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Welcome back to Wine 101. In this week’s episode, VinePair tastings director Keith Beavers tackles the complicated region that is Sonoma County. Building on last week’s conversation about Napa Valley, Beavers dives back into American Viticultural Areas (AVAs), sub-AVAs, and why it’s so difficult to really define Sonoma County.
While Sonoma vintners are now required to print “Sonoma County” on a bottle before the specific AVA, Sonoma County itself is not an AVA. Twice the size of Napa Valley, it’s not even a region per se, but simply a county. Moreover, given the region’s diverse geography and geology, it’s impossible to assign one signature variety to the area. Instead, new vineyards are constantly popping up, new AVAs are applied for, and all industry is governed by what Beavers calls “the spirit of Sonoma.”
In this episode, Beavers traces Sonoma’s history back to the pioneering vintner Agoston Haraszthy, who emigrated from Hungary and introduced some of the first vineyards to Sonoma County. Today, Sonoma is celebrated for many different grapes, the creation of the farm-to-table movement, and an effort toward total sustainability. Beavers explains all of this and more in his effort to demystify the complicated, multi-faceted Sonoma County.
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My name is Keith Beavers. And the soup thing: Do we do it for dinner? Or do we do it for lunch? Or is it a “both” thing?
What’s going on, wine lovers? Welcome to Episode 25 of VinePair’s Wine 101 Podcast. My name is Keith Beavers. I am the tastings director of VinePair, and how are you, and you, and you, and you? So, I think we may know that Sonoma is the neighbor of Napa, but what is Sonoma, really? You know, like, what is it? How do we understand this region? And it’s crazy, guys. It’s nuts.
One thing we have to do first, is we got to get something out of the way here. Sonoma is crazy. It’s insane in the best way possible, but we gotta start here.
OK. Are you ready? Here we go. Northern Sonoma, Sonoma Coast, Fort Ross-Seaview, Petaluma Gap, Russian River Valley, Green Valley, Chalk Hill, Los Carneros, Sonoma Valley, Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Moon Mountain, Dry Creek Valley, Rockpile, Alexander Valley, Fountain Grove, Knights Valley, Pine Mountain.
When we think about Napa Valley, what we understand is there’s a valley with a certain amount (nine) AVAS on the valley floor. We also understand that there are six AVAs in the surrounding mountains. Another thing we understand about Napa Valley is that at one time, they were going to try to emulate Bordeaux with their communes.
We know that it’s sort of a fine-wine region, and we also understand there’s Napa Valley as an AVA, and within that AVA there are 16 sub-AVAs. That’s how it works. Or you can call Rutherford an AVA, or you can call Rutherford a sub-AVA of Napa Valley. And there’s a rule there in Napa Valley where you have to put Napa Valley on your wine label, and then Rutherford. There’s a rhyme and reason to it. There’s an organization to it. I just rattled off 18 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Those 18 viticultural areas live in Sonoma County. But here’s the rub: There is no overarching AVA that organizes the AVAs of Sonoma. What Sonoma is, is a patchwork of 18 different American Viticultural Areas, some of them within others. So they could be called regions of certain AVAs, but it’s not a cohesive, organized unit. I mean, there is some organization, which I’ll explain. But what Sonoma really is, and this is what’s really unique and interesting about Sonoma, Sonoma is a county filled with American Viticultural Areas. It’s not like in Europe or even other parts like Napa, or other parts of the country where you have like, “OK, this is the AVA, and this is the sub-AVA, and this is how it’s organized.” That’s not what it’s about. What Sonoma is about is the land and how crazy the land is, and how jarring it can be from the coast to the Sonoma mountains, to the Mayacamas Mountains, which border Napa. It’s basically like, since the early ’80s, winemakers and wine vine growers and wine people have been finding certain areas special for certain reasons, applying for AVAs, and being awarded AVAs.
And it’s still happening. The most recent AVA awarded to Sonoma was in 2017. It’s called the Petaluma Gap. So it’s ongoing. This is just because there’s so much potential, even though there’s awesome wine there already, there’s so much more potential in Sonoma that it could get, I don’t know, 15 more AVAs? I mean, that’s an exaggeration. Or is it? I don’t even know. So I really can’t in one episode of Wine 101 talk about all the AVAs in Sonoma County, because we’d talk about the AVAs and the individual-ness of them, but we wouldn’t understand Sonoma in general. So that would take about 45 minutes or a couple episodes.
