In an era of appellation fatigue and complex regulatory systems, it was no small feat to get the Petaluma Gap recognized as a distinct winegrowing region in late 2017. It took both time and a ton of determination from a tiny yet mighty group of winemakers and growers.
The group’s challenge, one taken up by others on several previous occasions, has been how to best carve up the massive Sonoma Coast appellation.
Spanning some 500,000 acres and overlapping with parts of the Russian River Valley and Carneros, the Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area (AVA) is both the largest and most controversial appellation in Sonoma County. From Mendocino County to Marin County and San Pablo Bay, the AVA’s sheer size makes it meaningless to many.
Out of the Sonoma Coast, the Petaluma Gap managed to wrangle 202,476 acres centered around Petaluma, a southerly city of Sonoma County, 25 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge. With a long agricultural history, Petaluma was once known as the egg basket of the world. It has since added beer (Lagunitas Brewing Company) and cheese (Cowgirl Creamery) to its food legacy.
While the Petaluma name gives it a sense of place, it’s the Gap that gives the new appellation meaning. A 15-mile-wide opening in the coastal mountain range brings cold air from the Pacific Ocean and pulls it east over land to the San Pablo Bay.
Heavy morning fog during the growing season is as much a given as wind in the afternoon. Temperatures consistently swing 40–50˚F over the course of a day, thanks to the return of fog each night.
It’s a tough growing environment that rewards patience and nerve. Yields are low and grapes ripen slowly. The wines offer rich, textured intensity within a context of cool-climate aromatics and undeniable acidity.
There are about 4,000 vineyard acres in Petaluma Gap. They’re planted primarily to Pinot Noir, which amounts to about 75% of the appellation’s total acreage, but are also home to Chardonnay and Syrah. The area is defined more by vineyard sites than wineries, as grapes from the same established vineyards go into bottles from a wide assortment of producers like Kosta Browne, Rodney Strong Vineyards, Ramey Wine Cellars, Patz & Hall and Walt Wines.
“It’s hard not to make gold with gold coming in,” says Erica Stancliff, winemaker for Trombetta Family Wines. Stancliff and her mother, Rickey Trombetta, were strong advocates for the appellation.
“With the wind, there’s no botrytis or mildew issues, and the grapes have a higher skin-to-juice ratio,” she says. “They give the wines a richness and texture with structure. They’re naturally very balanced.”
That contrasts with the nearby regions of Freestone and Occidental, she says. Both of those areas can have fog all day during the growing season, and vines can struggle to get ripe. Their wines typically offer more acidity, savory fruit and spice tones, with less richness than those of the Petaluma Gap or warmer spots across the Russian River Valley.
In Fort Ross-Seaview, another appellation within the larger Sonoma Coast that sits above the fog, the wines tend to have more tannin structure and feral spiciness, which reflects their rugged, high-elevation location.
More and more producers, both big and small, are noticing Petaluma Gap’s potential. Even Sonoma-based powerhouse Kendall-Jackson, which has recently released a 2017 Pinot Noir and a 2017 Cloud Landing Chardonnay from the appellation, has gotten involved. Plantings, devoted mostly to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, are on the rise and show no signs of slowing soon.
Three marquee vineyards are found within the Petaluma Gap: Roberts Road Vineyard, owned and farmed by the Sangiacomo family; Sun Chase Vineyard, owned by Alex Guarachi of Guarachi Family Wines; and Gap’s Crown Vineyard, owned by Bill Price of Three Sticks Wines. All sell grapes to many producers and are planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
James Hall, owner and winemaker of Patz & Hall, works with grapes across multiple relatively cool appellations, from Carneros to the Sonoma Coast. He says that the Petaluma Gap is “easily the coldest appellation in Sonoma County.” He’s bought grapes from Gap’s Crown Vineyard for more than a decade, bottling his first Gap’s Crown Vineyard-designate Pinot Noir in 2007.
