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by Fred McMillin
for July 2, 1997

An Underground Chardonnay

Prologue: The Russian River originates in the northern area of the California Coastal Range. It meanders south in Sonoma County for over 100 miles scouring a narrow valley along the way. Then, south of Healdsburg, it veers west and forms a markedly different type of valley, broad and cool, before the river empties into the Pacific Ocean.

--- Source: Prof. John Baxevanis' "Wine Regions of America"

The Rest of the Story: So, the wine label appellation reads "Russian River Valley." This means the grapes could have come from anywhere on that 100+ mile-long valley. Right? WRONG! Only that cooler, wide southern end of the valley is called the "Russian River Valley."

It was obvious to most of the early Sonoma vintners that the area wasn't warm enough for wine grapes. Then, about 25 years ago, the suitability for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir was recognized. The number of wineries increased abruptly from four to forty.

Typical was Berkeley-grad Keith Rutz ("roots"), who in 1978 used some of his fashion-store profits to purchase a home and ranch in the area. Having spent considerable time in Burgundy, he ultimately decided to "produce the best wine that can be fashioned from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes."...and he clearly has put his money where his mouth is. To provide the ultimate in temperature and humidity control, he's built his entire winery underground. He made his first wines in 1992, and is increasing production slowly and carefully. My panel just tasted his '94 Russian River Valley Chardonnay from the Quail Hill Vineyard... top of the line...$25.

'94 Quail Hill Chardonnay, Russian River Valley
Rutz Cellars
Sebastopol, CA
For more information, (415) 346-2929

About the Writer

Fred McMillin, a veteran wine writer, has taught wine history for 30 years on three continents. He currently teaches wine courses at San Francisco State and San Francisco City College and is Northern California Editor for American Wine on the Web. In 1995, the Academy of Wine Communications honored Fred with one of only 22 Certificates of Commendation awarded to American wine writers.

Read more articles by Fred McMillin in the eGGsf

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