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Sonoma County

It was a long time ago - October 2010 to be precise - that a small group of Musings folks gathered to taste some wines from an always underrated wine region - California's Sonoma County. Before I get to the wines, here is a little piece about Sonoma County.

Sonoma County, located on the northern coast of the U.S. state of California, is the largest (in area) and northernmost of the nine San Francisco Bay Area counties. Sonoma is the southwestern county of California's Wine Country region, which also includes Napa, Mendocino, and Lake Counties. It has 13 approved American Viticultural Areas and over 250 wineries. Sonoma County was once home to several Native American tribes. The Pomo, Coast Miwok and Wappo peoples were the earliest human settlers of Sonoma County, between 8000 and 5000 BC, effectively living within the natural carrying capacity of the land. Archaeological evidence of these First people includes a number of occurrences of rock carvings, especially in southern Sonoma County; these carvings often take the form of pecked curvilinear nucleated design. Spaniards, Russians, and other Europeans claimed and settled in the county from the late 16th to mid 19th century, seeking timber, fur, and farmland. By 1850, European settlement had set a new direction that would prove to radically alter the course of land use and resource management of this region.

The Russians were the first newcomers to establish a permanent foothold in Sonoma County, with the Russian-American Company establishing Fort Ross on the Sonoma Coast in 1812. This settlement and its outlying Russian settlements came to include a population of several hundred Russian and Aleut settlers and a fort with artillery. However, the Russians abandoned it in 1841 and sold the fort to John Sutter, settler and Mexican land grantee of Sacramento.

The Mission San Francisco Solano, founded in 1823 as the last and northernmost of 21 California missions, is in the present City of Sonoma, at the northern end of El Camino Real. El Presidio de Sonoma, or Sonoma Barracks (part of Spain's Fourth Military District), was established in 1836 by Comandante General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. His duties included keeping an eye on the Russian traders at Fort Ross, secularizing the Mission, maintaining cooperation with the Native Americans of the entire region, and doling out the lands for large estates and ranches. The City of Sonoma was the site of the Bear Flag Revolt in 1846.

Sonoma was one of the original counties formed when California became a state in 1850, with its county seat originally the town of Sonoma. However, by the early 1850s, the town of Sonoma had declined in importance in terms of both commerce and population, its county buildings were crumbling, and it was relatively remote. As a result, elements in the newer, rapidly growing towns of Petaluma, Santa Rosa, and Healdsburg began vying to move the county seat to their towns. The dispute ultimately was between the bigger, richer commercial town of Petaluma and the more centrally located, growing agricultural center of Santa Rosa. The fate was decided following an election for the state legislature in which James Bennett of Santa Rosa defeated Joseph Hooker of Sonoma and introduced a bill that ultimately resulted in Santa Rosa being confirmed as county seat in 1854.

Six nations have claimed Sonoma County from 1542 to the present: Spanish Empire in 1542 and then again in 1775; Kingdom of England, June 1579 until 1775; Russian Empire, from 1812 to 1821; First Mexican Empire, August 24, 1821; Mexican Republic, 1823 until June 1846; California Republic, June 14, 1846 until July 9, 1846; United States of America, July 9, 1846 to present.

Sonoma CountySonoma County lies in the North Coast Ranges of northwestern California. Its ranges include the Mayacamas and the Sonoma Mountains, the southern peak of the latter being the prominent landform, Sears Point. The highest peak in the Mayacamas within the county is Hood Mountain.