“Colder is better these days,” he says. “With the winds, the yields suffer. It’s where the best terroirs are.”
Hall’s blocks of Pinot Noir at Gap’s Crown Vineyard are western-facing and sloped, planted in ashy, tufa-like volcanic soils. The clay loam and sandy loam soils have a mysterious smattering of gravelly river cobbles.
“The exposed site shows vintage variation more,” says Hall. “The way the wind moves is very important. Cooling winds are helpful, but too much at the wrong time, and the leaves get traumatized and evaporate water at a higher rate, and that stops photosynthesis. But the wind stalls at Gap’s Crown and rolls to the south.”
It’s these qualities that make the vineyard an ideal place to grow grapes in a cool region. Hall describes his wine as brambly red fruit with a floral, spicy quality, a mix of rose, carnation and cinnamon.
“It’s big, dense wine that’s more full-bodied, angular and nervy, with high tones,” he says. “It’s the last vineyard I pick for Pinot Noir, the most tannic. The grapes need time on the vine.” On the other hand, winemaker David Ramey has more or less singlehandedly made the Petaluma Gap’s Rodgers Creek Vineyard famous for Syrah.
“What makes it so distinct is the pronounced level of rotundone, which is the compound that gives Syrah its peppery character,” says Ramey. “Often found in Northern Rhône Syrahs, this, along with the bacon fat note, is the complex, savory character we love. Rodgers Creek shows this in spades. I’m not prepared to relate it to any particular soil type, but most definitely to cool climate.”
Griffin’s Lair Vineyards on Lakeville Highway is another standout for Syrah, sourced by Pax and Bedrock Wine Company. In 2017, Spottswoode Estate Vineyard & Winery sourced Syrah from the vineyard to make its Field Book bottling, which was co-fermented with 9% Viognier in a Northern Rhône style.
Keller Estate, another crucial champion of the Petaluma Gap AVA, is one of the few wineries with a tasting room in the appellation. It farms La Cruz Vineyard, planted in 1989 to Chardonnay in mineral-rich clay soils. Once it saw the region’s potential to cultivate other varieties, Keller Estate eventually added Pinot Noir, Syrah, Viognier and Pinot Gris.
Variation Within the Appellation
The Petaluma Gap appellation extends across Sonoma’s southern county border into Marin, and some of its coldest sites, including Azaya Ranch Vineyard, McEvoy Ranch Vineyard and Chileno Valley Vineyard, where Dutton-Goldfield sources Riesling, seem to flourish.
McEvoy Ranch has 27 acres of grapes here. Its plantings include Pinot Noir and Syrah, but also Montepulciano, Refosco, Sagrantino and Vermentino. Another 57 acres are devoted to olives.
“[Marin wines] are lighter and have more floral and complex characters,” says Justin Seidenfeld, winemaker at Rodney Strong Vineyards. Seidenfeld makes a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay from Blue Wing Vineyard, an estate site that lies closest to the San Pablo Bay within the Petaluma Gap.
“The wines continue to impress me with the way they’re able to balance both fruit and structure so well,” he says. “The Pinot Noirs we are making have deep, dense structure, but still maintain delicate floral and fruit characteristics. This allows the wine to be incredibly balanced and enjoyable whether it’s young or aged. Ripening slowly leads to well-developed flavors with lower alcohols.”
Higher-elevation sites like the Gap’s Crown and Sun Chase Vineyards sit farther north than those in Marin or Rodney Strong’s Blue Wing, so the ripening temperatures are warmer.
“This leads to wines that are richer in style and have more opulent mouthfeel, but they do not have the same levels of floral notes,” says Seidenfeld. “Both places make great wines.”
Getting Consumers to Care
“There’s a place in the market for Petaluma Gap wines,” says Stancliff. “There’s still a need to educate. It’s a grower-driven AVA, so grape buyers need to put the appellation on the label. The name gives people a sense of place. They can envision a spot in Sonoma County in their heads.”
