subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Welcome Fort Ross-Seaview


I’m personally very glad the Tax and Trade Bureau finally approved the new Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticultural Area. [See my reporting here in Wine Enthusiast.]

I’ve been following this story for what seems like forever. Even by California standards for getting new AVAs approved, this one took a really long time, and seemed particularly divisive. I wasn’t privy to all the infighting, but enough of it to know that there was plenty.

Back last March, I wrote:

For me, the Fort Ross-Seaview area is the best understood sub-region of the true Sonoma Coast, although it will be at least another 50 years before it can be understood as well as, say, Oakville. It needs its own appellation, badly.

Even as long ago as 2005, when my first book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River was published (and keep in mind, I did the writing and research for it even earlier, in 2003-2004), I wrote that “I…was amazed at how contentious [the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation process] was, although perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised…Winery owners and grape growers, with all they have invested in their projects, both finances and egos, can be as fractious as lawyers, which many of them are. Different people had different opinions about where the new lines should be drawn and what the new AVA’s name should be.” This conclusion was based on numerous interviews with folks who had an interest in the subject, who told me of the bickering.

The reason the new AVA was always needed was, obviously, that the existing Sonoma Coast never made much sense. Its godfather, Brice Cutrer Jones, conceded to me he’d “gerrymandered” the boundaries, but at the same time, he insisted it was “an honest appellation” because the maritime influence was omnipresent. That was weird to me at the time, because I’d heard people in Temecula, Lodi and all places inbetween tell me about “the maritime influence” that cooled off their regions, and it seemed to me you need more than some sea breezes to merit appellation status.

Lots of the locals up in those remote hills around Fort Ross dismissed Jones’ successful effort. “It’s the screwiest damned thing,” complained Wild Hog’s owner, Daniel Schoenfeld. Others, including Ehren Jordan, who at that time was establishing his Failla project, began referring to the “true Sonoma Coast” to distinguish it from places like Carneros and Windsor, which were included in the official Sonoma Coast AVA. The essence of the Fort Ross area, I was given to believe, was in both its distance from the Pacific–just about 4 or 5 miles wide, taking in the first two coastal ridges and the west-facing slope of the third ridge–and also its elevation. With boundary lines above 920 feet, that meant daytime temperatures during the summer could be quite high (if you’ve ever driven up Bohan Dillon Road from Route 1, you know how you emerge from a dense, dank fogbank around 600 feet into bright, blazing sunshine). But nighttime temperatures, the diurnal effect, fall off rapidly. The result is that the grapes get very ripe, yet maintain crucial balancing acidity.

I’ve often found the Pinot Noirs from the Fort Ross-Seaview area to have what I call a “feral” note. This is hard to describe in English; the French word “sauvage” (from which the word Sauvignon derives) suggests some, but not all, of its qualities. Here’s the way I used the term in my review of Failla’s 2006 Vivien Pinot Noir: “…showcases the wild, feral and lonely personality of this winery’s extreme coastal mountain location.” I frequently find aromas of foresty things, like balsam or pine cones; the old Burgundian term “forest floor” might be analogous. It’s interesting that, when I was trying [back in 2003-2004] to determine on my own where the eastern boundary might lie for Fort Ross-Seaview [wherever it was, it would be where the cool climate yielded to a hotter one, as evidenced by the transition from Douglas fir and coast redwood to gray pine], I found that the absence of reliable weather measuring devices in those hills was the reason why it was so difficult. I called those ridges, hollows and arroyos of north-central Sonoma County “isolated [and] lonely,” which perhaps are terms that might describe the Pinot Noirs of true Fort Ross-Seaview producers: Failla, Fort Ross, Scherrer, Hirsch among others. There is something haunting and elusive about them, like the creatures that prowl the mountains at night.

The next thing the producers in this exciting new region should turn to is creating their own little Fort Ross-Seaview Winery Association. Then they should assemble all the wines from the various producers and have a media tasting. I hereby donate my services, including the use of this space, to assist in that effort. Feel free to contact me.

