At Petaluma Gap, California's newest American Viticultural Area, wind defines the wine
It's 4 p.m. on a warm summer afternoon, in a vineyard a few miles east of Petaluma. In a few surreal minutes, blustery winds sweep across the site, turning the vines' leaves nearly inside out as they defend against the force. Chilling fog soon follows and lingers overnight and until the next morning.
That's just how growers of chardonnay, pinot noir and syrah grapes like it in the Petaluma Gap, California's newest American Viticultural Area (AVA), granted federal recognition in December 2017. Already, some winemakers in Sonoma and Marin counties included in the AVA are labeling their wines as being from the Petaluma Gap.
“The winds define our wines,” said Erica Stancliff, winemaker for her family's Trombetta Family Wines, based in Forestville yet heavily reliant on chardonnay and pinot grapes from the Petaluma Gap. “Nowhere else in Sonoma does the wind determine wine style.”
Most U.S. wine regions achieve AVA status based on combinations of soil types, climate, exposure and historical authenticity. The Russian River Valley AVA, for example, was established based on cooling Pacific fog intrusion into vineyards and well-draining, sandy-loam soils. Vines in the Carneros AVA (which straddles Sonoma and Napa counties) are refreshed by breezes from San Pablo Bay. High-temperature days and iron-rich soils make Dry Creek Valley an ideal home for zinfandel.
In the Petaluma Gap, it's the daily afternoon winds, blowing from 8 to 20 mph, which squeeze through a gap in the coastal range and blast the AC in late spring, summer and early fall in vineyards, pulling Pacific Ocean fog along.
“It never gets real hot here, maybe only a couple days over 100 (degrees),” explained Max “Kip” Herzog, whose family owns Sleepy Hollow Dairy and Vineyards in the Petaluma Gap AVA. “It never snows, and seldom does it get under 32 (degrees).”
Translation: Herzog has few worries about grapes becoming too ripe and prune-y, or vine-damaging spring frosts. If his chardonnay and pinot noir vines get some rainfall during the spring-to-fall growing season, the breezes typically dry the buds, blooms and clusters before rot and other diseases are able to take hold.
The Herzogs have owned the Sleepy Hollow property since 1926 and raise Holstein dairy cattle there to this day. In 2001, they partnered with Rodney Strong Wine Estates in Healdsburg, in developing the 150-acre Sleepy Hollow Vineyard – now called Blue Wing Vineyard – for the cultivation of chardonnay and pinot noir.
Ryan Decker, director of estate vineyards for Rodney Strong Wine Estates, appreciates the bright acidity, fresh-fruit character and minerality Petaluma Gap wines typically show.
“We get smaller berries and thus more pronounced flavors in the glass,” he said, of Blue Wing fruit, noting that the lower the ratio of grape juice to skins, the more flavor extraction. “That and the minerality of the wines separate the Gap from the rest of Sonoma County.
“In the upper Russian River Valley, we pick pinot noir in late September/early October. At Blue Wing, we pick pinot mid- to late October,” as the clusters have longer maturation time on the vine before they're harvested.”
Long and slow wins the race in producing elegant, crisp and focused wines from Petaluma Gap grapes, though it's not a style for everyone.
Fans of buoyantly fruity, rich and potent Burgundian varietals (chardonnay and pinot noir) might prefer those from warmer areas, such as the Middle Reach of Russian River Valley and the southeastern section of the Sonoma Coast AVA, which includes parts of Sonoma Valley and Carneros.
Yet the primary goal of the AVA system is to give consumers some idea of the style of wine they're considering while purchasing. In a recent tasting of more than 40 wines submitted by members of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance - which shepherded the AVA petition through the federal process - there is a common thread of verve, fruit purity and palate refreshment that runs through the wines.
Smatterings of pinot gris, viognier and tempranillo are planted in the Gap, though pinot noir is the prince at 75 percent of the acreage, followed by chardonnay (13 percent) and syrah (12 percent). Crisp, nervy, elegant and mouthwatering, Petaluma Gap chardonnays and pinot noirs command respect
Syrah is an intriguing varietal here, showing savoriness, complexity, refreshing acidity and a long life in the cellar -particularly in the hands of David Ramey of Ramey Wine Cellars and Pax Mahle of Pax Wine Cellars (formerly Wind Gap Wines).
When visiting Petaluma Gap wineries, there aren't many options - yet. There are 80-plus vineyards and more than 50 producers purchasing grapes from the AVA, though just nine wineries are located within its boundaries. Appointments are needed to visit most of them.
One not to miss is Keller Estate, where Ana Keller continues the vision her father, Arturo Keller, for operating an estate that combines vineyards, winemaking, olive groves for oil, and his penchant for classic cars – many of which are on display at the winery. The Keller La Cruz Chardonnay ($48) and El Coro Pinot Noir ($55) are superb.
In downtown Petaluma, race car driver/team owner Kevin Buckler's Adobe Road Winery tasting room offers wines from throughout Sonoma and Napa counties, including a Sangiacomo Vineyards Roberts Road Pinot Noir from the Petaluma Gap ($56).
Several wineries located outside the AVA pour their Petaluma Gap wines in their tasting rooms, among them Cline Cellars (Sonoma), DeLoach Vineyards (Santa Rosa), Fogline Vineyards (Fulton), Rodney Strong Vineyards (Healdsburg), Sojourn Cellars (Sonoma) and Three Sticks (Sonoma).
Healdsburg resident Linda Murphy writers about wine for Sonoma and Decanter magazines. She is also the author, with Jancis Robinson, of the book “American Wine: The Ultimate Companion to the Wines and Wine producers of the USA.” Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.