Sonoma County, as is often the case with coastal counties in California, has a great degree of climatic variation and numerous, often very different, microclimates. Key determining factors for local climate are proximity to the ocean, elevation, and the presence and elevation of hills or mountains to the east and west. This is in large part due to the fact that, as throughout California, the prevailing weather systems and wind come normally from the Pacific Ocean. Areas closer to the ocean and on the windward side of higher elevations tend to receive more rain during the winter and more wind and fog during the summer. Areas further inland and particularly in the shadow of significant elevations tend to receive less rain and less, in some cases no, fog in the summer. The coast itself is typically cool and moist throughout summer; a weather pattern consisting of morning fog, burning off to sunny conditions by afternoon is the norm, producing highs that are typically in the mid to high 60s, warming to the low 70s further from the ocean. Certain inland areas, including the Petaluma area and the Santa Rosa Plain, are also prone to this normal fog pattern in general. However, they tend to receive the fog later in the evening, the fog tends to be more short-lived, and mid-day temperatures are significantly higher than they are on the coast, typically in the low 80s.

Grapes were planted in Sonoma County at Fort Ross as early as 1812. Padre Jose Altimira planted several thousand grape vines at Mission San Francisco Solano in what is now the city of Sonoma, in southern Sonoma County. Cuttings from the Sonoma mission vineyards were carried throughout the northern California area to start new vineyards. By the time of the Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma and the subsequent annexation of California by the United States in 1854, wine grapes were an established part of agriculture in the region. The vineyards of General Mariano Vallejo, military Governor of Mexican California and based in Sonoma, were producing an annual income of $20,000 at that time. The grape varietals planted at this time would not be considered premium varietals today. In 1855, a Hungarian named Agoston Haraszthy arrived and purchased the Salvador Vallejo vineyard in Sonoma Valley, renaming it Buena Vista. Commissioned in 1861 by the California legislature to study viticulture in Europe, he returned with more than 100,000 cuttings of premium grape varietals. Many of the immigrants to the area were Northern Italian or from other wine-growing regions of Europe. After the Civil War and before Prohibition, many wineries were established that still exist today, such as Bundschu, Foppiano, Korbel, Simi, Gundlach, Quitzow and Sebastiani. In the 1920s there were 256 wineries in Sonoma County, with more than 22,000 acres in production. During the Prohibition period, however, commercial winemaking declined. At the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, fewer than 50 wineries in Sonoma County survived. Even as late as the 1960s, only 12,000 acres were planted to vineyards. But wine consumption in American began to increase, and by 1999 Sonoma County had over 49,000 acres of vineyards owned by more than 750 growers and 180 bonded wineries. Of the more than 250 wineries now in Sonoma, over half are less than 20 years old.

In 2004, growers harvested 165,783 tons of wine grapes worth $310 million. In 2006 the Sonoma County grape harvest amounted to 216,000 tons, worth $430 million. About 73% of Sonoma County's agricultural production is growing wine grapes—60,302 acres of vineyards, with over 1100 growers. The most common varieties planted are Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir, though the area is also known for its Merlot and Zinfandel.

Sonoma County's large number of AVAs (13) reflect the wide variety of climate and soil conditions in the County, the large production in the County, and the prominence of Sonoma County in the wine market. The difference in climate and soil means that cooler climate grapes grow well in certain regions and in others warm climate grapes are more suitable.

Sonoma County Appellations:

Alexander Valley - The Alexander Valley AVA is one of the most densely planted of all of Sonoma County's AVAs. Located along the Russian River, the boundary of this appellation extends north of Healdsburg up to Mendocino County north of Cloverdale. Viticulture has existed in the area since the 1850s but the wine industry has only fairly recently experienced success beginning in the 1960s with Simi Winery. Significant purchases of vineyard land by E & J Gallo Winery in 1988 and Kendall-Jackson in 1996 also raised the profile of the Alexander Valley. The profile of Alexander Valley wines has historically centered on the approachability and richness of the wines with Cabernet Sauvignon being noted for characteristic chocolate notes and warm mouthfeel. After Cabernet, Chardonnay is one of the leading varietal plantings followed by Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel.

