The proposed new boundaries, which are to be submitted to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms this summer, would eliminate most of the Chalk Hill district from the appellation and add new vineyards to the south and west.
The Russian River Valley, in the western portion of Sonoma County, is home to top Chardonnay and Pinot Noir producers such as Kistler, Rochioli and Williams & Selyem. Its original boundaries were established in 1983.
In 1997, a group of many of the same vintners and growers attempted to expand the appellation all the way down to Cotati, near the southern edge of Sonoma County, but the BATF rejected their petition for being too broad. "We looked at the proposed boundary from 1997," said Robin Oden, chairman of the appellation boundary committee of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers trade association and communications manager for J Wine Co. "It didn't seem to make scientific sense."
This time, the association is pinpointing coastal fog as the critical factor in defining the appellation. Its cooling influence creates conditions favorable to grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The Chalk Hill district, a warmer area at the valley's eastern edge, experiences little fog influence.
Bill Knuttel, winemaker for Chalk Hill Winery, has mixed feelings about the plan, which would remove his winery from the Russian River appellation. "We don't necessarily have a problem with this," he said. "Chalk Hill is a subappellation and a separate area for a reason." However, the proposal would also eliminate some of his winery's existing vineyards from their current Chalk Hill appellation.
Knuttel suggested that with the boundaries redrawn, newcomers to the Russian River area would be able to charge more for their wines because of the region's strong reputation. "I suspect this is an attempt for some people to gerrymander something for themselves," he commented. "This is a political and a business move."
"It's not a political issue," countered Saralee Kunde, a Russian River Valley Winegrowers board member who owns 20 acres slated for inclusion in the new boundaries. "Because I have a vineyard that would be affected, I've stayed off the [appellation boundary] committee. But I'm in favor of it. It makes more sense."
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