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Friday, May 1, 2015

Sonoma County Appellations: Sonoma Coast

This grape growing area (appellation), should be easy to figure out. It's on the Sonoma Coast, right? Every time a new appellation is proposed there is some controversy. In this case it seems to have some logic behind the complaints and confusion.

Note on the map where the Sonoma Coast appellation runs down the Pacific coast the entire length of Sonoma County. Then something funny happens as it goes inland north of Santa Rosa and down the Marin County line to San Pablo Bay (San Pablo empties into San Francisco Bay). A good part of Sonoma Coast is up to 20 miles inland.

Sonoma Coast Appellation

Sonoma Coast comprises a half-million acres--or 780 square miles. The entire county is 1,576 sq miles.

The appellation has been around for almost 30 years, but has only gained recognition in the last ten years or so as people began planting Chardonnay and Pinot Noir along the hills near at the coast.

As mentioned, Santa Rosa is the inland edge of the Sonoma Coast growing region and 20 miles inland. Yes, this inland area of the region does get some weather influences from the Pacific, but there's nothing coastal about Santa Rosa. There's the controversy. Grapes actually grown on a hilltop overlooking the Pacific don't have much in common with grapes grown at the eastern, inland edge of the appellation. This is where the consumer confusion comes in as wines from different parts of Sonoma Coast will be quite different.

There is even a West Sonoma Coast Vintners group that considers themselves the true Sonoma Coast growers. There's also a new sub-appellation within the northern section of Sonoma Coast called Ft. Ross-Seaview. Notice how they put "seaview" in the name as, "Yeah, we can see the ocean from out vineyards."

In a couple years expect to see the new Petaluma Gap growing area showing up on wine labels. This is also a sub-appellation of Sonoma Coast.

I'm going to talk about the "true" Sonoma Coast characteristics below, that is, wines that are constantly under the direct influence of the chilly waters of the Pacific.

Image from

The Grapes

This is a very cool growing area. In fact, for a long time many thought you couldn't ripen grapes along the coast. Most vineyards are at some elevation rather than at sea level to avoid the worst of the chilly, damp fog that typically hugs the coast much of the day during the summer.

You'll find grapes that ripen slowly with lots of acidity and lower sugars than in the warmer inland area. This is perfect for growing great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

The Wines

Zippy acidity and lower alcohols characterize these wines maybe with some nice minerality. If you like the big, lush, soft, fruit bomb kind of wines look elsewhere! If you happen to be someone who doesn't like California Chardonnay because it's too oaky/buttery/soft you should try one from the "true" Sonoma Coast. If you believe all California Pinot Noir is too fruity and high in alcohol try a Sonoma Coast Pinot.


In the Ft. Ross-Seaview sub-appellation mentioned above the wineries are: Flowers, Ft. Ross, Hirsch, Peay, and Wild Hog. Another in the coastal region is Joseph Phelps-Freestone. There are other tiny operations in this area, too. There are many other wineries that get fruit from Sonoma Coast.