A proposed expansion of the Russian River Valley appellation seems poised for approval even while some Sonoma County growers grumble that it largely benefits one wine producer and could ultimately dilute the integrity of the grapegrowing region.
Wine giant E&J Gallo earlier this year petitioned the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) to expand the Russian River American Viticultural Area (AVA), enlarging it by about 14,000 acres to nearly 170,000 total and shifting the region's border several miles to the south and east.
At the heart of the proposed expansion is Gallo's Two Rock Vineyard, which is located along the Highway 101 corridor near Cotati. Of the 550 acres of existing vineyards in the expanded area, about 350 are planted in that vineyard.
"It shares all the characteristics of the Russian River appellation," said Jim Collins, Gallo's senior director of coastal wine growing. "The soils are the same and the climate conditions."
Several growers and winemakers oppose the expansion and argue that the region is a mismatch for Russian River, but they say they hesitate to openly challenge Gallo, a company that has deep pockets and has been one of the biggest players in the Sonoma County grape industry for decades. "People don't want to make enemies of Gallo," said one winemaker who asked not to be identified. "A lot of people do business with them."
When Gallo first proposed the expansion to the community two years ago, the board of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers voted unanimously to oppose it. But after recent changes to the board membership, the association now takes a neutral position, though several board members say they remain personally opposed.
Board president Hector Bedolla, vineyard manager for La Crema Winery, argues that the region is more influenced by the Pacific Ocean than Russian River is, making it far cooler and windier. Board member Rod Berglund, winemaker for Joseph Swan Vineyards, agrees. "It's totally inappropriate to add that area," he said. "They argue that it's part of the Russian River watershed. Yeah, so's Ukiah. The facts they have presented may be correct but I don't believe they support the conclusions they are making."
Winemaker and former board president Merry Edwards has been vocal in her opposition. She is concerned that other expansions will follow this one and worries that the wines from the new regions will taste so dramatically different that consumers will be confused. "The reason that Russian River have come as far as it has is that we've had uniform quality," Edwards said.
Expansion opponents say that as a scattered, unorganized group, they have little chance against Gallo, which has put considerable time and resources into the petition. "They have a whole staff working on this," one grower said. "I'm just one guy." The public comment period is scheduled to end today, though Edwards has filed for an extension.
Berglund said that simply writing letters against the expansion will not turn the tide. "It's like arguing in court," he said. "You have to refute the evidence." Gallo has worked hard to build community support in the past two years, meeting with individual growers and winemakers, and while some say they're suspicious that Gallo might be twisting a few arms, Berglund argues no. "I've never heard anyone say that they tried to use their leverage against them."
Gallo disputes that objections are widespread. "This petition has received broad support from local farmers, winery owners, consumers and agricultural organizations," said Collins. "Most importantly, anyone interested in it has had an opportunity to review the petition and supporting evidence and communicate their position to the TTB."
While the opposition is disappointed that they don't have more support in the wine community, it may be a matter of AVA fatigue. First approved in 1983, the Russian River AVA has been expanded twice in recent years, and many complain that their voices have never been heard in the past, so why bother fighting now. Also, with continued consolidation in the Sonoma wine industry, there are fewer small and medium-size companies to take up any cause.
In the end, those outside Sonoma County may wonder what the fuss is all about. What does a few thousand acres matter? It's all about money. Vineyards planted in Russian River are generally more valuable than vineyards in the proposed expansion, which is now part of the large Sonoma Coast AVA.
Bedolla researched prices from nine different Sonoma County wineries that produce both a Sonoma Coast and Russian River bottling of Chardonnay or Pinot Noir—the list included the likes of Patz & Hall and Williams Selyem. On average, the Russian River wines sold for $6 more a bottle.