Sonoma may seem the country cousin next to glitzy Napa, but over the past few decades it has been quietly experimenting, developing and growing. Elin McCoy meets the pioneers of this county’s wine industry and considers the varieties shaping its future...

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Pic: the Simi vineyards in Sonoma’s Alexander Valley. One of Sonoma’s pioneers, it was founded here in 1876

Quick link: See Elin’s top Sonoma wines worth seeking out

Every time I drive west over the Mayacamas mountains from Napa into Sonoma, I feel I’m leaving behind glitz, glamour and grand estates and entering – with relief – into a slower, more rural wine world. Populated by farmers in jeans, the descendants of Italian grape-growers, and vintners obsessed with Pinot Noir, the byways of laid-back Sonoma remind me of Napa before the mega-rich arrived in their Lamborghinis.

This is where the northern Californian wine rush began 200 years ago, when Russian fur traders planted vines near coastal Fort Ross in 1812. Its wine history lives on at still-thriving, century-old stone wineries and in veteran gnarled vines that new pioneers strive to preserve. Sonoma’s winemakers make more great Pinot Noir than any other region in California, as well as exciting Chardonnays and Zinfandel – field blends that capture Sonoma’s history in a glass.

So why has its reputation lagged behind Napa? Both regions stalled during Prohibition, but Sonoma’s wine industry didn’t recover as quickly after Repeal, and went into a long, bucolic sleep. The county exploded into a serious wine region in the 1970s, when dozens of ambitious winemakers burst on the scene. But it lacked a signature grape like Napa’s glossy Cabernet, a perpetual booster like Robert Mondavi – once Napa’s one-man public relations machine – and a cohesive, alluring image.

‘The story of Sonoma’s last 35 years,’ says winemaker Joel Peterson (pictured right), who founded Ravenswood Winery in 1976, ‘is fractionalisation; a focus on which sub-regions and vineyards are right for which grapes.’ Some 350 wineries make wines from 50 grape varieties in 15 confusing, overlapping sub-regions.

Three times bigger than Napa, Sonoma is also more heterogeneous and sprawling, a 400,000-hectare patchwork of hillsides, ridges, meandering rivers and pastoral valleys with wildly varied microclimates and soils. Cool nights and daily fogs moderate the summer heat. Sonoma’s layered past, complex topography and proximity to the Pacific Ocean define its wine styles, just as dozens of colourful pioneers shaped its wines.

In the beginning

Take the mysterious Hungarian wheeler-dealer and self-proclaimed count, Agoston Haraszthy, who established California’s oldest commercial winery Buena Vista in Sonoma Valley in 1857. A keen promoter of the county as a viticultural paradise, he kickstarted the industry by bringing back 100,000 vines of some 400 grape varieties from a European trip. Before he went bankrupt and disappeared in Nicaragua (eaten, legend has it, by a crocodile), Haraszthy introduced gravity-flow winemaking and the ageing of wine in redwood barrels, and created Sonoma’s first sparkling wines.

As with so many of Sonoma’s early wineries, Buena Vista’s fortunes rose and fell. It flowered again briefly in the 1980s and is in the throes of another revival since its purchase in 2011 by Burgundy négociant Jean-Charles Boisset. ‘I’m taking it back to its beginnings,’ he says. ‘With historic labels and a wide range of wines.’

The vineyards planted by the wave of late-19th and early-20th century Italian immigrant farmers, who turned their Zinfandel, Petite Sirah and other varieties into rustic jug wines, inspired some of the pioneering winemakers of the 1970s. The quality of their grapes convinced ‘Godfather of Zin’ Peterson that Zinfandel had serious fine wine potential. ‘Sonoma is relatively cool, so its Zins are dark-fruit driven, brighter in acidity with moderate structure and a baking spice character,’ Peterson says. He sought out century-old vineyards – Sonoma has more than 100, the largest concentration in the state – and made cuvées from each, which he labelled with the vineyard name. (Peterson sold his winery to Constellation Brands in 2001 but remains the winemaker.)

‘I was on the cusp of change,’ he says. ‘Sonoma had a long history of bulk wines. Putting a vineyard name on the label was a way to signal that each one would taste different. And of course you could get a higher price.’ His wines helped solidify old-vine Zinfandel as one of Sonoma’s specialties.

Single-vineyard wines have played a key role in Sonoma’s rise since the 1970s, encouraging an early focus on terroir by shifting attention from winery to vineyard. And since growers far outnumber wineries in Sonoma, it’s been easy for young experimental winemakers who can’t afford to buy land to get into the wine game by buying grapes.

A surprising number of the wineries established more than a century ago – including Martinelli, Pedroncelli, Foppiano, Gundlach-Bundschu, Korbel, Simi and Seghesio – still flourish, some in family hands, others in corporate portfolios. Simi, founded in Alexander Valley in 1876, has been producing wine in the same stone cellar since 1890. Its 1935 Zinfandel and 1941 Cabernet were the first great old Sonoma wines I tasted, and on a recent visit the 1974 Alexander Valley Cabernet impressed me, too.

Most of them were grape-growing farmers until the 1970s when the fourth and fifth generations saw a future in creating their own wines. They make good mid-range, value wines, but rarely rise to the heights of Sonoma’s boutique labels. Martinelli and Seghesio are exceptions. After putting the family name on the label in 1983, the latter made great Zinfandel and Dry Creek Valley synonymous.

Focus on Pinot

If Zinfandel is Sonoma’s link to its past, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the varieties the county is most known for today. The obsession with both goes back to 1957, when paper magnate and Burgundy lover James Zellerbach established Hanzell Vineyards on slopes overlooking the town of Sonoma, when the grapes were barely known.