  1. I welcome the new Fort Ross/Seaview AVA, but I wonder if the general winebuying public will recognize it soon enough on an economic basis for the vintners to drop the “Sonoma Coast” appellation. This has been the conundrum for growers and vintners in the Petaluma Gap.
    I think that for a wine buyer outside of Sonoma County, the Sonoma Coast appellation has to recognizable things going for it: “Sonoma” and “Coast” (Where the heck is “Pine Mountain”?)
    The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance is doing things in the reverse order. We are trying to establish brand recognition, first by forming the association with the mandate of consumer education (we are seeking 501c-6 non-profit status currently), second, by promoting broader recognition through industry and media tastings, third, by putting on consumer events highlighting the Wines of the Petaluma Gap, and finally, only when broad recognition is received, by applying for formal AVA status. Meanwhile, our wines may be labeled “Sonoma Coast” in terms of AVA, and we can also speak of the Petaluma Gap on the label, although not in formal, AVA language.

    We looked at applying for AVA status earlier, but our growers were extremely concerned about losing “Sonoma Coast” in terms of their marketing. A “Petaluma Gap” AVA is in our future, but we feel that putting the horse before the cart is the wrong way to go.

    By the way, our first consumer event showcasing PGap wines will be Jan 21, 2012 at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma. We will hold our Annual Winter Members’ Meeting before the event opens to the public, and you would be most welcome to speak on the AVA subject (or to just come & taste!)

    -Paul Clary, President – PGWA

  2. Thank you so much for offering to assist in the promotion of the wines to the media from the new Fort Ross – Seaview AVA. As a respected peer, your outreach to the media will have an amplified impact on the many people who know nothing about this remote wine growing region.

    I will contact my neighbors and suggest us launching the 2010 Vintage to the Media in the spring – possibly sometime in May to give the media time to include the event in their schedules. Maybe you could suggest dates in May that would work well for you. Our Fort Ross Vineyard tasting room will be open by that time and there will be plenty of space for a large gathering in the tasting room and on the adjoining deck. The journey to the tasting room from the entrance on Meyers Grade Road will give visitors a powerful immersion into the terroir of the region – first a short drive through a vineyard dotted with majestic coastal oaks, then winding through a redwood forest, past a large meadow where we will be hosting events for the Fort Ross Bicentennial, past a pond and finally to arrive at the tasting room with its views of the Pacific Ocean and coastal forests.

    Thank you so much for your offer to assist in the launching of the Fort Ross – Seaview AVA. Your support is so greatly appreciated.

    Neighbors, please contact me at so that we can discus a date in May to launch the AVA and its wines to the media.
    Linda Schwartz
    Fort Ross Vineyard
    Meyers Grade Road,
    Fort Ross

  3. Wow, good news. This is the first i have heard we got our AVA. How did that happen? Anyway it’s about time. I had given up on the project. I figured my time was better spent making wine than arguing with neighbors. ( all good people, just a lot of different opinions.)
    All right David, Ehren, and everyone else, what next?

  4. elliott mackey says:

    Hello Steve: I have always been intrigued by the wines coming from the real Sonoma Coast and enjoyed your disertation greatly.
    Are you familiar with the Ft. Ross Winery owned by a South African guy?

    Thanks, em

  5. Elliott, yes, I referred to Fort Ross winery in my post.

  6. Daniel: Form that winery association!

  7. As a winemaker and passionate Pinot lover, I applaud the official recognition of this increasingly important growing area in Sonoma County. I know many people have worked long hours to help establish this new AVA and deserve a hearty: “well done!” from the Sonoma County wine community. I feel educating consumers and wine professionals about the diversity of Sonoma agricultural is one of the most important missions any Sonoma winery can have, and official acknowledgement of this up and coming area is great for our community and Sonoma in general. I look forward to hearing more in the press as the spotlight focuses on the great wines this area produces. Also of interest, there is a new organization of vineyards and wineries that I belong to called West Sonoma Coast Vintners that includes many of the vineyards and wineries in the new AVA that is organizing tastings, seminars and trade events around the wines from the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA as well as other (as yet not official) sub-regions such as, Occidental, Freestone, Green Valley and the Sebastopol Hills. The first public tasting was held August 5-7th 2011 and was a major success. Thanks to everyone that came out and helped with the cause! The group’s website ( is a wealth of information about the vineyards and wineries in these areas and will give notice of next year’s tastings and event schedule. Again, congratulations to the folks in Fort Ross-Seaview on your new AVA!

  8. I was born and raised just outside of Sebastopol and am very familiar with the extremely different weather, soils, sun exposure, humidity, flora, etc. in all directions. I too agree that this is a great step in further defining the extremely different terroirs of Sonoma County.

    I realize that we all have varying opinions of where appellation boundaries should be, but I would personally like to see this carried one step further. Limit the Sonoma Coast AVA to the Bodega/Occidental/Freestone areas.

