The Pedigree of
Russian River Valley
By W. Peter Hoyne
Native Americans were among the first to populate areas along the shores of the Russian River until the arrival of the California Gold Rush. Russian River Valley acquired its name from the Russian fur traders that sought refuge and developed an agricultural footprint in the cool coastal reaches of Fort Ross in the 18th century. These fur traders were the first to cultivate grapes in Sonoma County. Logging was one of the leading industries as the river provided a passage for transporting lumber to the mills downstream. European immigrants followed, transforming grain fields and apple orchards into expansive vineyards. Russian River Valley became a sanctuary of multigenerational families who employed toughness and grit to reshape the landscape, breeding winemaking and grape growing into the natural beauty. In the 1960’s a transformation in winemaking took place as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were introduced into this terrain.
Once recognized as a diverse vacation destination only for those from San Francisco, Russian River Valley remains a secluded retreat where vineyards are intertwined with nature and a rustic-urban atmosphere of trendy towns. This geography is unlike any other and it is configured as a diamond. Bordered by Healdsburg to the North, Occidental and Guerneville to the West and extending south to Santa Rosa. In 1983 Russian River acquired its own American Viticultural Area (AVA), expanding the boundaries in 1985, now comprising 160,000 acres of land with 80 wineries spread throughout the region.
Climate is etched by the cooling influences of the Pacific Ocean that navigates its route into the valley through a split in the mountain ranges, referred to as the Petaluma Gap. The growing season is slowed by heavy fog that creeps its way through the valley, migrating northward at night. In some regions, this maritime influence will cause temperatures to drop by 40 degrees. This downward shift allows Russian River Valley grapes to ripen slowly, retaining their freshness and natural acidity.
There are more variations of soils in Russian River Valley than France. The shifting of tectonic plates over millions of years and volcanic activity in the Mayacamas Mountains created a soil mixture of alluvial, sandstone and sedimentary deposits. Some of the most cherished soils are those of well-drained loamy sandstone referred to as Goldridge.
To better understand the wines of Russian River Valley, they have been grouped into six neighborhoods; Middle Reach, Laguna Ridge, Santa Rosa Plains, Sebastopol Hills Green Valley, and Eastern Hills. Under the Neighborhoods initiative, UC Davis in California has done an analysis of soils, sites and climate from each neighborhood. Similar to a fingerprint analysis, they have determined that scientifically “Neighborhoods of Russian River Valley are unique from any other growing region in the world and that they are statistically distinctive between each other” Also, winemaking does not alter this continuity.
The neighborhood accurately defines the sensory characteristics that originate from individual soils and microclimates. Each of these sub-regions has a personalized style and unique signature. Many wineries have vineyards in several neighborhoods.
Middle Reach: The northernmost neighborhood near Healdsburg with some of the oldest plantings of Pinot Noir including Rochioli and Bacigalupi Vineyards. It follows the path of the Russian River with sedimentary deposits from it’s banks. This is the warmest neighborhood with moderating nighttime temperatures due to its proximity to the river. These are savory and richly textured wines driven by lush red berry overtones, spice and lower acidity.
Laguna Ridge: A neighborhood of rolling hills located between Green Valley to the west and Santa Rosa Plains to the east. This area is cooler than Middle Reach with a significant amount of fog and consists mostly of well-drained, loamy Goldridge and Altamont soils. Joseph Swan was one of the first to propagate Pinot Noir vines in this region.These grapes are less prone to frost with a longer hang time. Wines display mixed berry and purple fruits with a generous mouth-feel and a briary spice character.
Santa Rosa Plains: Varying soils of high acid and clay content along with Franciscan shale and sandstone. This neighborhood is best known for their old-vine Zinfandel. These wines showcase an abundance of soft red raspberry and cherry flavors with balanced acidity.
Sebastopol Hills: One of the coolest neighborhoods of Russian River Valley influenced by wind and fog from the Pacific Ocean directed through the Petaluma Gap. These can be lean wines with juicy stone and spiced cherry flavors revealing a higher amount of natural acidity.
Green Valley: Located on the west side of the Russian River Valley and near the Pacific Ocean. It has it’s own AVA and benefits from cool coastal winds and fog. This heavily forested region benefits from higher elevations and a balance of cool and warm microclimates. Here you will find concentrated wines of blue-black fruits, ripe tannins and firm textures. These dense wines are well-textured with a gentle mouth-feel and noticeable acidity.
Eastern Hills: The combined effect of volcanic and sedimentary sub-soils along with warmer afternoon temperatures allow the grapes to ripen earlier. The personality of these wines are more textural.
Within the enclave of Russian River Valley you will uncover a treasure-trove of well-crafted, charismatic varietals and unearth the essence of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at the same time.