Northern Sonoma VIdeo
Within the boundaries of Bordeaux, one of the best known wine producing regions of France, are 37 smaller appellations, St. Emilion, Margaux, Saint Julien, Sauternes, and the Medoc among them. Nearly 250,000 acres are planted to grapes; there are 13,000 producers. Although about a quarter of the region’s production is white, it is the classic blend of cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, and merlot for which Bordeaux is best known.
It is helpful to keep Bordeaux in mind when trying to understand one of Sonoma County’s youngest Approved Viticultural Areas, Northern Sonoma, established on September 10, 1990. The area seems as vast and amorphous as its name, encompassing Chalk Hill, Knights Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and most of Green Valley within its embrace. The border follows Bohemian Highway in Monte Rio southeast along Dutch Bill Creek through Camp Meeker, Occidental, and Freestone, stretches along Highway 12 through Sebastopol to Fulton Road, turns north to River Road and from there traverses Mark West Springs Road to the Sonoma–Napa border. Its north boundaries are formed by the county lines of Lake and Mendocino.
There are more than 100 wineries, at least 150 soil types, hundreds of vineyards, and tremendous variations in climate. Virtually every agricultural endeavor in Sonoma County--apples, prunes, olives, sheep, peaches, lettuce, tomatoes, flowers, dairy cattle, mushrooms, goats, garlic, you name it--can be found in Northern Sonoma. From the point of view of terroir, of the unique expression of a discrete place, Northern Sonoma makes little sense. Yet if you compare it to Bordeaux, and to the large appellations within Bordeaux such as the Medoc, long considered one of the most famous red wine regions in the world, a kind of logic emerges.
The original application for approval of the AVA identifies three unifying elements in Northern Sonoma, a climate cooled by the Pacific Ocean instead of San Pablo Bay, the major cooling influence in Sonoma Valley and Carneros; sedimentary rather than volcanic soils, a claim that ignores the ancient lava beds of Chalk Hill; and a history shaped primarily by Italian immigrants.
Of the nearly 100 signatories on the application, Gallo of Sonoma was the primary force behind its formation and is the sole winery using Northern Sonoma as a label designation. It is reserved for Gallo of Sonoma’s estate program, which features two wines, chardonnary and cabernet sauvignon. In order to use the term “estate”, both a winery and a vineyard must be within the same AVA; the winery must also own or control the vineyard. Gallo of Sonoma’s winery is in Dry Creek; its 3000 acres of vineyards are located in several viticultural areas. Without an umbrella designation such as Northern Sonoma, these ultra-premium wines--the chardonnary sells for $45; the cabernet for $65--could not be labeled as “estate”.
At first glance, Northern Sonoma can seem gymnastic, shall we say, a bit self-serving. But a different story emerges as you look closely at the attention paid to the production of these two wines. Gallo of Sonoma’s Northern Sonoma Estate Chardonnay is made using the best fruit from four sections of the Laguna Ranch Vineyard, hillside blocks planted in 1981. The vineyard yields about 2000 cases of estate wine; the remainder of the fruit is used in other Gallo wines. The Northern Sonoma Estate Cabernet Sauvignon uses fruit from five vineyard blocks, three from the Frei Ranch Vineyard and two from the Stefani Vineyard. As with the chardonnary, only the best fruit goes into the wine; about 5000 cases are made.
Gallo produces nearly 50 percent of all wine sold in the United States. The company owns 6000 acres in Northern Sonoma, 3000 of which are planted to grapes, a figure that will not increase. In the 1940s, Julio Gallo made a commitment to preserve an acre of natural habitat for each acre planted to vine, a pledge the company honors today. As a result, apple trees and olive trees, many planted decades ago, are interspersed here and there among the perfectly manicured vines. The apples are given to employees; the olives will be made into oil for the company’s use; it will not be sold.
Nick Frei, executive director of the Sonoma County Grape Growers Assocaition, explains that although the association is supportive of the AVA system and recognizes the unique qualities and distinctive features expressed by specific varietals in certain areas, it is the largest appellation, that of Sonoma County itself, that is most crucial. “We want consumers to recognize it and buy [wines bearing the designation] with confidence.”
With most large appellations, it is difficult to provide a succinct summary of the area’s wines. With Northern Sonoma, it is impossible. Yet with Gallo’s focus on just two varietals, the rest of the country may come to identify Northern Sonoma with ultra-premium chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, a perception that can’t hurt Sonoma County’s reputation.