This Episode's Region

Sonama Coast

Sonama Coast

With its border located less than an hour north of San Francisco by car, the Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area was established in 1987 and is part of California's larger North Coast which has 44 sub-regions, 13 of them in Sonoma County. Sonoma Coast is a sweeping appellation in terms of area, altitudes, ocean vistas, and agricultural terroirs. The region occupies 750 square miles, making it the largest AVA in Sonoma County. It runs the length of Pacific coastline from San Pablo Bay, up past the city of Santa Rosa, to the southern border of Mendocino County, then east into the Coastal Ranges. Sonoma Coast is a sparsely-populated place, and it's the county's most sparsely-planted AVA .

Maritime influences define the Sonoma Coast. A huge difference between this sub-region and other nearby AVAs is climate. The coast has twice as much rainfall, constant marine fog, and cooler temperatures than occur inland. The shore has miles and miles of rugged terrain characterized by a series of highly eroded cliffs and mountain tops. Small vineyard blocks exist mainly on the leeward side of these cool mountains and hills. The mountainside soils tend to be either volcanic ash or clay, dry and not very rich, with rock and gravel--good for aeration and drainage. Temperatures are warm enough to ripen the grapes when they are planted above the fog line and can receive adequate sun -- Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and cool-climate Syrah do particularly well. At lower altitudes, not many grapes are grown. The lush green, fertile meadows and valleys of this region produce almost every imaginable vegetable, along with specialty flowers -- the low-altitude landscape is filled with apple, pear, pomegranate, fig, and other orchards.

Sonoma County has a long history of wine-making, dating back to the early 19th century, with the establishment of the Spanish Mission system in California. Sonoma Coast, however, does not have a very extensive history of wine production, although Sonoma County's first known vineyard happened to have been planted in 1817 in the area that is now Sonoma Coast's well-known Coleman Valley Road. For about 150 years after that, the area was largely ignored by viticulturalists, felt to be too cold for growing grapes. Planting along the sunny ridge lines was not tried in earnest until the mid 20th century. Sonoma Coast is now known for some of the United States' best Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wines. Its Syrah is highly regarded, as well. These varieties compliment the food produced in the region, especially abundant native seafood harvested from the Pacific Ocean.

For more on Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, click here.

Photo of Sonoma Coast courtesy of George Rose.

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Tasting Notes From This Episode

•Don’t confuse the Sonoma Coast with other AVAs containing the name “Sonoma,” such as the famous Sonoma Valley or the Sonoma Mountain region. To learn about all the wines and diverse areas within Sonoma County, visit www.sonomawinegrape.org and www.sonomawine.com  

•Most wineries of Sonoma Coast are recently-established (after the 1970s), small boutique producers. There is a strong movement underway to divide Sonoma Coast into 3 or 4 smaller AVAs because the area, as it is now delineated, is very large and diverse. 

•Not only is natural “dry-farming” favored by on the Sonoma Coast, so is organic farming. Greener options such as solar power, hydroelectric power from water wheels, and bio-diesel fuel are widely used in vineyards and wineries of the Sonoma Coast. 

•Because of the enormous sea and land bird population on the Sonoma Coast, all vines have to be covered with nets as soon as the grapes begin ripening; otherwise, the plants will be picked clean before harvest time. 

•Wildlife of all kinds abounds in this mostly rural region. Deer and wild boar can enter the vineyards and injure or destroy the plants. Gophers are a challenge, as >100 individuals can burrow and inhabit one acre. When this happens, between 20 and 30% of the total grape crop can be lost. 

•Farming of sheep for both meat and fine wool used to be a popular co-industry of wine-making, but because of increases in both coyote and mountain lion populations, few sheep are still kept. Some farmers have substituted water buffalo for the more vulnerable livestock. Buffalo mozzarella cheese (made from water buffalo milk) pairs nicely with wines of this region.