In 2004, the movie Sideways catapulted pinot noir into popularity and forever made Santa Barbara synonymous with the red wine varietal. But pinot noir was a highly prized and collected wine, long before Paul Giamatti and California vintners discovered it. Producers of pinot noir around the world are ultimately trying to emulate the red wines of Burgundy, France, the home of pinot noir. In California, exceptional expressions of this grape are also found in Sonoma County, just north of Santa Barbara.
What makes pinot noir so desirable? A finicky wine grape that only thrives in specific cooler climates, it is susceptible to fungal infections, pests, and can be very hard to grow. In Sonoma County, pinot noir varies from light-bodied with bright red fruit flavors, to more full-bodied and fruit-forward expressions of cherry, blueberry, and a certain earthiness specific to the variety.
Sonoma County covers approximately 1500 square miles of mountains, rivers, valleys, and benchland, and 55 miles of coastline. The vast and varied topography ensures a variety of terroir and styles of wine production. While there are over 60 grape varieties that grow well in Sonoma, only a few areas are cool enough for Burgundian grapes such as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
There are eighteen American Viticulture Areas or AVAs, and each AVA has its own unique geography and climate. To make things even more interesting, within individual vineyards you will sometimes find microclimates. What are microclimates? A microclimate defines a smaller area from the larger surrounding area. Anyone who lives near an ocean or other large body of water is well acquainted with microclimates – fog, for example, creates microclimates and affects large parts of Sonoma County, but not all of Sonoma County. As you’ll see, fog is an important element of climate when considering growing Pinot Noir grapes.
There are four AVAs known specifically for producing outstanding examples of pinot noir in Sonoma County: Los Carneros, Russian River Valley, and the Sonoma Coast AVA.
Read on to discover more about these AVAs and who is producing some of Sonoma County’s most desirable pinot noir.
Fort Ross Seaview AVA is one of the smaller regions in Sonoma County. What makes it unique is the vineyards are located on mountain ridges at elevations of around 1200 feet, with views of the Pacific Ocean. The elevation and marine soils provide varietal typicity distinct to the AVA. Due to the steep and rugged topography, there are not many growers. Fort Ross Seaview became an official American Viticulture Area, in 2012.
Fort Ross Vineyards
When owners, Lester and Linda Schwartz purchased the land that was to become Fort Ross Seaview Vineyards, it was virgin forest and grassland overlooking the Pacific Ocean. They were told the land was too close to the ocean and too foggy to grow wine grapes successfully. After years of research, they planted the first vineyards in 1994. Most are small plots, a half-acre to an acre, some are the highest in the AVA, at 1700 ft. Fort Ross Seaview is also the closest AVA to the Pacific Ocean. Fort Ross Seaview Vineyards produce pinot noir, chardonnay, and pinotage taking a minimalist approach, allowing the beauty of the climate to speak via the wine, and prove all detractors wrong.
The Russian River Valley
The Russian River Valley is also referred to as an American Grand Cru. The Grand Cru label is taken from the Burgundy region of France where pinot noir originated. The geography varies from wide open plains to forested hills covered in ancient redwoods; the Russian River winds through on its way to the Pacific Ocean. The river and the ocean produce many microclimates, sometimes within a single vineyard.
Elevations vary from the valley floor up to 1200 feet in the Sebastopol Hills. Cooler areas produce brighter wines with higher acidity, while the warmer areas in the northern part of the Valley produce more full-bodied wines with richer fruit flavors; still well-balanced with bright acidity and soft tannins.
The Russian River Valley Wine Growers is a good resource for educating yourself on the different neighborhoods and the flavor profiles of the wines produced there. Understanding each neighborhood’s characteristics will help you to identify where you can find a pinot noir that you will love.
