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Reach for the Middle for Pinot Noir

The Russian River Valley is a box-shaped region in northern Sonoma County, just fifteen miles on any side, its four corners consisting of the towns of Healdsburg and Guerneville in the North and Sebastopol and Santa Rosa in the South. Of the total of 126,600 acres of rolling hills, dense redwood forests and apple orchards, approximately 15,700 acres are planted to wine grapes. Pinot Noir plantings account for about one-third of this acreage.

The defining feature of the Russian River Valley is a single three-letter word: fog. Fog from the Pacific Ocean enters the Russian River Valley through the Russian River from its origins at Jenner on the Sonoma Coast in the more northern aspect of the appellation, and more significantly, from the Southwest through the Petaluma Wind Gap between Pt. Reyes and Bodega Bay toward Sebastopol, which is situated approximately ten miles south of the Russian River. The father north you go in the Russian River Valley appellation, the more the maritime influence wains and the warmer it becomes.

There is plenty of daytime warmth (the Russian River Valley is a Region II on the University of California at Davis Heat Summation Scale) in the Russian River Valley, giving way to cool nights and mornings caused by the wind-borne fog. The result of God’s air conditioning is slowed ripening and extended hang time. The winegrowers in the Russian River Valley like to say that they turn fog into Pinot Noir.

The Russian River is 105 miles in length, beginning its journey in the coastal mountains in the North near the town of Willits in Mendocino County, and winding south through the Alexander Valley before reaching the Russian River Valley. Just below the town of Healdsburg, the River takes a turn and heads west toward the Pacific Ocean. This bend in the River marks the northern extreme of the so-called Middle Reach of the Russian River Valley, the birthplace of modern Pinot Noir viticulture in the Valley, and one of seven sub-regions of the appellation that also includes the Santa Rosa Plain (Los Molinos), Windsor Hills, Laguna Ridge, Green Valley, Sebastopol Hills and Freestone. These sub-regions are not official, having been named and recognized by winegrowers and winemakers who know the Valley, and although the titled sub-regions are in common use, there are no precise boundaries established except for Green Valley which is its own appellation within the Russian River Valley. A map of the Russian River Valley and the location of these sub-regions is below.

The Middle Reach sub-region is a north-south stretch on either side of the Russian River between Healdsburg and Forestville. The western boundary is roughly marked by Westside Road and the eastern limit by Eastside Road. The southern boundary extends to the Wohler Bridge at the junction of Westside Road and Wohler Road, although some locals extend the sub-region further south on Westside Road to include Moshin, George and Gary Farrell wineries. See map below.

The first to plant Pinot Noir along Westside Road in the Middle Reach was Steve and Helen Bacigalupi in 1964. In 1968, shortly after his father passed away, Joe Rochioli Jr., in deference to his father’s wishes, planted Pinot Noir on Westside Road along the western banks of the Russian River. This became the now famous Rochioli East Block of Pinot Noir. West Block followed a year later. In 1973, Davis Bynum built the first winery on Westside Road and vinified Pinot Noir from Joe Rochioli Jr.’s first crop. The 1973 Davis Bynum Rochioli Vineyard Pinot Noir was the first Russian River Valley vineyard-designated wine. Gary Farrell was to establish his own label in 1982 while making wine for Davis Bynum, and that year Joe Rochioli Jr. and his son Tom launched the Rochioli label. The first Rochioli wines were made by Farrell at Davis Bynum. By 1985, Tom had become the full-time winemaker and Rochioli winery was built. In 1989, Williams Selyem Winery moved from their small garage winery in Fulton to a modest facility on the Allen Ranch property on Westside Road across the street from Rochioli. The Middle Reach, and Westside Road in particular, had become the crown jewel for Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley.

A drive along Westside Road in the Middle Reach can put you in a bucolic trance. The sleepy two-lane winding road has sparse automobile traffic and presents an ever-changing panorama of trees, old barns, vineyards and iconic wineries. It is my favorite stretch of wine country road in California. Heading south out of Healdsburg, the wineries appear one after the other: Alderbrook, Armida, De La Montanya, Twomey Cellars, C. Donatiello, John Tyler (Bacigalupi Vineyard), Hop Kiln, Rochioli Vineyards & Winery, Williams Selyem, Arista, Thomas George Estates, Porter Creek, Moshin Vineyards and Gary Farrell Wines. Other notable Pinot Noir producers in the Middle Reach include Castalia, Copain, Derbes, Desmond Estate Vineyards, EnRoute, Foppiano, Gracianna Vineyards, J Winery & Vineyards, Ketcham Estate, MacMurray Ranch, Matrix Winery, Mueller, Rodney Strong Vineyards, and Sapphire Hill Vineyards & Winery.

Many producers located outside the Middle Reach source grapes from the many premium vineyards in the sub-region such as Allen, Amber Ridge, Bacigalupi, Buena Tierra, Flax, Floodgate, Koplen, Rochioli, Salzberger/Chan and Widdoes vineyards.

The Middle Reach is a relatively warm sub-region because it is inland and more isolated from the maritime effect, particularly in its northern limits where it can be downright hot in the summer. Vineyards are planted primarily on the plains on either side of the Russian River. Soils are alluvial type composed of silt, clay, sand and gravel and thus well-drained. The wines tend to have a high degree of ripeness, with rich, bright, even flashy fruit, with an intense Bing cherry, wild strawberry, cola and spice profile. Alcohols can be generous, tannins tend to be moderate and velvety, and acidity veers to the bright side. In summary, Middle Reach Pinot Noir is hard to say no to.