‘People thought Pinot was too finicky to be commercial,’ explains Hanzell’s president Jean Arnold Sessions (pictured left with the estate’s wine educator Gary Saperstein). ‘But Zellerbach was a Burgundy lover. What made the wines even more unique was that they were aged in French oak barrels imported from Burgundy instead of the white American oak others used.’ The subtle flavours they imparted impressed winemakers like Robert Mondavi, who embraced ‘the kiss of French oak’, and changed the style of American wine.

It took a couple of decades to find Sonoma’s top Pinot Noir spots. Pioneers Joe Rochioli and Joseph Swan found one further north in the late 1960s. ‘When God invented Pinot, he put his thumb down firmly here in the Russian River Valley,’ insists Bob Cabral, winemaker at Williams Selyem winery. Burt Williams and Ed Selyem, the original owners, produced their first wines in a garage in 1979 with purchased grapes. When they released their first Rochioli cuvée, it catapulted them to fame, put Russian River on the map, and popularised their garagiste model. Williams Selyem became the first cult-status Pinot producer.

Swan, too, created a stir with his intense and compelling Russian River Zinfandels and Pinot Noirs made by old-fashioned Burgundian methods that included whole-cluster fermentation and manual punch downs. His clone of Pinot, known as the Swan clone, remains in high demand.

In 1980, David Hirsch ignited interest in a new location: the rugged high ridges of the remote and challenging Sonoma coast. His domain on the San Andreas Fault only 5km from the Pacific is now one of California’s grand crus for Pinot Noir. It has supplied grapes to about 30 top Sonoma winemakers – such as Ted Lemon of Littorai – and drawn other producers aiming for more elegant, lower-alcohol Pinots to establish vineyards in this cool, marginal area now referred to as the ‘true’ Sonoma Coast.

Pinot Noir gets the buzz, but Chardonnay has long been the most planted variety in Sonoma. Two names stand out for me as quintessential 1970s Chardonnay pioneers: Chateau St Jean and Kistler. Both made their names by focusing on singlevineyard wines. Chateau St Jean’s first winemaker, Richard Arrowood, once joked they had so many Chardonnays that he couldn’t keep track. Steve Kistler’s model was Burgundy’s Coche-Dury, and his concentrated, opulent, oaky Chardonnays from a variety of vineyards set a quality and style standard from the first vintage, 1979. Others soon emulated the style, and Kistler became another of Sonoma’s first cult wineries. In the past few years, though, the winery has dialed back on ripeness and oak, reflecting a shift in Steve Kistler’s own palate as well as the new popularity of leaner Chardonnays.

European sensibility

And while Napa still hogs the limelight, there is also Cabernet Sauvignon in Sonoma, first planted here in 1878. Jordan winery was Sonoma’s first built-from-scratch, Bordeaux-style estate, founded in 1972 at the north end of the county in Alexander Valley by Denver oilman Tom Jordan and his wife Sally. Everything about it, from the grand, ivycovered mansion to the vines around it, brought a new sense of style and a European sensibility to small-town Sonoma. ‘We didn’t go to Napa because we wanted a pioneer experience,’ recalls Sally Jordan. ‘In the ’70s, Sonoma was a land of prunes.’

From the first vintage, 1976, its well-balanced Cabernet emphasised the Alexander Valley’s cool fruit. ‘Jordan’s goal was making wines to go with food,’ says John Jordan, who now runs the winery. ‘We believe in restraint.’ At a recent retrospective tasting at the winery, I was surprised at how well these rounder, softer wines had aged.

The dominant force in shaping the county’s AVA boundaries has been its two biggest landowners, Kendall-Jackson and the Gallo family. But smaller vintners and grape growers set the direction for Sonoma’s quality wines. ‘In Napa, you’re forced to make a certain kind of wine because of land values,’ says Peterson. ‘As long as young, talented winemakers can afford to experiment here, it will be a cradle for new winemaking ideas.’

His son Morgan Twain-Peterson sees the future in red and white field blends from old vineyards, the only California wines, he says, that aren’t ersatz. Wells Guthrie, a superb Pinot and Syrah maker, planted the French grape Trousseau (also known as Bastardo in Portugal) in Russian River. The Sonoma Coast may become the best place match for great Syrah. More wineries will embrace organic viticulture. ‘Sonoma’s wine industry is all about renegades,’ says Hanzell’s Jean Arnold Sessions. No one wants to predict the future, but the county seems certain to keep pioneering.

Sonoma: a timeline

1812
Russian fur traders plant vine cuttings from Peru at Fort Ross

1823-1824
Mission San Francisco Solano de Sonoma, established by Father Junipero Serra, plants vines

1850
California becomes the 31st state; Sonoma’s population is 560

1857
Agoston Haszrathy founds Buena Vista winery

1872
The Korbel brothers move to Russian River, build wine cellars in the 1880s, and make sparkling wine by the Champagne method

1873
Phylloxera outbreak begins destroying vineyards

1920
There are 256 wineries in Sonoma

1920-1933
Prohibition. Gargling with hot ‘claret’ becomes the popular cure for sore throats

1933
At Repeal, fewer than 50 Sonoma wineries remain

1957
James Zellerbach founds Hanzell

Early 1970s
A second generation of wineries booms

1980s
Most of Sonoma’s AVAs are established

1999
Vineyard plantings boom to 20,000 hectares and there are 750 growers and 180 bonded wineries

Written by Elin McCoy