Winegrowing in the Russian River Valley began with the Russian colonists who settled the Northern California coast in the early 1800s. Vineyards were among the first cultivated fields in what is now the Russian River Valley appellation.
It is believed that the Russian immigrants planted grapes in this area as early as 1817, a full six years before Padre Jose Altimira - who traditionally has been credited with planting the first grapes in Sonoma County- planted grapes in the town of Sonoma.
When the Russians arrived to settle the Sonoma Coast between Bodega and Fort Ross in 1812, they brought with them foodstuffs including grapevines from Lima, Peru. Their primary businesses were trapping sea otters and trading furs but they still found time to plant vines and grow grapes. As the Russians ventured further inland, they established more farms and vineyards. In 1836, a Russian agronomist named Yegor Chernykh was sent by a Russian-American Company to develop food supplies for the Alaskan settlements. Chernykh established a farm just west of what is now Graton and, as part of his crops, he planted grapes. While there is no record of how productive the vines at Chernykh farm were, evidence indicates that wine was produced for sacramental purposes, and it may be surmised that grapevine cuttings from this farm were a source for future vineyards throughout a large portion of western Sonoma County.
While the Russians planted the first grapevines, much of the growth in the rest of the 1800s was a result of the Italian immigrants, many of who were drawn to California by the Gold Rush of 1849. Grape plantings grew throughout the second half of the century, reaching their peak in the 1890s, the so-called "glory years" of the Russian River Valley. By then, there were nearly 250 growers farming some 6,000 acres of grapes and producing more than a million gallons of wine - a third of the county's output.
The later years of the century witnessed the establishment of a number of premier wineries that are still in existence today. Grape growing and winemaking had grown to new heights by the end of the century, only to go into decline in the 1900s. The phylloxera epidemic that decimated the Sonoma Valley in the 1880s and the Napa Valley in the 1890s hit the Russian River Valley around 1900. Growers were forced to rip out diseased vines and start over.
Contributing further to the decline in grape growing and winemaking was the fact that farmers could earn far more income growing just about any other fruit. Apples, plums, cherries, peaches and pears all brought in more income than grapes. Prunes, earned two to three times more money than grapes. In the early years of the twentieth century, vineyards gave way to other planting - first to apples and prunes and later to hops. To hasten the demise of grape growing and winemaking in the early part of the century, along came Prohibition.
A rebirth of grape growing and winemaking began in the Russian River Valley appellation in the 1960s, with renewed planting and the introduction of new grape varieties. Also, a new wave of winemakers joined the old-time families producing wines of exceptional quality that scored prestigious awards in competitions and captured the attention of a new generation of consumers.
In 1983, the Russian River Valley was designated an American Viticultural Area (AVA) by the BATF (Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms). The appellation, one of the largest in Sonoma County, covers an area of 150 square miles. The fog bank that comes inland from the coast continues to define the appellation boundaries.
Today the Russian River Valley appellation include over 200 different growers and more than 10,000 vineyard acres. In recent years, with each vintage, the Russian River Valley has established itself as one of the world's premier appellations and continues to garner acclaim for its grapes and wine.
Vineyards in the Russian River Valley vary in size, from small family-owned wineries, with fewer than 25 acres, to larger farms. Winegrowers include both direct descendents of the Italian-American growers who established farms more than a hundred years ago, as well as many of the leading innovators responsible for the rebirth of premium winemaking in the 1970s and 1980s. Vineyards continue to share the land with farms devoted to sheep, cattle, apples, berries, market gardens, nursery products, Christmas trees, and other animals and crops.
*Information provided by the Russian River Valley Winegrowers.