Is it possible to love a wine region to death? Sometimes it seems that way with Sonoma's Russian River Valley. Three times now its American Viticultural Area (AVA) has been expanded. Everyone wants in.
As the Russian River AVA becomes larger and more unwieldy, is it losing its meaning as a wine region? There is a real risk and it's something that every AVA faces. All AVAs start off as righteous causes dedicated to purity, to distinctive places to grow wine, but they end up being about money. If Russian River Valley is on your wine label, let's be honest, you can charge more than a wine labeled Sonoma County or Sonoma Coast.
Don't mistake my grumbling about Russian River's expansion for a lack of regard. Caesar is still worth praising, not burying. At its heart, it's a remarkable place to grow wine, one of the best and most versatile wine regions in California, capable of producing excellent Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and even Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. I lived inside its boundaries for five years and came to know its warm days and brisk nights.
Just taste wines like Carlisle Zinfandel Russian River Valley Carlisle Vineyard 2009 (93 points, $44) and Failla Pinot Noir Russian River Valley Keefer Ranch 2009 (95, $45) or Rochioli Chardonnay Russian River Valley 2009 (93, $38) and you get the idea how special the region is at its best.
Located in the heart of Sonoma County, Russian River Valley has been producing wine for generations. In 1876 there were already 7,000 acres of vines planted in the area, but except for a few wineries like Korbel and Foppiano, most failed to survive Prohibition.
It really wasn't until the late 1960s that modern Russian River began to take shape with visionaries like Joe Rochioli and Joe Swan. Wine giant E&J Gallo ruled the Sonoma market for years and most experts doubted California was suited to Pinot Noir or Chardonnay, and many of the classic old Zinfandel vineyards form the region were blended into vats of Hearty Burgundy and later white Zinfandel.
By 1983, the original Russian River AVA was approved at 96,000 acres. It was defined largely by the river's fog line but even then it seemed rather unruly in size as every square mile was negotiated by growers and wineries that wanted to be included.
The last expansion was approved late last year by the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), enlarging the AVA—by about 14,000 acres, to nearly 170,000 total—and shifting the region's border several miles to the south and east.
The moving force behind that change was Gallo, which wanted its large Two Rock Vineyard included in Russian River, not just the vast Sonoma Coast AVA. It's a stretch by any measure except Gallo's, and few Russian River growers and winemakers liked the idea but they grinned and beared it because Gallo has deep pockets and still buys a lot of grapes in Sonoma.
What will the future bring for Russian River? Does it risk losing its shine as it expands?
It will be interesting to see how vineyard-designated wines from Two Rock develop. For now, it's wait and see.
Joe-janelle Becerra — Burlingame, CA — January 18, 2012 4:56pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento, CA — January 18, 2012 6:01pm ET
Mark Lyon — Sonoma, CA; USA — January 19, 2012 12:51pm ET
Chris Hilliard — Alaska — January 19, 2012 2:20pm ET
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — January 19, 2012 4:42pm ET
Chris Hilliard — Alaska — January 20, 2012 7:54am ET
Robert Lapolla — san diego, CA USA — January 23, 2012 2:45pm ET
Tim Fish — Santa Rosa, CA — January 23, 2012 4:42pm ET
Ray Ondrejech — San Luis Obispo, CA — January 24, 2012 1:48pm ET
Dustin Gillson — Dayton, OH — January 27, 2012 12:40pm ET
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