When Nancy Gilbert of Ferrari-Carano Winery in Healdsburg came to Sonoma County more than a decade ago, Sonoma was intensely a Mom and Pop operation. It was small and self contained. Not a lot of marketing or financial expertise. Today, the county struggles to maintain some semblance of that image amid increasing demands for more and better wines, more land development, more tourism, and a burgeoning hi-tech industry.
However, change is not exactly new to Sonoma's wine industry. The biggest change in the last century came when Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy brought 100,000 cuttings of grape varietals from France, Italy, Germany, and Spain to Sonoma in 1861, convinced that California could produce wine equal to the best of Europe.
Prohibition saw many grape growers turn their land into orchards. "The Alexander Valley was all pears and prunes when I was growing up in the 40s and 50s," says Lou Foppiano Jr, whose family has owned Foppiano Vineyards in Healdsburg since 1896. The grapes that were grown consisted of mostly Zinfandel, Carignan, French Colombard, Petite Sirah, and Palomino, hardly on everyone's tongue these days, with the possible exception of Zinfandel.(Foppiano has long maintained an attraction to Petite Sirah, which it first made in 1937. This rich, full-bodied and often tannic red wine has achieved cult status as a single varietal in recent years after previously being used in jug wine blends. Today, many fine Zinfandel producers mix in a small percentage of Petite Sirah with Zinfandel to give the latter some backbone.)
The late 1960s in Sonoma saw the beginning of a headlong rush toward Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The problem with the big three varietals, as Foppiano calls them, is that little attention was given to where many vines were planted. "When the phylloxera root louse required damaged vines to be pulled out in the 1980s and early 1990s, it gave grape growers an opportunity to ask before replanting, ‘What grows well here?’" Foppiano says.
What grows well in Sonoma depends on what part of Sonoma you re talking about. Few wine regions have as many diverse microclimates. The result is distinctive American Viticultural Areas or AVAs, the American version of French appellations. The most important AVAs are Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Valley.
The warm Alexander Valley in northern Sonoma County is just right for lithe
and elegant Cabernet Sauvignon as well as Merlot. A good deal of Chardonnay,
mostly of the ripe tropical fruit variety, is also produced there. However,
as James Laube notes in California Wine (Wine Spectator Press),
"Clearly it’s a diversified appellation, with wineries such as Marcassin using Gauer Ranch grapes for its Upper Barn bottling of Chardonnay, and Ridge relying on Geyserville at the northernmost edge of the appellation for its Zinfandel-based table wine."
Gallo has made significant plantings of Zinfandel, Syrah, and Sangiovese for its Gallo of Sonoma brand. Other well- known wineries include Simi, Jordan, Clos du Bois, Alexander Valley Vineyards, Chateau Souverain, and Geyser Peak.
The cool Russian River Valley is one of California's hottest appellations today thanks to how well it produces Chardonnay, America's favorite white wine, and to the increasing popularity of Pinot Noir. Top Chardonnay names include DeLoach, Rochioli, Kistler, Sonoma-Cutrer, Gallo, and Dehlinger. Rochioli, Gary Farrell, Williams & Selyem, Kistler, and Dehlinger are Pinot Noir standouts. Warmer areas of the Russian River Valley produce quality Zinfandel, Sauvignon Blanc, Gew rztraminer, and Merlot.
Dry Creek Valley is synonymous with Zinfandel because, according to Laube,
it gives the tricky Zinfandel grape the heat it needs to ripen sufficiently
without launching it to stratospheric alcohol levels. Names to look for are
Ridge Lytton Springs, Rafanelli, Quivira, Ferrari-Carano, Nalle, Preston,
Dry Creek Vineyards, and Gallo of Sonoma.
Sonoma Valley is a large and diverse appellation as well as the country's oldest. It has several highly regarded single-vineyard Zinfandels such as Robert Biale Monte Rosso, Ravenswood Cooke, Ridge Pagani, and Rosenblum Samsel Vineyard Maggie s Reserve. Look for Cabernet Sauvignon from Carmenet, B.R. Cohn, and Kenwood, and Chardonnay from Hanzell, Kistler, and Sonoma-Cutrer.
