Sonoma Coast Appellation Video
Sonoma Coast Appellation
Within the borders of the Sonoma Coast viticultural area there are 750 square miles, dozens of wineries, hundreds of vineyards, and just about every type of agricultural endeavor in the county, from flowers, potatoes, apples, and figs to poultry, sheep, and cattle. The AVA stretches from the Sonoma-Marin border north all the way to the Mendocino county line, overlapping Carneros, and intersecting Sonoma Valley, Sonoma Mountain, and Russian River Valley.
Sonoma Coast makes about as much sense as Northern Sonoma (an amorphous AVA that includes Chalk Hill, Knights Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and most of Green Valley within its immense embrace), which is to say, not a lot. Just four wineries—Annapolis Winery, Wild Hog Vineyards, Flowers Vineyards and Winery, and Keller Estates (formerly, Pyramids)—exist soley in Sonoma Coast. Only Annapolis is open for visitors. Keller Estates, located on Lakeville Highway east of Petaluma not far from the southeastern edge of the county, is our southernmost winery. Annapolis Winery, a couple of miles inland from Sea Ranch and about three miles south of Mendocino County, is our northernmost winery. No two wineries in the county are farther apart, yet they are in the same appellation. How can such a vast region tell us anything about the wines produced there?
The stated justification for Sonoma Coast as it is currently drawn is temperature. Daily marine fog cools some, though hardly all, of the area. More to the point, Sonoma Coast has allowed Sonoma-Cutrer to designate its wines as “estate”. To do so, both a winery and a vineyard must be within the same AVA (the winery must also own or control the vineyard). With vineyards in various parts of the county, only a new appellation would permit the use of the term. Bryce Jones, who sold Sonoma-Cutrer to Brown-Forman in 1999, was the primary force behind the establishment of Sonoma Coast and until recently one of its sole advocates.
The county’s first vineyard was planted in Sonoma Coast in 1817 near what is now Coleman Valley Road, though there is no record of the varietal grown. Today the most interesting—and controversial—activity is taking place high above the fog line near Seaview Road northwest of Cazadero, a remote region with spectacular views, large parcels, dirt roads, and a growing number of vineyards, all high above the nearby Pacific Ocean. Soils vary but they tend towards clay, rock, and gravel, poor soils in which grapevines struggle and, as a result, produce superior grapes. There is abundant wild life, including coyotes, porcupines, skunks, and, of course, wild boar and deer. In recent years, an increase in the number of mountain lions seems to have brought populations of boar and deer back into balance. There are more young oak trees than there have been in years, evidence that boar and deer are no longer eating all of the saplings. There are so many birds here that the vineyards are covered with nets as soon as the first grapes ripen.
There is a tremendous amount of rainfall in this part of Sonoma Coast—as much as 160 inches in a wet year—but water is scarce much of the year. Because the vineyards are all above the fog, days are sunny. There is plenty of light, from sunrise to sunset nearly every day during the growing season, but, because of marine influences, only moderate heat, conditions that favor pinot noir and chardonnay. Grapes ripen slowly in the intense but cool light, developing deep, complex flavors.
Some vineyards have been established for twenty years and longer, though most have been planted more recently. Daniel Schoenfeld of Wild Hog Vineyard has farmed here since 1973, and today grows pinot noir and zinfandel on five of his 110 acres. There is no PG&E at Wild Hog; power is primarily solar, with a water wheel providing hydro-electric power in the winter. The land is dry-farmed, certified organic, and includes twenty varieties of apples, a half dozen varieties of pears, pomegranates, persimmons, cherries, figs, berries, walnuts, and vegetables in addition to grapes. Schoenfeld, who operates the vineyard and winery with his wife Marion, set out to be a truck farmer but after his first load of fruits and vegetables yielded just enough to pay for gas to get the produce to market, he realized it was a losing proposition. For years he earned a living operating heavy equipment, tractors and the like, and made wine for himself until becoming bonded about a decade ago. The winery now produces about 3,000 cases a year.
From Wild Hog you can look out over the land and see about a dozen mountain vineyards, Bohan, Marcassin (Helen Turley’s vineyard), Three Sisters, and Hirsch among them. There is a cleared patch of land where Peter Michael Winery hopes to plant pinot noir next spring, and the new and highly acclaimed Flowers Vineyard and Winery, which produces remarkable wines from both estate and purchased fruit. More than any other wine I’ve tasted from this AVA, Flowers Camp Meeting Ridge Pinot Noir seems to embody the magic of terroir, that certain something that distills the essence of a particular place into a silky mouthful of delicious wine.
There are Churro sheep here, too, raised for their wool by Tanya Charter, whose father farmed turkey and sheep here decades ago. There used to be a lot of sheep in this area, but after extraordinary losses to coyotes most ranchers have switched to cattle. Cher Winkler, involved in Sonoma County agriculture in one capacity or another for decades, has several water buffalo on her nearby ranch and hopes to eventually produce a traditional Buffalo mozzarella, a highly prized cheese from Italy.
Although the increase in viticultural acreage in this part of Sonoma Coast has sparked enormous controversy, much of which continues today, there is also cooperation among newcomers and those who have been here for decades. Growers and vintners have formed a committee to explore the creation of a new appellation, a smaller area that would make sense geographically and embrace the concept of terroir more genuinely than Sonoma Coast does currently. The group has agreed on the borders—Hauser Bridge Road to the north, Black Mountain to the south, and five miles east from the coast—but is still searching for the right name.
Further to the north, not far from Annapolis Winery, there has been a tremendous increase in vineyard acreage, notably by Kendall-Jackson, which recently planted 300 acres of pinot noir on a 600-acre parcel on Skaggs Springs Road. Interestingly, this new vineyard sparked little controversy, nothing like the firestorm unleased against the new and proposed vineyards closer to Cazadero, even though the Kendall-Jackson vineyards arguably are more visually intrusive: You see them from the main road.
In spite of protests, expect more vineyards here. Bryce Jones has purchased a large parcel near Annapolis Winery, and plans to plant pinot noir. And he’s not the only one; given the current popularity of fruit from Sonoma Coast, increased vineyard acreage is inevitable. I hope that as these vineyards come into maturity and this part of Sonoma Coast grows into itself as an AVA, growers and vintners will take inspiration from Russian River Valley and take it on themselves not only to create a new appellation but to redefine the boundaries of the existing one.