Many people have seen the movie Sideways, which loosely features one man’s quest to find and drink the most perfect Pinot Noir in Santa Barbara County. A finicky grape that is difficult to grow due to very thin skin and susceptibility to fungal infections, Pinot Noir can produce an elegant wine appreciated by the most discerning oenophiles. It’s a wine worth pursuing. Continue north from Santa Barbara to Sonoma County and you’ll find some of the Golden State’s finest Pinot Noir, with twenty percent of all grapes grown in Sonoma County planted to Pinot Noir – that’s 13,000 acres of Pinot Noir compared to roughly half that in Santa Barbara County. Clearly, Pinot Noir is a grape that is mindfully cultivated and desirable in Sonoma County. What, you may ask, makes Sonoma Pinot Noir so special?
Sonoma County is a diverse and vast area – 1,604 square miles in total. 55 miles of coastline. Hills covered in oak trees. Mountains ranges and valleys. The soil is rich and loamy and well drained. The highest mountain peak is 4,483 feet, the lowest is 2,870 feet. It is the incredible variation in the topography and the climate that creates the optimal environment that Pinot Noir requires.
Located in sunny northern California, Sonoma gets approximately 250 days of sunshine and 30 inches of rainfall per year, with average high temperatures in the 70s and lows in the 50s. Fog from the Pacific Ocean rolls in late in the afternoon and hangs until late morning, providing an important cooling element. The temperate climate, along with other, more subtle influences, is the single most important factor in being able to ripen fruit to its optimum for producing quality wine.
In sum, the diverse terroir and climate are the key elements which define Sonoma County.
Sonoma County is composed of seventeen American Viticulture Areas, or AVAs, and each AVA has its own unique geography and climate. And to make it even more interesting, within individual vineyards you will find microclimates. What are microclimates? They are a climate that defines a smaller area from the larger surrounding area. Anyone who lives near an ocean or other large body of water is well acquainted with microclimates – fog, for example, affects large parts of Sonoma County, but not all of Sonoma County.
Of the seventeen AVAS in Sonoma County, there are three especially known for producing outstanding Pinot Noir: Carneros, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Coast.
The Russian River Valley
At least five microclimates have been identified within the Russian River Valley, each lending itself to a distinct flavor profile. Elevations vary from the valley floor up to 1200 feet in the Sebastopol hills. Cooler areas produce brighter wines with higher acidity, while the warmer areas in the northern part of the Valley produce more full-bodied wines with flavors of blueberries and blackberries – and lower acidity.
The Russian River Valley Wine Growers
are a terrific resource for educating yourself on the different neighborhoods and the flavor profiles of the wines produced. Understanding the characteristics of each neighborhood will help you to identify where you can find a Pinot Noir that you will love.
Check out our itinerary for the best Russian River Pinots in 2 Days
Sonoma Coast AVA
The Sonoma Coast appellation is the largest licensed American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the United States containing over 500,000 acres across 750 square miles.
The Sonoma Coast AVA is distinctive for the influence of the Petaluma Gap, which creates a wind tunnel effect that cools the vineyards. This means the yields are smaller and the grapes ripen later, developing rich fruit characteristics while maintaining ideal levels of acidity.
Interested in learning more? Dig into Peay Vineyards take on why this AVA is so special.
The Carneros region is located at the southernmost parts of both Sonoma and Napa valleys, and is profoundly influenced by the maritime breezes and fog that impacts the area from its southern border with the San Pablo Bay.
Carneros became an official AVA in 1983, its unique characteristics are based on climate and on its geographic features – the Pacific Ocean, the Coast Mountain Ranges, and the San Francisco Bay – that affect the region’s terroir and put a distinctive stamp on its grapes. Discover more at The Carneros Wine Alliance
Let’s not leave out a key element – people. Winemakers, winery owners, and all the people involved in the process of making wine in Sonoma County are devoted to sustainable winemaking, ensuring that their wines will be enjoyed for generations to come.
Penny Sadler is on a mission to visit every AVA in California with an occasional detour to the old world in Europe. She loves roaming the vineyards with her camera in and and believes that great wine pairs best with engaging conversation. Follow her on her blog Adventures of a Carry-on.