Sonoma County, CA -- The Overview
Over the last 12 years we’ve done so much on Sonoma but I realized that we’ve never done a podcast outlining the areas of Sonoma to give form to this wine paradise that has 18 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and covers more than a million acres of land (405,000 ha) of which more than 60,000 acres are planted to grapes.
Sonoma is still full of small, family-owned vineyards. It’s estimated that at least 85% of Sonoma County’s vineyards are family owned and operated and 80% of vineyards are less than 100 acres (40% are less than 20 acres). The Sonoma landscape incorporates coastal ranges, valleys, mountains, flats, benchlands, and innumerable soils and microclimates, including a multitude of producers with different styles and ideas of what to grow.
In this show, we try to compartmentalize the areas of Sonoma, to help you figure out the big areas and their specialties.
Here are the show notes:
We start with generalities…
- Climate: There are sunny days and almost no rain from May through September with most areas cooler near the coast and warmer inland. The Pacific Ocean/Petaluma Gap and San Pablo Bay serve as cooling influences for the western and southern regions of Sonoma County
- Land: Elevations and slopes slow ripening, provide poor soils with excellent drainage, and create complex wines. Wines from valley floors are simpler. Matching grape to site is important given soil, elevation, and climate diversity.
- Grapes: Everyone grows everything! You’ll find dozens of varieties growing in Sonoma.
Most of the show is spent detailing the valleys. Here is the quick and dirty on each area:
Sonoma Valley AVA: Centers on the Sonoma Valley in the southeastern part of the county. It gets cool air from the San Pablo Bay in the south, and protection from the cool influence of the Pacific in the west from Sonoma Mountain. There are dozens of different soils from very fertile on the valley floor, to well-drained and poor on the hills and mountains
Sonoma Valley has 4 AVAs within it: Moon Mountain, Sonoma Mountain, Bennett Valley, Carneros
- Moon Mountain District AVA is on the steep western slope of the Mayacamas Mountains. It has the famed Monte Rosso vineyard and specializes in Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
- Sonoma Mountain AVA is at high altitude, with steep vineyards on eastern exposures. The vineyards rise above the fog line, allowing grapes to ripen more fully in the sunlight. Basalt soils make good Cabernet Sauvignon. Other grapes are: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel
- Bennett Valley AVA is Sonoma Valley’s smallest AVA. It’s a series of small vineyards in the slopes, hills, and ridges between Taylor Mountain, Sonoma Mountain, and Bennett Peak. In the moderately cool climate, with a long hang time, Rhône varieties do well as does Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and grapes like Marsanne, Roussanne, Viognier with acidity. Pinot Noir acreage is increasing.
- Los Carneros AVA straddles Napa and Sonoma counties. It hugs the San Pablo Bay, and is one of the coolest AVAs in the area, with moderately cool and windy days and early morning fog. The soil is compressed clay and very consistent, this and the weather limits vigor. Chardonnay is 50%, Pinot 43%. Merlot makes excellent wine on the clay soils.
Town to stay in if visiting the area: Sonoma
** Sonoma Valley is a discrete part of the larger Sonoma County. When producers use a general AVA for grapes from a combined region, it’s Sonoma County.
COASTAL APPELLATIONS (mainly Chardonnay and Pinot Noir areas)
Sonoma Coast AVA: Goes from the San Pablo Bay to the border of Mendocino County in the north. This appellation is too large to have meaning – it can be cold and rugged near the coast or warm and sheltered inland, producing very different styles of wine. The expectation is that the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay that have the “Sonoma Coast” label are actually from coastal vineyards, but that’s not true. We tell the story of how this AVA got to be so muddled and then talk about the 3 AVAs that were set up to rectify the issue:
- Petaluma Gap AVA: 25 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge, the AVA runs from the Pacific Coast at Bodega Bay, southeast to San Pablo Bay, and has a mild Mediterranean climate. The defining feature is the wind gap in the coastal range, which funnels in cool coastal marine air bringing fog and cool afternoon breezes. The cool climate lower yields and help Pinot Noir (75% of plantings), Chardonnay and Syrah the grapes retain acidity.
- The West Sonoma Coast AVA (got it in 2022): Stretches from the Mendocino County border to the northern coastal border of the Petaluma Gap AVA. The area includes ONLY areas where coastal influence reaches – it is remote with cooler marine temperatures and much fog at elevation. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the main grapes.
- Fort Ross-Seaview AVA: Located on the outskirts of the Pacific Ocean, with major coastal influence, and high elevation, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have excellent acidity.
