Getting to Know Sonoma

A guided tour through the county's AVAs


Unlike its slightly more famous neighbor to the east (that would be Napa, for the geographically-challenged among us), Sonoma County is not one big valley, but rather a web of connected peaks and valleys. This gives the county a wide variety of mesoclimates that are ideal for growing many different varieties of grapes in many different styles.

From the rather cool regions that stretch out from the heart of Sonoma, to the warmest reaches at its core, Sonoma offers something for just about everybody and has gained acclaim around the globe for iconic wines such as Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel, and Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon.

By taking a closer look at the layout of Sonoma County and its appellations you can begin to understand why each is ideally suited for a specific style or group of grape varieties. So join me as we get ready to take a trip through the wilds of Sonoma!

Want more about Sonoma?

In this series of emails we’ll be taking a look at the regions that make Sonoma special, and the wines they each produce. We hope you enjoy our tips and observations, and invite you to visit Visa’s Sonoma Trip planner. This interactive guide to Sonoma wineries is fun and informative. Plan a trip today to experience the unique beauty of Sonoma.
Sonoma County has over a dozen AVAs that range over some 60,000 acres of vineyards, spread over almost 1600 square miles. With so much wine being produced it’s no surprise that Sonoma is so well known as a source of great bottles, but it’s also a region that requires a bit of knowledge to navigate -- so, let’s take a tour.

From the south there are several avenues into Sonoma County, the 101 being the main route that runs straight through the heart of the county. For our trip, we’ll begin on the 101, then veer off in the direction of Napa on Route 37 to cross over into Sonoma.

The first AVA one enters while driving east on Route 37 is the southernmost tip of the impossibly large Sonoma Coast AVA. The largest and most controversial AVA in the county, Sonoma Coast ranges from the extreme south of Sonoma County all the way up to the northern border with Mendocino. It’s a meaningless distinction and many producers have chosen to refer to the thin strip of land and hillsides that hugs the Pacific coast as “the true" Sonoma coast. While “the true” has a distinct climate governed by the cooling influences of the Pacific, and the altitude of the best vineyards (at or above the fog line) has proven to be ideal for cool climate varieties, the Sonoma Coast AVA is simply too big and diverse to have a distinguishing character.

Continuing northeast on Route 37, we clip the southern edge of Sonoma Valley, which is split in two sections by the western half of Los Carneros. Los Carneros straddles both Sonoma and Napa valleys, and while this was once the go-to place for cool climate wines in the region, cooled as it is by the fogs that roll in from the San Pablo Bay, we are seeing more and more Merlot planted here, and a good chunk of the production of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay planted here is now being used for sparkling wines, giving Los Carneros a more varied repertoire than in the past.

In Los Carneros, Route 121 veers off of Route 37 to the north, and enters the upper portion of Sonoma Valley.  This is the heart of much of the historic wine business of Sonoma, and continues to produce some great wines. The rolling hills that make up much of Sonoma Valley offer great sites for some classic varieties such as Cabernet and Zinfandel, but are fast becoming equally well-known for Rhone varietals and even some Central and Southern Italian grapes.

1 2 next

Mentioned in this article


  • Snooth User: ckscates
    482747 0

    My God, I love Russian River Valley Pinots!

    May 20, 2010 at 2:00 PM

  • Snooth User: John Andrews
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    36106 3,448

    LOL ... Greg, are you ousting me as the Mayor of Sonoma! ;-)

    Great stuff ... looking forward to seeing more!

    May 20, 2010 at 3:42 PM

  • Snooth User: outthere
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    324443 4,227

    Remember, you're being critiqued ;-)
    Good start.

    May 20, 2010 at 4:32 PM

  • Snooth User: civiletti
    192021 20

    Recently had Gundlach Bundschu cab, Mountain Terrace Vineyard 2003 - wonderful with earth and tobacco as well as the expected CA fruit.

    May 20, 2010 at 7:10 PM

  • Snooth User: lsturg
    442277 1

    Don't forget the fine reds of Seghesio in Healdsberg. Great Zinfandels, among other.

    May 20, 2010 at 7:36 PM

  • Snooth User: stevep300
    447362 2

    McMurray Ranch has a great value pinot noir. I just tried it recently and its FANTASTIC!!! Sonoma Coast is where they are and I too think Russian River makes great fruit forward Pinot Noirs as well.

    May 21, 2010 at 12:08 AM

  • Snooth User: ksimback
    226880 33

    Love the suggestion to visit Gundlach Bundschu - they have an amazing property, great tasting room and very friendly staff. Also great history with this winery dating back to the pre-prohibition era. I don't see many of their wines in the NYC area, so it is definitely a treat to taste the high-end Zins and Cabs when you can't go to your regular wine store and get them.

    May 21, 2010 at 12:10 AM

  • I like Cal wines as much as most but ... Seen and read a lot from California on your web page of late. Why not focus on other wine regions? Granted CAL has over 2000 wine producers but what about the rest?
    - Oregon 300 producers, Wash St 356 producers, Texas 104 producers, upper New York 234 producers, Pennsylvania 112 producers, Virginia 120 producers, Ontario Canada 102 producers, B.C. Canada 131 producers to give a small example of what is out there in North America alone over 100 producers per State/Provence! Are you getting funded by Cal wine growers to push sales??? Things that make you go Hmmmmm.

