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News/--A Gallo vineyard Wednesday December 10, 2008 along Highway 101 on the Cotati grade was voted not to be in the Russian River Appellation by a group of vintners. (Kent Porter / The Press Democrat)2008

Russian River Valley Winegrowers group votes against boundary change 71-18 in secret ballot

Members of the Russian River Valley grape-growing region have voted to oppose an application to expand the southern boundary of the appellation to include 350 acres of E&J Gallo vineyards in Cotati.

In a secret-ballot vote, 71 members of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers association voted Tuesday in Sebastopol to oppose Gallo's application, while 18 supported it, according to board president Hector Bedolla. Twenty-five votes were cast as "neutral."

"We had a clear majority of the members giving an opinion of opposition, and that is essentially a mandate for the organization," Bedolla said.

The association's board had previously taken a neutral position toward the petition by Gallo, the group's largest landholder and one of its largest dues payers.

Gallo has asked the federal Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau to expand the region to the southeast to include an additional 14,000 acres, including its 350-acre Two Rock vineyard along Highway 101.

The proposal, however, has been a controversial one, pitting an influential winery -- which buys grapes from many growers -- against smaller wineries and growers worried that the expansion could dilute the region's growing prestige.

Gallo has argued that climate, soils and growing conditions in the expanded area are typical of the rest of the region, but other growers and wineries say that's a stretch.

The wider implications of the vote remained unclear Wednesday.

Bedolla, vineyard manager for Kendall-Jackson's La Crema winery in Windsor, said the membership vote superseded anything the board had voted on in the past.

But Gallo officials saw the vote very differently.

Spokesman John Segale said he was "pleasantly surprised" that only 71 members voted against the petition, noting how much controversy it had generated.

The opposing votes represented just 28 percent of the organization's total voting membership of 245, said Jim Collins, vineyard manager of Gallo's Sonoma County operations.

Collins said he doesn't believe the vote takes the place of the board's prior neutral position, which it formally adopted at the beginning of the year.

"My understanding going into the vote was that it would not supplant what the board has already communicated," Collins said.

Bedolla said the board would meet again to draft a letter to federal regulators relaying the outcome of the vote.

Collins doubted, however, the vote would have a major impact on the company's petition because federal officials have recently tightened up the regulations for appellation boundaries, placing more weight on scientific evidence, Collins said.

"You can't base something like this on emotion," Collins said. "You have to base it on facts."

The Modesto-based winery already has a sizable presence in the existing Russian River Valley appellation with well-known vineyards such as Laguna Ranch and MacMurray Ranch.

"We're seriously committed to the Russian River appellation, and we always have been," Collins said.

Gallo claims the soil, average temperatures and weather patterns in the expansion area are similar to other parts of the Russian River appellation. It points out that 95 percent of its Two Rock vineyards are in the Russian River watershed.

But many wineries and grape growers note that the area is far cooler and windier than the Russian River appellation. Many also believe the designation would be misleading for consumers.

"If you talked to anyone in Rohnert Park and asked them if they thought they are in the Russian River Valley, they'd look at you like you were an idiot," said Simon Inman, an attorney who owns a 10-acre vineyard on Olivet Road.

During a question-and-answer session that preceded the vote, several members challenged the relevance of Gallo's claim that the vineyards are in the Russian River Valley watershed, said vintner Merry Edwards.

"The watershed goes across (Highway) 101 to Sonoma Mountain," Edwards said. "If you are creating a new boundary, it should be defensible."

But the watershed argument is just one of many and shouldn't be taken out of context, Collins said. Obviously, a vineyard in Hopland is in the Russian River watershed, but it shares none of the other relevant conditions of the appellation, he said.

By contrast, the expansion area completes what Collins sees as the missing "notch" of the southeast corner of the existing boundary, he said.

"I don't see how you can leave it out," he said.

The deadline for public comment on the petition is Dec. 19.

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin McCallum at 521-5207 or kevin.mccallum@pressdemocrat.com.

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