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Green Valley Pinot Noir: The Secret is a Three Letter Word

There are thirteen appellations in Sonoma County, but it is the western maritime-influenced appellations that are most suited to growing Pinot Noir. These include the Russian River Valley, one of its subsets, Green Valley, and the Sonoma Coast. Green Valley is located in the southwestern corner of the Russian River Valley and is one of the smallest appellations in Sonoma County. It encompasses 19,000 acres, with 1,200 acres planted to vineyards. The towns of Forestville, Graton and Sebastopol form the eastern border, and the tiny town of Occidental defines the western boundary. The appellation is referred to as Sonoma County Green Valley to avoid confusion with another California appellation with a similar name, Solano County Green Valley.

The Russian River Valley viticultural area, except its southern tip in Green Valley, lies within the Northern Sonoma viticultural area. The Northern Sonoma viticultural area, in turn, lies largely within the Sonoma Coast viticultural area. Both the Northern Sonoma and Sonoma Coast viticultural areas are both entirely within the North Coast viticultural area. The Russian River Valley viticultural area encompasses the Chalk Hill viticultural area along with Green Valley. A petition submitted by E.&J. Gallo Family Vineyards is currently pending that would create a 14,044-acre expansion of the established Russian River viticultural area to the south and east, containing the land just west of the cities of Rohnert Park and Cotati.

Known officially as the “Green Valley of Russian River Valley,” the appellation was approved in 1983 based on a submission by Joy and Barry Sterling, proprietors of Iron Horse Vineyards. More recently, producers in the appellation have petitioned the TTB for an appellation name change to “Green Valley-Russian River Valley,” a shorter, hyphenated name that more readily lends itself to wine label application and recognition. Most wines from the Green Valley are designated Russian River Valley on the label since the Russian River Valley is perceived as more prestigious to consumers. For Green Valley of Russian River Valley to be used on a label, at least 85% of the wine’s grapes must originate from that appellation.

Green Valley is often mistakenly considered a sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley, but it is distinct both geographically and climatically from the Russian River Valley and can be delineated by the flavor characteristics of its wines. Defined by the three letter word, fog, Green Valley is the first place where maritime fog enters the Russian River Valley through the Petaluma Wind Gap, and the last place where it burns off, making it the coolest, foggiest part of the Russian River Valley, substantially chillier than the Middle Reach, Laguna Ridges or Santa Rosa plain sub-regions of the Russian River Valley. The fog typically arrives in the evening, cools the vines, and then retreats in the morning. A 25º diurnal temperature swing is common. This maritime air conditioner extends the growing season and allows Pinot Noir to reach full flavor maturity while retaining natural acidity. It is not unusual for grapes to ripen into mid-October or later. Visit the Green Valley website,, to see an animation demonstrating fog movement for the Green Valley viticultural area during a typical 24-hour ripening period before harvest.

A series of orogenic episodes near the Pacific Ocean created the mountains and streams that led to the geology of the Green Valley. The predominant (60%) soil type is Goldridge sandy loam, a low-nutrient, well-drained soil that is particularly suited for both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. A hard sub pan limits root penetration, allowing growers to control yields. A second soil type, Sebastopol (Franciscan), also possesses good drainage.

At the inaugural Green Valley Symposium in 2004, the characteristics of Green Valley Pinot Noir were detailed. Lively acidity is typical, what is termed “ice cherries.” The Pinot Noirs are closer in type to the Sonoma Coast than the Russian River Valley except that the tannins are less masculine. Bright, intense, ripe dark cherries, black plums, wild berries, cola, exotic spices, rich earth, zesty acidity, and silky tannins are the norm. If any criticism has been leveled at the Pinot Noirs from Green Valley, it is that they have lacked depth, and at times have been too austere. However, with the influx of multiple clones, including field selections such as Swan, planted in the proper sites, this shortcoming is becoming much less frequent. Green Valley Chardonnay presents a fresh, clean, crisp, Gravenstein apple, complex citrus flavor profile, with a core of minerality and great focus.

