On Wine: Diverse AVAs tell Sonoma County’s wine story

Sonoma is known as vastly more diverse than Napa, with sub-regions that grow varied and interesting grapes.|

Sixty years ago, on May 3, 1956, a musical opened on Broadway called “Most Happy Fella,” and it changed the fortunes of the entire American wine industry in a most curious way.

The musical had a showstopper song with a line that said, “I’m the most happy fella in the whole Napa Valley.” And from that moment Napa Valley was associated in the minds of many as America’s wine country.

That was verified 20 years later when Napa cabernet sauvignons were the victor in a heralded tasting in Paris over the French.

The fact was, literally dozens of U.S. areas were developing wine country areas by 1976, when the celebrated Judgment of Paris was held. Most were overlooked. Napa became king.

By contrast, Sonoma County was merely that property on the other side of the hill in the mid-’70s, one that was vast and amorphous. Napa was compact and easy to understand.

In wine circles, however, Sonoma was known as vastly more diverse, and part of its attraction was that it was developing a series of American viticultural areas (AVAs) that would define it in far more interesting terms.

For one thing, Sonoma was developing a reputation for greatness in literally a dozen grape varieties; Napa was seen as a monoculture supporting increasingly concentrated cabernets that could command outrageously high prices.

Sonoma’s AVA growth was more rapid than anyone imagined, and by the late 1980s the county had expanded into numerous sub-regions, some of which needed to have sub-regional names to make them meaningful.

As a result, the designations Carneros, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Valley and many others began to tell the tale of Sonoma County’s diversity.

Each of these regions began to develop support groups to trumpet their excellence that was not only valid, but explained the diverse wines they made.

With the addition of a new the Fountaingrove AVA in recent months, east of Highway 101, Sonoma gained yet another sub-region.

The new AVA created a potentially fascinating growing region but one that will require a number of years before the consumer understands it.

Mary Lu Marek understands this as well as anyone because she heads up promotional efforts for the new AVA and has plans for it to gain more support from those within the AVA.

The new area’s volcanic soils differ greatly from other nearby regions and give the wines a character that differs from others to the north and west.

Without active participation by growers and wineries in the area, recognition of the area’s uniqueness will be slow in coming.

With only 600 planted acres and a median parcel size of 12 acres, Fountaingrove is small. It is a relatively cool area that will make some stellar red wines.

Carol Shelton has already made a Fountaingrove zinfandel that has won medals at wine competitions and which carries the AVA’s name. More Fountain Grove wines will be seen as they are released in the coming months. Most wine lovers know of Alexander Valley, Dry Creek and many of Sonoma County’s other well-established AVAs, but fewer know about Bennett Valley, Moon Mountain, Rockpile and Pine Mountain, some of the more recent additions to the list.

Fountaingrove is the newest on the AVA list in Sonoma County, so its real meaning to consumers will only become evident after a few years as the wines are released and display their unique qualities.

What it needs most is a Broadway musical to tout its greatness.

Wine of the week: 2012 Gloria Ferrer Pinot Noir, Carneros ($27) - This sparkling wine specialist has long made excellent table wines, too, and this wine with a new package is an excellent value. The floral red cherry and plum notes are more strongly seen in the lovely aftertaste. The wine has excellent balance and works beautifully with medium weight dishes.

Sonoma County resident Dan Berger publishes “Vintage Experiences,” a weekly wine newsletter. Write to him at winenut@gmail.com.

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