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Why I didn’t include Sonoma County as part of California’s Golden Age

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I caught a little flack last week for leaving Sonoma County out of a blog on California’s Golden Age of Wine.

One person, Judi, commented, “not even a mention of Sonoma?” Another–actually, Hank Wetzel, from Alexander Valley Vineyards–wrote, “I was thinking, wow he did not mention Sonoma County, and then I saw Judi’s comment. I am sure living in a golden age. From cattle land my family and staff have created vineyards and a winery that are bountiful. Sonoma County is so complex, with diverse growing areas, each influenced in a unique way by soil and proximity to the Pacific ocean. This has helped to create an abundance of successful grape growers and wine producers that thrive.”

So I should probably clear this up.

To begin with, assessing the “golden ageworthiness” of a region is obviously a deeply subjective thing to do. There are no objective criteria by which to measure it; it has to do with one’s perceptions. In the case of California regions, my selection of Paso Robles and Monterey and (to a lesser extent) Santa Barbara as being in a golden age is because those regions had very little prior celebrity as wine regions. Paso Robles was long bashed as too hot, while Monterey was criticized as too cold! So for both of them to be producing such good wines, with such a groundswell of young energy, is worthy of note.

You can’t say that Sonoma County is suddenly producing great wine. You can’t argue that it came out of nowhere. Sonoma County is one of the historic birthplaces of California wine. The Russians planted grapes out at Fort Ross in the early 1800s, quickly followed by Spanish Franciscan missionaries. We all know about Haraszthy and the generations of immigrants who widely planted the county, beginning in the 1850s. Sonoma Valley was one of the earliest American Viticultural Areas to be approved (1982), and the astonishing advent of Pinot Noir in the Russian River Valley (approved in 1983) moved the county into the forefront of California wine. So it’s not as if Sonoma has been some kind of concealed secret.

Another part of the problem (not that it’s a problem, really–it’s something to celebrate) is that Sonoma is such a huge place, as Hank Wetzel stated. It’s so big and diverse that making any statement about it is like making a generality about France. I once read there are more soil types in Sonoma than in all of France. So many moving parts to Sonoma: how can a single statement connect them all? One might conceivably say this is a golden age for the [far] Sonoma Coast, I suppose, but that area remains too small (from a vineyard acreage point of view) to thus characterize it. Is this a golden age for the Chalk Hill appellation? For Rockpile? I don’t think so. That doesn’t mean that all of Sonoma’s 15 AVAs aren’t producing good wine. They are–as good in some instances as anywhere else in California. It’s just that, in my view, you can’t say that Sonoma County is currently enjoying a golden age.

I suppose that golden ages can occur more than once in the lifespan of a wine region, provided that region is old enough. Bordeaux’s original golden age, of the 18th century, was replicated in the 1980s. In that 200-year interregnum, Bordeaux experienced declines that nearly obliterated it, and that resulted in some very poor wines. No California wine region, however, is yet old enough to have experienced a second golden age. Sonoma County already has had its, in the 1970s and 1980s. Now, it’s the turn of regions to the south.

  1. Harry Wetzel says:

    Steve,

    While I appreciate your acknowledgement of Sonoma County in this post, I do have a few comments.

    I think you and I have differing views of what qualities as a “Golden Age”. I believe that a “Golden Age” can last a year, ten years, fifty years or even hundreds of years. I believe that Sonoma is in the midst of its “Golden Age”, and I think this is further reinforced by the enormous boom in tourism in the last five years.

    While trying not to exclude any particular area, I think that many of the areas you mentioned (or failed to mention) in your previous post are just entering their “Golden Age”. Areas like Paso Robles, Santa Barbara, Mendocino, Amador, Lake, Cochella, Lodi, etc…I look forward to their growth and success, but I don’t want to dicount the effort put forth by my father and others in Sonoma County.

    I honestly was completley surprised by my dad’s post to your earier article, but I have to say I’m glad he posted it. He had some very valid points that I think not only apply to Sonoma County but also transfer to those other up and coming areas as well. Believe me, Sonoma didn’t used to be the tourist destination it is today. It has become that due to the efforts of my father, and many others; most of which are behind the scenes. I look forward to an ongoing “Golden Age” for the entire California Wine Industry, not just here, but in all of those other areas as well.

    Cheers!

    Harry Wetzel
    Assistant Winemaker/Family Partner
    Alexander Valley Vineyards

  2. Blake Gray says:

    Steve, do you ever just admit you missed something? You blog every day, that’s admirable, I can’t do it. It’s unedited, unfiltered, bound to have errors of omission. This is one. It’s not the end of the world; nothing wrong with that. But why defend it?

