Russian River Valley Neighborhoods Seminar

panelAn esteemed panel lead the Pinot Classic’s Russian River Valley “Neighborhoods” seminar, an integral part in the RRV Winegrowers program to educate the public about the unique micro-climates within the Russian River Valley AVA in Sonoma County. The panel was moderated by Mike Sullivan, co-owner and winemaker at Benovia with Mark McWilliams, Arista Winery, representing the “Middle Reach” neighborhood, Rod Berglund, Joseph Swan Vineyards, representing the “Laguna Ridge” neighborhood, and Michael Browne, Kosta Browne, representing the “Green Valley” neighborhood.  Additionally joining the panel was noted author and Russian River Valley expert, Steve Heimoff, formerly of Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast, currently Director of Wine Communications and Education for Jackson Family Wines.

The Russian River Valley winegrowers began planting cool climate grapes in the 1960’s and they have emerged as the premier Pinot Noir and Chardonnay growers in the United States largely a factor of almost perfect weather and unique soils.  The Russian River Valley has natural air-conditioning created by a distinguishing fog that ebbs and flows through the Petaluma gap and the channel cut by the Russian River.  This fog allows the grapes to develop full flavor maturity over an extended growing season — often 15 to 20 percent longer than neighboring areas — while retaining their life-giving natural acidity.  Yet, within the Russian River Valley five distinct micro-climates exist – the Middle Reach, the Laguna Ridge, Green Valley, Santa Rosa Plain, and Sebastopol Hills.  Today’s neighborhood discussion explored the unique characteristics of the pinot noirs in the first three of these micro-climiates.  It should be noted that the Green Valley is a unique AVA entirely within the Russian River Valley AVA. 


Mark McWilliams speaking about the Middle Reach, located around Westside Road from Healdsburg to River Road, indicated the soil’s percentage of sand, silt, and clay determined it characteristics as did the elevation and resultant influence by fog.  To show the characteristics of the Middle Reach, a blind tasting of three vineyards, Allen, Harper’s Rest, and Little Hill was done. The wines all exhibited darker stone fruit flavors with an earthiness and firm tannin structure.  This region features notable wines from Williams Selyem (Allen), Arista (Harper’s Rest), and Rochioli (Little Hill); all of which have historically aged exceptionally well – Merry Edwards has described the wines as “built to last.”  The wines tasted were from the 2012 vintage.

The goal of the RRV Winegrowers Neighborhood Group is to develop a common language and terms to describe the characteristics of its micro-climate wines from year to year – as a self education and for consumer information.  To accomplish this they are working on developing a database of information that will help everyone understand this diverse AVA.  The over-arching (marco) characteristics are similar, but when you drill down unique (micro) qualities emerge.

tastingRod Berglund described the Laguna Ridge, where the Russian River heads toward the ocean, as a very old grape growing region, although newer to pinot noir with a stronger influence of coastal fog than the Middle Reach. The vineyards tasted in this micro-climate included Trenton Estate (Joseph Swan), Goldridge (Dehlinger), and Soul Patch (Davis Family Vineyards) from the 2011 vintage again tasted blind.  These wines exhibited bright red fruit (strawberries with some plum notes) and a milder acidity than the Middle Reach.  Michael Browne concluded with the Green Valley AVA, saying that it exhibited some of the coolest weather in the Russian River Valley.  The 2012 vintages tasted were from the Emerald Ridge vineyard (Dutton-Goldfield), the Keefer Ranch vineyard (Kosta Browne), and Fog Dance vineyard (Hartford Court).  These wines exhibited crisp red fruit flavors (cranberry, raspberries) with a bright acidity.  The wines have been described as having “tension” – an edge or firmness and may be a little less drinkable when they are very young.  The structure of these wines seems to define the Green Valley.

Michael Browne said that for him Russian River Valley wines are about texture and that wonderful mouth feel.  Mark McWilliams described the RRV wines as accessible; wines that can be consumed young, but have tremendous upside potential for development over time. Mike Sullivan echoed Mark about the consistency year-to-year of the RRV pinot noir with their characteristic hallmarks of mixed berries and cola.  The wines display well in tough growing years (2010-2011) and good ones (2012-2013).  Rod Berglund indicated that in the RRV it is incredibly easy to make well-balanced wines and again reiterated Michael Browne that it is the incredible mouth feel that distinguishes RRV pinot noir.

Steve Heimoff shared some additional information from his book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River and discussed that the expanse of Sonoma County pinot noir growing region which represents the largest such area in the world with 500 miles stretching from the coast to 30 miles inland and that makes this an incredible region within the wine world.

It should be noted that Gus (Steve’s dog) also joined panel but was quiet on the Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs as Steve says that he favors Dry Creek Valley’s zinfandel.  But that is another topic!

#Benovia #Arista #JosephSwan #KostaBrowne #SteveHeimoff #DiscoverRRV