Sonoma, aka Pinot Country
How Pinot Noir is coming into its own in a diverse appellation
A Wonky Appellation
It's that wind, a cooling wind that brings with it fog and freshness from the Pacific Ocean that has created so many interesting and exciting spots for Pinot Noir in Sonoma. The Sonoma Coast, at least the true Sonoma coast, is the most directly impacted appellation.
Without getting sidetracked into a discussion of the appellation, as far as appellations go, the Sonoma Coast is huge and covers such diverse topography, mesoclimate, and soil types as to be one of the least useful—at least when it comes to helping define a wine's style—in all of California. Running through the Sonoma Coast is the break in the coastal mountain range known as the Petaluma Gap, which delivers these winds to parts of the Russian River Valley, Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain, and finally Carneros appellations.The cooling effects of that wind makes the difference between Cabernet Country and Pinot Country in Sonoma.
If you've ever been to Sonoma in the summer you know it can get plenty hot, certainly too hot for “cool climate” Pinot Noir. Well, that is both right and wrong. It's hot enough to get Pinot as ripe as you want it, and it's also hot enough to develop sugars in the grapes more quickly than actual cool climate growing regions, so like it or not you're not going to get ripe fruit with 13% alcohol with any consistency. Of course recent vintages that have actually been cool have allowed winemakers to produce some impressive wines at (and even below) 13%. It's also cool enough at night and in the morning before the fog burns off to keep wines fresh and juicy, with mouthwatering acidity, classic red fruit flavors, and even a little stemmy/herbal savoriness that many people, myself included, enjoy in their Pinot. In some ways it's the best of both worlds, yet it seems people are just figuring this out.
I'm sure there are many out there who would happily expound on what you should taste from each of the appellations. This cherry being typical of one spot, that berry of another, minerality from here and violets from there. We all know the drill. Me, I'm not well versed enough, or convinced in fact that much of this is known when it comes to Pinot Noir in Sonoma. Recall the Sonoma Coast. No one could pretend to outline what you should taste in a wine from the Sonoma Coast simply because the appellation is too big and too diverse. Layer viticultural and winemaking practice over the myriad fruit sources and you don't get any signature whatsoever. To be blunt, for me Pinot Noir is as much if not more about the producer than the vineyard. Yes, the true Sonoma Coast should be leaner and more chiseled than say the Russian River Valley, where we've been trained to expect cola, and spices and every berry under the sun, but it's simply not that cut and dry—and frankly not that important.
Sonoma will never be Burgundy, or Oregon, or New Zealand. It is, however, already producing some amazing wines from Pinot Noir planted in the right spots, farmed well, and handled with care in the cellar. It's time to celebrate the wonderful diversity of Pinot Noir, and there's no better place to do that than Sonoma. There are so many wines that are distinct and expressive of place that remain well priced, that it really can be a buyer's market out there. You just have to know where to look. I certainly don't know all the secrets of Sonoma Pinot Noir, but I did find plenty to like during my recent visit there. Here are five fascinating producers.