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Here comes (probably sooner rather than later) the Petaluma Gap AVA



The growers and wineries have been working diligently to get this largish region on the official AVA list, and since they’ve been doing everything right, far as I can tell, it shouldn’t take the multiple years it took for Paso Robles to finally sub-appellate itself. They’re currently getting the paperwork together for the TTB, and hope to get an AVA as soon as a year or two from now.

The organizers are the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, which has been around for about eight years. Despite their map (sorry you have to crane your neck to read it),

The Gap


they warn the boundaries aren’t yet final, not just because of the usual who’s in, who’s out politics, but because the good ole TTB is giving people a hard time about new AVAs that overlap with existing ones, and the northernmost part of the proposed Petaluma Gap does include that new southern stretch of the Russian River Valley. So nobody knows what will happen with that, although if they have to revise the boundaries around the RRV extension, it would eliminate one of the more important parts of the Gap, home to many well-regarded vineyards.

It’s a cool-climate growing area, although not that cool: warmer than Carneros, which itself is warmer than Santa Maria Valley. Still, the Petaluma Gap clearly is Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country, with Syrah thrown in for good measure. At the Alliance’s tasting yesterday (held at the gorgeous Golden Gate Club in the spectacular Presidio National Park, with such dramatic views of the Golden Gate Bridge and the spires of San Francisco), the Syrahs were outstanding and so were the Chardonnays. The Pinots, less so, but then again, this is Pinot Noir we’re talking about, the heartbreak grape. I particularly liked the more delicate ones, for instance Greg LaFollette’s 2012 Sangiacomo and Keller’s 2013 El Coro. Some of the bigger ones, like the Kosta-Browne 2012 Gap’s Crown, were a little too extracted for my tastes.

The Alliance said they’re trying hard to pinpoint a “Petaluma Gap” style or flavor, but I have to say this is going to be hard. The region clearly is a high-rent district: the wines, red and white, have great acidity, are ripe and balanced, with silky tannins and, in the case of the Pinots, frequently with an earthy, Bay leaf-herbal tea-tomato note. But you could say that about lots of Pinot Noirs from other places. On reflection the Chardonnays were perhaps the standouts: dry wines, rich and tangy in acidity, bright in fruit and minerally. Once again Greg LaFollette’s entry stood out: his 2012 Sangiacomo was, I wrote, “Grand Cru quality.” I also liked the Fogline 2013 and the Keller 2013 La Cruz. But some of the other Chardonnays were just too oaky, which is the fault, not of the Petaluma Gap, but of the winemakers.

The TTB requires AVA applicants to explain what makes their region singular, and in this case, the Alliance people said it’s not the fog and it’s not the soils, it’s the wind. The “Gap” refers to an opening in the coastal hills, roughly between Bodega Bay in the north and Dillon Beach in the south, where the winds rush in before hitting Sonoma Mountain,about 20 miles inland, from where they go north up to Cotati and south towards Carneros and San Pablo Bay. The AVA, as proposed, will be a big one, occupying roughly the entire southern third of the Sonoma Coast AVA, and spilling a little bit into Marin County. In the west the boundary line would extend to the coast. My friend Charlie Olken asked why they drew the line all the way out to the sea, when it’s clear nothing will grow out there except artichokes and onions. I’m not sure the Alliance people answered that, except to say there may be little pockets here and there where growers could persuade Pinot and Chardonnay to grow, even if it’s just for sparkling wine.

The Petaluma Gap contains about 80 vineyards and nine wineries, although lots of wineries source fruit from there. I must say, judging by this tasting, that I’m heartily in favor of this new AVA. Not all AVAs make sense, goodness knows, and the Petaluma Gap as presently conceived is a little too big for comfort. Yet goodness knows it’s more intelligently crafted than Sonoma Coast was (and is), and represents a big step in the right direction for the future of Sonoma (and Marin) county winegrapes. So kudos to the Petaluma Gap Wine Alliance for going about this in a smart way.

  1. I’m surprised that you categorize the Gap as warmer than Carneros. I was under the impression that most of Carneros’ weather blew thru the Gap (rather than off SF Bay). Since the Gap lies closer to the Pacific along this weather band, I expected that it would be measurably cooler than the area further removed from the ocean.

  2. Steve–

    Since we both attended the Petaluma Gap seminar yesterday and generally share the same views about AVAs, I am interested in your comments that its boundaries are a little too large.

    We may well agree that the far western section where only onions will grow might be a reach, but what about the southeastern portion which is admittedly warmer than the bulk of the area where grapes are grown.

    And if I may pose another question that was explored yesterday, do you think that there is justification to scrap the current AVA map and start again–either in whole or in part.

    And, the second part of that question: could that ever happen?

  3. Great, now our little on the fringe vineyard can be classified as Sonoma Coast, Russian River (thanks to Gallo), and perhaps Petaluma Gap? The proposed boundaries are way to large and defeat the whole appellation concept. Our vote is for Sebastopol Hills if anyone has the wherewithal the pursue it.

  4. Charlie: Great to see you yesterday! I, personally, would be in favor of scrapping the AVA system and starting over, but it ain’t gonna happen. The proposed Petaluma Gap AVA suffers from the same inherent weakness of almost all AVAs: the terroir is inconsistent from one boundary to the other. But you could say that, frankly, about Pauillac. So we have to see these AVAs as approximations of terroir certainty, rather than certainty itself, which is what I meant when I said yesterday that I wonder if younger wine writers understand the limitations of AVAs–what they can’t tell us–as well as what they can.

  5. Dear Stewart Johnson, my comment about Carneros was based on degree day data given to me by the Petaluma Gap Alliance. And since I’ve been studying the degree days of Santa Maria Valley, I am able to make that comparison.

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