running east to west around the town of Sebastopol, overlapping into Green Valley, in a larger region that some have begun to call the West Sonoma Coast. This is about as cool as it gets within the Russian River Valley’s official boundaries.

Ted Lemon’s Littorai Wines is here, as well as the Balletto family, which farms Burnside Road Vineyard.

Producers from throughout the Russian River Valley and beyond are increasingly seeking out the area’s cooler-climate fruit, likely to include some of the crisp red-fruit characteristics for which Green Valley is known, along with savory elements of dried herbs and black tea.

Bleeding into Freestone, where the Pacific Ocean winds its way up the Bodega Highway, are the Sebastopol Hills. Beautiful apple country with classic Goldridge soils, it’s home to Meredith Estate Vineyard, which Edwards purchased in 1996.

“People said it was too cold there to plant, what used to be on the edge,” Edwards says. “The grapes definitely have a cool-area character, with a lot of blue fruit, blue flowers, still very elegant and a high pH and high acidity at the same time, which is a strange combination—they’re usually in opposition to one another. As it’s matured, I get more body in the wines than I thought [was possible].”

Sebastopol Hills Russian River Valley

Recommended Wines

Lynmar 2012 Freestone Pinot Noir; $60, 96 points. This Pinot is caressed in floral aromas and juicy red cherry. The wine is fresh and alive, a back layer of black tea, savory herb and exotic spice meshing in magical ways. The majority of the grapes came from the Sexton Vineyard, with the rest from Umino and Jenkins. Editors’ Choice.

Patz & Hall 2012 Burnside Vineyard Pinot Noir; $75, 94 points. This wine is no shrinking violet on the nose, resplendent in fresh roses and strawberry-raspberry. It confounds in its ability to provide such huge flavor and personality while retaining a freshness and high level of acidity on the palate. A leathery, savory component speaks quietly amid the suggestions of cinnamon and cigar. Editors’ Choice.

Chasseur 2012 Syrah; $40, 93 points. Tannic on entry, this wine evolves softly into balanced overtones of leather and cherry. It represents the more restrained and elegant side of Syrah that’s possible in cooler pockets of the Russian River Valley when the grapes are in good hands. A peppery bite closes the finish. Editors’ Choice.

J Vineyards & Winery 2012 Freestone Hill Vineyard Estate Grown Pinot Noir; $75, 93 points. Tight at first, this elegant Pinot from cooler climes is velvety on the palate, with a back note of juicy blueberry fruit that maintains an edge of acidity and tension. Earthy black tea wraps the fruit in a savory core of intrigue and desire.

Published on June 4, 2015
Topics: Sonoma