The Russian River Valley AVA is best known for its Pinot Noir, like these vines at Joseph Jewell Vineyards
Joseph Jewell, Russian River Valley AVA

Russian River Valley Wine Region and Appellation

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It's fitting that the Russian River Valley appellation lies at the geographical heart of Sonoma County.

This is where some of wine country's best known and most beloved varietals really earned their reputation. This is the appellation that set the standard for California, and perhaps New World, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, while remaining home to sought-after old vine Zinfandel.

Ramey Wine Cellars' Westside Farms vineyard runs along the bank of the Russian River
Ramey Wine Cellars, Westside Farms vineyard

This is where the top wineries in Napa go to get their cool-climate grapes. True to the Sonoma County spirit, it's where the leaders of the premium wine boom, now household names, were not wealthy businessmen, but inspired farmers and newspapermen; a dancer; a pilot.

The Russian River Valley AVA sets a standard for world-class Pinot Noir.

The Russian River Valley earned AVA status in 1983, and comprises 15,000 vineyard acres. Today, among its 70 wineries a new guard struggles to get their start in old sheds and urban warehouses.

Top Grapes

By wide margins, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Zinfandel top the charts in this AVA, and in that order. Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Sauvignon Blanc are next in acreage, but the small amount of cool-climate Syrah produced here may get more attention among wine collectors. Pinot Gris and Gewürztraminer are also important.

The Lay of the Land

Golden and pink hues in the Emeritus Vineyards at sunset in Sonoma County
Emeritus Vineyards

The Russian River Valley AVA does not strictly outline the path of the Russian River, which flows from Mendocino County south-by-southeast through Alexander Valley, makes an abrupt left at Healdsburg, and cuts west through rugged terrain to the Pacific Ocean. Rather like a heart in its shape, roughly 15 miles wide and tall, the AVA occupies a 'sweet spot' that's cool, but not too cold.

In the growing season, warm daytime temperatures plummet when fog regularly intrudes from the Petaluma Gap to the south, and the Russian River to the west. The northern border marks the point where the fog frequently sticks around a while longer in the morning, while Alexander Valley is already heating up.

In the late afternoon, a fog bank can often be seen hovering above the appellation's border in the hills west of Sebastopol. (When attenting a summer barbecue in the Russian River Valley, one is well advised to bring a sweater.) The Green Valley of the Russian River Valley AVA is nested within the Russian River Valley. The eastern border arbitrarily runs through downtown Santa Rosa, two miles from the Bennett Valley AVA, which is actually considered by some to be colder still.

Notable Wineries

The exterior of Rodney Strong Vineyards in Russian River Valley, Sonoma County
Rodney Strong Vineyards

Easily spotted from U.S. 101, Kendall-Jackson Wine Estate & Gardens provides an orientation to the area. Further on, neighbors Rodney Strong and J Vineyards offer popular Pinot, Cab, and sparkling wine. Legendary Rochioli Vineyards is happy to pour their Estate Pinot Noir, but you'll have to get on 'the list' for their West Block. Russian River Vineyards boasts a historic building and an onsite restaurant that serves dinner (by reservation only) on Friday and Saturday nights.

New on the scene, VML is producing memorable wines; Martinelli is home to memorably named, old-vine Jackass Hill Zinfandel. In a clearing of the redwood forest along the Russian River, historic Korbel Champagne Cellars presides over a picturesque scene.

Backroad Bodegas

Vineyards surround Harvest Moon Estate & Winery, Santa Rosa
Harvest Moon Estate & Winery

At Bacigalupi Vineyards, they'll have you know that it was their family's grapes that made history at the 1976 Paris wine tasting. On weekends, a visit behind the humble cellar door at Joseph Swan is a Pinot pilgrimage. Dry Gewürztraminer and delicate Zinfandel challenge stereotypes at Harvest Moon, while Old World Winery does it the ancient way. Certain hulking, beige warehouses in Santa Rosa hide the most beautiful wines from Siduri and other urban wineries.

Restaurants and Lodging in Russian River Valley

Friends enjoy dinner overlooking a vineyard atJohn Ash & Co.
John Ash & Co., Santa Rosa

John Ash & Co. tops the list of restaurants in this AVA, for its central location and longevity, celebrating 30 years in 2014, as well as legendary wine country cuisine. Sleep it off in the adjacent, deluxe accommodations of the Vintners Inn.

Likewise luxurious, the Farmhouse Inn & Restaurant and Applewood Inn & Spa are renowned wine country destinations. Even closer to the river, Boon Hotel + Spa provides modish-rustic accommodations and menus, while visitors with a taste for true rusticity may opt to camp out at Mirabel RV Park & Campground or dozens of other spots along River Road. 

Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight.

Sonoma County Appellations (AVA):

Alexander Valley
Bennett Valley
Carneros - Sonoma
Chalk Hill
Dry Creek Valley
Fort Ross - Seaview
Fountaingrove District
Green Valley of Russian River Valley
Knights Valley
Moon Mountain
Northern Sonoma
Petaluma Gap
Pine Mountain - Cloverdale Peak
Rockpile
Russian River Valley
Sonoma Coast
Sonoma Mountain
Sonoma Valley