So let me just give you a sense of Sonoma first, and then we’ll go from there. Sonoma County is 1,500 square miles. Napa Valley is 789 square miles. Kind of gives you a sense of that. If you look at the two of them side by side on the map, because they are side by side, Sonoma County is massive as a wine-growing region compared to Napa. The majority of the western border of Sonoma County is 50 miles of coastline of the Pacific Ocean. And this Pacific ocean influence is a huge factor in the wine-growing in Sonoma County. The southern border of Sonoma County is basically Marin County, but also the northwestern shore of the San Pablo Bay because it neighbors Napa to the west. And of course the San Pablo Bay does have an influence on some parts of Sonoma as well in the south. And the northern border is basically Mendocino County — by the way, Mendocino County makes great wine as well, it’s just not part of Sonoma. And the extreme western border of Sonoma County is the Mayacamas Mountains, which basically has a couple Napa AVAs in it and two Sonoma AVAs.
But the thing about Sonoma is, it’s massive. But even within its massive land, it has an extremely diverse geography and geology. It has mountains, it has valleys, it has what’s called “benchland,” like escarpments. It has amazing slopes in the hills of the mountains. The elevation goes from actual sea level on the coast, and as you go inland, it can get up to 2,600 feet above sea level, and then everywhere in between. It’s crazy. And because of all the tectonic activity in the past, the soil compositions throughout Sonoma are mind-boggling. And this is one of the reasons why people are always exploring different areas of Sonoma and finding like, “Hey, let’s turn this into an AVA.”
OK. This can get a little science-y, but just bear with me for a second. You have soil, right? And then you have other layers of soil that can form on top of that soil. That original layer of soil is called the parent material. And then the other layers of soil are called the topography, and everything that happens in that soil, from the influence of climate to the organisms, the organisms that live in that soil, to the time that soil has been around, affects the formation of that soil. It’s called a formation type. And Sonoma has 11 of them. And among these soil formations — what winemakers and vine growers really love — are these things called soil series. It’s soils that are similar to each other within formations, that grow together, that help the winemaker understand how the vine is going to grow in that soil.
I know it’s really insane, but what’s crazy is, of the 11 formation types in Sonoma, there are 31 different kinds of soil series. And within those soil series, there are innumerable amounts of differences within that. I mean, it’s kind of mind-boggling. And among all of that, among those 1,500 square miles and coastline and all of these different soil compositions and elevations, over 425 wineries grow 60 different kinds of varieties of grape.
But all of that is only 6 percent of the county’s “land under vine.” I mean, I say 60 varieties, but it’s really just Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. These are just the list that you get in California a lot, especially in Northern California. This is just what they grow.
But the thing is, in every AVA in America, you can do whatever you want. If someone wanted to grow Grüner Veltliner in Sonoma, they could do it if they wanted to. But these are the grapes that work best in the area, according to the people that grow grapes and make wine there. And among the 18 AVAs in this region, this county, AVAs are designated for their soil types, their elevation, but also, “What does well there?” And yes, there are just AVAs that are known for Pinot Noir or Chardonnay. Alexander Valley is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, and Zinfandel. Bennett Valley is known for Merlot, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Dry Creek Valley is known for Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvigon Blanc. And Knights Valley is known for Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. But that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing they can grow and make there. They can do whatever they want. And that’s where the 60 varieties come from.
Because also something to know about Sonoma: This place is one of the first areas where vines were really grown for wine in Northern California. This area has such a rich history of not only vine-growing and winemaking, but even before that is agriculture. My gosh, I mean, Petaluma is the chicken capital of the world. There is sustainable farming going on all over this Sonoma area. Actually in the 1960s, during the formation of the farm-to-table movement, Alice Waters of Chez Panisse in Berkeley, she basically sourced everything from the Sonoma Valley. So it’s kind of like the whole farm-to-table thing began in the Sonoma County area. It’s crazy.