Towns to stay in: Petaluma, Jenner, Bodega Bay
RUSSIAN RIVER VALLEY AVA (Pinot Noir, but Rhône and Italian varietals are great too in certain regions)
Russian River Valley AVA is known for Pinot Noir. The constant cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean, coming from the Petaluma Wind Gap creates big diurnal swings, so grapes have a long growing season to develop flavor in the western part of the AVA.
The reality is that the Russian River Valley encompasses warm and cool areas. There are 5 Neighborhoods within Russian River Valley, which are used to discuss the cooler places that are more suited to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay (Laguna Ridge, Sebastapol Hills, parts of the Middle Reach) and those that are suited to warmer climate grapes like Rhône varieties, Zinfandel, and Italian varieties (parts of the Middle Reach, Santa Rosa Plains, Eastern Hills)
- Green Valley of Russian River Valley SUB AVA of Russian River is in the southwestern part of the Russian River Valley, surrounded by Sebastopol, Forestville and Occidental. It is very cool, foggy, with heavy coastal influences and produces acidic, less extracted Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and sparkling wines on its Goldridge (yellow, sandy) soil
Chalk Hill AVA is in the northeast part of Russian River Valley and has less marine influence and fog. It has rocky, chalk soils so they do grow Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but they also grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot.
Town to stay in: Santa Rosa, Healdsburg, or Windsor
DRY CREEK VALLEY AVA (Zinfandel central)
Dry Creek is the easiest valley to visit (2 roads, 5 stop signs!) and probably the easiest to understand. It is known for exceptional Zinfandel. It’s in northern Sonoma County, 20 miles/32 km east of the Pacific Ocean. The Coastal Range blocks a lot of the cooler air from flooding the Dry Creek, giving it hotter days and slimmer diurnal swings at night. The vineyards lie on hillsides, benchlands, and the valley floor at different elevations and on different soils – from loam to clay to gravel. Zinfandel is 30% of plantings and is more elegant, and “old school” (especially from producers like Nalle or Peterson – friends of the pod!). The flavors are less like black fruit and more like raspberry, pomegranate with acidity and moderate alcohol. Other varieties grown are: Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay very good Italian and Rhone Varieties, Bordeaux varieties grown too
Rockpile (Dry-Creek Adjacent, great Zin!): On the northern part of Dry Creek Valley, at high elevations beyond the fog, the AVA is great for rich, dense reds – Zin especially is famed (Bruliam does a great job and a friend of the show!)
Town to stay in: Healdsburg or Windsor
ALEXANDER VALLEY (known for Cabernet Sauvignon)
Alexander Valley AVA: In northeastern Sonoma County, north of Healdsburg, the Russian River flows through h the Alexander Valley. It gets some cool marine air from the Pacific Ocean, and wind can cool mornings and evenings. Daytime heat spikes will ripen the grapes, but the cool wind will preserve the acidity in the classic Cabernet Sauvignon, which is so coveted, that many Napa wineries grow Cab here for top cuvees.
Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak (Alexander Valley adjacent) AVA: This small area overlaps the northernmost portions of the Alexander Valley AVA. It is steep with high elevations and grows a number of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon.
Less visit-able places (yes, I know that’s not a word)…
Knights Valley AVA is right next to Mount St. Helena, and has well-drained soils, but very warm temperatures with no Pacific or San Pablo Bay influence. Elevation is the only cooling factor in this area that has volcanic and alluvial gravel and focuses on Cabernet Sauvignon (2/3 of plantings) and other Bordeaux varietals. Kendall Jackson owns most of Knights Valley.
Northern Sonoma AVA: Too huge for any meaning – most producers use Sonoma County AVA. It includes Chalk Hill, Knights Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and most of Green Valley.
Fountaingrove AVA (2015) – mostly growers, few wineries. Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux varietals, some Rhône varietals – Syrah, Viognier, Petite Sirah plus smatterings of everything. It’s too hot for Pinot and Chard except in a few key north-facing sites
So much to explore! Sonoma is a place you can need get enough of, but hopefully this episode gives some form to exactly what you want to do when you finally make it out there!
Some of my favorite people mentioned: @sonomawineguy on Twitter and other Social Media, Nalle Winery, Crux Winery, Bruliam Winery, Keller Estate, Inman Family, Kieran Robinson Wines, Truchard Winery, (and I forgot to mention...Longboard Vineyards in Russian River!).
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