Bennett Valley - The Bennett Valley AVA is one of Sonoma County's newest AVAs and is a principal grape supplier to Kendall-Jackson. The AVA is surrounded to the south, east and west by the Sonoma Mountains and to the north by the city of Santa Rosa. The region receives a moderating effect on its climate from Pacific Ocean through the cool coastal fogs and breeze that creep into the area from the southwest through Crane Canyon between Sonoma Mountain and Taylor Mountain.

Chalk Hill - The Chalk Hill AVA is a sub-appellation of the Russian River Valley located near the town of Windsor along the foothills at the southern end of Alexander Valley and along the Santa Rosa plain.[9] The name Chalk Hill comes from the unique volcanic soil of chalky white ash which has shown itself to perform well with planting of white wine varietals like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. The majority of the region's wineries are located on the western slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains.

Dry Creek Valley - The Dry Creek Valley AVA in the Russian River Valley centers on the Dry Creek, a tributary of the Russian River, and is approximately 16 miles long and 2 miles wide. The appellation is known particularly for its Sauvignon Blanc and Zinfandel production. Dry Creek Valley AVA is home to the majority of the Sonoma Gallo vineyards, who established winery facilities in the valley in the early 1990s.

Green Valley of Russian River Valley - Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA was formerly known as the Sonoma County Green Valley AVA. Located at the southwestern corner of the Russian River Valley AVA, its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean makes it one of the coolest appellations within Sonoma County. The climate in the Green Valley is even cooler than other parts of the Russian River Valley, and favors the cultivation of cool climate grape varietals. Seeking to connect the region with the more commercially successful Russian River Valley name, the appellation formally changed its name on April 23, 2007.

Knights Valley - The Knights Valley AVA occupies the boundaries between the southern end of the Alexander Valley AVA and the northern end of Napa Valley. Some of the earliest vineyards in the area were owned by Beringer Vineyards. The area is known for its Cabernet Sauvignon.

Los Carneros - The Los Carneros AVA spans across the last, low hills of the Mayacamas Mountains dividing both Napa and Sonoma Valleys just north of San Pablo Bay. The larger portion of the appellation stretches into Sonoma County with grapes grown here also being allowed to use the Sonoma Valley AVA designation. The area's close proximately to the Bay make it an ideal location for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay production with producers from international Champagne houses such as Moët et Chandon (Domaine Chandon California), Taittinger (Domaine Carneros), and Cava producers planting vineyards and sourcing grapes from the area.

Northern Sonoma - The Northern Sonoma AVA is an all encompassing appellation that covers all of Sonoma County with the exception of the Sonoma Valley and some areas of the Petaluma River watershed. The AVA was proposed by E & J Gallo to accommodate wines made from a blend of grapes from scattered vineyards in Sonoma County.

Rockpile - The Rockpile AVA is situated at the northwest point of the Dry Creek Valley AVA, past Healdsburg. The area was first planted by Italian immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. Many of today's vineyards were formerly occupied by a reservoir created by the Warm Springs Dam on the Russian River. The area is known for its fruity, ripe Zinfandels.

Russian River Valley - The Russian River Valley AVA is adjacent to the city of Santa Rosa and the Russian River, where it bends and cuts through the Coast Range to the coast. The AVA is characterized by the regular intrusion of cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean. The fog flows through the Petaluma Wind Gap and the channel cut by the river. The fog generally arrives in the evening or early morning and retreats before noon in the day. The appellation was granted AVA status in 1983 and accounts for about one-sixth of the total planted vineyard acreage in Sonoma County. In 2005 the AVA was expanded by 30,200 acres to 126,600 by recognizing previously overlooked portions of the fog regions. Presently the Russian River AVA includes more than 15,000 acres planted to wine grapes. At last count, 79 wineries were listed in the Russian River Valley Winegrowers website. The area is known for its success with cool climate varietals, notably Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

Sonoma Coast - The Sonoma Coast AVA contains more than 500,000 acres, mostly along the coastline of the Pacific Ocean. It extends from San Pablo Bay to the border with Mendocino County. The appellation is known for its cool climate and high rainfall relative to other parts of Sonoma County.

