Category Archives: Russian River Valley

Sonoma County votes YES on hillside vineyard freeze

The Sonoma County board of supervisors put in place a stay on new hillside vineyards (greater than 15%) that require tree removal. Good for them. Even though it’s only for four months, it’s a step in the right direction.

At first this story seemed to be reported earlier in the week as a halt on just hillside vineyards (with little mention of the tree removal part), but there was already a moratorium on that even if it is flawed. The flawed part is that it was only on hillsides with a slope of 50% or more. Those sites are few and far between and most grape growers don’t want to incur the costs it takes to farm hillsides of that slope let alone the initial planting.

In Napa Valley the cutoff is a 30% grade making a more significant impact on farming. The main thought behind the restriction is to prevent (or at least help prevent) erosion. A good reason if you ask me, but certainly not the only reason.

Tree removal for vineyard sites is not a new topic. Any big wine company that has wanted to clear-cut to plant new vineyards has been met with opposition by environmental groups. In most cases it hasn’t led to stopping the new plantings, so why now?

Well, for starters, there is a new Ag Commissioner as of about a month ago. And there are at least a half a dozen proposed vineyards that require tree removal on the books right now. The largest of which is about 150 acres that Napa’s Artesa Winery is in process of developing.

Of course, that brings up a whole other topic – Why are Napa wineries buying land in Sonoma County? Primarily because of the Pinot Noir craze. Napa’s land suitable for growing Pinot grapes has long been tapped, so they are looking to other areas to propagate this high-profit wine. I can’t help but think that because those grapes will end up with a Napa label on them has something to do with this. It’s no secret that Sonoma County wants to promote Sonoma County wines – I’m certainly a big proponent of that.

But here’s the elephant in the room no one seems to be talking about: Why are wineries / grape growers planting grapes at a time when many vineyards have fallen out of contract and fruit has been left on the vines? The past few years have been pretty awful for some growers, so why create more vineyards with grapes that no one is buying?

It does take about 4 years after planting (and more if you are clearing before planting) to see a crop so maybe these wineries are projecting the need for more grapes. I hope so. It would be great to see an upswing. I already think we’re headed that way, but only time will tell.

I’m also very much in favor of keeping the trees we have left in this county. Not only because of the environmental benefits of having lots of trees around, but because I don’t really think we need to be clear cutting acres of land to plant more grapes. There are better ways. There are other areas to choose. Sure, maybe not with the cache of Sonoma County, but other options exists.

Let’s hope the Board of Supervisors make good decisions about the future of Sonoma County’s grape growing regions. Maybe there is a middle ground that can be reached: a certain amount of trees that can be cut down while making other environmental positives occur like the same amount of trees planted in other areas of the county. Just a thought. Why not make a net zero impact a requirement for new vineyards and possibly even other projects? This could be a great opportunity and I hope the board doesn’t take it lightly.

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The Fall of Russian River Valley

In my mind, Russian River Valley will no longer have the cache that it once had. Starting on Dec 16th, the Russian River Valley boundaries are being expanded further south to parts of Rohnert Park and Cotati. Gallo has been asking for the past couple of years to expand the territory to include a 350-acre vineyard they own on Cotati grade into this AVA (American Viticulture Area).

Their reasoning is simple. Right now they have to use Sonoma Coast on the label. Sonoma Coast grapes don’t have the following that Russian River grapes have and thus result in lower prices at the wholesale and retail level. But from a growers standpoint, the areas are not alike. And certainly not similar enough to be considered the same.

The first time I saw the signs by the Gallo on the side of Highway 101 saying Russian River watershed, I laughed. I actually laughed out loud and thought, “are you kidding me? This area has nothing to do with Russian River!”. But somehow, I knew there would be trouble. This was one of Gallo’s main points – that they are in the Russian River Valley watershed. Well, so is Petaluma (another hill south) and just about everywhere else in Sonoma County for that matter. Based on that idea, why not include the whole county into the Russian River Valley AVA?

You may be thinking, “Why is this such a big deal?”. The answer is quite straightforward. Russian River Valley grapes have a certain characteristic and flavor and these grapes will be different from that. Well, that’s not so bad you say, different is good, right? Usually. But in this case it’s different enough that it should have its own AVA. ┬áBut grapes from a new AVA don’t bring the prices Gallo wants in the market, so they piggy-backed on the existing area with cache. But I know better. And so do most of the Russian River Valley grape growers who strongly opposed this change.

It’s also pulling the wool over the consumer’s eyes. If you have never been to Sonoma County and specifically Russian River (or at least driven along highway 101), then you probably wouldn’t understand. But for those of us who live here, we all know that by going over just one little hill or mountain can change how grapes are grown significantly. And in the case of this particular vineyard it is not only over a hill (south) from Russian River, but has a completely different terrain and climate from the ‘old’ Russian River Valley. But the consumer in Missouri or Texas or New York will probably never know the difference. And that, my friends, is a travesty. And also Gallo’s plan – since they sell over 90% of their wine in the marketplace.

It just goes to show you what money can do. But wait, maybe it wasn’t money. Because Jess Jackson tried to rename a mountain in Alexander Valley and was unsuccessful. Renaming a mountain sure seems easier than extending an AVA. So maybe it wasn’t all money that made this happen. Whatever the pull behind it, it was a bad move and one that, for me, will taint Russian River Valley. Luckily I know the difference and know where my wine comes from. But the average consumer won’t be so lucky and that is a shame.

Cheers (to the ‘old’ Russian River Valley)!

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Filed under choosing wine, Russian River Valley, Wine, Wine Country