  3. Jonathan O'Bergin says:

    Greetings Hank, Harry and Steve,

    I MUST SAY THAT USE OF THE TERM GOLDEN AGE IS SERIOUSLY PRESUMPTIOUS VIS A VIS WINE MAKING IN CALIFORNIA, AS IT IS SO NEW TO THE GLOBAL HISTORY OF EONOLOGY. THAT BEING SAID, I AM PROUD TO HAVE INTRODUCED ALEXANDER VALLEY VINEYARDS 1977 CHARDONNAY TO THE UK IN 1980. YESTERDAY I POSTED A PHOTO (ON BART BROADBENT’S FACEBOOK) OF CYRIL RAY AND HUGH JOHNSON AWARDING A GOLD MEDAL FOR THAT WINE AT THE WORLD WINE FAIR IN BRISTOL ENGLAND, IN JUNE 1980.I AM THE HAPPY RECIPIENT OF THE AWARD AS THE UK IMPORTER. I HAD THE GREAT PLEASURE OF INTRODUCING SEVERAL SONOMA WINES IN THE UK THAT YEAR, INCLUDING THE KRECK FAMILY’S MILL CREEK VINEYARDS AND CHATEAU ST. JEAN FROM THE SHEFFIELDS. CALIFORNIAN WINES STORMED THE BASTION OF UK VINOUS PREDJUDICE WITH QUALITY AND PURITY OF TERRIOR. SONOMA HAS LED THE WAY, ALBEIT WITHOUT THE MOST FLASH, EVER SINCE. LET’S JUST SAY IT’S A HEY DAY!

  4. Jon Campbell says:

    no Amador county golden age? just kidding!!

    -people its a blog on the internet-if you think theres some golden age of wine going on in Madera, or Shasta, or Uruguay that’s fine you’re entitled to your opinion, as is Steve

  5. @ BLake Grey: Because I didn’t miss it.

  6. Dear Jon Campbell, thanks for saying something sensible!

  7. Bill Crowley says:

    Having followed California’s Wine Revolution almost from the beginning, I guess I’d argue that Sonoma County is more “golden” than it’s ever been and some of the other responders offer support for that argument. Whether it’s the price of its most elite wines, the number of tasting rooms all over the place, the level of respect in the wineworld (whatever that is!), the number of tourists visiting wine destinations in the county, or the number of foo-foo-fah-fah places in Sonoma and Healdsburg, Sonoma is “hot.” It’s just that it’s Golden Age has been going on longer than the other places you mention–maybe.

    One of the supports you offer is the date of AVA establishment. I don’t think that’s a winner for your argument. Santa Maria appeared in 1981, prior to Sonoma Valley. Chalone and Santa Ynez Valley were both approved prior to Dry Creek or Alexander Valleys, and Paso Robles (and all of those already mentioned) was birthed prior to the Russian River Valley. If age of AVA foundation is a criterion, uh….

    With respect to geographic complexity, Sonoma is wonderful as you assert, but Paso Robles is not exactly simple, for soils or climate.

    I respect your right on your own blog to declare whatever you want to declare, and if the goal is to stir interest and response, you’ve succeeded!

  8. Dear Bill Crowley, thanks for writing. I just want to clear one thing up: My goal is never to stir response, much less controversy. I have no idea, when I post something, whether it will get zero comments, 3 comments or 30 comments. I write things that I’m thinking about, at that time. I figure if they interest me, they might interest others. Sometimes I post things that I think are fantastic, and the collective response is “Meh.” Sometimes I’m in a hurry and I put something up that, even to me, seems slapdash, and it gets a ton of comments. Go figure!

  9. george kaplan says:

    Napa Cabernet, especially Ridge, is in a class by itself for acclaim and press and so on, so most people who think of California fine wine think of Napa first. I suspect a lot of those people think of Russian River and Alexander as suburbs of Napa. At the informed level of Wine Enthusiasts Sonoma is understood to be in most respects Napa’s equal if not its master, but it’s not just for one grape like Napa. It’ll be the same for the other regions.

  10. Michael Donohue says:

    Since when is Ridge producing Napa Cab? Did I miss the tectonic shift that pushed Monte Bello far north?

  11. Michael Donohue, I thought the same thing when I read that. I know they used to produce a York Creek Cabernet from Spring Mountain, and I think they still do.

  12. george kaplan says:

    It was a joke guys, though evidently a lame one. There’s a winery in the Santa Clara that’s sort of known for Chardonnay , too, besides Ridge: Mt Eden. Unfortunately the 70s phenom Davis Bruce hasn’t stood the test of time.

  13. george kaplan says:

    Sorry, Santa Cruz. My credibility in ruins I shall now shut up.

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