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Sonoma Coast, where are you?


If you ask me, the most exciting place to be growing Pinot Noir now is the Sonoma Coast. Anderson Valley’s damned good. So is Santa Rita Hills. Russian River Valley/Green Valley is great; Santa Lucia Highlands is erratic. Carneros,  err, umm, well, sometimes. Santa Cruz Mountains: so little produced, it’s practically extinct. But Sonoma Coast: there’s the real deal.

I was reminded of this by Randy Caparoso’s article on the coast, “Sonoma Extreme,” in the Jan. 31 issue of Sommelier Journal they gave out for free at the Wine Writers Symposium. While not breaking any new ground, Randy did a good job of updating readers on who’s who and what’s what.

I’ve been writing about the Sonoma Coast since the early 2000s, interviewing people like the Flowers, the Bohans, Don Hartford, David Hirsch, Daniel Schoenfeld (Wild Hog), Bill Smith, Jayson Pahlmeyer and, of course, Ehren Jordan, whom I featured prominantly in my 2005 book, A Wine Journey along the Russian River, which is out in a new paperback edition.

Reading Randy’s article, it’s funny how some of the same issues that were relevant in 2002-2004 are still being debated, namely, how to sub-appellate this vast, sprawling region, whose climates and soils are so wildly disparate that everybody agrees the appellation in and of itself is meaningless. This is, of course, why so many people make a distinction between the formal Sonoma Coast AVA and the “true” Sonoma Coast, which is much closer to the ocean.

It struck me also, in Randy’s article, how little one can generalize about Sonoma Coast terroir today, nearly a decade after I started trying. Even if you limit it to the first two coastal ridges running down from Annapolis to, say, Freestone, there are so many different elevations, exposures, soil types and micro-terroirs that it’s awfully hard to make accurate claims, beyond generalities. I liked Adam Lee’s description of Fort Ross-area Pinot (cited by Randy) as “soil-related flavors like forest floor and pine needles.” I’ve often described Failla’s Pinot Noirs, for example, as “feral,” a word I also used in my review of Williams Selyem’s ‘08 Hirsch. I described “dried pine needles” in Williams Selyem’s ‘07 Precious Mountain, and “balsam” — essentially the same thing — in Bjornstad’s ‘07 Hellenthal. Then there was the “hint of pine cone” I got from Hirsch’s ‘07 San Andreas Pinot. So I guess pine–in the form of needles, cones or balsam–is a marker of a Fort Ross-Seaview Pinot Noir. So is acidity. But the best of these wines possess an excitement that’s hard to put into words.

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. Don Hartford told me, in 2003, concerning a separate Fort Ross AVA, “They’re trying, but they can’t agree on a name.” That was eight years ago. I know these things get political, but really, what’s the problem out there?

The good news is that a couple dozen “true” Sonoma Coast wineries started a new organization, West Sonoma Coast Vintners. Their web page says the Sonoma Coast “contains many distinct growing areas including Annapolis, Fort Ross/Seaview, Occidental, Freestone, Green Valley and the Sebastopol Hills.” Green Valley already is an AVA. The rest aren’t. Won’t it be nice when they are? I’ve had my problems in the past with appellations that are silly, but these little carve-outs in the Sonoma Coast are teeter-tottering on the edge of greatness, and they deserve their own identities.

  1. Guess I’d also include the BennettVlly AVA as another great Pinot source. Definitely cold-climate.

  2. Tom’s right about Bennett Valley, where I live, definitely a place to watch. Some interesting cool climate Syrah here as well.

  3. Greg Brumley says:

    Nice post. Informative. Links were very useful. More of this would be great.

  4. Bennett Valley really is damned cool/cold. My client’s Zinfandel and Petite Sirah don’t reach the picking window until we get to late-October. Sonoma County wine folks ITB have known this for a long time. Glad to see it’s catching on.

  5. David Rossi says:

    I’m also looking forward to a Petaluma Gap AVA which has so many Pinots that are labeled Sonoma Coast. Very different area vs.Annapolis/Ft. Ross, but just as distinct. Shame they are all lumped in as Sonoma Coast.

  6. It is true. A very exciting collection of regions (I support breaking it up as there are quite a few unique areas); still there is an issue of stylistic in how best to express the flavors of the area. You have gems like littorai, peay etc. Then you have the problematic wines of Martinelli and Marcassin. The later two may make quality wines, that taste good in context. However, they are so over done, that they hardly taste like pinot noir, let alone coastal wines

  7. Thanks for writing that book.

  8. Coincidentally I was jsut rereading Steve’s book on the Russian River Valley and it seems as timely now as when he wrote it. Recommended reading. It includes an interesting account of how the Sonoma Coast AVA lines were drawn. One of the prime movers behind the AVA even referred to it as “gerrymandering.” I’ll add my vote as one in favor of subappellations for that huge AVA.

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