Set atop a remote ridge northeast of Cloverdale on the way to the Geysers, the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak American Viticultural Area (AVA) rises between 1,500 and 3,000 feet, stretching between both Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

It was granted official status in late 2011 and is the culmination of many generations' worth of farming and ranching history, including viticulture. George Allen is credited with planting the first grapes here in 1855, the modern-day site of Tin Cross Vineyards.

In the 1800s, ranches got their grapes down to Cloverdale by mule or horse and water was plentiful enough to spawn a line of Pine Mountain Mineral Water, founded in 1899. It's also known as one of the many crime scenes of infamous bandit Black Bart, who was said to have robbed stagecoaches along Pine Mountain Road between Cloverdale and Lakeport during the 1860s.

There was also once a utopian agricultural community at the base of the mountain that also grew wine grapes. The historic Preston Ranch was run by Colonel and Madam Preston, the latter a mystic and faith healer. It was once reported that the Preston commune had 10,000 gallons of wine in storage and was harvesting 40 tons of grapes.

Through Aug.ust 3, the Healdsburg Museum offers an exhibition called "Visionaries, Believers, Seekers and Schemers: Utopian Communities of Sonoma County," detailing such places as Preston.

Settled in the 1870s, one of the Preston vineyards remains in production (though long since replanted) and is farmed now by Duckhorn Vineyards, though it is slightly too low in elevation to officially be part of the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA.

Higher up, the appellation is marked by wind and, most years, rain (averaging from 45 to 90 inches per year), as well as thin, shallow volcanic soils.

Growers outnumber wineries, from family-run Silverwood Ranch, who sells grapes to Francis Ford Coppola winery for its Archimedes wine, to plantings farmed by Kendall-Jackson winery and Tin Cross Vineyards.

Wines labeled with the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA include Miro Cellars, Respite, Capt?re, Edmeades, Murphy-Goode and Imagery Estate, which makes a malbec, tempranillo and unusual lagrein wine from there, while Split Rock Springs Ranch produces organic olive oil.

Still, for an area encompassing a vast 4,750 acres, only some 230 acres, a mere smidgen, is planted. The climate is marked by cool days and warm nights, resulting in plenty of all-day sunshine yet enough moderate temperature to let the grapes hang for a long time without getting burned.

Barry Hoffner farms the highest elevation site, Silverwood Ranch, selling grapes to Miro, Francis Ford Coppola and Imagery.

"We would have no basis for our own AVA without premium wine grapes in strong demand by wineries," said Hoffner, who also serves as the executive director of the Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak Winegrowers. "They are in demand due to the very complex fruit development, colors, flavors and tannin structure that are hard to find on the valley floor."

Hoffner's Upper Ridge Vineyard rises as high as 2,600 feet, and is completely covered with snow most winters. There, 30 acres of a mix of grapes thrive, from sauvignon blanc and sangiovese to teroldego and tannat, and is leased to the Benziger family for its Imagery wines.

"We have to farm for quality, due to our lower yields," added Hoffner. "No grape farmed on Pine Mountain is going to get away without farming for quality."

Slightly lower is his 13-acre Silverwood Vineyard, planted to cabernet sauvignon and merlot, whose grapes are used by both Miro and Coppola (for Director's Cut and Archimedes). Here Hoffner has grafted some of his merlot over to malbec, so happy has he been with how malbec has thrived within the red, rocky soils on his property.

"Higher elevation fruit brings something to our blends, tones of blueberry, black spice, black tobacco, black pepper, beautiful flavor components and intense tannin structure, hallmarks of a higher elevation vineyard," noted Lise Asimont, Francis Ford Coppola winery's director of grower relations.

Coppola winemaker Corey Beck "loves the density and weight of Pine Mountain fruit along with the black sour cherry flavors," he said.

Nearby Pine Mountain Vineyards, 600 acres in all but with just 36 of them planted, is farmed by Ulises Valdez and known for its dark, intensely colored and aromatic cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc, much of it planted as far back as 1998. Enkidu, Amp?e and Ispiri are among the brands that source grapes from here.

"The members of our AVA and all residents on Pine Mountain are united by the incredibly beautiful nature of the area," Hoffner said. "We talk about being on the mountain as a very special place."

<i>Virginie Boone is a freelance wine writer based in Sonoma County. She can be reached at virginieboone@yahoo.com and followed on Twitter @vboone.</i>