The Sonoma Coast is the largest winemaking Appellation in Sonoma County. Out of the major appellations of Sonoma county however, it has the least planted acres of vineyards. With a total area of 500,000 acres, only 2,000 of those are planted acreage (0.04% planted)
There are reason behind this: it’s cold, it’s wet, and most areas of the appellation are very remote. You have to be a little crazy to grow grapes there.
For this article I will focus on the outer reaches of the appellation, tucked against the pacific ocean itself, in areas like Bodega, Occidental and Point Reyes. Some of the coldest vineyards in California are located here, with average temperatures 15-25 degrees cooler than vineyards further inland, but growing the same varietals. This area is known by winemakers and locals as “The Extreme Sonoma Coast”.
Just as an example: I live in Santa Rosa, 25 miles east of this area, and on 100+ degree days in Santa Rosa, I hop in the car for the 40 minute drive to the coast, because often the temperatures along the Extreme Sonoma Coast are 40 degrees cooler, sitting in the low 60s.
Not much has been written about the history of The Sonoma Coast as far as winemaking is concerned. The Russian River Valley has overshadowed the coast, because of its accessibility and its success in the 1970s, winning the famous tasting in Paris in 1976 (most people think the chardonnay grapes themselves were from Napa…the wine was picked from Bacigalupi Vineyard in the Russian River Valley, and made in Napa at Chateau Montelena in Napa) Small production commercial wineries have been growing grapes in small plots along the Sonoma Coast since the 1950s. More production started in the 70’s but many plots were abandoned in the mid 80’s for inland appellations that were receiving more attention. Also, high-end wineries in Napa, and bulk producers in California’s Central Valley were scooping up the best and brightest winemakers for their efforts. Planting grapes along the Extreme Sonoma Coast is a long and tedious process. Vines often take 6-8 years to reach maturity, and actually produce usable grapes, where inland growers see good grapes in 3-4 years, so financially it is quite a burden to plant there. But in the late 80’s many developments in grape growing were made, and a new breed of winemakers moved in to the area. These winemakers quickly started making major headlines in the wine world, challenging the Old World Burgundy producers of France with powerful, yet incredibly polished wines.
WHY GROW THERE?
Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and even Syrah from this area have become some of the most sought after wines in the world.
The cold weather has many affects on the grapes themselves. Cooler temperatures require grape growers to keep the grapes on the vine for a much longer period time to achieve phenolic ripeness, while at the same time, sugar levels stay relatively low until very late. Some vineyards are not picked until mid-late November, an entire month later than inland vineyards of the same varietals are picked.This allows the flavors of the grape to mature and develop over a longer period of time, and increases the development of incredible complexity and integration of powerful fruit.
It forces the grapes to thicken their skins. 95% of the flavors in a grape are extracted from their skins during fermentation and cold maceration. This has a massive affect on tannin structure, acidity levels and of course flavor.
Within the last decade, grape growers have been able to use greater technology to help with the growing process. Cold climate grape growing practices were not used widely until the early 90s and are still evolving in leaps and bounds today. On top of this, new rootstock have become available to growers, and new clones of grapes have been developed, optimized for cold climate production. These vines can withstand cold temperatures, and also produce grapes that are in loose clusters, allowing for the ever-present coastal wind to keep moisture off the grapes, even when moisture levels are incredibly high, keeping development of grape rot. **VERY helpful considering these are some of the foggiest places in the world.*** These advances in grape growing have been used in other region in the world as a direct result of the successes in the Extreme Sonoma Coast.
Yield in these vineyards can be exceptionally low. This is a great thing for making quality wine, but financially, it can be very tough. A quality vineyard further inland producing Pinot Noir for example produces 3-6 tons per acre depending weather through the year. Yield in areas typical of mass production in the central valley of California, areas like Modesto, Tulare, etc often see yields of 25+ tons. In 2005, Balistreri Vineyards, one of the most respected and sought after vineyards, produced a total of 1680 lbs from 4 acres. Less than a ton! FROM 4 ACRES!! WHY IS THAT GOOD? The more stress a vine is under, the less fruit it produces. The less fruit it produces, the more powerful and flavorful it will be. The result will be tiny little berries, like little pellets with thick skins and concentrated flavor.
Think about it this way, if you have 25 difficult tasks to complete in a day, on a deadline of 7 hours, odds are, you probably will have some errors, especially coming up on that deadline, and it wont be your best work. Instead, you have just 1 task to complete in a day, its a MUCH harder task, and takes just as long. BUT, your entire focus is on that single task, you make corrections to your work, you edit, etc. Odds are, you will REALLY NAIL that one task right?
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
Search for these wines. Often times they are sold by waiting list only, but other times you might just score big time. DO NOT BUY THESE ON THE STORE SHELVES for 2 reasons:
1. If they are on the store shelf, they are probably from warmer areas of the Sonoma Coast that lend to a larger production. You really want to look for the small production where only 300 or less cases are made because this will be a true representation of the quality possible from the area. If they’re on store shelves, it will most likely be part of a 5k+ case production…logistically its not possible to distribute a wine to stores without that kind of bulk.
2. If they are on the shelves, they are not being stored properly. A wine of this quality deserves to be stored in a temperature controlled unit at a winery up until the time you purchase it. Often times they sit in the back of the store, need other foods, near raw meat, in low moisture environments, all of which are terrible for the cork and the wine itself. You do not want to buy a ruined wine.
FAVORITE SONOMA COAST WINES
Sonoma Coast Vineyards
PINOT $40-$75: Bodega Ridge Block, Salmon Creek Block, Balistreri VIneyard,
CHARD $30-$45: Gold Ridge Hills
CHARD $40-$90: Camp Meeting Ridge Chard
PINOT NOIR $65-$100: Camp Meeting Ridge, Sea View Ridge
Kosta Browne Winery
Sonoma Coast – Waiting List $170-$300
Williams Selyem Winery
Sonoma Coast – Waiting List $70-$120
AS ALWAYS : If you aren’t currently following THE VINTAGE….ya..just do that.
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