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The federal government is proposing to expand the acclaimed Russian River Valley grape growing region to the south, an extension that would include 350 acres of Gallo vineyards west of Cotati.

The controversial proposal pits the powerful E&J Gallo Winery, the largest winery in the country, against a small band of grape growers and winemakers who worry the change will erode the integrity of the appellation and confuse consumers.

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

Gallo has long been interested in expanding the southern boundary of the prestigious Russian River appellation to include an extra 550 acres of vineyards, including its 350-acre Two Rock vineyard west of Highway 101 atop the Cotati grade.

First approved in 1983, the Russian River Valley appellation was expanded twice and is now just shy of 155,000 acres. Fruit from the area commands some of the highest grape prices in the nation, especially for its pinot noir and chardonnay.

The region extends from Guerneville across to Healdsburg to the east of Windsor, through downtown Santa Rosa, and across to Sebastopol. Two other sub-appellations exist completely within it: Chalk Hill to the northeast and Green Valley to the south.

The appellation was expanded significantly to the south in 2005. That brought it down from Highway 12 to Todd Road and included an area in the Bloomfield Hills where Kendall-Jackson has a 400-acre vineyard.

Now its Gallo?s turn. The winery already has a sizable presence in the existing Russian River Valley appellation with well-known vineyards such as Laguna Ranch and MacMurray Ranch. Its petition now asks the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to expand the region to the southeast by 9 percent, to 169,000 acres.

The powerful Modesto-based winery has submitted evidence that soil, average temperatures and weather patterns in the expansion area are similar to other parts of the Russian River appellation. The winery also points out that the new area is located within the Russian River watershed.

Wine historian William F. Heintz sent a letter siding with Gallo on the issue.

?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 transportation,? Heintz wrote.

Gallo?s application includes a petition with 208 signatures. To date, the government has received about 50 letters in opposition.

Many of those have taken issue with Gallo?s claims of a similar climate.

Windsor grape grower Floyd Richard Youngs, owner of La Porte Cochere Vineyard in Windsor, called the application ?the most ridiculous suggestion that I have heard in years.?

?This area is several miles south of the Russian River Valley and the climate is extremely different, very windy and much colder, than that of the Russian River Valley,? Youngs wrote in comments to the TTB.

Santa Rosa attorney Frank Bailey, owner of a small vineyard southwest of Graton, agrees.

?That area?s climate is not Russian River Valley,? Bailey said Thursday. ?There?s no fog drip there and there?s no redwoods.?

Looking at a street map isn?t enough, Bailey argues. A topographical map that includes the region?s vegetation tells the true story.

?I see the redwood forests of the Russian River Valley coming down the coastal range to Sebastopol, and just south of Sebastopol it stops,? Bailey said.

The landscape flattens out and becomes the Petaluma Gap, a windy break in the mountains that allows cooler marine air to flow deep inland, an area with more cows than grapevines.

Gallo counters that the new area is within the Russian River watershed. Currently, the southern boundary is marked by a ridgeline that extends further to the southeast, Gallo vineyard manager Jim Collins said. The new boundary would follow that ridgeline toward Highway 101.

That means everything to the north of the border flows into the Russian River basin, he said.

Others counter that the watershed argument is a weak one.

?Everything north of us to Potter Valley drains into the Russian River,? Lares pointed out.

Despite such opinions, staff at the TTB made it clear in its public notice that the critics need facts, noting that ?the assertions (of opponents) were not accompanied by any specific data that contradicts (Gallo?s) submitted evidence.?

While individual grape growers have strong opinions on the application, the issue has split the Russian River Valley Winegrowers, a trade group with about 400 members.

The last expansion in 2005 was unanimously supported by the group?s board, said current president Hector Bedolla, vineyard manager for La Crema, which is owned by Kendall-Jackson founder Jess Jackson.

But when Gallo first proposed the latest expansion two years ago, the group unanimously opposed it, Bedolla said.

Earlier this year, following some changes on the board, the board revoted and split 5-5, Bedolla said.

The group has now taken a neutral position on the application, Bedolla said. While he opposes the extension, Bedolla said he does not have the resources to rebut the claims in Gallo?s application.

Along with winemaker Merry Edwards, Bedolla encouraged wineries and growers in the area to speak up if they opposed the application, but he hasn?t had much support.

?If the membership is silent, then they are accepting the consequences,? he said.

The public comment period on the application runs through Oct. 20.

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