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Giving Sonoma County its due


I bring to your attention the 2012 Sonoma Wine Country Weekend, Aug. 31-Sept. 2. It’s a good time to take a few days off and hang out in beautiful wine country, at a time of the year when the weather’s almost bound to be perfect (unless we get one of those pesky Labor Day heat waves).

I’ve had a soft spot for Sonoma County as long as I can remember. It used to be the conventional wisdom that (a) Sonomans were jealous of “the other side of the hill” [i.e. Napa Valley], and (b) Napans barely recognized the existence of Sonoma County. I suppose there’s still some residue of truth to both statements, especially the latter; but Sonoma County now has plenty of well-deserved self-esteem. They realize they don’t have to compare themselves to anybody because, gosh darn it, they’re special!

And they are. But Sonomans are the first to concede they have marketing problems. People don’t understand the difference between “Sonoma Valley” and “Sonoma County.” They don’t know that Russian River Valley, for instance, is in Sonoma County. And then there’s the old joke of the consumer who asks, “What part of Napa Valley is Sonoma in?”

These misunderstandings were perhaps inevitable, given the realities on the ground. Sonoma’s decision, in the 1980s, to rush forward with as many appellations as they could ground out, giving the county a chaotic fractured-ness, made it hard for the average person to figure out just what “Sonoma County” meant. Napa Valley, by contrast, never had to compete with “Napa County” because almost no wines bear the latter on their label, so the public hasn’t had a chance to confuse the two. Also, Napa Valley was much slower in embracing sub-appellations than was Sonoma County; when Napa did so, it was slowly and carefully. Napa Valley, too, was helped by the fact that it’s less complicated a place, topographically speaking, than Sonoma County. In Napa, you have a compact little valley, surrounded on both sides by mountain ranges. The flatlands are named after their towns while the mountain appellations are named logically after their mountains. Sonoma County is much more widespread and sprawling and harder to understand. Indeed, I suspect that a generation from now, the Sonomans will still be working out these issues.

The wines, however, are very good, and at their best, Sonoma beats Napa easily in the variety of its products. There is no good Pinot Noir in Napa Valley (or, at best, very little), whereas Sonoma County obviously abounds in great Pinot. There is great Chardonnay in Napa, but not much, and when it does show up, it’s more the exception to the rule. To say that there’s great Chardonnay in Sonoma County is an understatement. From Alexander Valley through the Russian River and out to Fort Ross/Seaview, great Chardonnay is plentiful.

Zinfandel? Sonoma’s got it in spades, although I personally find a great Napa Valley Zinfandel slightly more elegant than a great Sonoma Zin. Sauvignon Blanc? Sonoma beats Napa almost all the time; just try Rochioli’s. Rhône varieties present a greater challenge. I am not a great fan of them, red or white, in California, so it’s hard for me to say that any particular region excels. But there are some very nice Syrahs from Sonoma County, particularly from Dry Creek Valley (where they have a warm-climate soft ripeness) and the Far Sonoma Coast, where, for instance, Failla’s stuns consistently. The one variety, or family of varieties, in which Sonoma fails to rival Napa Valley is Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends. I don’t think that gap will ever change. There are Cabs from Alexander Valley, and especially from the higher stretches of the Mayacamas, that rival the best of Napa, but their production is miniscule.

I always root for Sonoma County. They have their work cut out for them. Should a winery sell itself, its sub-appellation of the county-wide designation? These are tough questions. But there’s no doubt that Sonoma County, taken as a whole, is probably California’s most reliable and consistent producer.

  1. Your point about Sonoma County rushing forward with sub-appellations versus Napa Valley being more careful is an interesting one. Though I wouldn’t describe the process in the Napa Valley as more careful. Adjectives like more contentious and controversial might be more accurate. In my mind we just fought about these sub region definitions longer. But you are correct about the result because when there was contention in the approval process, the side with the best or loudest argument to the ATF won.

    The best thing about Sonoma County is its diversity, not just in diverse places to grow grapes, but the presence of agriculture other than grapes. Sadly, it is slowly gentrifying, but still it is the main distinction. Dairy cattle, cheesemaking, apples, berries, livestock, flowers, vegetable farms, not to mention great weed. I might quibble with Sonoma wines being more reliable, but Sonoma’s agricultural diversity contributes to mightily to our kitchen tables.

  2. Good points, Morton. I wonder if the “Rutherford Bench” and “Oakville Bench” ghosts have been laid to rest forever.

  3. AVA’s in general make no more than political sense. Nobody uses “Napa County” because Pope and Wooden Valleys are allowed to use “Napa Valley”. Nobody will use “Sonoma County” if they can avoid it, because the appellation will forever be devoid of any marketing cachet.

    Stop trying to “understand” Sonoma County as some kind of monolith already! The County is just lines on a map. So are most of the AVAs but at least some of them have a bit of geographic legitimacy.

    I like Morton’s comment about the agricultural diversity here. Ask any server in Napa where their “sustainable, locally-sourced” viands come from and the answer is likely to be Sonoma (unless maybe you are at French Laundry, for example, and asking very specifically about a few veggies on your plate).

    I think I can attribute this quote to Christopher Sawyer (somm at Carneros at the Lodge): “Napa and Sonoma both make great wine. The difference is that in Sonoma we can feed ourselves, too.”

  4. John Kelly, that’s a great line from Christopher. Thanks.

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