Clay Gantz Named President of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers


On Wednesday, January 13, 2016, Clay Gantz was honored to become president of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers. Clay gave the following speech to members at Wednesday's annual meeting (check out our Facebook page to see pictures):

This summer I attended the VIP Barbeque that was part of the Russian River Valley Passport weekend, and heard Mel Sanchetti, Gail Dutton, Christine DeLoach and Helen Bacigalupi, describe how things had changed in the RRV during their careers. Each started before the Russian River Valley was an AVA. They painted an eye-opening picture: There was no differentiation between grapes grown in the various parts of Sonoma County, most of the fruit went into bulk wines and the premium market was small. Grapes sold for a few hundred dollars a ton, and you got paid when you got paid. What a long way we’ve come as an AVA. 

Since the formation of the RRVW and the establishment of the Russian River Valley AVA in 1984, things have changed very much for the better. 

Vineyards and wineries have proliferated. In the years since 1984, District 3 Chardonnay grape prices have increased from $961 to $1990 per ton (107%), District 3 Pinot Noir grape prices have increased from $461 to $3251 per ton (605%), and vineyard values in Russian River have risen from $30,000 per acre to $150,000 per acre (400%). Of course, those are just D3 averages. We asked grape buyers, sellers and brokers to opine as to the premium associated with RRV fruit, and they said RRV Chardonnay and Pinot noir commanded a premium of 10-25 percent to the rest of the county. All stated the demand for RRV fruit was higher than the county in general. In fact, I’m confident that most growers are paid a higher premium, and sometimes a much higher premium.

I can’t give you bottled wine prices because I’m a simple grower, but judging by the fancy cars all you winemakers drive, I think bottle prices are pretty good as well. In fact, our wineries go toe-to-toe with wineries all over the world in all market tiers, including the premium categories, and should be a source of pride to all of us.

None of this happened by accident. Our land didn’t change in 1984 and neither did our winemakers. Instead, our RRVW predecessors worked hard, innovated and took risks. AVA signs, Grape-to-Glass and much more, and it worked because they made it work! They created a brand which is of value to all of us.

We need to remind the public that our beloved Russian River Valley is unique, complex, diverse and worth exploring.
— Clay Gantz, new RRVW president

The fact is, now our RRV brand is second only to Napa Valley. I think we should take a little credit as growers and winemakers, but let’s also acknowledge the contributions of the RRVW and its members. Our founders pointed us in the right direction, our members pulled on the oars and together we created a powerful brand! That brand translates into demand for our products and money in our pockets. When people ask me what the RRVW does for them—that is my answer.  Demand for your product and money in your pocket. Our success is the legacy of Warren Dutton, Sara Lee Kunde, Lee Martinelli, Bob Cabral, Merry Edwards, Nick Leras, Randy Luginbill, Rod Berglund and many others. They worked hard to create the environment we succeed in.

So, that’s it, right? Mission accomplished? We’re on track and it should be OK to rest on our laurels. Sip a nice chardonnay. 

Not by a long shot.

As Paul Novak told me the other day, when you’re on track, you better be moving faster than the train behind you or you’ll be run over. There are lots of trains behind us, and every other AVA or wanna-be AVA is focused on passing us by. If we become complacent, stop innovating and shy away from taking risk, we will be run over. 

To maintain our position at the front of the pack, we must work still harder to tell our story in new and compelling ways. We need to remind the public that our beloved Russian River Valley is unique, complex, diverse and worth exploring. We need to remind them of how good we are as growers and what great wines are made by our winemakers. That is what we, as an organization, are about—constantly reminding the public and trade that we are the best. We need to elevate our game.

Your board, an engaged and creative group, has worked hard to put together a strategic plan that we think will take the RRVW to the next level. Over the next half hour, or so, you will hear about what we have planned for the coming year. I hope that, at the end, you will agree that it is an exciting plan.

But I hope you will do more than simply listen. I hope you will give thought to how you can contribute. We are an organization with big ideas and not much capital. Our real strength is our human capital—you. You are the story we are trying to tell, and who can tell it better than you? No one. 

So I have a simple request. Don’t sit on your butt. Get involved. Join a committee, create a fundraiser, sell some tickets to an event, help us work an event, lend us your ideas, recruit a new member, recruit two new members. You owe it to yourself to get involved. If that doesn’t move you, you owe it to the people who came before you and created this organization and our powerful brand. You owe it to Warren, Sara Lee and Rod, among others. If that doesn’t work, Rod is going to come and pay you a visit with his pitchfork.

Seriously, pitch in. I guarantee you will have fun, you’ll be glad you did it, and you’ll probably also get to sip that chardonnay.

Thanks a lot. I’m excited to be a part of the RRVW and I’m looking forward to having a fun, productive year together with all of you.

Are you a member of the Russian River Valley wine community? Interested in taking part in the exciting things to come for the AVA? Consider joining the Russian River Valley Winegrowers.

The Russian River Valley: Once You've Been Here, You Know