Russian River Valley wine producers are magicians: They know how to turn fog into Pinot Noir. The region's unique balance of misty ocean breezes and summer heat is ideal for the classic red grape of Burgundy, and the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) is rapidly becoming synonymous with distinctively bold, luscious, elegant Pinots.
Other wine grapes thrive there too, of course -- notably Pinot's white Burgundian cousin, Chardonnay -- but none seem to have the magical affinity with the seaside climate that has made Pinot Noir the region's signature varietal. And now, as growers and winemakers gain insight into how the fog magic works (assisted in part by new technology), smaller areas within the large Russian River Valley AVA are revealing distinctive viticultural personalities.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday January 27, 2004 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 81 words Type of Material: Correction
Wine region -- An article in Wednesday's Food section about wines from the Russian River Valley incorrectly stated that in the Russian River AVA, acidity in wines generally is present more in the northeast and decreases as one travels from the foggier and cooler areas to the relative heat of the southwest. It should have stated that in the Russian River Valley AVA, acidity in wines generally is present more in the southwest and decreases as one moves to the northeast.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday January 28, 2004 Home Edition Food Part F Page 3 Features Desk 2 inches; 82 words Type of Material: Correction
Wine region -- An article in last week's Food section about wines from the Russian River Valley incorrectly stated that in the Russian River AVA, acidity in wines generally is present more in the northeast and decreases as one travels from the foggier and cooler areas to the relative heat of the southwest.
It should have stated that in the Russian River Valley AVA, acidity in wines generallly is present more in the southwest and decreases as one moves to the northeast.
Those areas are not officially defined, but some of them probably will be soon. Consider that two decades ago the Napa Valley was like the Russian River Valley today -- a single, uncomplicated entity without internal differentiation. Then areas such as Howell Mountain and Rutherford began to assert individual identities, and now there are more than a dozen sub-appellations in the Napa Valley AVA.
The same evolutionary process is underway in the Russian River Valley AVA. It's as if a familiar song were arranged for five soloists singing slightly different but complementary melodies. The voices correspond to distinctive viticultural areas within the appellation. They all yield wines with identifiable Russian River Valley character, simply defined as luscious berry flavors and vibrant acidity. Yet each sings in its own particular tone and melodic range.
The Russian River Valley AVA encompasses 150 square miles of hills, redwood forests and apple orchards in west-central Sonoma County. The combined perfume of ripe apples and fermenting pinot noir grapes lends a beguiling scent to many a fall afternoon along the Russian.
The AVA is getting more focused and more complicated, all at once. Identifying its subregions is a little tricky. The Russian River Valley AVA and its subset, the Green Valley AVA, are primarily climate-based appellations. And climate is harder to pin down than, say, the particular type of limestone that defines European appellations such as Burgundy and Champagne. There are lots of soil types in the Russian River Valley. They may exert a subtle influence on wine character in different vineyards, or even different parts of the same vineyard. But in the big picture, the appellation is defined by the limits of a uniform climatic influence, namely fog.
The stuff is in good supply off the California coast, and the cool onshore breeze from the perpetual fogbank is what makes fine wine possible in Northern California. Without it, the climate would be too warm, especially for heat-shy grapes such as pinot noir and chardonnay.
Until recently everyone assumed that the Russian River drew the fog inland and distributed it over the terrain west of Santa Rosa. Supplemental fog, it was thought, also came in from the southwest over the marshy lowlands along the coast between Point Reyes and Bodega Bay -- the Petaluma Wind Gap.
In fact, it now appears to be the other way around. A new generation of satellite photography, sensitive enough to pick up translucent layers of moist air near the ground, shows for the first time the movement of the fog throughout the Russian River Valley region.
On little cats' feet
Those images (the ones I've seen were generated by consultant Mike Bobbitt, a geographic imaging specialist in Santa Rosa) help explain why grapes ripen differently from one zone to the next. The way the fog behaves in the variable terrain creates microclimates for the vines, resulting in subtly distinctive expressions in wines from place to place.
Although wines also reflect factors such as vintage and winemaking style, over time, attentive tasters can spot characteristics in wines from the same zone that are consistent vintage after vintage.
One of the clearest signals is acidity. It makes a pair of Pinots from two places as subtly but distinctly different as the sounds of John Coltrane and Lester Young on tenor sax. In the Russian River AVA, acidity, generally speaking, is more present in the northeast and decreases as you move away from the foggier and cooler areas to the relative heat of the southwest part of the region -- from the ringing acidity and diamond-clear fruit typical of Green Valley Pinots, through progressively riper and lower-toned wines to the broad, fleshy Pinots typical of the warmest areas on the Santa Rosa Plain south of Healdsburg.