The Golden Sonoma Coast

The Golden Sonoma Coast

Nov. 27, 2013

By Kimberly Kaido-Alvarez | Photos by Sarah Bradbury

Winegrowers close to the sea stand out in this vast AVA

The Sonoma Coast American Viticultural  Area (AVA) was created in 1987, and it covers primarily the coastline of Sonoma County – but the AVA’s boundaries do veer inland just east of Bodega Bay, spreading south and east into the Petaluma Watershed where boundaries reach the northern tip of Sonoma Valley just outside Santa Rosa. Although the Sonoma Coast AVA spans more than 500,000 acres of western and southern Sonoma County, only 2 percent of that land is planted in vines.

    Cooler and wetter than the rest of Sonoma County, the Sonoma Coast is considered a maritime climate that features more fog than other AVAs in Sonoma County. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the varieties of choice for many growers in the region and together they account for more than 75 percent of the AVA’s wines.

    “We’re really enthusiastic about our Pinot Noir plantings in the area,” said Kistler Vineyards General Manager Mark Bixler. Kistler Vineyards farms Sonoma Coast vineyards at Occidental Station and Bodega Headlands.  Winegrapes with unique and full flavors are what attracted Kistler’s winemakers to the Sonoma Coast growing region. Soil types in the Sonoma Coast AVA are diverse featuring components of clay, rock and gravel. However, in Kistler’s Bodega Headlands vineyard, the famed Goldridge soil is on site. “We’re very happy with that,” said Bixler, about the sandy loam soil type that is preferred by key Pinot Noir growers in West Sonoma County.

    In addition to the primary plantings of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Meunier, Zinfandel, Syrah and Gewürztraminer are also planted within the Sonoma Coast AVA but acreage is minimal.

    Currently, sections of the Sonoma Coast AVA are “under study,” pending potential definitions of sub-AVAs within the greater region. Like many sections of Sonoma County featuring diverse terrain and microclimates, the huge Sonoma Coast region is by far no exception and may see further delineation in the future.

Extreme Sonoma Coast

    A wafting breeze of crisp salty air teases the senses and promises views of white waves crashing against rock formations sculpted by the sea. The grand shores of the Sonoma Coast just might be hiding around the next bend, beyond a grove of redwoods or over the hill, wherever she is, her presence preceeds her.  

    Wild and mysterious, this part of the Pacific is hard to figure out. Often surrounded by a foggy mist, the unpredictable weather seems to have a mind of its own, sometimes changing with a sudden gust of wind that comes out of nowhere. Experiencing more than its fair share of rain, the climatic drama is only intensified by a seascape featuring towering cliff lines.

    This is the Sonoma Coast that on the surface might look like a scene from the “Chronicles of Narnia” or a farmer’s worst nightmare, depending on one’s perspective. But never ceasing to amaze, the Sonoma Coast is full of surprise, and tucked just beyond the coastal bluffs are nooks and crannies hospitable to winegrapes, fruits, vegetables and more. Diverse terrain that includes elevated ridges, insulated coves, canyons and sprawling valleys with shifting fault lines create a unique growing environment that communicates with the senses like no other.

    “What you get here is flavor compounds expressing themselves to their full potential. It’s the same with vegetables as it is with fruit; everything just tastes better,” said grower/owner Byron Sheets of Doc’s Ranch Vineyard in Occidental, located just four miles from the shores of the Pacific Ocean.

    Doc’s Ranch Vineyard meets the local criteria for being a part of the “extreme” Sonoma Coast. “The question growers ask is, ‘Can you see blue water?” said Sheets. For his vineyard that is perched atop a coastal hillside above the fog layer at 1,030 feet, the answer is “yes.”  That is, on a clear day.

    Doc’s Ranch Vineyard is enhanced by a banana belt effect caused by the surrounding mountains and other geographic features of the coastal region. The vineyard is bathed in just enough sunshine to ripen the Pinot Noir variety that thrives in the microclimate that cools in the late afternoon and evening with a blanket of fog.

    “We’re on the very edge of where winegrapes can be grown and a full growing season is needed,” explained Sheets, who also noted that his vineyard is one of the last to be harvested in Sonoma County. The yields are often small but the quality of the fruit is renowned. “Winemakers go crazy over the fruit (from the Sonoma Coast),” said Sheets.

