Let Russian River Valley Take Over The World

The Feds are proposing to expand the Russian River Valley Appellation by 350 acres to the south, which will include Gallo’s acreage there.

Why the hell not!

It’s not as thought there is any real viticultural meaning the Russian River Valley AVA. The number of different climates, soils and rainfall totals you can find in this unwieldy appellation are probably too many to count on two hands. As it is currently configured, I don’t believe the Russian River Valley AVA will ever provide consumers with any real meaning whatsoever.

So why not just expand the appellation as far as the eye can see?

Historian William Heintz agrees with me, sort of:

"I agree … that the proposed expansion area and the main part of the
Russian River Valley viticultural area, which lies to the north, have
historically been part of one region in terms of common climate and
geographic features, settlement and the development of agriculture and

Of course the only problem here is that given the vast nature of the Russian River Valley AVA you could probably include nearly all of Sonoma County in any expansion and still claim it all has a common climate, geographic features, settlement and development of agriculture and transportation.

Of course Gallo wants to include its vineyards inside the AVA not because they think the vineyards fit into the geographic and climatic conditions that are supposed to define the appellation. They want to be included because the Russian River Valley AVA is gaining name recognition and name recognition means higher prices for wines that carry the Russian River Valley AVA.

It seems like wineries already making Russian River Valley-labeled wines would want Gallo to be included in their AVA. The more wine in the market that says "Russian River Valley" on the label, the more name recognition this vast swath of land has.

But, not all are in agreement:

“We’re pretty proud of our AVA (American Viticulture Area) and I think
what they are doing deteriorates it,” said grape grower Nick Leras."

I’m not sure that’s possible.

In any case, given that the real purpose of the Russian River Valley is to market a wine, not to give consumers an idea of what characteristics they’ll find in a wine that carries this appellation, I really do think it best to expand the RRV AVA to include all of Sonoma County. By doing so and by allowing all grapes grown in Sonoma County carry the Russian River Valley AVA label, the entire Sonoma County industry can benefit from the higher name recognition RRV has.

8 Responses

  1. Thomas Pellechia - September 12, 2008

    Who knows what the grape grower is thinking, but, as you say, as long as the AVA system is about marketing and not about wine, who cares how big an AVA is?
    Oh, wait. Maybe the consumer cares; you know, the average schmoe who gets to pay a higher price for wine just because TTB redrew a map! Great concept–for the bill collector.

  2. David J - September 12, 2008

    So dann, the less American ‘terroir’ is about wine, the more business will go South where even mass-produced industrial Malbec gives good QPR.

  3. jane - September 14, 2008

    Wait, what? Tom, didn’t you chime in enthusiastically in the Calistoga AVA dispute? I’m sorry, but maybe I’m missing your point about Russian River Valley. Is your objection that it’s Gallo who is applying for the expansion? Is it an objection to the expansion itself?
    I definitely identify Russian River Valley as a specific albeit broad AVA; I know that my friends in less wine-advantaged areas do use it as a benchmark for especially yummy Pinot and Zin. I should add, I guess, that the Gallo Family, Sonoma-grown Chardonnays I’ve sampled have been delightful for their price-points. I’d rather have Pinots from Sonoma Green Valley, but can’t afford to drink them as a house wine.
    So I deduce that Gallo would like to raise its price-points for its Sonoma wines, by labeling them with a more prestigious AVA. And maybe, if they are not what you consider “Russian River Valley,” that would be deceptive? Please clarify for me, my ally in controversy!

  4. Tom Wark - September 14, 2008

    I take no exception to Gallo being behind the permit. While a number of great wines come out of the Russian River Valley, it is at its current size fairly meaningless—that is, if the idea behind AVAs is that they can give consumers some expectations as to the character of the wine that will be in a bottle labeled “Russian River Valley”.
    I have no expectation that a wine labeled Russian River Valley will taste like anything in particular or have any particular characteristics because there is not that much homogeneity in the varying soils and microclimates of the AVA. Now, “Green Valley” is something different. Much smaller, much more consistent.
    So as long as the RRV AVA is fairly meaningless to the consumer, why not really enlarge it so that more people can benefit from the reputation it has gained?

  5. Dylan - September 14, 2008

    I don’t think it would be the worst thing ever. You mention using appellation for marketing, if there is a fear of homogenization it’s important for vineyards to take the leverage granted by such an appellation and with its captive audience, tell them what makes their vineyard/wine stand out from the rest within the namesake.
    In marketing it’s important not to ride on the coat-tails of an appellation, but it definitely helps to have a good one on your side (or label in this case).

  6. mark - September 16, 2008

    You are a beacon light of sarcasm, beaming it’s dark hope out across the sunny doldrums of the banal! Hey, why not call it Russian Rivers (plural)AVA , so it can include the up and coming Siberian pinot vineyards slightly to its north west? Due to global warming, and use of the very same oak powder, oak chips, yeast, polysaccharides, enzymes, acids, coloring and sweetening from concentrates, and reverse osmosis and vacuum distillation treatment processes used in many Sonoma County Pinot noir wines, the wines have an amazing similitude. Must be the terroir!

  7. Gerald Weisl, wine merchant - September 16, 2008

    Even with some expansion, the Russian River appellation would have slightly more significance than the “San Francisco Bay” AVA.
    I have friends who go boating in the Bay and we have yet to run across any (hydroponically farmed) vines there.
    The SF Bay AVA is totally ridiculous.

  8. David Graves - September 18, 2008

    I did not know “to deteriorate” is a transitive verb. You learn something every day.

Leave a Reply