The history of grape growing in the Green Valley predates the establishment of vineyards in Napa Valley. Historic records indicate 10 acres of vineyards were planted in the region by Russian immigrants in 1830. The vineyard acreage increased dramatically over the years until the 1870s when phylloxera and subsequently Prohibition intervened. The Green Valley would eventually become more known for apples and prunes than grapes. Modern viticulture began in Green Valley when Warren and Gail Dutton bought their first 35 acres west of the town of Graton in the 1960s. Their original family home is now the current Dutton Ranch offices. They began planting significant acreage near Graton just before the downturn in the apple industry. They were joined in the late 1960s by Rodney Strong, who, along with the Sterlings of Iron Horse fame, ignored the widespread opinion of the time that it was too cool to ripen grapes in the region. Today, the Dutton Ranch either owns, leases or manages more vineyard acreage in the Green Valley than any other grower. The Dutton Ranch now encompasses 1,300 acres (1,100 vineyards, 200 in apple orchards) in the Russian River Valley and Green Valley appellations (go to for a map). Warren Dutton passed away in 2001 leaving Gail and sons Steve and Joe to carry on. Each brother now owns his own winery. Joe and his wife Tracy started Dutton Estate in 1994 and Steve and his wife Theresa founded Dutton-Goldfield Winery in 1998 with winemaker Dan Goldfield.

The original Iron Horse Vineyard was planted to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay after Audrey and Barry Sterling acquired their 300 acre property on Ross Station Road in 1976. Rodney Strong had originally had an option to buy the property which had been planted to vineyards between 1971 and 1973. Forrest Tanzer, who was working for Rodney Strong at the time, became the Sterling’s winemaker, vineyardist and partner. Tanzer directed the upgrading and expansion of the 110-acre Iron Horse Vineyard which was the most westerly vineyard in Sonoma County at the time. A winery was built on the property and officially opened in 1979. Iron Horse Vineyards was the first to release a single-vineyard Green Valley bottling.

Originally, most of the grapes grown in the Green Valley were picked early and used for making sparkling wine. Over the last fifteen years, there has been a shift to extending hang-time and the production of still wines. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay predominate, with smaller amounts of cool-climate Zinfandel, Syrah and Pinot Blanc being produced.

The Green Valley viticultural area now has over 100 growers and 20 wineries. Some of the vineyards have become household names to pinotphiles including Arrendell Vineyard, Don Miguel Vineyard (Marimar Torres), Dutton-Freestone Hill, Dutton Morelli Lane, Dutton-Rued, Dutton-Thomas Road and Dutton-Widdoes vineyards, Emeritus Vineyards, Hallberg, Heintz Ranch, Keefer Ranch, and Orogeny Vineyard. The wineries include Atascadero Creek, Bpinot (Bybee) Vineyards & Habitat, Battaglini Estate Winery, Dutton Estate Winery/ Sebastopol Vineyards, Emeritus Vineyards, Freeman, Graton Ridge Cellars, Hartford Family Winery, Iron Horse Vineyards, Keefer Ranch, Marimar Torres Estate Winery, Occidental Road Cellars, Orogeny Vineyards, Patassy Vineyard, Peters Family Winery, Radio-Coteau, River Road Vineyards, Russian River Valley Vineyards, and Taft Street Winery. Dutton-Goldfield and Red Car will soon have facilities in the Green Valley as well. Among the several wineries leasing space in the former Vacu-Dry apple processing plant (now SonomaWest Industrial Park North) at the corner of Gravenstein Highway and Occidental Road, which is technically within the Green Valley appellation, are Adrian Fog Winery, Benziger Family Winery, Chasseur Winery, Kosta Browne Winery, Tandem Winery, WesMar Winery and Willowbrook Cellars. These wineries source grapes primarily outside the Green Valley appellation. Merry Edwards Winery and Paul Hobbs Winery sit at the eastern border of the Green Valley appellation.

Among the wineries outside Green Valley that source grapes from the Green Valley appellation are A.P. Vin, Anthill Farms, August West, Benovia Winery, Barnett, Capiaux, DeLoach, DuMol, Dutton-Goldfield, EnRoute, Eric Ross, Gary Farrell, Guerrero-Fernandez Winery, Halleck Vineyard, Hess, Jordan (Chardonnay), Landmark Vineyards, LIOCO, Loring Wine Co., Lost Canyon, Lynmar, Martinelli Winery, Merry Edwards, Pali Wine Co., Patz & Hall, Paul Hobbs, Rhys Vineyards, Salinia Wine Co., Sequana, Scherrer Winery, Small Vines, Talisman, and Zepaltas.

I recently sampled a number of Pinot Noirs from the Green Valley appellation. The overall quality was consistently high with many exceptional wines in the tasting. Green Valley is appearing on more wine labels as the consumer gains more insight into the special wines from this viticultural area. Green Valley is clearly a badge of distinction and an appellation designation worthy of displaying. And, it’s all due to a three letter word.