Some representative Middle Reach Pinot Noirs are reviewed below. The words “Middle Reach” do not appear on the front labels, but some wineries include the words on the back label description of the wine to emphasize the prestigious location of the winery or the vineyard where the grapes were sourced. Expect to pay about $60 and up for top-end Middle Reach Pinot Noirs, but many excellent wines from this sub-region of the Russian River Valley can be found for less.

2008 Arista Bacigalupi Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., $56. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Demure aromas of spiced Bing cherries picking up more of a savory, leafy bent in the glass over time. Discreet array of medium-weighted dark red Pinot fruit flavors with notes of herbs and mushroom. A relatively simple wine now with impeccably balanced tannins and acidity that is youthful, and will benefit from more development in the bottle. Good.

2008 Alysian Rochioli Vineyard River Block Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., pH 3.46, 233 cases, $65. Pommard, Dijon 115 and 777. 100% de-stemmed. Aged 14 months in 45% new French oak barrels. · A bright and glorious perfume of Bing cherries, wild strawberries and sandalwood. Delicate and crisp flavors of raspberries, cranberries and cherry skins. Smooth and seamless with soft-hewn tannins and a bright kiss of acidity on the uplifting finish. Quintessential Middle Reach.

2008 Alysian Floodgate Vineyard Rock Hill Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., pH 3.42, 233 cases, $55. Dijon clone 777. 100% de-stemmed. Aged 13 months in 45% new and 55% one and two-year-old French oak barrels. · Moderately light reddish-purple color in the glass. Brooding aromas of dark fruits and forest floor. Earthy and savory on the palate with shy but charming flavors of plums and boysenberries that sail smoothly and silky to the refreshing finish. Delicately styled but thoroughly satisfying. Not showing everything now. Much better the following day from a previously opened and re-corked bottle offering brighter fruit aromas and flavors. Plenty of pinotosity for the long haul.

2007 Alysian Rochioli Vineyard Allen-Rochioli Blocks Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., $65. · Welcoming perfume of dark Pinot fruits with hints of mocha and toasty oak. Rich and vivid array of ripe, sweet red and black fruits with an undertone of earth, savory herbs and dark chocolate, nicely framed by fine-grain tannins. This beauty possesses the Rochioli fruit spirit in a more extracted style atypical for a Gary Farrell Pinot. Very good.

2003 J. Rochioli River Block Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.2% alc. · Moderately deep reddish-purple color in the glass. Strong perfume of black cherries with undertones of toasty oak and sawdust. Intense core of black cherry, red plum and strawberry fruit wrapped in substantial tannins with an undertone of anise, charred oak and tar. Fairly muscular but very silky in texture. This Pinot has aged beautifully and will offer several years of future drinking pleasure. Very good.

2007 J Vineyards Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.3% alc., $35. · Moderate reddish-purple hue in the glass. Alluring aromas of cherries, raspberries and baking spice. Harmoniously woven flavors of berry jam with notes of cherry, plum and cola, all of which persist on the high-toned fruity finish. Harmonious with fine, lacy tannins. About as good as it gets for a Russian River Valley appellation blend and the best from this winery in many years. Very good.

2006 MacMurray Ranch Winemaker’s Block Selection Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 400 cases, $60. Clones 37 (Mt. Eden) and Dijon mix. Winemaker Susan Doyle. A little-known and special wine that is the best Pinot Noir in the Gallo lineup of wines. Do not confuse this wine with the high production MacMurray Ranch appellation Pinot Noir bottlings for it is a horse of a different color. · Moderately deep reddishpurple color in the glass. Slightly confected bright and spicy Bing cherry aromas. A charming wine with pleasing delicacy on the palate with its delicious red cherry pie fruit flavor, tasty clove and oak spice, balancing tannins and bright acidity. The persistent finish slips off the back of the palate. Still great two days later from a previously opened and re-corked bottle. This one will make your knees go weak.

2008 Twomey Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $50. Sourced from the Middle Reach. Aged 13 months sur lie in 50% new French oak barrels. · Terrific, well-spiced cherry aroma. Fruit driven with copious black cherry, black raspberry fruit enhanced by flavors of cherry cola and baking spices. Nicely put together with beautifully married oak. A solid choice. Very good.

2007 WesMar Salzgerber Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., 129 cases, $45. · Moderate reddish-purple color in the glass. Bing cherry fruit aromas infused with fennel. Tasty core of red cherries and berries accented with flavors of mushrooms and fresh-cut, grassy herbs. Demure and charming in style. Nothing to complain about, but doesn’t excite at this time. Youthful, so wait on this one. Good.

2008 Williams Selyem Eastside Road Neighbors Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.4% alc., $49. · Moderate reddish-purple color in the glass. Wonderful aromatics flush with spicy cherries and strawberries. Delicious dark red fruits with nuances of Coca-Cola and spice, lingering on the finish. Very smooth and seductive in the mouth with enough tannic backbone to last. No oak crops up to spoil the party. Very close to the old Williams Selyem style and a wine that speaks Middle Reach loudly.

2008 Williams Selyem Allen Vineyard Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

14.1% alc., $78. · Moderately light in reddish-purple hue in the glass. Shy, but very bracing aromas of red cherry and berry fruits with a hint of cut flowers and wintergreen. Flat-out delicious core of strawberry and black cherry cola flavors. Very smooth and sexy with a proper acid backbone to pitch the fruit. A seductive wine now, but needs more time to fully mature. All you can ask for in a Middle Reach Pinot Noir.

2007 Woodenhead Buena Tierra Vineyard Original Planting Russian River Valley Pinot Noir

13.9% alc., $57. Unfined and unfiltered. · Moderate garnet hue in the glass. On the nose there is a lovely interplay of cherry pie filling, spice, pencil lead and oak char aromas. This Pinot is a delicious cherry bombast nicely spiced with crisp and bright fruit lifted by gleeful acidity that shows up on the finish as a citrus note. Very good.

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