Is Sonoma County’s Diversity also a Curse?

At the Premiere Napa Valley in February, 225 barrel lots were made, most of them filled with Cabernet Sauvignon, or primarily so. The annual tasting and auction brought in $6 million, a new record, for all these once-in-a-lifetime wines, which are on offer to the trade, donated by the wineries to be bought by retailers, restaurateurs, distributors and importers.

But that’s Napa Valley and Premiere will celebrate its 20th year next year. By now it’s become a well-oiled machine with diamond-sharp focus.

Last week, Sonoma County kicked off its first-ever countywide barrel auction and did a great job, culling the widely spread and diverse wines of the region into 71 impressive barrel lots, luring in just under $500,000 by the last gavel. It was an auspicious and well-executed beginning to what I hope and suspect will be a must-attend annual event.

But, what took Sonoma so long? Is its diversity, such a blessing for those of us who live here and get to enjoy its wines, also a curse?

“We’ve always been rightfully proud of our size and diversity and have remained unique and independent as appellation groups, it’s what drew me and my family to Sonoma County some 20 years ago,” noted Mark McWilliams of Arista Winery in the Russian River Valley.

“But we also realize the importance of a unifying voice on a global stage and the need to elevate awareness of the Sonoma County brand internationally,” he adds. “There are so many individual AVAs, strong personalities and rich family histories, and there are so many varieties of grapes that excel here that it’s taken time for us to figure out how to put all these pieces together.”

According to McWilliams, in 2011 the board of the Russian River Valley Winegrowers began discussing the need to have a barrel auction to further the visibility of the appellation in, as he puts it, the “national conversation” of restaurants, retailers and media.

The Winegrowers felt the time was right to go forward, at least for them, given the rise in demand and popularity of Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, and that the trade and consumers were ready to support such an event.

There was so much interest and potential that when the Sonoma County Vintners offered to join forces, bringing in the full range of the county’s 17 appellations, it only made sense to say yes.

“Expanding the auction would create a more diverse and interesting event, which would benefit us all,” McWilliams says.

And so it seems, it did. Its Russian River Valley root showing, Pinot Noir was highly represented in the Sonoma County Barrel Auction – 35 out of 71 lots – and yet Cabernet Sauvignon lots also did extremely well.

Keith Overstreet of Brulium Wines contributed to a five-case Pinot Noir lot from Gap’s Crown Vineyard made with Bob Cabral of Three Sticks Wines and Gavin Chanin of Lutum Wines.

“Sonoma County does so many things so well that it’s hard to wrap a simple bow around the whole thing,” she said. “Napa is all in with Bordeaux, but the Sonoma County Barrel Auction promoted attention-grabbing, marquee brands alongside tiny producers of all sorts. We shouldn’t feel compelled to copy or live up to Napa’s standard, Sonoma is simply more chill.”

Is that perhaps the differentiator? That Sonoma is simply more relaxed about its wines? Certainly the high quality of both the wines and the people behind them show every ounce of blood, sweat and tears it can take to make something memorable.

In the end, when it came time to figure out which wines would make the barrel auction, however, nothing was left to chance. What made the cut was decided by a team of six Master Sommeliers and a Master of Wine, led by Evan Goldstein, M.S., of Full Circle Wine Solutions in San Francisco. The group traveled to Sonoma County in February to do a series of blind tastings and decide.

No one’s talking, but I wonder: What didn’t make the cut? There were definitely some big names missing at the auction. Did certain producers not have an interest in participating, did their wines not show as well as others, or did an attempt to offer diversity affect the final mix? I’d love to know.

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Published on May 7, 2015
Topics: CaliforniaSonomaWine Trends