The movie Sideways did as much to promote California Pinot Noir as it did to vilify Merlot.  Some people would argue that Pinot was already on a rise but a little advertising doesn't hurt.  One region that has really benefited from the rise in popularity of Pinot Noir is the Russian River Valley.  For many wine enthusiasts Russian River Valley is synonymous with Pinot Noir.  While the Russian River Valley has its own style it could be said that the Russian River Valley is the Burgundy of California.

As the name suggests, the Russian River Valley Appellation is an American Viticulture Area defined predominantly by the depression created by the flow of the Russian River.  The river is the flows southward from Mendicino County parallel to Dry Creek Valley, through the town of Healdsburg and finally turns westward where it flows out into the Pacific Ocean.   The AVA is characterized by rolling hills with some deep valleys.  The slopes face a number of different directions which means the amount of sunlight can vary dramatically.  This creates pockets of unique geography.  Now there is a condition where the cool breezes that flow in from the Pacific Ocean each night (thoroughly explained in Sideways) are easily felt.  The AVA is a mere 10 miles from the Pacific Coast at its closest point.  Combine the terrain and the cool breezes and it becomes clear why a person will experience significant changes in temperature within a few miles of each other.  As we like to say in California the region blessed with numerous microclimates.

Russian River Valley AVA

As many regions in the US, the wine growing history is divided into pre-prohibition and post-prohibition.  The pre-prohibition history has the area producing as much as 500,000 gallons of wine.  While it cannot be determined exactly when the first grapes were planted and harvested it is well documented by 1870s the region was known wine production with more than 7,000 acres planted with grapes.  The region was moving along nicely until prohibition was instituted.  Prohibition basically halted all wine production in the area.  It wasn't until the 1960s that wine production in Russian River Valley really started up again.  It was then that Bob Sisson, the University of California Farm Advisor for Sonoma County, urged many of the local farmers to start planting grapes.  In fact, we could call Bob the father of Russian River Pinot Noir as he was the one encouraged the local farmer to plan Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, cold weather grapes he believed would flourish in the region.

The Russian River Valley AVA was created in 1983 and has been adjusted in 1987, 2003 and 2005.  Unlike Sonoma Valley and Napa Valley, the Russian River Valley isn't as well defined geographically.  The AVA is bordered on the north end by the Russian River and its valley.  To the north the AVA is Dry Creek Valley.   The east border is the Mayacaymus Mountains (Knights Valley AVA and Alexander Valley AVA).  The west border is coastal mountains (Sonoma Coast AVA) and the south border is the town of Sebastapol (Sonoma Coast AVA).

Sub-appellations include Chalk Hill, which is warmer and dryer than most of Russian River Valley, to the far east of the appellation and Green Valley (or Sonoma Green Valley or Green Valley of Russian River Valley), located in the southwest corner is of Russian River Valley, is the coolest and wettest part of the region.

Grapes and Wineries of Russian River Valley

According to the Appellation America website there are at least 40 varieties of wine grapes grown in Russian River Valley.  However, the ones that are the most important and most well known for the region are: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah and Zinfandel.  Because of the numerous microclimates it is possible to grow a wide variety of grapes.  In fact, in Chalk Hill sub-appellation you are more likely to find Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cab Franc than Pinot Noir.

Again, according to Appellation America website, there are 170 wineries based in Russian River Valley and 353 wineries producing wines with the Russian River Valley appellation.  There is a approximately 15,000 acres planted in the region and it keeps expanding.

Why should you care about Russian River Valley?

Russian River Valley is as important to California as Napa Valley.  While Napa established California as a competitor to French wines, Bordeaux in particular, Russian River Valley has show that California can produce Burgundy wines as good as the French.  Is the Russian River Valley the Californian equivalent of Burgundy?  Not exactly.  The major grapes are the same but the styles are different.  Red Burgundies display significant earthiness and acidity whereas Russian River Pinot Noirs display perfumed aromas with delicate red cherry flavors.  White Burgundies and Russian River Chardonnays are more similar than the reds but differ in the ability to age.  Although, this is a broad generalization Russian River Chardonnays are better in their youth and White Burgundies can age much more gracefully.  However, the thing that really separates Russian River Valley from Burgundy is the fact that Russian River Valley also produces elegant wines produce from Syrah, Zinfandel and also produces very high quality sparkling wines.

If you are in California and want to experience something a little different than Napa you should consider a trip to Russian River Valley.  There are a large number of great wineries and restaurants.  If you want to make a trip, drop me a line and I'll share some of my recommendations with you.


Russian River Valley Wine Growers

Northern Sonoma Wine Road

Russian River Travel

Appellation America

John Andrews is a software product manager during the week and is a professional Tasting Room staffer at Loxton Cellars in Glen Ellen, CA on the weekends.