User ID:

Remember me
Lost password?

Monday Manifestos
Russian River Valley AVA—Too Big To Fail or Just Too Big

By Charles Olken

If you think that the AVA system was supposed to be a boon to consumers, think again. The Russian River Valley AVA was just expanded by 15,000 acres are the request of one very powerful winery.

Not one consumer was involved in initiating this further expansion of an area already too large to have significant meaning in terms of grape-growing conditions and wine results. And while the expansion is not going to make much difference given the current state of play, it simply is the wrong result.

It is one thing to have large area AVAs like North Coast or San Francisco Bay or Central Coast or any of the generalized, multi-county designations. They are essentially meaningless and very few consumers are lulled into buying wines with those appellations. While there are important wines with North Coast, for example, on their labels, I would guess that very few people buy Schramsberg because it uses that appellation rather than California, as, say, Chandon does.

Names like Napa Valley or Russian River Valley, however, do come with serious, commercially advantageous cachet, and that is why those designations have been sought after and allowed to include land and microclimates that are so diverse that there is simply no reliable way for the consumer to know what they mean in real terms.

For proof, I offer you the comments of a winery that shall remain nameless for the moment until it actually carries out its cynical plan. The size of the Russian River Valley AVA, already so big that it is failing consumers, has encouraged a winery in the warm area east of Highway 101, with vineyards suited to varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and its friends, to contemplate planting Pinot Noir. It is not that the location is in a suitable microclimate for Pinot Noir. It is not and the winery owner knows it.

The winery has hatched this plan because, as the winery owner said without so much as bit of concern, it is in the Russian River Valley AVA and Russian River Pinot Noir sells and sells and sells because most of it is planted in much cooler parts of the AVA and has acquired a well-earned reputation for quality. Ultimately, of course, quality will win out, but that is seemingly not a concern to those who would plant Pinot Noir is the wrong places in order to take advantage of its economic potential under an AVA name that is now too large.

The Russian River Valley is not alone in this situation, and, frankly, the recent expansion adds territory that is more like the majority of the AVA than the warm north end of its reach up towards Healdsburg or to the east into an overlapping AVA known as Chalk Hill. The same “too large” tag can, should and has been hung on the Napa Valley AVA. But, at least in the Napa Valley, there are more than a dozen overlapping, small area AVAs that have more meaning as to wine character and thus to the consumer than currently exists within the 150,000 acres of the Russian River Valley.

I know what should be done to correct this misleading situation. AVAs that are too large should be either scrapped entirely or should be overlain with meaningful smaller districts. And since doing away with such names as Napa Valley and Russian River Valley is simply not going to happen, then the next best thing is too encourage the good folks in the Russian River Valley to get on with their occasional discussions of smaller, more tightly defined areas.

Russian River Valley—please be encouraged. I like my Westside Road Pinot Noir and I understand that it is very different from what is grown in Freestone or along the Gravenstein Highway. Give us some meaningful geographic delimitations. You are now all grown up, and it won’t hurt a bit.


The CGCW Experience - Take the Tour

Meet the New CGCW

For thirty-five years, Connoisseurs’ Guide has been the authoritative voice of the California wine consumer. With readers in all fifty states and twenty foreign countries, the Guide is valued by wine lovers everywhere for its honesty and for it strong adherence to the principles of transparency, unbiased, hard-hitting opinions. Now, it is becoming the California winelover’s most powerful online voice as well. And, our new features provide an unmatched array of advice and information for aficionados of every stripe.


by Steve Heimoff
Posted on:11/21/2011 11:04:55 AM

You've got it exactly right, Charlie. This expansion will stimulate renewed discussion of sub-AVAs within the greater Russian River Valley, just like in Burgundy.

RRV expansion
by Brent Bessire
Posted on:11/21/2011 11:42:56 AM


While clearly the push by Gallo to get this territory added to the RRV was economically based and thus offends me, as you rightly point out:

" the recent expansion adds territory that is more like the majority of the AVA than the warm north end of its reach up towards Healdsburg or to the east into an overlapping AVA known as Chalk Hill."

As a part of the Sonoma Coast appellation that suffers from even more confusion, this area shares more with the Green Valley than the warmer (dare I say hot) areas in the northern region of the AVA. The problem with sub-appellations is a marketing one, though highly educated buyers seem to appreciate the difference, thus  the demand for vineyard designates.

I do hope this move will not errode the hard work to establish the RRV AVA as one of the best in the world. I suspect the fruit coming from this area is going to be exceptional. Let's hope the Gallos can translate that into great wine.

RRV--More Is Less
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/21/2011 11:52:45 AM

Thanks for the comments.

The Gallo ezpansion is certainly brings in territory that is a lot closer to the RRV perception of cool area dirt--and Pinot Noir dirt to be more specific.

It is certainly a lot less bothersome from a confusion standpoint than the inclusion of Chalk Hill and other elevated, warmer sites east of Hwy 101.

Hopefully Steve Heimoff is right, and I will get my wish that we now see tighter, more characteristically consistent AVAs forming. The addition of such places in the Napa Valley has not harmed the image of those wines in the least. We may be talking a "geek's game" here, but the fine wine biz has always been a geek's game. And it is that game that has made the reputations of the big areas and then of the small areas.

by Tom Warki
Posted on:11/21/2011 12:25:14 PM

The AVA system is a marketing system, not a system meant to deliver much information about the wines made from grapes grown in those AVAs. This has always been the case for nearly all AVA's with the exception of a few, such as Green Valley, Anderson Valley, Atlas Peak and a few others.


No Subject
by randy
Posted on:11/21/2011 1:27:30 PM

I predict more micro-AVA applications on the (near) future.  Similar to our Green Valley App located within the RRV, there'll be areas that are within this now larger AVA that are indeed different in fog lines, morning temp's and soil.  "Piner/Olivet Road District" for example...

The real person who benefitted was Gallo.  Congrats Gina, your lawyers have further dilluted the prestige of the Russian River Valley.  Rohnert Park is NOT the RRV

No Subject
by fred
Posted on:11/21/2011 2:48:54 PM

the "request" of one very powerful winery -- or is that " INFLUENCE "....? this move dilutes an incredible brand.  now let's get sonoma coast right!

Leave a comment below, but please limit your comments to 1,200 characters or less. We find it helpful to make a copy of our comments to be sure that they fit. In that way, you can edit them if they run long.

(Please note: your e-mail address will not be visible after posting)



Note: Refresh your browser to see your latest comments.

Having technical problems with the comment system? Click here.