Then when you’re driving around Sonoma — I have family in Petaluma, so I’ve been to Sonoma a few times and I got to say, when you’re driving around, you don’t really know where you are half the time because there’s no cellphone signal half the time when you’re driving around Sonoma. It’s not rugged, but it’s that deep into elevations where you’re just going through valleys and hills and valleys and “Oh, there’s a vineyard.” It’s crazy. “Well, here’s a farm.” It’s really beautiful and awesome and spectacular.
And the wine that comes out of here is just all over the place. I mean, there are Pinot Noirs that are big and huge and fleshy in the Russian River Valley. There are lighter Pinot Noirs made in the south in Los Carneros, which is a region that’s shared with Napa Valley. Cabernet Sauvignon, grown in Rockpile all the way north toward Mendocino County, is big and structured and beautiful, very different from the Cabernet Sauvignon grown in Sonoma Valley all the way to the south, which is warmer and just softer and supple.
It’s just all over the place. And when you drive into Sonoma, the downtown area, it’s like this little Sonoma square, you’re just scratching the surface. You’re in the southeastern part of Sonoma. And if you just sit in the middle of the square of Sonoma and you look north to northwest, that is the vast land I’m talking about. And it’s just crazy. Agriculture has been a huge part of Sonoma for a very long time. Back in the day in 1812, when the Russians were here in this area and they settled at something called Fort Ross, which is near where Fort Ross AVA is, they’re credited with sort of starting the whole agricultural thing around here.
They’re known for planting these apple trees that are very famous in this area — the Gravenstein apple trees. But as Sonoma became more and more settled, dairy, poultry, vegetables, oats, rye, apples, cattle, you name it. This place has all this stuff. And just to this day, wine is like a $500 million business. It’s insane. But just behind that is milk, then there’s poultry and cattle. I mean the milk industry is like $146 million a year, and it’s sustainable. And what’s really wild about Sonoma is, whether it’s wine or milk or poultry, they’re trying to go 100 percent sustainable. And that is where with the wine, we have a little bit of organization going on here. Because the wine AVAs are so scattered throughout.
And it’s really just about the land and about the terroir, if you will. But there is this idea where we have “Sonoma County.” So now, as of 2011, you have to put Sonoma County on your wine label and then you put the appellation. But the thing is, Sonoma County is not an AVA. Sonoma County is just the county. I mean, there are sub-AVAs in Sonoma, but they are sub-AVAs of some of the other AVAs. So for example, the Northern Sonoma AVA has six AVAs within it: Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Chalk Hill, Russia River Valley, and Green Valley. Within the Russian River Valley, we have the sub-AVA of the Green Valley, which is actually called the Green Valley of the Russian River Valley. And Fort Ross-Seaview is a sub-AVA of Sonoma Coast. And it goes on, and on, and on.
And I know you’re like, OK, this is really cool and all, but like, how do we understand Sonoma? And that’s the thing, guys. I think we have to explore Sonoma piece by piece. When you go to the wine shop, if you’re going online, or if I have another opportunity to go digging into each of these AVAs, just explore the AVAs. Get a sense of them. Some of the areas are warmer. Some of them are cooler. Some have higher elevations. There’s higher acidity, like I said, it’s kind of all over the place. But the beauty of it is that it’s all great wine. These winemakers are geeking out on all these areas, and we get to enjoy their geekiness. It’s just a really unique place in America where wine is made.
And there are a lot of pioneering winemakers in Sonoma. Sonoma is really what began the rebirth of the wine culture and the winemaking culture in California. And there’s a lot of people that contributed to this, but there’s this one guy, this one dude from Hungary that did a lot of work in wine in America.
And he made his way from Hungary to Wisconsin, from Wisconsin all the way to California, Southern California, and then to San Francisco. And then eventually up into what is now Sonoma County. This man’s name was Agoston Haraszthy. He was not just a winemaker. He was a businessman, a pioneer, you name it. This guy was a horticulturist. He was all over the place, but he was a big business guy. And when he left Hungary and came to the United States, he ended up first in Wisconsin. And he loves wine. He actually built a town in Wisconsin, he started a ferry business, but wine was a big deal for Agoston Haraszthy.