2008 OTP Of The Place Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., 320 cases, Unreleased. From an unnamed prestigious vineyard in the Green Valley appellation. · A savory nose featuring plenty of oak. Dark red cherry and berry flavors with oak char in the background. Rich and brooding yet displaying some elegance. The pedigree of the fruit is evident but the oak steals the show at present. Decent (+).

2008 Loring Wine Company Graham Family Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

15.2% alc., $40, screw cap. · Penetrating and haunting aromas of red plums, red berries, violets and graham cracker. Really impressive and tasty sweet red berry attack that progresses to a memorable finish. This hedonistic, Caliesque sucker hangs around for at least half a minute. The fruit is startling good and the very smooth mouth feel brings the hair on your neck to attention. The alcohol is well integrated and the wine was still delicious the next day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle indicating the balance is spot on. This is a great sipping wine that aims to please.

2007 Dutton Estate Winery Karmen-Isabella Green Valley of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.9% alc., 625 cases, $30. · Wonderful aromatics featuring concentrated berry fruit with a hint of oak, herbs, spice, brown sugar and brioche. Tasty cherry and berry core with hint of spice. Lacks a little impression on the mid-palate but shows some persistence on the generous finish. Won’t disappoint at this price. Very good (+).

2007 Roessler Dutton Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.8% alc., 175 cases, $32. Sourced from the Thomas Road Vineyard in Green Valley planted in 1997 and farmed by Dutton Ranch. · Intense reddish-purple color in the glass. Subdued aromas of dark red fruits framed by toast and sweet smoke. A discreet and sensual wine offering strawberry and raspberry fruit with an underpinning of brisk acidity highlighted by a citrus peel note on the tangy finish. A great food wine. Fine the next day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Very good.

2007 Bpinot (Bybee) Vineyards & Habitat Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., 396 cases, $39. Crafted from organic grapes by winemaker Suzanne Hagen. Aged 10 months in lightly toasted French oak. Unfined and unfiltered. · Aromas of raspberry, strawberry, cherry, rosebush, grape must, redwood and spice draw you in, leading to a moderately rich dark red fruit core that is augmented by notes of loamy earthy, tea, herbs and soy. The flavor of Pinot grapes really comes through. Picks up richness with time in the glass. Harmonious and seductive with soft, ripe tannins. Very good (+).

2007 Capiaux Widdoes Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., $40. · Leads off with scents of black cherries, toasty oak and charcoal. Delicious aggressive attack of ripe cherries that are tar- and earthtoned. Nicely balanced with firm tannins and a moderately length finish. Soft in the mouth and aims to please but a little clumsy and doesn’t offer much nuance. Decent (+).

2007 Sequana Vineyards Dutton Ranch Green Valley of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.9% alc., $40. Crafted by James McPhail. · Ripe aromas and flavors of strawberries, black cherries with a sidecar of sweet oak. Rich and luscious with a satiny mouth feel and gossamer tannins. Hard to say no to. Perfectly fine the next day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. Very good.

2007 Failla Keefer Ranch Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $47. · The nose is dominated by purple fruits, mushrooms, oak and brioche. On the palate, the flavors echo the aromas with added interest offered by savory herbs. Smooth and full-bodied, even muscular, with silky tannins, good acidity and some persistence on the fruity finish. Decent.

2007 Bpinot (Bybee) Vineyards & Habitat Sera Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., 196 cases, $49. A reserve bottling primarily from Pommard clone grown in the estate vineyard that is organic and biodynamically certified. Aged 18 months in lightly toasted French oak. Unfined and unfiltered. · Very charming aromas of dark red berries, brioche and subtle oak. Lovely cherry and berry flavor that pack a wallop yet the wine is light on its feet. A dynamite wine that is well-dressed and ephemeral with supple tannins that allow for early drinking but possessing the balance to stay the course. The finish sails on for what seems like a minute. A special wine that you can spend the night with.

2007 Halleck Vineyard Hallberg Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., $55. · Shy but pleasing perfume of dark fruits. Earth-kissed fruits offer restrained lushness with good follow-through on the palate. A solid, fruit driven wine with admirable balance. Drink now. Very good.

2007 Dutton-Goldfield Dutton Ranch Sanchietti Vineyard Green Valley Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 345 cases, $58. · Now this is what I’m talking about. Nuanced and enticing nose featuring pretty aromas of red and black berry jam, crushed strawberries, wine cellar, vanillin and spice. Full-on attack of seductive berry fruit that is earthy and juicy leading to an aromatic and fruity persistent finish with a subtle kick of acidity. Very charming with velvety tannins, perfect weight and balance. This wine is a superb example of how you can craft great Pinot Noir at moderate alcohol levels. This wine shows the stamp of a gifted winemaker (Dan Goldfield).

