if you see “Sonoma Coast” on a bottle the style will greatly vary based on where the grapes are grown. The geography is so diverse that “Sonoma Coast” becomes rather meaningless as a formal designation. The Sonoma Coast AVA includes Sonoma, Santa Rosa, and Petaluma, with grapes grown inland, mid-land, and coastal.
Almost entirely within the Sonoma Coast AVA is the Petaluma Gap, a valley that runs from San Pablo Bay in the south, along the Petaluma river, through the town of Petaluma and out to Bodega and Tomales Bay. The proposed Petaluma Gap AVA also includes the Sonoma Mountain range to the east, which separates Sonoma Valley from West Sonoma.
At the recent Wind To Wine Festival, which celebrated the style of the Petaluma Gap, the envoy from Fogline Vineyards said that the Petaluma Gap climate allows for a longer hangtime that results in a coastal style that has darker fruit, which defines the area. After all, “Why seek a separate AVA if it does not produce a wine that is unique?”.
The Petaluma Gap has a distinct style. Michael Browne of Kosta Browne Winery describes it as “rich, voluptuous, and structured, with dark black and blue fruit [and] deep texture.” Many of the wines that I tasted fit this description.
After tasting the wines and seeing that many of the winemakers were using grapes from four specific vineyards, I decided to visit the vineyards the next day on my motorcycle and see what made them special.
Starting my journey at the marina where San Pablo Bay and the Petaluma River meet, I rode up Lakeville Hwy from the Hwy 37 Junction. The countryside has farms with cows, sheep, goats, horses and a miniature horse ranch. Among all this are vineyards. These are winegrowers who work intelligently with the terroir to provide the best material for winemakers to work with.
The Sangiacomo Fedrick Vineyard is the first that I came across, just down the road from the Griffin’s Lair Vineyard, which, although only a half mile away, is located on a hilltop. The wineries that use this fruit include Bruliam Wines, run by a former laboratory-doctor&endashturned&endashwinemaker named Kerith Overstreet, who described the site as producing an earthy wine that she compared to Gevry-Chambertin, Burgundy, in style: dark, earthy and feral.
The Griffin’s Lair Vineyard overlooks the Petaluma River. You can see the San Pablo Bay in the distance. Joan Griffin gave me insight into the growing conditions, with the morning wind from the bay and the afternoon wind from the Pacific Ocean howling through. The close proximity to a large body of water creates a moderate temperature that increases the ripening time for grapes. The wind produces smaller berries with tougher, thicker skins; this changes the skin-to-juice ratio, and since the flavor is in the skin, the winemakers have a bigger, more extracted juice to work with. For the Bedrock Wine Company Syrah that Joan was pouring, this required about 12% viognier (a floral white grape) to tone down the syrah, which was very dark and rich.
Loxton Wines also uses syrah from Griffin’s Lair. Their 2012 is delicious, with a dark fruit nose, a medium body, followed by a dark fruit flavor, and smoothly finishing with pleasant tannins and a bit of white pepper.
Punky Mahle was pouring the 2011 Pax Syrah (made by her brother, Pax Mahle) sourced from Griffin’s Lair Vineyard. I mentioned that I had a glass of the 2003 Pax Syrah in a restaurant in Santa Rosa about 10 years ago. Punky said that she had just opened one and it was still beautiful. However, the winery’s style had changed since then, moving away from the big, fruity, high alcohol syrah favored by the Australians, and back toward a classic style with less alcohol.
Morris Ranch has a vineyard on Adobe Road. The vineyard is on the lower Sonoma Mountain where the wind and fog allow a longer hang time to develop a deep character. The cherry, raspberry, earth and minerals made for an intense extracted wine.
Gap’s Crown was one of the most popular vineyards showcasing their fruit at the event. It is located off Roberts Road on the Sonoma Mountain. Bruliam Wines, Guarachi Family wines, Kosta Browne Winery, McPhail Family Wines, Sojurn Cellars, Three Sticks Wines, Trombetta Family Wines, and Walt Wines all source from Gap’s Crown.
Guarachi showed two 2013 pinot noirs and a chardonnay. The pinot noirs were from a site at 1400 feet in elevation above the fog. They were dark and earthy. The chardonnay was from a site at 1200 feet, below the fog line, and was fruit-forward, clean and light, with good minerality.
Trombetta Family Wines was pouring their 2012 and 2011 pinot noirs sourced from Gap’s Crown. They both had dark cherry and blackberry flavors. While 2011 was a late ripening year, the 2012 was a warmer year and was richer.
The Sun Chase Vineyard is another popular site and is inaccessible from the street for viewing. Atlas Wine Company manages the farming and receives first pick for the fruit. Alexandre is the winemaker, a young Frenchman who made wine in the Languedoc region in the south of France, then in Australia, New Zealand, and Chile. He then brought his experience to Napa, where he has produced a chardonnay in the Burgundy style, laser focused with bright acid. The pinot noir has its own style with earthy notes with dark mellow textures.
Fogline Vineyards poured the 2012 Pinot Noir from Sun Chase Vineyard. It also had the dark, coastal style from a long hang time. The story was told that Calpers, the retirement program for California State employees, had developed the Gap’s Crown and Sun Chase Vineyards as an investment, and created two premier vineyards. They later divested themselves of the project. Those who are able to access the fruit are blessed with wonderful material to work with.
The Sangiacomo Roberts Road Vineyard is at the foot of Sonoma Mountain and is comprised of alluvial soils washed down from the mountain, mixed with cobbles from the river that force the vines to reach deep down with their roots to seek nutrients and water. Again, a long time on the vine influences the grapes.
Bailiwick Wines produced a dark-berry&endashflavored pinot noir (2012) and a “Borderline” pinot noir from the Chileno Valley and Kendric vineyards, both on the border of Sonoma and Marin Counties (also 2012). The wine showcased the influence of a vineyard nestled behind hills in a valley protected from the wind. It was fruit-forward and earthy.
Further inland, just west of the town of Petaluma, is the Azari Vineyard, where Brooks Note creates a light, herbal, food worthy wine reminiscent of cherries. Garry Brooks says that the wind wiggles the berries, dries the skins, and this produces flavor. The fog helps to narrow the ripening time during the day, so the grapes take a long time to finish, which results in a richer flavor. Garry decides when to pick by rubbing a few grapes between his palms; he observes the grapes to see if the skins bleed and if the seeds are also ripe. If so, then it is time to pick.
Of the wines I tried, Clary Ranch Wines was the vineyard farthest west in the gap. Joan Griffin was pouring, and explaining that the cold site (being closer to the Pacific coast) produced a lighter wine. 2009 syrah. Very good, restrained, hard not to drink all of it.
So the Petaluma Gap is a unique area with singular wines being produced by earnest winemakers. They are worth seeking out on restaurant lists or in wine shops. The club at Wingtip has Patz & Hall Gap’s Crown 2012 Pinot Noir on the list&emdashif it isn’t gone already.
At the three-pronged intersection of Highway 116 and Lakeville Rd., I came across Ernie’s Tin Bar. An afternoon of riding and photographing had developed in me a thirst. Along with its “no cell phone use” policy, Ernie’s sign advertises a $1.75 beer. Expecting a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon, I was surprised to see a chalk board filled with small craft brewers. A Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ went down nicely.