This is around the early 1800s. This guy’s story is incredible, and it’s really long, but it’s so cool. Some highlights here. One of the things he did is he brought a lot of wine knowledge from Europe to the United States. And the idea when you go to Sonoma or any wine region really now in the United States, and there is somebody when you walk into a hill and that’s where people are aging their wine, that was Agoston Haraszthy’s idea. He just brought that idea. He started it in Wisconsin, actually; there are wineries in Wisconsin where he was boring holes into hills. And by the time he made it to California, he continued that sort of thing. Actually, he landscaped Sonoma so much, it actually got a little bit out of hand. But he was the first to really open a commercial winery in Sonoma, calling it Buena Vista.
It was an old winery that he bought and converted it. And he’s also the guy who hired Charles Krug as a consultant to help make wine and got his career started. He set up his own viticultural society. He also became the president of California’s Agricultural Society. And at some point, he went back to Europe and came back with well over a hundred vines and brought them to Sonoma. And the spirit of Agoston Haraszthy is exploration, experimentation, and trying new things. It’s all Agoston ever did. The poor guy at some point went bankrupt, went down to South America, disappeared, and was never seen again. It’s an awesome story. But what he brought to this place was this sort of rebel spirit, that sort of exploratory spirit.
I think that’s what Sonoma has to this day. It’s constantly exploring its very diverse geology, topography, and elevations and trying to find new places to plant vines. ‘Cause it’s almost like Sonoma is the ultimate vine-growing American experiment. There’s other places in California and the United States that do this. Absolutely. But Sonoma, it’s mostly wine these days, but there’s also still that other agriculture and livestock and farming going on. It’s just all of it at once. And in addition to that, in the areas that agriculture doesn’t work, vines do, and that’s the spirit of Sonoma.
And I know this episode is a little bit different, right? Usually I explain everything to you so you understand it, but that’s what’s so cool about Sonoma is you kind of have to just play around. ‘Cause that’s what they’re doing. They’re playing around. I mean, they’re smart, but they’re playing around. They’re making really cool stuff. This is great Pinot Noir. Great Chardonnay. Great Sauvignon Blanc. Great Merlot. Great Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s great Syrah going on there. There’s amazing Zinfandel happening there.
And with each of those varieties, there’s different styles within Sonoma County alone. And yes, I did say those other 60 varieties are happening. Those are being experimented with, so at some point down the road, we might have a Grüner Veltliner that does really well in a certain new rocky region, somewhere in the northern part of Sonoma County, who knows? And the other great thing about Sonoma is that it’s easier for us to understand “this variety does well here, so we fall in love with it.” You know, Riesling for New York, Cabernet Sauvignon for Napa, Pinot Noir in Willamette, Ore. But you know, there are certain AVAs that are very popular from Sonoma — for example, the Russian River Valley is really known for its Pinot Noir — but there’s other stuff going on in Sonoma that’s not just one grape.
So Sonoma is not known for one grape. It’s known for many different regions that make a short list of grapes, but experiment with all kinds of stuff. I think it’s really great. So even though this episode was a little meandering at times, I hope you get a sense of Sonoma and really get a chance to fall in love with it, whether you’re buying it online, or if you go into a wine shop.
If you’re digging what I’m doing, picking up what I’m putting down, go ahead and give me a rating on iTunes or tell your friends to subscribe. You can subscribe. If you like to type, go ahead and send a review or something like that, but let’s get this wine podcast out so that everybody can learn about wine.
Check me out on Instagram. It’s @vinepairkeith. I do all my stuff in stories. And also, you got to follow VinePair on Instagram, which is @vinepair. And don’t forget to listen to the VinePair Podcast, which is hosted by Adam and Zach. It’s a great deep dive into drinks culture every week.
Now, for some credits. How about that? Wine 101 is recorded and produced by yours truly, Keith Beavers, at the VinePair headquarters in New York City. I want to give a big shout-out to co-founders Adam Teeter and Josh Malin. I also want to thank Danielle Grinberg for making the most legit Wine 101 logo.
And I got to thank Darby Cicci for making this amazing song: Listen to this epic stuff. And finally, I want to thank the VinePair staff for helping me learn more every day. Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Ed. note: This episode has been edited for length and clarity.
Published: November 12, 2020