Winemaking icon Jess Jackson is no longer with us, but several years before his death, he led the charge for the establishment of a new American Viticultural Area in California’s Sonoma County: the Sonoma Coast.
Whereas most AVAs are relatively small, since they generally encompass microclimates with narrowly defined characteristics, the Sonoma Coast is vast. It covers more than half a million acres, a little more than 7,000 of which are planted to grapevines.
Why were Jackson and other “estate-bottled” producers so interested in establishing such a large AVA? Many believe it was because their use of grapes from multiple AVAs forced them to include the very general “California” designation on their labels. Although plenty of evidence to the contrary exists, there is a belief among some consumers that wines with more specific geographic designations are “better” wines.
In some cases, the very same wines that previously carried the “California” designation were able to make the switch to “Sonoma Coast” on their labels without altering the makeup of the cuvees one iota.
Politics and marketing aside, the Sonoma Coast appellation can be defined by its cool climate, which comes from its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. South to north, it runs from San Pablo Bay—a body of water that helps define the much smaller Carneros AVA—all the way to the Mendocino County line.
How can vineyards so close to the ocean, which receive twice the annual rainfall of inland vineyards, be warm enough to fully ripen winegrapes? The Sonoma Coast “secret” is that virtually all of the vineyards are planted on slopes that are above the fog line.
Thus, the Pinot Noir and Chardonnay vines—which dominate plantings within the appellation—are able to produce fruit that’s not only wine-worthy, but exceptional in quality.
Even though the Sonoma Coast AVA already overlaps with parts of several smaller AVAs—Russian River, Green Valley, Carneros and Chalk Hill, which account for about 5,000 acres of the 7,000-acre total of planted vineyard land—the diversity of climatic conditions has led some to suggest that additional sub-appellations are needed. One already approved after the Sonoma Coast AVA came into being is Fort Ross-Seaview, about 65 miles northwest of San Francisco.