Russian River Valley wine “neighborhoods” invite exploration

Six neighborhoods offer new revelations in the popular Sonoma County wine AVA.|

“Blueberry” is the hallmark flavor that winemaker Dan Goldfield used to identify in pinot noirs from Green Valley, a sub-appellation and one of the six “neighborhoods” in the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area.

About 20 years ago, Goldfield was part of a group of local winemakers who regularly met to blind taste Russian River Valley pinot noirs.

“He had a real knack for picking out the Green Valley wines because, he said, they tasted like blueberries,” said Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan Winery. “Another winemaker told Dan he was full of it and gave him a really hard time.

“But on one occasion, the group met when Dan was out of town. That same winemaker blind-tasted a wine and said, ‘Oh my God, if this isn’t a Green Valley wine I’m going to shoot myself.’ Sure enough, it was. We’ve long known there are regional differences in the Russian River Valley, while broadly speaking it’s one AVA.”

Variations on a theme

Celebrating its 40th anniversary as an American Viticulture Area (AVA) in 2023, the Russian River Valley is widely recognized for its premium pinot noir and chardonnay.

From afar, it’s clear the AVA is a cohesive landscape, where Burgundian varieties thrive during the generously sunny days and cool, foggy nights.

But look closer and you’ll discover distinct brush strokes — unique traits in the hills, valleys, plains and peaks that make the Russian River Valley a diverse masterpiece.

For starters, it has more soil types than all of France.

“Local winemakers have long recognized the regional differences among Russian River Valley pinot noirs,” Berglund said. “Based on an area’s distance from the ocean, elevation, soil type and fog, the wines can be stylistically very different.”

As far back as the 1800s, the wine community has casually referred to these distinct micro and mesoclimates (climates influenced by elevation, slope or distance from large bodies of water) as “neighborhoods,” which now total six in the Russian River Valley AVA.

“Designating the neighborhoods official sub-AVAs would be really difficult because there are no defined boundaries between them — each area gradually blurs into the next,” Berglund said. “So referring to them as neighborhoods made sense.”

Elemental fingerprinting

Soon after the Russian River Valley Winegrowers association was established in 1994, Berglund and others from the wine community formed a new wine-tasting group. This time, the goal was to determine the stylistic differences of pinot noir from each neighborhood.

“It was never about figuring out which neighborhood made the best wine,” Berglund said. “It was really a journey of discovery. We just wanted to understand why the differences existed.”

In 2015, Roger Boulton, a professor of viticulture and enology at UC Davis, became interested in the tasting group’s efforts. With some new laboratory equipment at hand, he proposed analyzing the elemental makeup of pinot noir sourced from throughout the AVA.

A range of naturally occurring elements are found in wine, including calcium, potassium, magnesium, sodium and iron. Comparing the elemental makeup of wines from different neighborhoods could reveal an identifiable pattern.

After analyzing 25 unaged, unmanipulated wine samples sourced from throughout the Russian River Valley, Boulton said his study “provided the most compelling evidence” he’d seen in his 40-year academic career of differences among these wines.

Overall, distinct elemental “fingerprints” were found in each neighborhood, which separated them from each other.

“We did everything we could to find a flaw in the experiment,” Berglund said. “Roger said he had no idea what the elemental differences have to do with the sensory differences of the wines, but the grapes are clearly picking up certain elements in each neighborhood. We repeated the experiment in 2017, and the results were even more conclusive.

“It’s another tool that will help guide people towards wines of a similar style,” he said.

The six neighborhoods

What does all of this mean for wine drinkers?

“Being familiar with the Russian River Valley neighborhoods can encourage a deeper dive into the entire AVA,” said Jake Martini, owner of Taft Street Winery and president of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers.

“The Russian River Valley is not one-size-fits-all. You’re going to get an entirely different experience in each neighborhood. Not only can you taste a variety of wines (by visiting different neighborhoods), you can meet all the cool, passionate people who are doing different things.”

Santa Rosa Plains: The Russian River Valley’s largest neighborhood is Santa Rosa Plains, which sits near Santa Rosa to the east of the Laguna de Santa Rosa. Part of an inland sea more than six million years ago, the soils in this area are shale, sandstone and clay. Wineries that make wine from this neighborhood include Benovia Winery, Gary Farrell Vineyards & Winery and Martinelli winery. Flavor profile: pretty pinot noir with bright red fruit.

Middle Reach: One of the warmest neighborhoods in the AVA, Middle Reach is located at the north end of the Russian River Valley and typically is the first to harvest pinot noir. Wineries that make wine from this neighborhood include Ramey Wine Cellars, Merriam Vineyards and J. Rochioli Vineyards & Winery. Flavor profile: ripe, powerful pinot noirs with excellent ageabililty.

Laguna Ridge: Laguna Ridge is located near Forestville to the south of the Russian River. Joseph Swan was the first to plant pinot noir in this cool region where Goldridge and Altamont soils prevail. Wineries that make wine from this neighborhood include Balletto Vineyards, Lynmar Estate and Inman Family Wines. Flavor profile: lush pinot noir with dark red fruit, healthy acid and spice.

Green Valley: Green Valley is the only neighborhood in the Russian River Valley to be designated its own AVA. North of Sebastopol and south of Forestville, Green Valley boasts prized Goldridge soils and dutiful evening fog. Wineries that make wine from this neighborhood include Emeritus Vineyards, Dutton-Goldfield Winery, Scherrer Winery and Taft Street Winery. Flavor profile: pinot noir with ample acid, firm tannins and bright, crisp fruit.

Sebastopol Hills: The defining aspect of Sebastopol Hills is its proximity to the Pacific Ocean to the west and Petaluma Gap to the south, which help moderate temperatures and increase winds. It also receives an average of 33% more rainfall than the rest of the Russian River Valley AVA. Wineries that make wine from this neighborhood include Kanzler Vineyards, Dutton Estate Winery and Cartograph Wines. Flavor profile: full-bodied pinot noir with ample acidity.

Eastern Hills: The Eastern Hills follows the western edge of the Mayacamas range with highly diverse soils that are both volcanic and sedimentary. Warm afternoon temperatures on the west-facing slopes lead to earlier ripening. Wineries that make wine from this neighborhood include Limerick Lane Cellars and Notre Vue Estate and Winery. Flavor profile: lush and ripe pinot noir with great structure.

Won’t you be my neighbor?

Alex Kanzler, winemaker and co-proprietor at Kanzler Vineyards in Sebastopol, said he knows it will take some time for wine drinkers to grasp the nuances of the Russian River Valley neighborhoods.

For now, he said, it’s up to the industry to educate consumers.

“I’m not sure exactly how we’ll get there, but my dream is to one day flip through the wine list at a fine restaurant and see a dozen Russian River Valley wines that cover the entire AVA,” Kanzler said. “I want to have that representation and appreciation for the different nuances of our region.”

You can reach Staff Writer Sarah Doyle at 707-521-5478 or On Twitter @whiskymuse.

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