Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Exploring the Russian River Valley

The Russian River Valley AVA (American Viticulture Area) is located in Sonoma County, California.  Designated as an AVA in 1983, the appellation was expanded in 2005, and again last year.

The Russian River Valley (RRV) was named for the first immigrants who settled here. In the 1830’s, Russian settlers began planting grape vines brought from their homeland.  It is believed that the first of these vines were planted at Fort Ross, near the Sonoma coast.  By 1841, the Russian immigrants had moved on to the north, but settlers from all over Europe were making their homes here and tending the grapes.

By 1876, wine production was booming.  Over 500,000 gallons of wine was being produced from 7,000 acres of vines.  By the close of the nineteenth century, the Russian River Valley had four large wineries established – the Santa Rosa Wine Company, Martini and Prati, Korbel Champagne Cellars, and Foppiano Winery.  Over 200 smaller wineries were also in operation here. 

Then came Prohibition and most wineries closed or began selling what they called “jackass brandy.” Jackass brandy was sugar and watered down fermented grape juice that could be mixed together to make wine at home.
By 1933 and the end of Prohibition, less than 50 wineries remained.  Many of these managed to survive the Depression and war years by selling their grapes to bulk wine producers who used them to make cheap jug wines.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s that winemakers in the region started to take their crafting abilities seriously.  Foppiano Vineyards lays claim to being the first winery to use the phrase Russian River on its label in 1973.  In 1983 the region received its AVA designation.

The climate for the region is nearly perfect for grape growing. A cool evening fog settles over the vineyards at night and drops the temperatures to around 40 degrees. Come morning, the fog burns off allowing for warm, sunny days and temperatures in the 80’s.  The volcanic Goldridge loam soil also has an intense and desirable effect on the grapes grown here.

In 2005 the Russian River Valley AVA was expanded another 30,200 acres, giving the region over 15,000 acres of vineyards.  Then in December 2011, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax & Trade Bureau) ruled to allow another 14,044 acres to be included in the boundary lines.  The RRV is now made up of 169,029 acres spread over 150 square miles.

The Russian River Valley is best known for its exceptional Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs.  The Chardonnay grapes are very fruit-forward with bright acidic finishes.  Though Pinot Noir is a difficult grape to grow, the soil here produces a wine that is rich and velvety.

The RRV region harvests over 42% of Chardonnay grapes and almost 30% of Pinot Noir grapes each year.  But these are not the only grapes that do well in this climate.  The region grows 35 different varietals including Zinfandel, Merlot, Cabernet, Syrah, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer, and Sauvignon Blanc. 

The Russian River Valley Winegrowers association offers five different driving tours.  They include:
Eastside Road/Old Redwood Highway Winery Tour consists of five wineries including one of the oldest, Foppiano Vineyards, and the first RRV winery to produce a single vineyard Pinot Noir - Davis Bynum Wines.

Rural Highway 116 Winery Tour will take you to 13 wineries.  The Freestone Vineyards is known for world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Kozlowski Farms, offering wine and specialty foods, was one of the first California farms to be certified organic in the 80’s, and Merry Edwards Winery, owned by one of California’s first women winemakers.

Healdsburg Area Winery Tour is made up of three wineries.  Davis Family Vineyards has Zinfandel crafted from 125 year old vines, Holdredge Wines offers limited production of Pinot Noirs, and if you plan a trip around harvest –time, you might get to watch as La Crema hand-harvest their Chardonnay and Pinot grapes.

Westside Road Winery Tour consists of four wineries, including Porter Creek, who practices sustainable vineyard management, Artista Winery which produces small lots of Pinot Noir, Moshin Vineyards specializes in six varietals of grape wines, and the Gary Farrell Winery that offers handcrafted Pinot, Chard and Zinfandel wines.

There are over 100 wineries located in the RRV, and another 170 grape growers.  For more information visit  For a tour book that highlights the region's wineries, food and fun, go to With the gorgeous vistas, the friendly wineries, and the fabulous wines, you may not want to leave.  Enjoy!

~ Joy