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Thoughts on the far Sonoma Coast



In anticipation of our tasting this Friday of wines from the “true” Sonoma Coast, I’ve been going over in my mind my understanding of this American Viticultural Area, which was declared an A.V.A. in 1987.

That was 28 years ago, but I don’t recall the controversy surrounding it until sometime in the late 1990s, when people began to point out that, at 480,000 acres, and stretching from the Pacific beaches to the Napa County line, it was not only one of California’s larger appellations—bigger than Napa Valley or the Santa Cruz Mountains—but containing so many different climates that to call it a single appellation was senseless.

Conventional wisdom was that the Sonoma Coast A.V.A. was pushed through and largely paid for by a single individual, who wanted to be able to label his Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays with something other than Sonoma Valley. Although the Sonoma Valley A.V.A. extends right down to Carneros, the popular view is that it’s a warmish to hot place, which, northwest of Sonoma Town and along the Valley of the Moon highway, it is.

There have long been a handful of vintners, though, who chose to grow grapes along what eventually became known as the “true” Sonoma Coast: an area just a few miles inland from the beaches, encompassing the first two or three mountain ranges. The unrest caused by the gigantic Sonoma Coast A.V.A. eventually grew so fierce that, in 2012, the government was compelled to recognize Fort Ross-Seaview as a sub-appellation of Sonoma Coast. At a mere 27,500 acres, most of it wildland. Fort Ross-Seaview represented an intelligent approach to detailing Sonoma Coast, one that I entirely supported. When it was finally approved, I was hopeful that additional “true” Sonoma Coast appellations would follow. Annapolis, in the north, seems logical. So does Freestone in the south, and possibly Occidental, although who knows what the names will be, because these things require agreement amongst warring parties, and the names often are compromises reached through lawyerly negotiations.

For me, the question concerning the “true” Sonoma Coast is, What are the differences between, say, Annapolis in the north, the done deal of Fort Ross-Seaview, and points south, whatever they’re called? It can’t be as simple as temperature, because if anything, the south is cooler, being closer to the Golden Gate; and elevation plays a crucial role on the far coast, with vineyards in the north higher up in the mountains, and thus above the fogline and more exposed to the intense solar radiation.

It will take us many years to really figure out the “true” Sonoma Coast. I hated the original appellation because it was so huge and amorphous, but I will give it credit for sparking the imaginations of writers, many of whom thought the only credible place for Pinot Noir in Sonoma County was the Russian River Valley.

The far Sonoma Coast is, and always will be, a place only the wealthy can afford to plant vineyards. I think the days of pioneers like Daniel Schoenfeld (Wild Hog) and Ehren Jordan (Failla) are gone. But I also reject the contention that major players, like Joseph Phelps, Jackson Family and Jayson Pahlmeyer, cannot succeed, with diligent and thoughtful approaches. The far coast, more than any other Pinot Noir region in California, will be a testing-ground for winemakers who aspire to greatness and are willing to gamble with disappointment. This is grapegrowing at its extremities, where an off vintage, much less a winemaking mistake, can result in catastrophe.

  1. Dear Steve:

    thank you for your post on the “true”, “far” or “West” Sonoma Coast, as our organization calls it. I just want to correct a few factual errors. First, the more northerly regions are not all higher in elevation, as you indicate. Fort Ross Seaview tends to be but the area around Annapolis is much lower, generally ranging from 500-800′ in elevation, whereas the former rises to heights of 1400′ and more. Second, it is not the proximity to the Golden Gate which creates the lower temperatures associated with the Occidental area, but the proximity to the Petaluma Gap, the major source of fog for the Santa Rosa Flood plain and beyond. Come join us at the Grand Tasting of the West Sonoma Coast Vintners on Saturday and Sunday afternoons at the Barlow in Sebastopol. Tickets are still available for the public at best always Ted Lemon, board member, The West Sonoma Coast Vintners.

  2. Steve, noticed you ignored the Petaluma Gap, was that intentional?
    With two of the three vineyards that fed into KB’s 2011 Wine of the year, surely, that is one of the most likely candidates for a new sub-AVA. And yes, i know there is no such thing as a sub-AVA.
    And i wont’ call you Shirley.

  3. TomHill says:

    Tony sez: “And yes, i know there is no such thing as a sub-AVA.”

    Guess I don’t quite understand this statement. To me, and most others with whom I talk, a sub-AVA is simply smaller AVA contained within a larger AVA. Seems pretty straightforward to me.

  4. Yes, we use the term “sub-AVA” colloquially, and that’s fine, because we all understand that it means “a smaller appellation within a larger one.” However, the head wine guy at TTB told me that, officially and legally, there’s no such thing as a sub-AVA. All AVAs are equal under the law.

  5. TomHill says:

    Maybe “officially and legally”, according to the Feds, sub-AVA is not a correct term…but I think, even if they don’t, most everyone knows what sub-AVA means.
    The Feds also tell me what’s allowed in my wieners as well. Doesn’t make me like ’em any more.

  6. Nested-AVA is the proper term for an appellation within a larger appellation…

  7. I’d like to put in a vote for a Sebastopol Hills AVA. Maybe the Hall’s will pursue it with Bob’s Ranch. You in too Ted?

  8. Brian Hilliard says:

    The true Sonoma Coast, whether it remains geopolitically divided as is, or gets more dissected will continue to grow in notoriety and value as proof of what that region has already produced, and will continue to produce.

    By the way…thanks for considering us a “major” player Steve. We’ll take that as a nod to effort and dedication as opposed to footprint since we only have 30 acres under vine in Fort Ross Seaview.

  9. Responding to Greg Pearl:
    Our vineyard is in the unofficial Sebastopol Hills region and sadly a Sebastopol Hills AVA looks pretty impossible. Here’s why:
    The TTB has basically ruled that they won’t allow a new AVA to be annexed out of land that crosses multiple AVAs.
    Currently, the area that winemakers and vintners refer to as Sebastopol Hills is legally apart of three appellations, Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Green Valley. This wasn’t always the case but there were serious players who worked to extend the RRV AVA because they had vineyards here they wanted included… Such is life.
    The takeaway: The Fort-Ross/Seaview AVA was OK because it was completely taken out of land within 1 existing AVA; Sonoma Coast. Since Sebastopol Hills crosses 2-3 AVA’s-depending on who you talk to- the feds won’t break it out as this has the potential to lead to more confusion. Also, the interests that extended RRV in the first place certainly don’t want that designation removed.
    I sort of get the TTB’s point of view, but it sucks for people like me who are passionate about Sebastopol Hills fruit and don’t have an official way to bottle it.

  10. Bob Henry says:


    I’m a marketing guy, but not well-versed in TTB labeling guidelines.

    Could you slip in some notation on your back label — such as “Come visit our [INSERT: “vineyard” or “winery tasting room”] in Sebastopol Hills.” — to give greater geographic identity to your efforts?

    ~~ Bob

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