Russian River Valley Producers
Gary Farrell Winery is known for crafting small-lot elegant pinot noirs of pure varietal expression. Wine Enthusiast Magazine nominated winemaker Teresa Heredia, 2020 winemaker of the year. The winery has relationships with growers throughout the Russian River Valley and in many other Sonoma County AVAs. It can be quite educational and fun to try pinot noir from the same vintage but different vineyards, discovering the nuances of each.
Williams Selyem has obtained a cult-like following. The story goes that the founders started making wine for themselves simply because they couldn’t afford the Burgundy they wanted to drink. Their 2007 pinot noir was the first in North America to receive a perfect score from a major wine publication.
Sonoma Coast AVA
The Sonoma Coast AVA is the largest extending from the border of Mendocino County to the southernmost border of Sonoma County. Proximity to the Pacific Ocean means this is a cooler region and some of California’s best expressions of pinot noir and chardonnay grapes are grown here. The average rainfall is higher than inland, but most of the vineyards are above the fog-line.
Within the Sonoma Coast AVA is the Petaluma Gap, an area cooled by wind and fog from the Pacific; this means the yields are smaller and the grapes ripen later, developing rich fruit characteristics while maintaining ideal levels of acidity. The Petaluma Gap was granted AVA status in 2017.
The Sonoma Coast appellation is the largest licensed American Viticultural Area (AVA) in the United States, containing over 500,000 acres across 750 square miles.
Sonoma Coast Producers
Littorai is owned by Heidi and Ted Lemon, both with strong chops in the winemaking world. Ted was the first American hired as both a winemaker and vineyard manager to a winery in Burgundy. Their joint philosophy of winemaking is that wine is a reflection of the culture from which it springs. The Littorai esthetic is one of finesse, balance, and length. Ted was selected as winemaker of the year in 2010 by the San Francisco Chronicle. His love for terroir-based winemaking shines in his pinot noir.
Failla owner Ehren Jordan, influenced by his years in France, was attracted to the cooler climate and terroir of the Sonoma Coast AVA in 1994. Ehren recognized this region as the perfect climate for growing pinot noir along with chardonnay grapes and syrah. The original estate vineyard (purchased in 1998) is in an area referred to as the West Sonoma Coast. Failla, along with other members (including Litterai) of the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, advocates making it an AVA on its own. All of the estate properties are farmed organically with some biodynamic principles employed.
Los Carneros AVA
The Carneros AVA is located in the southernmost part of Sonoma County and overlaps Napa County. It’s the only AVA that includes two distinct and famous wine regions. The land planted dedicated to vineyards is roughly equal in both counties.
The Carneros AVA’s cooler climate is influenced by the maritime breezes and the fog that drifts from San Pablo Bay. Chardonnay is the most planted varietal followed by Pinot Noir. Stellar sparkling wines are also produced here.
The unique climatic and geographic features of the Carneros AVA provided by proximity to the Pacific Ocean, the Coast Mountain Ranges, and the San Francisco Bay, affect the region’s terroir. Carneros became an AVA in 1983. Discover more at The Carneros Wine Alliance.
Los Carneros Producers
Schug Carneros Estate
The first winery in Carneros to achieve a 99 point rating from Robert Parker for Pinot Noir was Schug Carneros Estate Walter Schug, the founder, was from a German winemaking family. Growing up in the Rheingau region where his father farmed a pinot noir estate. Today, head winemaker Johannes Schneid continues the tradition of European-style winemaking.
Domaine Carneros is owned by the Taittinger Champagne family. Known for the sparkling wines they also produce still wines and an estate pinot noir. The sparkling Pinot Noir is outstanding! Domaine Carneros is a great place to spend a couple of hours on the terrace outside enjoying the beauty of wine country with some stellar bubbles. This winery is one of the closest to the Napa Valley border.
Wine Is About People
Winemakers, winery owners, hospitality workers, all of the people involved in the process of making wine in Sonoma County, are devoted to sustainable winemaking, ensuring that their wines will be enjoyed for generations to come.
If you’d like to read more about Sonoma County and where to go wine tasting in this article 72 Hours In Sonoma County