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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Sonoma County Appellations: Sonoma Valley

Sometimes folks get Sonoma Valley and Sonoma County confused. Over in Napa the valley and the county actually cover almost the same area of land. Sonoma Valley is one of many appellations in Sonoma County. It's in the southern part of the county and is bordered by the appellations of Carneros, Sonoma Coast, and Napa Valley plus contains the town of Sonoma.

There's lots of history as you'll hear words and names like General Vallejo, Jack London, Bear Flag Revolt, and California Republic tossed around.


The colorful past centers around the town of Sonoma, home to the last of the California missions and the only one built by the Mexicans rather than the Spanish as it came after the Mexican Revolution. The reason for this mission, built in the 1820s, was to halt the Russian expansion down the California coast. Wine grapes were first planted at the mission nearly 200 years ago.

In 1848 California was ceded to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War. Gold was discovered in 1849. California became a state in 1850.

The town of Sonoma is the birthplace of the California wine industry with Buena Vista and Gundlach-Bundschu wineries both having their beginnings in the 1850s.

The most famous resident was author Jack London who spent his last years at his ranch in Sonoma Valley (now a state park).

Mayacamas Mountains behind Chateau St. Jean Winery


Sonoma Valley is 17 miles long running north-south with the Sonoma Mountains to the west and the Mayacamas Mountain range to the east (separating Sonoma Valley from Napa Valley). The range to the west protects the valley from much of the cold air and rain off the Pacific. The valley floor soils tend to be fertile while the mountainside is rocky.

State Highway 12 runs the length of the valley.

The Appellation

Sonoma Valley became an official appellation in 1981. It sits in the SE corner of the county and  contains the sub-appellations of Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain, and the newest, Moon Mountain. The Sonoma Valley appellation contains not only the valley floor, but surrounding mountainsides.

Cool marine layer keeping the temps down in Bennett Valley


The valley floor maintains moderate summer temperatures with cooler air flowing in from the south off San Pablo Bay (that connects to San Francisco Bay) plus cool air from the north coming in off the Pacific and through Santa Rosa. So the valley is cooler at the north and south ends, but warmer in the middle. The valley floor is generally cooler than the mountainsides during the growing season.

Sonoma Valley old vines in winter


With the varied climates and soils you'll find everything grown here from cool climate Chardonnay, mostly in the far south, to Cabernet Sauvignon, in the warmer middle region and on the mountainsides. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah are the most popular grapes planted though the area is also famous for its old vine Zinfandel often coming from vineyards over 100 years old.

The most famous vineyards are probably Sangiacomo in the south and Monte Rosso nestled in the mountains between Sonoma and Napa Valleys. The Sangiacomo family purchased a fruit tree orchard in Sonoma in the 1920s converting it to grapes in the 1970s. They are mostly known for their Chardonnay. Monte Rosso was first planted to grapes in the 1880s. Many high-end wineries get Cabernet and Zinfandel from Monte Rosso.

Old Vine Zinfandel from an
historic Sonoma Valley vineyard

The most historic wineries in the valley are Bartholomew Park, Buena Vista, Gundlach-Bundschu, and Sebastiani, all near the town of Sonoma. Other well-known wineries in Sonoma Valley are Arrowood, Benziger, BR Cohn, Benziger, Chateau St. Jean, Deerfield, Gloria Ferrer, Hanzell, Imagery, Kenwood, Kunde, Landmark, Mayo, Ravenswood, and St. Francis. There are many smaller ones scattered throughout the valley from Acacia to Wellington. In the sub-appellation of Bennett Valley there is Matanzas Creek Winery. The town of Sonoma has about two dozen tasting rooms within walking distance of the town square.

Other Attractions

The town of Sonoma is full of "cuteness," history and restaurants. The area is home to Sonoma Raceway. For hiking there's the Jack London State Park and Sonoma Valley Regional Park for us amateurs plus Hood Mountain and Sugarloaf Ridge for those in shape. During the summer Jack London park is home to a live theater company.

Along the Sonoma town square