If you ask sommeliers and wine buyers for advice on the hot spots of American wines; chances are many of them will point on the map to Sonoma County.
Located 45 minutes north of San Francisco, the county encompasses a million acres of land and 60,000 acres of planted vineyards. But the key points that set this region apart from all the rest is diverse soils, maritime influence, and a shared commitment to quality by the people who work with the grapes.
With a rich history, Russian fur traders planted the first vines at Fort Ross on the coast in 1812. A decade later, the Spanish padres planted more grapes for making wine at the mission in Sonoma. And down the road, Hungarian-born Count Agoston Haraszthy started Buena Vista, the first bonded winery in Northern California, in 1857. Referred to as “the father of California wine industry,” Haraszthy eventually brought over new vine cuttings from Europe that worked extremely well in the ideal growing conditions Sonoma had to offer.
After Cyrus Alexander established vineyards in the northern part of the county in 1856, the enthusiasm spread to immigrants who came to the region from Germany, Italy, Switzerland, and France. And when people came, they stayed. Before Prohibition began in 1920, there were 256 wineries and over 22,000 acres of vineyards planted.
In the middle part of last century, most of the fruit was used to make jug wines. And many of the old vineyards featuring Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and varietals generically “mixed blacks” that were used to make these tasty concoctions can still be seen growing in the warmer regions of the county.
But over the past fifty years, the county has also become more diversified and widely regarded as one of the top places to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in America.
In addition to being divided into prime areas to grow vineyards in the mountains, valleys, bench lands, and coastlands; the county is also comprised successive generations of families who are drawn to the beauty and bounty of the land. This has created a community centered on a passion for growing and producing high-quality wines on an annual basis.
As the steady growth has continued over the past three decades, there are now nearly 60,000 acres planted in the county. As of 2014, the 16 appellations within the county boundaries include: Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Moon Mountain, Bennett Valley, Los Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Green Valley, Chalk Hill, Knights Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile, and Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Creek. With an amazing menagerie of styles and distinct flavors, each region has its attributes. As a result, the wines have a proven track record you can rely on.
To spread the word, the Sonoma County Vintners (SCV) is the leading voice of Sonoma County wine. Founded in 1944, the organization is dedicated to raising awareness of Sonoma County as one of the world’s premier wine regions, noted for its heritage of artisan winemaking, distinct growing regions and extraordinary quality. www.SonomaWine.com.
White Wines: With over 16,000 acres of Chardonnay planted, Sonoma County is one of the largest producers of the variety in the United States. Other popular white grapes include Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris and Viognier. On the smaller scale, plantings include Pinot Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Muscat, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, Picpoul Blanc, Sauvignon Vert, Albarino, Trousseau Gris, Arneis, and Tocai Friulano.
Red Wines: The new jewel of the county is Pinot Noir, a finicky grape which performs exceptionally well in the cooler-climate areas of Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley, Green Valley, Bennett Valley and Carneros. In the warmer areas of the county, the big star is Cabernet Sauvignon, a dark grape that can produce balanced wines of Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, Moon Mountain, Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Knights Valley.
Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah and Grenache can also be found in the more moderate temperature zones. The county has one of the highest concentrations of Zinfandel planted in America, particularly old gnarly versions in Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley and Sonoma Valley. Other notable red grape varietals planted in the county include Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Carignane, Cinsault, Tannat, Primitivo, Sangiovese, and Barbera.
White Wines: It’s a little-known fact that the Chateau Montelena Chardonnay that won over the top French Burgundy wines at the legendary Paris Tasting in 1976 was made primarily with fruit from Russian River Valley and Alexander Valley in Sonoma County. Since then, the styles and flavors of the sub-regions have become more diverse based on the individual sites where the grapes are planted. From Russian River Valley, the flavors are typically tropical with notes of ripe exotic melons, mango, papaya, pineapple, and banana. While Sonoma Coast flavors are more focused on ripe apple, pear, peach, mineral, and earth. And the Chardonnays from Carneros region tend to be more focused on stone fruit, apple, pear, and citrusy notes of lemon, lime, and grapefruit. It’s also worth noting that a percentage of the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes grown in the region are used to make some of America’s classiest sparkling wines as well.
Other white wines from Sonoma County are unique as well. With Sauvignon blanc, the style is crisp, clean, and citrusy. Rhone varieties like Viognier, Roussanne, Marsanne, Grenache Blanc, Vermentino (Rolle), Picpoul Blanc and special blends tend to be more aromatic with bright flavors of peach, apricot and melon. While the Alsatian varieties like Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Gewürztraminer are equally playful with fragrant floral aromas, bright fruity flavors, racy acidity, and other unique characteristics used to make still wines and dessert wines by various producers throughout the county.
Red Wines: The Pinot Noirs of Sonoma County are delicious, distinct, and memorable. The styles from the cooler regions of Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain and Carneros typically focus on bright red fruits like cherry, strawberry, plum, raspberry and pomegranate, with hints of forest floor, earth, wild mushroom, and spice. In the slightly warmer region of Russian River Valley, there are more concentrated flavors of darker fruits including black cherry, dark plum, blackberry, black raspberry, cola, and long deep finishes. In the middle grounds of the Green Valley, Freestone/Occidental and the promising region of the Petaluma Gap, it’s not uncommon to pick up on intriguing notes of blueberry, boysenberry, cranberry, shiitake mushroom, exotic tea, and allspice.
The classic Zinfandels from Sonoma County are priceless treasures as well. The old vine Zinfandels are highlighted with generous flavors of brambly berries, cherry, plum, cocoa, and black pepper. Others made with riper fruits are bigger, deeper, more concentrated with dark cherry, ripe blackberry, licorice, tar, soy, dark chocolate and spicy finishes. The traditional old Zinfandel blends with Petite Sirah, Mourvedre Alicante Bouschet, Carignane and other “mixed blacks,” can be equally complex with layers of red and black fruits and underpinnings of cola, sassafras, wild herbs, and white pepper.
Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma County has a marked character that is much more like the style made in Bordeaux. Much of this is due to the close proximity of the region to the Pacific Ocean, which is similar to the Atlantic’s influence on the southwest region of France. The top Cabernet Sauvignons to look for come from the warmer inland areas of the Sonoma Valley and Alexander Valley. Many examples have concentrated flavors of wild berries, ripe cherry, blueberry, wild herbs, and chocolate. Many are also blended with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petit Verdot grown on the estate properties.
Syrah and Rhone varietal blends made in the warm and cooler regions of Sonoma County have wonderful aromas and flavors of lavender, violets, tobacco, smoked meats, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, black olives, wild herbs and layers of spice. Although they are harder to find, the Sonoma County versions of Sangiovese and Barbera typically feature more red and black fruit flavors with layers of spice. Smaller percentages of the red grapes grown in Sonoma County are used to make sexy, tangy and refreshing dry pink wines as well.
With fresh fish, crab, oysters and other crustaceans coming directly from the coast; fresh milk, cheeses and meats produced by the cattle, sheep and goats seen happily grazing on the rolling hills throughout the county; the famous Rocky Free-Range Chicken and Liberty Duck from the Petaluma area; seasonal gamey meats, venison and wild boar; fresh produce, fresh herbs, citrus and fruit trees grown in the more Mediterranean climates; and wild mushrooms found in the nearby forests. In essence, it’s hard to dispute that Sonoma County is one of the most recognized world-wide ambassadors of the “Farm-to-Table” concept. As a result, the sparkling wines, red, white and pink still wines and delectable dessert wines produced in each sub-region help compliment the amazing cuisine made with the bounty of fresh ingredients the county has to offer.