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Do we need another Sonoma appellation?



I’m not quite sure how I feel about the proposed West Sonoma Coast appellation some people are proposing. On the plus side, it’s more compact than the existing Sonoma Coast AVA, which as everyone knows almost nobody likes because it’s so all-encompassing. On the minus side is that it’s still pretty sprawling.

It would have been nice had the proposed appellation’s boundaries been the original ones for the Sonoma Coast. They’re a lot more honest from a terroir point of view, since they hug the Pacific Coast more closely, which after all is what the Sonoma Coast, theoretically, is all about.

But we can’t undo the past; we’re stuck for all time with Sonoma Coast. So what does West Sonoma Coast do that Sonoma Coast doesn’t?

Well, it further delineates this vital stretch of the coast, which truly is an area unique unto itself. The problems, however, are manifold. For one, we know from studies that consumers already are puzzled by the word “Sonoma” on an appellation, which appears in Sonoma Valley, Sonoma County and of course Sonoma Coast (not to mention the rarely used Northern Sonoma appellation). Then too, there are lots of wineries with the word Sonoma in their name. So adding a West Sonoma Coast AVA to the list runs the risk, it seems to me, of further confusing the consumer.

Then too, it seems likely that at some point there will be smaller sub-AVAs even within this restricted version of the Sonoma Coast. We already have (and needed) Fort Ross-Seaview. Can Annapolis be far behind? Or Freestone and Occidental? If these appellations are on the to-do list, might it not make more sense to forego a West Sonoma Coast appellation, until we obtain clarity on the others.

Sonoma County’s problem is that in the 1980s it rushed forward to appellate more than any other California county. Napa by contrast took things slow and steady. They made sure their appellations were all nicely lined up, with few if any overlaps, and they were mostly named after the townships and the mountains. Sonoma by contrast ended up with a hodgepodge which almost everyone now regrets, but there you are: it can’t be undone. So the question is, where to go from here?

My own feeling is to let things lie for a while. Give consumers more time to absorb Sonoma’s AVAs, including Sonoma Coast, which seems to be gaining some traction. Why over-burden them with even more names to remember?

The reason why is because some vintners want these new AVAs, including West Sonoma Coast. They were never happy with Sonoma Coast (much less Sonoma County), and so they want a name they can hang their hats on—one moreover that connotes the quality and pedigree we associate with this “true Sonoma Coast” region of maritime influence, where Pinot Noir and Chardonnay develop so magnificently.

Like I said, I haven’t made my mind up whether or not to support the West Sonoma Coast appellation. I’m torn between the “makes sense” and “doesn’t make sense” extremes. The West Sonoma Coast Vintners is a fabulous grouping of some of the greatest wineries in California; no matter what you call the region, it’s true name is brilliance. But, based on my long experience of writing for the readers of wine magazines, my orientation is toward consumers, not the egos or interests of local vintners. I always put myself in that shopper’s state of mind, so I ask myself: Will West Sonoma Coast clarify things, or hopelessly muddle them? Right now, I’m inclined toward the latter view.

  1. Steve,

    There are a few things that make it more complicated. Being in the Petaluma Gap I can no longer use that phrase on my labels(according to the TTB) to describe where my vineyard is located specifically in the enormous Sonoma Coast. Add to that the confusion of conjunctive labeling where I now have to have the rather silly sounding Sonoma Coast- Sonoma County and maybe you start to see where we would benefit from a broken up Sonoma Coast. The most important factor for my area needing an AVA, though, is the very specific climate of wind and fog that funnels through east to west hills from a north to south “Gap” in the hills at the coast in Bodega.

    West Sonoma Coast is a very different place from our area and is just as deserving of their specific location recognition. I find that when I’m out pouring to clients that they are looking for more, and more specific information about the locations of fruit sources. With the craft revolution happening now it seems that this is the pattern, and I’m all for it. I’d rather have a customer recognize the name Petaluma and know from a map where that is than have them assume my vineyard might be up near Fort Ross because that is where they think Sonoma Coast wine comes from.

  2. Let me make that Annapolis not Fort Ross as they have their AVA(not so subtle hint).

  3. Great map, very useful. Is there an updated version?

  4. Dusty Gillson says:

    I guess I don’t fit the mold of a typical consumer, but can’t any winery stuck with the sprawling Sonoma Coast AVA put whatever level of detail they like on their back label? Describe specifically how close your vineyard(s) are to the ocean, call out the “true” Sonoma Coast, or whatever other info you think might help your cause? If I am going to drop $30-$60 per bottle, I generally want that sort of info regardless of what the AVA on the label is.

    Even without a lot of back label jargon, it seems to work for the IGT Super Tuscans in Italy does it not? They are stuck with a broad sweeping classification that runs the gamut from swill to brilliance, but manage it pretty well I think.

  5. The answer is yes, we do need another Sonoma County appellation. In fact we need more than one and some of the existing appellation boundaries should be redrawn. The purpose of an appellation is to delineate unique grape-growing areas based on differences and distinctions of climate, soils, rainfall, geography, etc. Unfortunately, the process becomes politicized when people perceive a marketing or economic advantage to being in one appellation versus another. The result is the sort of gerrymandering that we’ve seen with the Russian River Valley appellation or Napa saw with the Stag’s Leap appellation. There is a history of redrawing boundaries when it makes sense to do so. My proposal to Sonoma County Vintners and Sonoma County Grape Growers, if they possess the guts to do so, is to review and, where necessary, redraw the appellation boundaries in the entire county as a whole, rather than as a piecemeal process. We now know enough about most of our grape growing areas to create meaningful boundaries that define consistent characteristics that would actually assist, rather than confuse, consumers in making choices about wines. Let’s put aside our short-term concerns and think about the benefits that will accrue over the next couple of generations. And to those of you who are concerned that your appellation with newly drawn lines doesn’t carry the same cachet that it did before honesty and clarity in appellation boundaries kicked in, my message is simple. Focus on making great wines and the perception of your new appellation will be elevated.

  6. Bob Henry says:


    Accessing the website reveals the creator is the Wine Institute of California — the “lobbying arm” of the state’s wine industry — so it is probably up-to-date:

    Also on their website is this search function by single AVA or single grape variety or amenities:

    Good hunting!

    ~~ Bob

  7. Dear Dusty, the answer to your question is yes, wineries can put that info on the back label. And I wish they would do so.

  8. Dear Evan, thank you for your comment. This are indeed complicated issues made even harder by political and personal concerns.

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