Everything I ever wanted to know about Sonoma County wines (as well as the best beers, brews and bites) I learn a little more about each Labor Day Saturday at the annual Sonoma Wine Country Weekend's awsome, all-day Taste event at McMurray Ranch and Estate Vineyards, near Healdsburg.
The 2014 event was no exception in its educational and gustatory delights. With temperatures tipping over the 100 degree mark, it was a bit on the extreme balmy side to say the least, with thousands of event-goers seeking shade under a fleet of supersized tasting tents nestled amidst the soaring redwood and pine trees of this fairly remote, inland arm of the Russian River Appellation.
It's every bit as fun to people watch at this great big gathering as it is to explore the region's top chefs' tastiest samplings and so, so many incredibly great wines.
I like the laid-back atmosphere of this outstanding event at the McMurray Ranch locale. And running into so many familiar faces amongst the crowds of host wineries, farm-to-table food producers, brewing and coffee companies, is all part of the welcome.
Wine Country Weekend wrapped up a bonanza of events around the county with a record breaking gala fundraiser At Kenwood's Chateau St. Jean, raising the roof with a wine auction that topped a whopping $4 million for Sonoma County childrens charities (including the raising of literacy rates). That's three times the amount raised last year - indicating the big spenders are back in business when it comes to snagging some of the worlds best wines.
Just because many of us are lucky enough to live here, it doesn't necessarily mean we know all of the various ins and outs of our extraordinary county wines. Sonoma wine country stretches from the Pacific Coast in the west to the Mayacamas Mountains in the east, and is home to almost 60,000 acres of vineyards and more than 400 wineries. Within the borders are 16 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs, or appellations) – each with its own distinctive characteristics.
The warmth of Sonoma Valley cradles rich Zinfandels and Cabernet Sauvignons, while the cool, crisp Carneros gives way to juicy Pinot Noirs, Chardonnays and sparkling wines.
The Russian River has created a vast valley floor in both the Alexander Valley and Russian River Valley AVAs. Maritime breezes and fog are dominant influences for grape growing with cool-requiring varieties such as Pinot Noir to the south and west, and warm-requiring varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel to the north and east.
Here's a cheat sheet for brushing up on what's made where:
14,000 vineyard acres / 43 wineries
Top varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Zinfandel
Almost as warm as Knights Valley, Alexander Valley produces some of the county’s richest Cabernet Sauvignon, along with flavorful, ripe Chardonnay. The valley also produces complex and concentrated Zinfandel, Merlot, and Syrah.
350 vineyard acres / 4 wineries
Top varietals: Merlot, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Merlot shines in Bennett Valley like nowhere else, with volcanic-laced soils and a moderately cool climate that results in extended hang time ideal for the varietal. The long growing season helps maximize flavors and increase concentration, while the cooler temperatures preserve the grape’s natural acidity.
1,500 vineyard acres / 5 wineries
Top varietals: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon
On the north and east side of Windsor, extending along a short stretch of the Russian River, is the Chalk Hill district, which takes its name from the white volcanic ash hillsides that offer excellent drainage and sunny exposures.
Dry Creek Valley
8,800 vineyard acres / 63 wineries
Top varietals: Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc
Morning fog from the Pacific Ocean tempers warm days. The stone-strewn soils are ideal for concentrating fruit and flavor character of Zinfandel, the hallmark of Dry Creek Valley, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, and the resulting wines are rock-solid examples of their types.
Fort Ross – Seaview
500 Vineyard Acres
Fort Ross – Seaview lies above the beaches of the Pacific Ocean, and is above the fog line that shrouds the surrounding Sonoma Coast AVA.
3,400 vineyard acres / 10 wineries
Top varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay
Located within Russian River Valley but slightly cooler and with sandy soils, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay thrive in Green Valley for both still and sparkling wines. Distinctive cool-climate Syrah also shines.
1,500 vineyard acres / 2 wineries
Top varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot
Protected from direct Pacific Ocean influence, Knights Valley is the warmest of the county’s appellations. Bordeaux varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet, Franc, Merlot, and Malbec for the reds; Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for the whites – thrive here, producing complex and enjoyable Meritage blends.
5,200 vineyard acres / 22 wineries
Top varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
One of the coolest regions in Sonoma County partly because of the San Pablo Bay’s moderating influence, this region is prime Pinot Noir and Chardonnay country, producing crisp sparkling wines and racy table wines. Carneros has also shown itself to produce wonderful cool-climate expressions of Merlot and Syrah.
This AVA region combines six AVAs: Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Chalk Hill, Russian River Valley and Green Valley.
Pine Mountain – Cloverdale Peak
230 Vineyard Acres
This region is on the western edge of the Mayacamas, overlooking Cloverdale. The high elevation and red rock soils yield small berries and intense flavors for the Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varietals.
120 vineyard acres
Top varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Zinfandel
One of Sonoma County’s newest viticultural areas, Rockpile was designated in early 2002. Spreading west of Lake Sonoma to the Mendocino County border, it is known for intensely-flavored red grape varietals with great concentration and balance.
Russian River Valley
17,000 vineyard acres / 50 wineries
Top varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
The confluence of well-drained, soils, maritime and river influences providing cooling fog, and warm summer afternoons are ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The moderate temperatures ensure that fruit maturity is achieved without loss of depth and suppleness, resulting in wines that are uniquely ripe and elegant.
5,000 vineyard acres / 7 wineries*
Top varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
The hottest new region in the county is, in fact, its coolest. A place so close to the Pacific, with more than twice the annual rainfall of its inland neighbors, can still be warm enough to ripen wine grapes to their fullest flavor potential. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay shine, along with cool-climate Syrah.
*Does not include overlap with other AVAs
760 vineyard acres / 3 wineries
Top varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir
Rising above Sonoma Valley and the Santa Rosa Plain, and set apart by being well above the morning fog line, this region is known for powerful, yet elegant Cabernet Sauvignon. Due to the wide variety of slopes and exposures, several other varieties also thrive in the rocky mountain soil.
13,000 vineyard acres / 81 wineries
Top varietals: Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel
Winegrowers take advantage of a climate warmed by slanting rays of sun and cooled airflows from both the Petaluma gap (to the west) and the Santa Rosa Plain (to the northwest) to produce a wide range of wines, each with distinctive varietal characteristics.