Federal regulators approved a controversial plan Wednesday to expand the prestigious Russian River Valley vineyard appellation south to Cotati, a change that was fought by some Russian River grape growers.
The move was sought by wine giant E&J Gallo, which owns 350 acres of vineyards flanking Highway 101 on the Cotati Grade.
The decision, published Wednesday by the U.S. Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, will add more than 14,000 acres to the Russian River Valley viticultural region, which currently covers about 155,000 acres.
It will allow more vintners to use “Russian River Valley” and “Northern Sonoma” appellations on their wine labels. Such designations “allow vintners to better describe the origin of their wines and allow consumers to better identify wines they purchase,” the bureau said.
The expansion was opposed by a regional trade group, the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, which said the added territory is too far away from the Russian River Valley and has little in common with it.
On Wednesday, the group's president said he's prepared to move on.
“Every day, regulations are passed that are beyond our control,” said Fulton grape grower Nick Leras. “When something like this happens, we have to accept it.”
A majority of the group's members voted in 2008 to oppose the request. But Gallo said Wednesday there was support from others in the industry.
“The expansion petition had broad support from local farmers, winery owners, consumers and agricultural organizations,” Gallo spokeswoman Susan Hensley said in a statement.
The new boundaries are effective Dec. 16.
Russian River Valley is a cool-weather appellation known for its prized pinot noir and chardonnay winegrapes. It has about 15,000 acres of vineyards and includes two smaller viticultural areas, Chalk Hill and Green Valley.
Gallo's petition asked for an extension to the south and east, to the western boundaries of Rohnert Park and Cotati.
Gallo argued that the new territory is part of the Russian River watershed and shares similar climate, soil and grape-growing history with the Russian River Valley appellation.
“The expansion area shares the same coastal fog intrusion, climate, topography, soil and growing conditions,” Hensley said Wednesday.
But opponents said the proposed southeastern addition has different weather and a later harvest than Russian River Valley.
They said the expansion would confuse consumers and hurt the reputation of Russian River Valley wines, resulting in lower grape prices.
The federal agency disagreed, saying Gallo's 350-acre vineyard will have little impact on the market.
The bureau also said it found backing for the expansion from grape growers and wineries other than Gallo.