The Fall of Russian River Valley

In my mind, Russian River Valley will no longer have the cache that it once had. Starting on Dec 16th, the Russian River Valley boundaries are being expanded further south to parts of Rohnert Park and Cotati. Gallo has been asking for the past couple of years to expand the territory to include a 350-acre vineyard they own on Cotati grade into this AVA (American Viticulture Area).

Their reasoning is simple. Right now they have to use Sonoma Coast on the label. Sonoma Coast grapes don’t have the following that Russian River grapes have and thus result in lower prices at the wholesale and retail level. But from a growers standpoint, the areas are not alike. And certainly not similar enough to be considered the same.

The first time I saw the signs by the Gallo on the side of Highway 101 saying Russian River watershed, I laughed. I actually laughed out loud and thought, “are you kidding me? This area has nothing to do with Russian River!”. But somehow, I knew there would be trouble. This was one of Gallo’s main points – that they are in the Russian River Valley watershed. Well, so is Petaluma (another hill south) and just about everywhere else in Sonoma County for that matter. Based on that idea, why not include the whole county into the Russian River Valley AVA?

You may be thinking, “Why is this such a big deal?”. The answer is quite straightforward. Russian River Valley grapes have a certain characteristic and flavor and these grapes will be different from that. Well, that’s not so bad you say, different is good, right? Usually. But in this case it’s different enough that it should have its own AVA. ┬áBut grapes from a new AVA don’t bring the prices Gallo wants in the market, so they piggy-backed on the existing area with cache. But I know better. And so do most of the Russian River Valley grape growers who strongly opposed this change.

It’s also pulling the wool over the consumer’s eyes. If you have never been to Sonoma County and specifically Russian River (or at least driven along highway 101), then you probably wouldn’t understand. But for those of us who live here, we all know that by going over just one little hill or mountain can change how grapes are grown significantly. And in the case of this particular vineyard it is not only over a hill (south) from Russian River, but has a completely different terrain and climate from the ‘old’ Russian River Valley. But the consumer in Missouri or Texas or New York will probably never know the difference. And that, my friends, is a travesty. And also Gallo’s plan – since they sell over 90% of their wine in the marketplace.

It just goes to show you what money can do. But wait, maybe it wasn’t money. Because Jess Jackson tried to rename a mountain in Alexander Valley and was unsuccessful. Renaming a mountain sure seems easier than extending an AVA. So maybe it wasn’t all money that made this happen. Whatever the pull behind it, it was a bad move and one that, for me, will taint Russian River Valley. Luckily I know the difference and know where my wine comes from. But the average consumer won’t be so lucky and that is a shame.

Cheers (to the ‘old’ Russian River Valley)!

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Filed under choosing wine, Russian River Valley, Wine, Wine Country

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