These Sonoma appellations, and to a lesser extent the appellations of Chalk Hill, Green Valley, Knights Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Sonoma Mountain, have made it easier for consumers to get a handle on the wines of Sonoma. That's a good thing from a marketing standpoint, says Nick Goldschmidt, winemaker of Simi Winery in Healdsburg. "But the marketers have sort of boxed us in because they tell people only certain varietals can grow in certain places like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Russian River."
The problem is they don't expect to see a Zinfandel or Cabernet from there.
Goldschmidt and Daryl Groom, winemaker at Geyser Peak Winery in Geyserville,
also have concerns about Sonoma becoming too focused on the big three varietals."It's
getting a bit scary. Maybe 80 percent of the vines are Cabernet Sauvignon,
Merlot, and Chardonnay," Groom says. "Carignan, Chenin Blanc, Riesling,
and Gew rztraminer have been pulled out to plant them."
"Sauvignon Blanc is really going into the toilet," Goldschmidt says. "It's such a good food wine. Why aren't people buying it?" Then he answers his own question: Sauvignon Blanc grape growers get $1200 to $1400 per ton of sauvignon blanc vs $2200 a ton for Chardonnay.
Patrick Campbell, who makes some of California's most ageworthy Cabernet Sauvignons at Laurel Glen Vineyard in Sonoma Mountain, also laments the homogeneity of flavors as well as a reduced individualism. "There's a lot of vanilla and chocolate out there, though some people are starting to come back to individual styles," he says.
Despite such concerns, Sonoma winemakers experimented with different varietals. Syrah is the hot ticket of late, according to Richard Arrowhead, whose eponymous winery makes a very good one from Saralee's Vineyard in the Russian River Valley. Because he is an Australian native, Groom makes his Syrah in the more robust Australian style, and thus calls it Shiraz, the Aussie name for this grape from the Rhone Valley in France. Groom thinks Shiraz (or Syrah) will eventually overtake Merlot in popularity.
Sangiovese, the primary red grape variety of Tuscany, has been planted throughout Sonoma, though prospects aren't exactly rosy. "I haven't tasted too much that has excited me," Arrowood says. As for whites, Goldschmidt says "We've seen all the Viognier (the floral white from France's Rhone Valley) that's going to be planted. But there is room for Pinot Gris (the Alsatian white; also known as Pinot Grigio in Italy) in Carneros and the Russian River Valley, as long as it is not made in the Chardonnay style." (Read: big and oaky.)
The cost of grapes (doubled in the last 10 years) and land (tripled) has
caused winemakers to look toward more marginal areas for growing grapes.
One huge (almost 500 thousand acres) and relatively untapped (about 12,000
acres of vines) location is the Sonoma Coast appellation, whose cool ocean
breezes call for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The cooler area of southern Sonoma
County near Petaluma and Cotati is also a candidate for those varietals.
Groom sees Knights Valley, home to the outstanding Peter Michael Winery,
as a sleeper.
Laube gives the 1997 vintage in California overall his highest rating and gives specific high marks to Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel. The 1998 vintage was shorter and more problematic. As for 1999, particularly in Sonoma, Goldschmidt says, "Overall it is outstanding, 9 and 1/2 out of 10 for reds, which will be elegant and fruit forward, 8 and 1/2 out of 10 for whites."
Comparisons between Sonoma and Napa, its eastern neighbor, are inevitable. Though it’s a generalization because there is so much diversity, most of Sonoma's wines are more approachable, Groom says. The reds are softer, especially from the Alexander Valley. Whites have more forward fruit. Napa reds are bigger and more tannic. Napa Chardonnays are bigger and fatter. Goldschmidt says that Alexander Valley reds have more elegance and finesse, Napa reds more power and weight.
I'd add that the cooler areas of Sonoma also provide more acidity. Sonoma winemakers are somewhat ambivalent about Napa. On one hand, they'd like to get the same respect for their wines that Napa does. (Many already do.) But on the other hand, they don't want to be overrun by development and tourism like Napa. It's a question of balance, Gilbert says, like good wine.