Exploring differences in Russian River Valley Pinot Noir


The Russian River Valley AVA stretches over 150 square miles and, though large in size, it has long been thought that the wines from the Russian River Valley share common characteristics attributable to the region’s coastal influence and fog. At the same time, Russian River Valley farmers and winemakers have traditionally spoken of neighborhoods with their own unique attributes. So the question has been: Are there distinguishing factors between wines produced in one neighborhood versus another? On Saturday of Memorial Day weekend, a panel featuring winemaking luminaries welcomed participants to help answer those questions.

“The Neighborhoods of Russian River” seminar was part of the Pinot Classic, a two-day event celebrating and exploring the diversity of Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley. The seminar’s panel was made up of some of the area’s most impressive winemakers -- Mark McWilliams of Arista Winery, Rod Berglund of Joseph Swan Vineyards, Michael Browne of Kosta Browne Winery (who buys Gantz Family Vineyards’ grapes) – as well as Steve Heimoff, a popular wine blogger and director of communications for Jackson Family Wines. Mike Sullivan, winemaker at Benovia Winery, moderated the event.

The three winemaker panelists each represented one of three “neighborhoods” of the Russian River Valley – the Middle Reach, the Laguna Ridge and Green Valley. These three neighborhoods were chosen because they are effectively contiguous, running in an arch from the northeast (Middle Reach) to the southwest (Green Valley), with the Laguna Ridge in between. Climactically, the Middle Reach is generally warmer, while the Laguna Ridge is cooler and Green Valley is the coolest of the three.

Some interesting comments from the panelists:

  • Michael Browne stated “Site trumps all,” when asked whether winemaker, clone or location determines the differences in wine.
  • Rod Berglund said he felt that the defining characteristic of a Russian River Valley Pinot Noir was its structure.
  • Michael Browne agreed that a defining characteristic was lush mouth feel.
  • Mark McWilliams suggested the defining characteristic was the accessibility and consistency of the wines. Whether young or aged, they are great wines.
  • Steve Heimoff said that the north coast of California, spanning from Anderson Valley in the north to the Santa Rita Hills in the south, was the largest swath of fine Pinot Noir terroir in the world.

Guests and panelists tasted three Pinot Noirs selections for each of the three neighborhoods. Some generally agreed upon descriptions of each of the regions were:

Middle Reach: Firm tannin structure. Ageable. Darker fruit. Lush texture and mouth feel.

Laguna Ridge: Lush, earthly. Presence of exotic spice and brambly character. Redder fruit. More defined structure and acidity.

Green Valley: Defined by structure. Crispy red fruit. Precise and clean.

We look forward to participating in the “Neighborhoods Initiative,” a project by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers to explore the various terroirs that encompass the diversity of the Russian River Valley region.  Our goal is to systematically determine whether specific wine sensory characteristics can be consistently identified as originating from a locally recognized neighborhood. It was apparent from this tasting that there were recognizable differences in these wines.

Learn more about the Russian River Valley Winegrowers and their on-going efforts.
Contact Clay Gantz, RRVW membership chair, if you would like information about joining.