Green Valley Has a Secret: Gold Ridge
Green Valley is the Never-Never Land of Russian River Valley. It’s not just the llama farms and rainbow flags over gates leading to communes. There’s an almost physical sense of being off the charts.
For one thing, Green Valley isn’t a valley at all. From a geological perspective it’s really a bunch of wannabe valleys in various states of precociousness. Why else would the roads be so incomprehensible? Out in the valley proper the roads behave reasonably, paralleling the river or cutting logically across the grain of bench land and river bottom. In Green Valley they meander, willfully or whimsically according to unknown moods, through terrain that makes no sense at all.
Hundreds of thousands of years of marine incursion and seismic upheaval, volcanic eruptions erosion, and alluvial deposition have created an oddly embrangled landscape of brooding redwood forests enlightened by apple groves, bright glades and canyons filled with ferns and madrone, where hawks and eagles congregate above ridges to surf the maritime wind.
In that nether corner of western Sonoma County, people sometimes go out in the morning to feed their chickens and discover that a mountain lion got them all during the night.
Customarily, the creation of American Viticultural Areas has followed the “build it, and they will come” model. Inevitably, many are ill-conceived entities with dubious viticultural significance, having more to do with marketing than distinctive terroir-driven wines. Green Valley has established its reputation the old-fashioned way-with good wine.
It’s been more than three decades since the first Chardonnay vines appeared in this neck of western Sonoma County, and nearly 20 years since the 19,000-acre Green Valley American Viticultural Area was created (in 1983) within the much larger Russian River Valley AVA. Now, in the fullness of time, Green Valley is poised to join the elite rank of California AVAs that have established real viticultural identities.
Wine buffs first tuned in to Green Valley through the Matanzas Creek Chardonnays made by Merry Edwards from 1978 to 1984. Most of the grapes for the legendary ’78 came from the Rued Vineyard (source of the widely planted Rued clone of Chardonnay). That wine was gorgeous on release and won all kinds of awards, then proceeded to age beautifully through the next decade; when I last tasted it in the early ‘90s it was still lively and balanced.
Current Green Valley wines, mostly from the difficult 1998 vintage, are exemplary. One is the Iron Horse “Thomas Road Vineyard” Pinot Noir. This sumptuous beauty, with its elegant classical structure and purity of fruit, might serve well as a symbol of Green Valley’s ascendancy.
Another is Fritz Chardonnay “Shop Block-Dutton Ranch.” It makes a similar statement with deft combination of power and finesse, with concentration and weight balancing high-toned fruit and clean minerality. Not coincidentally, it’s just one of many Dutton Ranch Chardonnays, produced by various wineries, that sing high, clear renditions of the Green Valley song.
While Pinot Noir is relatively new to Green Valley-a phenomenon of the latter-day wine boom that began in the late 1980s-the northern California wine community has long been aware of grower Warren Dutton’s reliably excellent Chardonnay. In fact, Dutton was the first grower to plant Chardonnay in this part of western Sonoma County. He arrived there in 1964 when his family bought a hops ranch that happened to include 15 acres of French Colombard.
A late-ripening variety, Colombard was not ideally suited to the very cool Green Valley climate, so in 1967 Dutton decided to replant. He sought advice from Rodney Strong, one of Sonoma County’s new-wave wine pioneers. “I wanted something to harvest earlier,” Dutton recalls. “Rod Strong said plant Chardonnay.”
The neighbors were not impressed. At that time virtually all the farms in the Sebastopol area were still planted to apples, hops and prunes. “One of our neighbors told my wife, ‘You know, you661808416543257204 the paper talking about when grapes were selling for $15 a ton. In 1964 I sold my French Colombard grapes to Martini and Prati for $88 a ton.”
These days, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grown by Dutton and his sons, Joe and Steve, sell for around $3,000 a ton. Wineries bottling Dutton Ranch-designated wines include Kistler, J. Fritz, Seba19370089931701999392y Dutton).
The keys to Green Valley’s success with Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are a very cool marine climate and an extraordinary soil called Gold Ridge. This rare sandy loam was venerated by the legendary botanist Luther Burbank, who established his Gold Ridge Farm botanical proving ground in Sebastopol during the 1920s to take advantage of its near-magical properties.
In simple terms, it’s a light, well-drained soil that encourages deep rooting without excessive vigor. This light, balanced soil seems to amplify fruit intensity, bringing out citrusy high notes and minerality in Chardonnay and vibrant red fruit in Pinot Noir, while also emphasizing the crispness in both, which is accentuated by the strong marine influence. It’s not unique to Green Valley, but its concentration in such a wine-conducive climate is.
Outstanding wines are often described as harmonious. In fact, such wines invariably come from harmonious conditions, namely an ideal match of soil, climate, and grape varieties. Amid the apparent incongruities of the Green Valley terrain, those essential elements are in tune.
Smith is writer-at-large for Wine Spirits Magazine.