A river runs through it

Kelly J. Hayes

There are 3,141 counties, parishes (Louisiana) and boroughs (Alaska) in the US of A. None of them are more beautiful than Sonoma County in California.

With one of the most scenic coastlines found anywhere in the world ” fertile farm country and dramatic mountains forged by the collision of Pacific and North America Geological Plates along the northern edge of the San Andreas Fault ” Sonoma is as close to heaven on earth as a place can possibly be.

Oh, and they grow great grapes there as well.

While Napa County, home of the Napa Valley, gets more money per ton for their grapes, the 2007 Sonoma harvest yielded about 30 percent more grapes than that of its more famous eastern neighbor. And in recent years, the difference has been not just total tonnage but diversity as well. While Napa is well known for its cabernet sauvignon, Sonoma has become a prime growing area for both chardonnay and pinot noir in addition to other varietals.

Sonoma’s location, closer than Napa to the Pacific Ocean (with the exception of the southerly Carneros AVA region that is divided by both counties), provides it with cooling sea breezes and fog in the hot summer that are perfect for the Burgundian varietals. Nowhere is this truer than in the Russian River Valley, which is one of 13 Sonoma County appellations.

The Russian River runs from Mendocino County south into Sonoma County, where it cuts a large swath through the heart of the county as it turns westward, eventually emptying into the Pacific Ocean near the town of Jenner. Where it makes its right turn to the coast, the river has carved a gap through the Sonoma Mountains.

It is this “air conditioner” that makes the Russian River Valley AVA unique.

Merry Edwards has prospered from the nature of this valley. One of California’s original female winemakers, Merry began her career in 1973. Today she and her wines are legendary.

In 1996 she bought 24 acres of Russian River Valley real estate and planted it with pinot noir. In the ensuing two-plus decades, she has used those vines to make the stunning Meredith Estate Pinot Noirs that have come to define the quality of the Russian River Appellation.

Edwards also has worked with grapes grown at other Russian River vineyards, like Olivet Lane and the Klopp Ranch, to make wines that are perfect expressions of both her winemaking style and the areas those grapes are grown in. Some of these wines, as well as the blends made from them in concert with her Meredith Estate grapes, are amongst the most sought after California pinot noirs ever made.

In 1996, Kerry Murphy and Michael Verlander saw the potential of Russian River Valley fruit and began purchasing grapes to make Burgundian-style wines. They have succeeded beyond all expectations. Their DuMol label has become synonymous with quality pinot noir and chardonnay from Sonoma. DuMol has grown from a boutique into a winery that sells close to 15,000 cases of their wine per year. They now own a vineyard in the Green Valley district of the Russian River Valley and recently broke ground for a new winery complex in Windsor, Calif.

Both Merry Edwards and DuMol make wines that attract great interest from collectors and have price tags that are north of $50 a bottle for their pinots.

But there are values to be found in Russian River wines.

Cecil DeLoach was a pioneer in the Russian River Valley having purchased his first vineyard there in 1970 and being an instrumental figure in assisting the region in applying for and receiving AVA status in 1983. At DeLoach Winery he made pinot noirs, sold in the $20 range, that were excellent examples of how Russian River Valley fruit can offer large lush flavors and still reflect finesse. Though the winery itself was sold in 2003 to the French wine company Boisset, the wines produced under the DeLoach label continue to showcase the characteristics of the Russian River appellation.

DeLoach, for his part, has started another winery in the valley with his family called Hook and Ladder. They are making terrific wines and the 2005 Hook and Ladder Russian River Valley Pinot Noir at around $25 a bottle is a great wine at a good price.

In wine, a sense of place is a good thing and there may be no better place for pinot noir in America than the Russian River Valley.


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