    May 21, 2010 at 1:41 AM

  • Snooth User: Winelines
    320123 2

    Really enjoyed the article. Really enjoyed my tour/tasting at Torres in Russian River last June. Pinot Noir to die for and some interesting new varietals on trial. Constructive comment for Gregory would be don't abbreviate 'jargon' until after you've used the phrase once. Here in UK the average 'punter' won't be familiar with AVAs

    May 21, 2010 at 2:24 AM

  • Snooth User: dmcker
    Hand of Snooth
    125836 4,996

    Lawrence, give it a rest. We all know the other states, but California produces 90% of the wine in the USA. Nearly that much of the best wines in the US. Add in Oregon and Washington and that last figure goes to above 99%, IMHO.

    If anything, there's not enough exposure of various areas of California like Santa Barbara, nor of other regions worldwide. I'm afraid I'd trade Australia, or Chile and Argentina for Texas and any other halfdozen states you care to add in a heartbeat, not to mention Germany which gets almost no coverage here...

    May 21, 2010 at 7:10 AM

  • Snooth User: Gregory Dal Piaz
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    89065 238,748

    Lawrence, there is a world of wine out there. In July I will be in Oregon, look for extended coverage of the state then but the truth is that, in addition to making the most wine, they are the most available wines in the country, and the world from the US.

    I try and write about wines that people will be able to find. I get much of my Pac NW wines shipped to me from Avalon, great store by the way, but most people just want to go into their local shop and pick something up.

    But I do hear you and there will be more coverage of other regions over the coming year, starting with Bordeaux next month!

    And Dm, Germany is on the agenda too.

    May 21, 2010 at 12:24 PM

  • Snooth User: InWineTruth
    Hand of Snooth
    220106 1,634

    Hundreds upon hundreds of wineries, with most of them small and intimate, dispersed across the counties 1 million acres, combine with over 1800 growers, offer diversity and world class quality from my backyard, Sonoma County.
    In it's northeastern region, the Taste of Alexander Valley, June 4-6, is a great, easy to access way to get to know just one of the 13 grape growing regions here.
    Check out or for links and more information. Enjoy!

    May 21, 2010 at 1:38 PM

  • Snooth User: BG422
    343567 19

    I have been to Sonoma three years running and I'm planning another trip this fall. There's just so much excellent wine there, and the ambience is, for the most part, excellent. Some really top notch wineries not mentioned above -- Sbragia (great wine -- modest prices -- fabulous value), Papapietro Perry, Robert Young, MacPhail. Papapietro and MacPhail may not be easy to find locally, and are not cheap...but they are musts for a visit to Sonoma. A real sleeper, if you're there to taste/buy -- Grey Stack in Bennett Valley -- modest prices -- outstanding Rhone varietals.

    May 21, 2010 at 11:27 PM

  • Snooth User: Chateau Saint Nabor
    Hand of Snooth Voice of Snooth
    237063 24

    I lived in Santa Rosa/Sonoma a few years ago while I was part of the cellar crew at Matanzas Creek Winery and I keep amazing memories of this area.
    Today after being a winemaker in California I am back at the family winery in the Rhone Valley France, and best of all I get to go back to California every now and again because I sell my own wines there !!!!!
    If you want to learn more about our estate
    See you soon,

    Jeremie Castor

    May 22, 2010 at 10:09 AM

  • I was just at St Francis Winery and purchased a couple of bottles of their Voigner. I cannot find this wine anywhere in AZ. Does anyone have a suggestion for another great Voigner??

    May 31, 2010 at 5:33 PM

  • Snooth User: admiral44
    250911 117

    Merryvale Pinot Noir Carneros 2008, fantastic!!! I like Carneros Pinots a little more than Russian River valley. Lawrence, Greg does a great job and its not like there are tons of writers for them and they have multiple articles coming out everyday, for most of us when we go buy wine we see certain areas and thats what we buy and thats what he writes about. When I go to my two buyers I never see wines from Virgina, Pennsylvania, and unfortunately NY, which geez I want to try some...

    May 31, 2010 at 5:34 PM

  • "Sonoma makes wine... Napa makes auto parts..."

    Tommy Smothers-

    Jun 15, 2010 at 4:15 PM

  • Snooth User: 2Bleu
    544040 5

    Having lived in the SF Bay Area for over 40 years, I spent many of my early days driving up Silverado Trail in Napa Valley visiting my favorite wineries ending at the Calistoga Spa for a soak in their mineral pools. I thought I had it all until...I discovered the beauty of Sonoma County and the multitude of exceptional, relatively unknown wineries. Always looking for the best value I can get (unbelievable quality at a modest price) I scoured Dry Creek, Alexander, Russian River, etc. I currently live in Las Vegas but have fond memories of growing up in one of the most beautiful place in the world with access to amazing wine. Cheers!

    Aug 17, 2010 at 5:41 PM

  • Hawley makes a great Viognier, and they recently opened a tasting room in Healdsburg. Some other great wineries are Sbragia and Iron Horse.

    Aug 17, 2010 at 7:42 PM

  • Snooth User: Half Full
    127405 1

    Since this first article is just about Sonoma Valley I definitely suggest stopping by Wellington Vineyards between Glen Ellen and Kenwood. Peter has been making a great variety of wines from white Rhones to Syrah, Zinfandels, and Cabernet. They have a friendly and knowledgable staff in the tasting room with some of the best views of the Sonoma Valley. This is a winery not to pass up. Disclaimer: I am not an employee, but a long time wine club member and have truly enjoyed their wines for many years now.

    Mar 17, 2011 at 6:52 PM

Add a Comment

Search Articles

Best Wine Deals

See More Deals

Snooth Media Network