Trombetta now sees sommeliers, distributors and consumers that get it.
“Starting last year in Texas, New York and around the country, when I explained why the Petaluma Gap was different, about the long ripening, people loved hearing about it,” she says. Part of the challenge was the timing of the Gap’s AVA approval. Wineries received permission to list Petaluma Gap on labels in January 2018. Of the many wines already bottled, most simply stuck with Sonoma Coast. But that’s poised to change.
“The market is receiving the new AVA with a lot of excitement,” says Seidenfeld. “People seem to have a never-ending thirst for wine knowledge and, with our story, they are adding another level of detail and understanding as to why they have been enjoying Petaluma Gap wines for so long.”
10 to Try from the Petaluma Gap
Anaba 2016 Sangiacomo Roberts Road Vineyard Pinot Noir (Petaluma Gap); $56, 95 points. This is a gorgeous wine, perfumed in rose and candied strawberry and cherry. A touch of vanilla gives a quiet, understated richness beneath a structure of thirst-quenching blood orange, tangerine and black tea, with a seductive cardamom tone. The texture is silky smooth.
Sangiacomo 2017 Roberts Road Vineyard Pinot Noir (Petaluma Gap); $70, 94 points. Winemaker James MacPhail works with estate-grown fruit to make this stellar showcase for the appellation that is light in color and silky in tannins. Fleshy orange peel and cherry contribute fruity richness, complemented by black tea, clove and lasting acidity.
Armida 2016 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $65, 93 points. Earthy, tense and tightly woven in textured tannin and integrated oak, this wine shines in strawberry purée and pomegranate, bright, crunchy red fruit with a touch of richness. Full-bodied and densely packed, it offers lasting notes of baking spice and black tea.
Trombetta 2017 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Chardonnay (Petaluma Gap); $60, 93 points. A note of reduction settles into an opening of salt, oak and sea spray in this well-made wine from the famous, windswept site. Crushed rock and white flower present an earthy, mineral component that’s nicely balanced against a midpalate of luscious pear and fig.
Chappellet 2017 Calesa Vineyard Chardonnay (Petaluma Gap); $44, 92 points. From the new appellation comes this well-made, impressive vineyard-designate, the entry crisp and focused in cool-climate acidity. Stone and white flower accents complement a midpalate of rounded lemon cookie, peach and pear, with just a touch of baking spice on the soft lengthy finish.
Fulcrum 2017 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir (Petaluma Gap); $69. 92 points. Fragrant in rose petal and orange peel, this wine is light on its feet and high in acidity. It’s able to preserve a current of freshness throughout a balanced core of cherry and pomegranate. Accents of black tea and forest floor complement the vibrant tones.
Guarachi Family 2017 Sun Chase Vineyard Estate Grown Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast); $60, 92 points. This is a big, full-bodied and fleshy white wine from the Petaluma Gap mountain vineyard, with an intense imprint of vanilla and nutmeg-laced oak. Stone fruit and pineapple are prominently on display, richly dappled in secondary notes of Gravenstein apple and fig.
Keller Estate 2017 El Coro Vineyard Pinot Noir (Petaluma Gap); $60, 92 points. Flavors of ash, earth and rose petal adorn a medium-bodied, expansive and lively core of robust, fresh acidity and fleshy red fruit in this estate vineyard-designate wine. It unfurls slowly in the glass in cherry, cassis and red currant fruit that’s savory and crunchy.
Neyers 2017 Roberts Road Pinot Noir (Sonoma Coast); $45, 92 points. Stemmy and earthy, this wine offers intense cranberry and tea tones. The midpalate has a velvety lining of soft tannins that lengthens the finish.
Thirty-Seven 2017 Albariño (Sonoma Coast); $22, 90 points. Balanced in weight and with just the right amount of fleshy fruit-forward flavor, this is a memorable white that appeals in floral aromas and flavors of apricot, vanilla and stone. It finishes light and bright.