A guide to Russian River Valley Wine (California, United States)

About Russian River Valley AVA, Calfornia, United States

The Russian River Valley AVA, located in Sonoma County in Northern California is a renowned area for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production, making some of the best in the world.

During the 1830’s, the Russian settlers ventured southeast from Fort Ross in search of more temperate agricultural regions. Outposts were established in the areas of Sebastopol, Graton and Freestone. Wine grapes planted at Fort Ross on the Sonoma coast, and subsequent vineyards started by the settlers throughout Sonoma County, took place well before the Gold Rush of 1849. It is believed that those early plantings at Fort Ross were the first in Sonoma County. The Russians left around 1841 and it was the migration of subsequent settlers, many from wine-producing European countries which was the foundation for the wine industry within the Russian River Valley.

By 1876 viticulture was well established in the Russian River Valley. It is recorded that the region produced in excess of 500,000 gallons of wine, with about 7,000 vine acres planted. Larger wineries began to flourish, including The Santa Rosa Wine Company established in 1876, Martini & Prati Winery in 1880, Korbel Champagne Cellars in 1882 and Foppiano Winery in 1896.During Prohibition, the Russian River Valley saw drastic changes and an overall decline in wine production. Many of the wineries that surfaced during the late 1800s and early 1900s did not survive the severe restrictions placed on all alcohol production and consumption.From 1920 to1933 wine production was severely limited, forcing many wineries out of business. Those who wanted to continue to make wine legally were forced to produce only 200 gallons of non-intoxicating cider or fruit juice per year for household use; though some were brazen enough to disregard the production regulation. Prohibition ended in1933 with the repeal of the 18th Amendment; however, by then less than 50 wineries remained within Sonoma County.

The current era in Russian River Valley winemaking began in the 1960’s when Bob Sisson, the University of California Farm Advisor for Sonoma County, began urging local growers to turn their focus toward cool climate grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 

In 1983 the Russian River Valley American Viticultural Area (AVA) became an approved viticultural area. As of October 11, 2005 the expansion of the Russian River Valley AVA formally became law according to a ruling by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. This expansion increased the AVA total acreage by 30,200 acres to 126,600 by recognizing previously overlooked portions of the fog regions. Presently the Russian River AVA is over 150 square miles, which includes over 15,000 total acres planted to premium wine grape vineyards. In late 2011 the Russian River Valley viticultural area was expanded south and southeast by 14,044 acres to 169,029 acres, an increase of 9% to include land just west of Rohnert Park and Cotati.



Sub-regions of Russian River Valley

Middle Reach


Middle Reach is the most northerly part of the AVA close to Healdsburg and Dry Creek Valley. It is home to some of the appellation's oldest vines and includes recommended wines such as:

  • J. Rochioli Vineyard Estate Grown Pinot Noir 2012
  • Flax Vineyard of Merry Edwards Winery
  • Bucher Vineyard 2012 Three Sixty Pinot Noir
  • Bacigalupi Vineyards
  • Allen Vineyard
  • Williams Selyem Estate vineyards 2013 Westside Road Neighbours Pinot Noir 2013

Fogs keep temperatures down in this geographical area making it perfect for Pinot Noir production with the fog density at its maximum in the summer allowing grapes to retain acidity at ripening. The wines from this subregion are very much about their texture and length with less defined aromatics. Acidity is not the defining feature and they tend to be expansive on the palate. Pinot Noir's are dark with firm tannins, meaty & lush characteristics, ripe with a full body. Because temperatures are on the moderate side, the grapes take time to develop and the wines are described as having "cola spice, dark fruit, earthier, darker and richer, lusher notes on the palate, with an acid backbone".

Laguna Ridge

The Laguna Ridge is an area to the South of Middle Reach, near Forestville, sometimes called the "Golden Triangle". The area is a relatively narrow strip of land with well draining sandy Goldridge and Altamont soils with some Franciscan at the northern tip. It is near the Lagunda de Santa Rosa where water collects during the winter months. 

Recommended wines:

  • Ramey 2012 Ritchie Vineyard Chardonnay
  • Paul Hobbs 2012 Pinot Noir
  • Merry Edwards 2012 Klopp Ranch Pinot Noir
  • Dehlinger winery
  • Lynmar estate
  • Joseph Swan vineyards

The Pinot Noir from Laguna Ridge is known for its mouthfeel and moderate acidity with strong notes of strawberry, mixed berry with a brambly, exotic spice character. The wines are not as rich as Middle Reach on the palate but are still very lush, with the Pinot Noir being defined by their "high quality tannins and there's a lot of cocoa in Coppersmith. They're blackberry focused like walking through a field of blackberries, with a leafy smell".

Santa Rosa Plain

santa rosa

The Santa Rosa plain is close to the town of Santa Rosa on the east side of the Laguna de Santa Rosa, including Olivet Road and Pinet Olivet area. 

Recommended wines:

  • Donum Estate Grown Reserve Pinot Noir 2012
  • Carlisle 2012 Saltone Vineyard Zinfandel
  • Davis Bynum 2012 Jane's Vineyard Clone 667 Pinot Noir
  • Barbieri Ranch
  • Fanucchi Vineyards
  • Montafi Ranch (formerly Tom Feeney)
  • Papera Ranch
  • Parsons vineyard
  • Saitone Ranch

The Santa Rosa Plain is where most of the Russian River Valley's oldest plantings of Zinfandel exist and are particularly heavy in acidity and robust fruit in this sub-region."In Dry Creek, Zinfandel seems to be all about Cherry. In Sonoma County its blackberry but in Santa Rosa it's about raspberry, boysenberry and mulberry with more spice". The fruit profile of Zinfandel changes as you move North with Carlisle near Healdsburg having cherry and raspberry notes.

Pinot Noirs show more fruit expression than Leguna Ridge e.g. Martinelli Winery. 

Green Valley 

green valley

Green Valley is the only Russian River Valley sub region recognised as an AVA in itself  (granted 1983) with the appellation centred on the towns of Graton and Occidental, south of Forestville and north of Sebastopol. It is officially known as Green Valley of Russian River Valley. The area is at a higher elevation than other parts of Russian River with Goldridge soils and heavy forestation. Cooling winds from the Pacific Ocean are a consistent feature and the northern part of the valley is warmer than the southern. Many of the vineyards are sheltered by the hills helping to control temperatures and those sites higher up are more significantly affected by the breezes.

Recommended wines:

  • Dutton Goldfield 2013 Dutton Ranch Pinot Noir
  • Gary Farreell 2012 Hallberg Vineyard Clone 777 Oak Tank whole cluster Pinot Noir
  • Cellars 33 2013 Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir


The Pinot Noir's are "crisp in aromatics, luxurious mouthfeel, precise and clean, nicely textured, with a firmness and tension to the wines that often exhibit a little anise".

Sebastopol Hills

Sebastopol Hills is Russian River's coolest sub region and runs around the town of Sebastopol, overlapping into Green Valley. It is sometimes known as the West Sonoma Coast.

Recommended wines:

  • Patz & Hall Burnside Vineyard Pinot Noir 2012
  • Lynmar Freestone Pinot Noir 2012
  • Chasseur 2012 Syrah
  • Littorai wines
  • Burnside Road Vineyard
  • Meredith Estate Vineyard

"The grapes definitely have a cool climate character, blue fruit, blue flowers, very elegant and a high acidity".