2007 Dutton-Goldfield Freestone Hill Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.5% alc., 537 cases, $58. · Fruity nose of grapes and berries with notes of spice and Coca-Cola. Lush, ripe and sweet mouth coating fruits with a long and powerful fruity finish. The tannins are restrained and the refreshing acidity makes the wine easily approachable now. Well-proportioned and nicely balanced. Very good.

2006 River Road Vineyards & Winery Stephanie’s Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $16. Estate grown. · Moderately light color. Appealing scents of strawberries, cherries, spice and sassafras. Juicy flavors of cherries and berries, red hard candy and cola with very subtle oak playing a supportive role. Medium-light in body with gossamer tannins and respectable finesse. Closer to Russian River Valley in flavor. A terrific value. Very good.

2006 Patassy Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $17. This vineyard is farmed by Frank and Stephan Patassy. It borders Atascadero Creek near Sebastopol. Aged 14 months in French oak. · Aromas of crushed, ripe strawberries, wet leaves and prune. A lighter and savory style featuring very ripe fruit flavors unusual for the Green Valley. Tastes of herbs and bourbon creep in. A value-priced daily drinker. Decent.

2006 Marimar Estate La Masia Torres Family Vineyards Don Miguel Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., $25. Estate grown and bottled from organically grown grapes. Unfiltered. · Aromas of strawberries, raspberries and wood shavings. The fruit veers to the redder spectrum with oak tannins playing a prominent role. Decent, but not exciting.

2006 Orogeny Fox Den Vineyard Green Valley of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.7% alc., $34. From an 8-acre vineyard owned by Ed and Sue Smith. · Moderately dark reddish-purple color in the glass. Racy nose showing aromas of raspberry compote and spice. Complimentary flavors of strawberries, cranberries, raspberries, currants, and hazelnuts with an earthy underpinning veering a little toward overripeness. Hi-strung acidity with mild tannins and a smooth texture. Very good (-).

2006 Orogeny Green Valley of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $34. · Berry jam, oak spice and new-mown hay aromas initially veering to green grass over time. Plush berry core that is somewhat flat and linear. Well-proportioned tannins and acidity but lacks a thrill. Decent.

2006 Keefer Ranch Wines Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc., $42. Inaugural release. · Moderate reddish-purple color. Aromas of black cherries, strawberries, wet leaves, baking spice and oak are echoed in the flavors. Smooth, clean and elegant with balanced acidity and supple tannins. Perfectly fine and time to drink up. Very good.

2006 Martinelli Bondi Home Ranch Water Trough Vineyard Green Valley Pinot Noir

14.9% alc., $70. · The nose is loaded with oak toast and char which carries over on the palate. A rich core of dark fruits is quite pleasing but the toasted oak accent just doesn’t appeal to me. The wine drank much better the next day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle with more oak integration and a brighter display of fruit. At room temperature, the finish is a bit hot. Decent.

2005 Dutton-Goldfield Dutton Ranch Freestone Hill Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.8% alc., 361 cases, $58. Located at the southwestern edge of Green Valley. Dijon clones. Very small yields with tight bunches and tiny thick-skinned berries. · Interesting aromatic profile of flowers, smoke, sap and oak. Earthy, grilled, smoky dark fruits with a hint of tobacco. Showing primarily secondary bouquet and flavors without the vibrant fruit shown on release, but will appeal to fans of aged Pinot Noir. Decent (+).

Other Green Valley-Russian River Valley Pinot Noirs worth consideration:

Anthill Farms Tina Marie Vineyard Pinot Noir
A.P. Vin Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir
Barnett Tina Marie Vineyard Pinot Noir
DeLoach Green Valley Pinot Noir
DuMol Aidan Pinot Noir, DuMol Ryan Pinot Noir
Emeritus Pinot Noir
Gary Farrell Hallberg Vineyard Pinot Noir
Hartford Court Hailey’s Block Pinot Noir
Iron Horse Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir
Kosta Browne Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir
Loring Graham Vineyard Pinot Noir
Loring Keefer Ranch Pinot Noir
Marcassin Bondi Home Ranch Vineyard Pinot Noir
Semper Gold Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir
Sequana Sundawg Ridge Pinot Noir

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