A Deeper Look into Russian River Valley Terroir

Kendeigh Worden

The Russian River Valley is known characteristically as a cool-climate region within Sonoma with heavy influence from the Pacific Ocean. The weather is friendly, and temperatures rarely rise above ninety degrees due to the ebb and flow of fog that enters through the Petaluma Gap. The region itself is known for some of the most expressive cool-climate Pinot Noir.

Despite these singular characteristics, the Russian River Valley has multiple climate zones and various soil types. More soil types, in fact, than all of France. There are so many nuances here that it’s hard to generalize a wine style from this region as a whole.

Russian River Valley growers have been aware of these influential differences and have been using neighborhood terms to define specific areas since the late 1800s.

Winemaker Greg La Follette | Photo credit: Ancient Oak Cellars

Melissa and Ken Moholt-Siebert run Ancient Oak Cellars, a small family vineyard in the Russian River Valley. Along with their winemaker, Greg La Follette, they are advocates for the Russian River Valley Neighborhood Initiative, which has spurred more in-depth study and incited the attention of consumers and wine industry workers within the last five years.

Melissa and her team are passionate about understanding the grapes, the land, and how the wines express individuality based on where they are from within the region. She mentions that along with the Neighborhood Initiative’s goal of identifying attributes from specific wines within each neighborhood, the underlying purpose for the study is “to help celebrate the great diversity of the Russian River Valley appellation.”

Just like a city has a particular character, neighborhoods within that city have a feeling all of their own. She continues, “Just like with the neighborhoods of San Francisco, or Portland, or Boston, folks may disagree exactly where one ends, and another begins. Although people appreciate the neighborhood in which they live, they can admit that others have excellent—if quite different—attributes.”

What is most important is that, even if one prefers one neighborhood over another, according to Melissa, one is not inherently “better” than another. So this is with the neighborhoods of the Russian River Valley.”

Trenton Estate Vineyard | Photo credit: Joseph Swan Vineyards

Rod Berglund, the winemaker for Joseph Swan Vineyards has been a key player in the Initiative since the beginning. Early on, as requested, he created an education program for Masters of Wine on the differences within the Russian River Valley. “Since everyone was familiar with Burgundy,” he says, “I tried to draw some parallels.” He took a map of the Russian River Valley and drew circles around the areas where he thought they should taste wines. The lines were so everyone could get a visual of where the wines originated. “I referred to them as the neighborhoods of the Russian River Valley to try and illustrate that while there was an overriding character for the wines of the Russian River Valley, there were also nuances if you looked closely enough. Our AVA is a lot more complex and less monolithic than was generally believed.” A lot like the crus of Burgundy. He wasn’t sure how much of the audience bought it, but the map was eventually published.

The Russian River Neighborhood Initiative is still in a discovery period and wines from each of these neighborhoods are being looked at over time to discover the unique differences that help define them.

Blind tastings occur each year, mostly with Pinot Noir, where winemakers taste, discuss, and explore the diversity of wines from each neighborhood and what distinguishes them from the larger Russian River AVA. These unique characteristics are continuously identified as the vineyards and winemaking develop.

Siebert Ranch Vineyard | Photo credit: Ancient Oak Cellars

The Russian River Valley Neighborhood Initiative divides the appellation into six areas:

  1. GREEN VALLEY is the only neighborhood designated as its own AVA. It’s located southwest of Middle Reach and in the closest proximity to the water, where fog hangs much longer. It is known for its Goldridge Soil. The wines here are lean but firm, with high acid and a plush mouthfeel.

  2. MIDDLE REACH is one of the northernmost, which also extends into the heart of the region. It is closest to the Russian River and has some of the oldest plantings. Wines here show a lot of texture and tannin. They are succulent, fruity, and generally less aromatic.

  3. LAGUNA RIDGE is south of the Russian River and east of the Green Valley AVA. It’s known for Goldridge and Altamont soils, both having a high percentage of sandstone and shale, and providing excellent drainage. Temperatures are slightly cooler here. The wines are elegant, soft, and round but with significant tannin and good ageability. Joseph Swan was the first to plant Pinot Noir in this area. Winemaker Rod Berglund says that of the various bottlings, the Trenton Estate Vineyard showcases Laguna Ridge’s typicity.

  4. SANTA ROSA PLAINS is west of Sonoma Mountain. It’s known for shale, sandstone, and clay soils. Wines are soft, balanced, and spicy. This area is known for some of the oldest plantings of Zinfandel.

  5. SEBASTOPOL HILLS is southernmost and one of the climatically coolest neighborhoods. It’s windy with a lot of marine influence. Wines are lean with good acidity.

  6. EASTERN HILL is the most recently identified neighborhood. It is mostly north and located inland, east of Middle Reach. The soils here are the most diverse and are volcanic and sedimentary. Temperatures are warmer and grapes generally ripen earlier. Ancient Oak Cellars is located here, and Melissa Siebert says their Siebert Ranch Pinot Noir best exemplifies Eastern Hill.
Photo credit: Ancient Oak Cellars

Greg La Follette at Ancient Oak Cellars, has been involved in the Neighborhood Initiative since its early days. His scientific background and work with UC Davis has been fundamental in the endeavor. Matched with years of tasting, he says, “the initiative aims to continue to work with UC Davis to investigate elemental components and form statistically significant differences among each of these neighborhoods.”

UC Davis is invited to participate in meetings and discussions and perform analysis on chemical composition between neighborhoods. Their results help verify these differences in tastings. Their scientific chemical analysis recently proved more to these areas than solely what people are tasting.

Wines blended from different neighborhoods are just as crucial in representing the Russian River Valley. Rod Berglund elaborates, “When you blend the high acid and lower alcohols of Sebastopol Hills with the pretty red fruit flavors of wines from the Santa Rosa Plain; or the spice of Laguna Ridge with the structure of Middle Reach, you can produce a wine that is no less interesting than the individual vineyards from which they came, but simply with a different vision.” He believes that if you have enough experience with these nuances, you may be able to see how a wine was put together similar to a meal from a favorite chef.

Despite identifying various characteristics of each of these neighborhoods, the Initiative is not meant to put wines or winemaking into a box. These neighborhoods are not meant to be AVAs or defined by geographic boundaries. They have no legal definition, nor is that the goal. The neighborhoods are an illustration of geographical features and a celebration of terroir.