    That leaves us with, what I consider, the most ridiculous areas of “Sonoma Coast” — Rohnert Park, Petaluma, Hwy 37, even Fountaingrove! Why not designate this area “Petaluma Gap” since it is closer to San Pablo Bay than the Pacific Ocean?

    Of course I know that this is unrealistic considering the process and certain objections by established wineries; just throwing it out there for the sake of debate.

  9. The Petaluma Gap runs from Bodega Bay to San Pablo Bay. My own vineyard is 11 miles from the Pacific, at about 300 ft elevation in the Walker Creek watershed, which drains into Tomales Bay. That is as true a “Sonoma Coast” vineyard as any vineyard in Occidental, and I would argue that in my vineyard the maritime influence is more pronounced.

    What is “ridiculous” is for one group to claim the established AVA as their own. Like it or not, an AVA is an Economic Unit to which all included have rights.

    I applaud the effort to distinguish a new AVA by its own merits, and feel that desires by some in one subregion to exclude others from the established order are short-sighted and narrow-minded. How about establishing an Occidental/Freestone AVA on it’s own merits, rather than claiming sole dominion over the “true”?

  10. Paul Clary, I would love to see several other AVAs carved out from the “true” Sonoma Coast. Occidental-Freestone [whatever the eventual name would be] is a great next step. Let me know how I can assist.

  11. Steve, you’re doing fine by us, in highlighting the diversity of terroir that exists within the Sonoma Coast AVA. For the time being,”Sonoma Coast” has real value, but perhaps the day will come soon when “Sonoma Coast” goes the way of the North Coast AVA (when was the last time you saw that on a bottle?). Broad consumer education needs to precede, and media mavens, movers and shakers hold the keys.

  12. Steve, thank you for the well-done article. I hope you don’t mind that I use this forum to apologize to those growers in the area (e.g. – Daniel) that I was unable to contact upon hearing of the final approval. Thank you again.

  13. Paul Clary… my apologies; I did not intend to exclude your vineyard from what I would consider the Sonoma Coast AVA. In fact, quite the opposite. Your vineyard area is definitely Sonoma Coast. I don’t know where the boundaries would be drawn, but it would be something akin to a straight line from, maybe, Two Rock (or just SE) through Occidental to Duncans Mills/Jenner, and everything West would be “Sonoma Coast” or possibly some other name. Everything northeast and east could be Petaluma Gap?

    Again, I am just discussing this for the sake of debate. Really, my main gripe is certain areas still being defined as Sonoma Coast that shouldn’t be. If I go bowling at Double Decker Lanes in Rohnert Park or have a pizza at Rosso in downtown Santa Rosa, I do not feel like I am on the cliffs of Bodega Bay, nor is there an ice plant in sight. I still think that being considered Sonoma Coast for wine purposes is ridiculous.

  14. Patrick, if you don’t mind me asking, why did your proposal effectively prohibit grapes being grown below 920 feet? I understand that to plant a vineyard below the fog-line might be foolhardy and even impossible, but why withhold the Fort Ross-Seaview name from such an effort?

  15. Cody, I don’t mind you asking at all. Perhaps out of a shared aversion for the size of the Sonoma Coast AVA, growers of the area wanted an AVA with boundaries that truly encompassed only those local characteristics that made this cluster of vineyards unique. In the case of these ridges, that meant cooler temperatures with abundant solar radiation. Fort Ross-Seaview is cooled by the intruding fog, but by being located above the fog, the area experiences full days of solar radiation. A few protected valleys (and one vineyard) are located a little below 920 feet, but the protected nature of these spots subject them to the same characteristics: nearby fog but sufficient insolation.

    Plenty of cool climate locations benefit from fog by being located in the fog or below it (hence receiving reduced insolation). Fort Ross-Seaview is so close and so exposed to an area with such a heavy marine inversion, grapes planted below 920 feet, especially to the west of that first ridge, really do not have much chance to ripen fully (as you suggested in your comment). With ever advancing vineyard techniques, not to mention cloning and careful genetic selection, it’s plausible that someday viticulture may exist below the fog in this area. Such vines, however, would experience entirely different geographic circumstances.

  16. “Occidental-Freestone” << Yes!

  17. JC.Gallo says:

    Like to get ur thoughts on the 2011 fort ross sea slope pinot noir thanks

  18. JC Gallo: Too soon to tell.

Leave a Reply

− seven = 1

Recent Comments

Recent Posts