Napa is the 800-pound gorilla of California wine regions, renowned for its beauty and superb Cabernet Sauvignon wines, many of which can rival those of Bordeaux.
But its fame overshadows Sonoma, an equally lovely appellation that lies between Napa and the Pacific Ocean and also produces some mighty fine wine.
In fact, it is possible that Sonoma wines are superior: the missionaries who planted vines along the California coast in the early 1800s reportedly believed that the wines their Sonoma brethren made were the best in the state.
And though Spanish missionaries do get a lot of credit for kick-starting viticulture in California, they didn’t plant any vineyards in Sonoma until 1823, thirteen years after Russian colonists planted the first vines in the area.
The year 1855 saw the establishment of the area’s first wine estate, Buena Vista, by
Count Agoston Haraszthy, a swashbuckling Hungarian adventurer considered the father
of California’s wine industry.
By the 1920s, Sonoma boasted 256 wineries and more than 22,000 acres of vines in production. Ironically, total acreage grew during Prohibition while the number of wineries plummeted – presumably because of the boom in home winemaking, somehow still allowed. Only 50 of Sonoma’s wineries survived the thirteen dry years.
Winemaking in the area began to revive in the 1930s, though much of production was focused on bulk wine. The next big upswing for Sonoma wine began in the 1960s, when American drinking culture began shifting from beer and cocktails back to wine, setting the stage for Sonoma – and California’s – vinous revival over the next decades.
To wit: in 1975, Sonoma boasted 24,000 acres of vines; by the turn of the century the region was home to 750 growers and 180 wineries.
There is a reason Sonoma is heaven for wine growers: it offers a diverse landscape, stretching from coast to mountains. Vines enjoy a moderate growing environment of warm – but rarely hot – days and cool nights.
The Russian River meanders through Sonoma, offering a strong maritime influence. Fog from the Pacific Ocean tiptoes into the region’s interior valleys, further providing a cool environment that helps the grapes develop their acidity.
As a result of the mild climate and varying growing sites, Sonoma is home to some 50 grape varietals, though the most widely planted are the heavy hitters familiar to all: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir, Syrah and Zinfandel.
Each grows in a specific area, based on the terroir best suited to the varietal. For example, the cool Russian River Valley is home to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, grapes that thrive away from heat, while sturdy Zinfandel enjoys the warm Dry Creek Valley and Rockpile appellations.
For some fun, dip into one or more of the region’s 13 official appellations and explore what its wines have to offer. You won’t be disappointed.