Sonoma County expands over more than 70,000 acres from the Pacific Ocean to the Mayacamas Mountains in California. Described as ‘a whole country inside one county’ due to the astonishing variety of its grape-growing regions, Sonoma boasts as many soil types as to rival France.
It was 1812 when Russian colonists planted the first earliest-known grapes in the county at Fort Ross, followed by Spanish Father Jose Altamira in 1823 at Sonoma Mission (today’s city of Sonoma in southern Sonoma County).
In 1834 cuttings from Sonoma Mission vineyards were carried and planted throughout northern California during a period of political instability under Mexican rule and the subsequent secularization of all missions.
It was during that period that Sonoma started to shape up as we know it today. In 1856 enterprising pioneer Cyrus Alexander planted grapes in northern Sonoma County while in 1857 Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy established Buena Vista winery in Sonoma Valley – currently the oldest functioning winery in California.
Legend has it, Count Haraszthy was commissioned by the California legislature in 1861 to study European viticulture overseas. Upon his return, he brought back over 100,000 cuttings of top-notch grape varietals from France, Italy, Spain and Germany, resulting in a startling increase of the wine grape acreage and fervid experimentation on new techniques.
In the late 1930s, having survived the phylloxera outbreak of 1873 and the Prohibition Act passed by the US government (which banned the sale of alcoholic beverage until 1933), Sonoma County’s wine industry finally started to pick up, whereas it literally took off during the 1960s. Both the 70s and the 80s proved to be peculiar decades in terms of technological innovation and transformation, with AVAs being established throughout the County.
By the end of the 90s, 180 wineries were set up over almost 50,000 acres of vineyards, quickly escalating to a staggering 685 in 2012, adding to its current reputation as one of most prestigious wine regions worldwide.
Divided into Sonoma Valley, northern Sonoma and Sonoma Coast, the whole Sonoma region presents varied weather due to its disparate geographical range.
While it is indeed impossible to pin down the raw essence of the entire area, out of all climatic factors, it is temperature that brings forth a distinction in the miscellaneous topography of AVAs – American Viticulture Areas – and their wines.
Peculiar to this region, the morning fog rolling in from San Pablo Bay provides a cooling effect that, combined with the ocean breezes, is ideal to produce flavoured and poignant wines.
Heading further north, heavy rainfalls characterises the area along the Sonoma Coast, while an interesting example is represented by Dry Creek Valley and its infamous climate with notable temperature change from day to night and both coastal and inland influences.
Wine grape growing accounts for around 73% of the region’s agricultural production, spanning over almost 250 kilometres square of vineyards, with over 1,100 wine makers.
The region produces twice as much wine as its rival sibling Napa to the east and is home to more than 60 varieties of grapes. With 18 wine regions known as AVAs or appellations and 400 wineries, Sonoma is responsible for the production of noteworthy Pinot Noir and sparkling wine in the United States besides an estimated $11 billion turnover each year, about 40% of the county’s contribution to the Gross Domestic Product.
Sonoma County harvested over 271,000 tons of grapes in 2013 from the region’s 26,000 hectares, valued at around $605 million. This represents the largest recorded wine grape harvest in the history of Sonoma.
The region is home to more than 60 varieties of grapes. Not surprisingly, Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for 16% of production while Chardonnay and Pinot Noir for 26% and 25% respectively.
Amongst notable red grapes, we can still find Merlot – even if less famous than it used to be in the late 80s and early 90s – along with California’s iconic Zinfandel.
Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah and Viognier also feature in the region’s wine portfolio.
Known as a key grape variety worldwide, Cabernet Sauvignon shows smaller berries and thicker skins adding to its tannic structure and concentration of flavour as well as aromatic complexity featuring top notes of blackcurrant, tomato leaf, dark spices and cedarwood.
Rarely blended with other wines, Pinot Noir is sought after for its wide-ranging aromatic profile encompassing strawberry, wet hay, mushroom and forest floor. Pinot Noir is also notably used by producers in Sonoma sparkling wine.
With as many styles as the number of winemakers producing it, Chardonnay is amply recognised for its oaky and buttery soul highlighted by aromas ranging from almond to coconut.
Founded in 1857 by Agoston Haraszthy and currently owned by French vigneron Jean-Charles Boisset, Buena Vista winery is the oldest in California, producing 100,000 cases of wine the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel and Chardonnay wines besides one of a kind historical varietals.
Located in Sebastopol, Radio-Coteau is one of the few winery estates in the United States to hold Demeter organic certification – the largest organisation for biodynamic agriculture.
Situated around 800 metres above sea level, Ridge Vineyards shot to fame in 1976 after the Judgment of Paris, where it excelled in a competition against various top Californian and French wineries. Since then, Ridge Vineyards has become one of, if not the most, prominent American wineries, earning accolades the world over for its stunning wines.
Alongside notable names such as D’Agostini Winery and Korbell Champagne Cellars, Cline Cellars in Carneros AVA is worth mentioning for its ‘ancient vines wines’, boasting vines ranging in age from 80 to 120 years old. Formerly established by Fred Cline and his wife Nancy, the estate produces wonderful varietals of Zinfandel, Mourvèdre, Carignane, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Viognier, Marsanne and Rousanne.