Sonoma Valley - The Sonoma Valley AVA is known for its unique terroir with Sonoma Mountain protecting the area from the wet and cool influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean. The Sonoma Mountains to the west help protect the valley from excessive rainfall. The cool air that does affect the region comes northward from San Pablo Bay through the Carneros region and southward from the Santa Rosa plain. Sonoma Valley has played a significant role in the history of California wine.

Sonoma Mountain - The Sonoma Mountain AVA, in the Sonoma Mountains, includes the town of Glen Ellen and is bordered on the west by the Sonoma Valley AVA. The area is known for the diverse micro-climates that occur within the crevices and folds of the hillside terrain and as such is home to production for a wide range of varietals including Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, and Zinfandel.Sonoma Wines

Sonoma County Wines:

J Brut Cuvee 20, Russian River Valley ($23.99/bottle)

Yeasty, lemony nose with a hint of sweet cream. Medium-bodied with firm acidity - good balance. Tart palate with green apple notes. Moderate length, clean with some pretty floral notes on the finish.

2005 Iron Horse Wedding Cuvee, Green Valley of Russian River Valley ($43.99/bottle)

Yeasty, leesy nose with apple and caramel hints - pretty. Medium-bodied with firm acidity - good balance. Toasty, oaky and vanilla notes layered over green apple and pear fruit. Creamy, persistent mousse and a smooth, refreshing finish. A very credible sparkler.

2008 Dry Creek Chenin Blanc Wilson Ranch, Sonoma County ($12.99/bottle)

Pretty nose with honeysuckle and citrus hints. Medium-bodied with moderate acidity - good balance. Fruity palate with lemon and apple notes. Moderate length with a smooth, refreshing finish. Deemed the value of the tasting!

2008 Ferrari Carano Chardonnay, Sonoma County ($21.99/bottle)

Strong oak on the nose (no doubt from over ten months French Oak) but lacks fruit. Medium-bodied with firm acidity - good balance. Too much wood… lacked fruity. Moderate length with s me pretty vanilla and butterscotch.

2008 Patz & Hall Chardonnay, Sonoma Coast ($34.99/bottle)

Bright nose with apple and pineapple hints - lovely. Medium-bodied with moderate acidity - good balance. Tropical fruit with light citrus and pear notes. Long finish with layers of creamy caramel, butterscotch and vanilla. Nice.

2008 George Pinot Noir Leras Family Vineyard, Russian River Valley ($109.99/bottle)

Gamey nose with mineral, berry, anise and rosemary hints - super intense. Medium-bodied with moderate acidity and soft, supple tannin - well balanced. Raspberry palate with white pepper, cloves and allspice notes. Long finish, smoky with traces of cranberry and mint. Really beautiful wine...

2008 Ridge Three Valley, Sonoma County ($25.99/bottle)
(74% Zinfandel; 11% Petite Sirah; 5% Carignan; 4% Mataro; 3% Syrah; 3% Grenache)

Spicy nose with dried fruit, cedar and vanilla hints. Medium-bodied with moderate acidity and moderate tannin - good balance. Dark fruit core with black cherry and blackberry jam notes. Long finish with smooth, spicy finish - classic Sonoma Zin...

2007 Louis Martini Cabernet Sauvignon, Sonoma County ($19.99/bottle)

Jammy, cherry nose with cedar and briarwood hints. Medium-to-full-bodied with moderate acidity and moderate tannin - good balance. Black cherry palate with vanilla notes. Long finish, smooth with allspice on the aftertaste. Good value.

2005 Silver Oak Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley ($79.99/bottle)

Menthol and olive aromas, rustic but majestic. Medium-to-full-bodied with moderate acidity and firm, dry tannins - well balanced. Deep, dark cherry palate with layers of complexity - mint, menthol, floral, tar, pepper - highly expressive. Long finish - highly complex - just a stunning bottle of wine!

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