    Pinot Noir vineyards, planted in 1999, are just coming into their prime, and Red Car Winery buys the fruit from Doc’s Ranch Vineyard that is then transformed into wine. Kistler Vineyards, Martinelli Winery, Hirsch Vineyard & Winery and Flowers Vineyard & Winery are a few other growers in the Sonoma Coast region that have gained a stellar reputation for putting out top notch Pinot Noir and Chardonnay wines –  some of which cost a pretty penny.

    “That can have a lot to do with farming in this remote area,” explained Sheets. Steep hillsides and rocky soils can be hard on equipment, not to mention the cost of the fuel that it takes to reach the actual vineyard plots. But the seaside view and the quality of the fruit make the endeavor worthwhile. “It’s therapeutic to come out here and work in the vineyard,” said Sheets, who can see and hear crab boats with their trademark lights in the evening and early morning hours during that seafood season.

Fort Ross-Seaview AVA

    Occupying Sonoma Coast’s western corner is the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA. Approved in 2012 and located along the Pacific coastline at elevations between 920 to 1,800 feet, the vineyards are often above the fog line and receive cool sunshine. Like many other areas in the Sonoma Coast AVA, the Fort Ross-Seaview region is no stranger to low yields and terrain that may be too steep to farm.

    Dramatic ridges help to define the Fort Ross-Seaview area from other parts of the Sonoma Coast. “The steep coastal ridges where we grow our grapes were part of the enormous and diverse Sonoma Coast AVA. To distinguish this steep coastal location, this area was called the ‘True,’ ‘Extreme’ or ‘Wild’ Sonoma Coast to try to differentiate it from the expansive Sonoma Coast AVA – but it had no fixed boundaries,” explained Linda Schwartz of Fort Ross Vineyards and Winery.

    After 14 years of planning and paperwork, the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA is finally a reality with an official name. Like other parts of the Sonoma Coast, the unique Fort Ross-Seaview growing region is also home to plenty of Pinot Noir vines that shine in their own way, depending on the vineyard site.

    “In this maritime climate, the grapevines maintain their lively acidity, minerality and nuanced tannins and provide structure to balance the pure fruit,” said Schwartz.

    The soil types in the Fort Ross area are diverse, consisting of  Yorkville, Boomer, Sobrante, Laughlin and Hugo soils. Most of these soils tend to be well draining loams with various gravelly materials from weathered sedimentary and metamorphic rocks. Hugo soils also drain well and are very gravelly loams derived from sandstone and shale. Boomer, on the other hand, is a soil that resulted from metavolcanic activity and is, again, well draining, but fine and loamy.

   Fort Ross Vineyard & Winery's pond, collected from abundant rainwater. Similar to other areas throughout Sonoma County, soil types can change within feet or miles from one another creating a “patchwork quilt” effect on geological maps and plenty of diversity in the wine glass.

    In the coastal vineyards of the new AVA, spring winds can be a blessing or a curse. While strong winds can be damaging to the vines, the presence of some wind can be beneficial, quickly eliminating excess moisture from the canopy of the vines. Special farming techniques are employed to guard vines from heavy gusts.

    “We planted most of the blocks with a north to south orientation so that the wind would blow between the rows and not directly at the grapevines. This also allows the morning sunshine on one side of the canopy and the afternoon sunshine on the other side of the canopy,” said Schwartz.  

    Significant winter rainfall is characteristic of the entire Sonoma Coast AVA. Receiving about 45 to 60 inches annually, it’s about double the average of surrounding areas. Again, the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA is up a notch, and like the wind, ample rain can also be a positive.

    “The significant winter rains – 75 to 125 inches each year, more than in the Amazon Jungle – allows us to collect rainwater in a pond for irrigation. The resulting water-holding capacity of the soil keeps the vines sufficiently hydrated through July without any need for irrigation,” explained Schwartz.

    Dry farming and naturally collecting rainwater doesn’t come as a surprise as growers in the Sonoma Coast and Fort Ross-Seaview AVAs seem to be a resourceful bunch willing to look Mother Nature straight in the eye. Sustainability and environmental stewardship is the norm here and practiced in a really genuine sort of way, from the naming of the vineyards to the conscientious objection to adding chemicals to the soil.

    Home to the first winegrapes planted in Sonoma County in the year 1817 at Fort Ross, the area might very well be considered the birthplace of Sonoma County’s viticultural pursuits. As leaders in the sustainable agriculture movement, growers from this region are providing proof for the premise that a seamless connection between nature and vineyard can indeed be made. 

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