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In Search Of The Petaluma Gap

By Stephen Eliot

Do we really need another new AVA? The folks growing grapes in Sonoma’s Petaluma Gap seem to think so, and I am inclined to believe they are right.

There are reasons aplenty to be skeptical if not downright cynical about the worth of the so-called American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) and the ways in which they have been used. Assertions that they consistently and reliably inform the consumer about the character and quality of a given wine are justifiably scoffed at by a good many informed California wine drinkers, and the oft-cited claim that they somehow protect the consumer is one that is admittedly hard to swallow.

That said, it is also easy enough to point to recent additions to California’s roster of legally defined winegrowing regions such as the seven new sub-districts of Paso Robles as being potentially very useful. They were created to better delineate districts within an AVA that is otherwise so large as to be next to useless in defining the growing conditions that might affect fine wines, and it is not at all hard to see parallels between what has happened in Paso Robles and what is happening in Sonoma right now.

The problem in this instance, of course, is with the vast and unwieldy Sonoma Coast appellation that received official standing in 1987 (yes, it has been around for nearly thirty years) and covers close a half-million acres running from the Pacific Ocean to the San Francisco Bay. The Sonoma Coast name has come, of late, into fashion, but it does not require any more than a cursory look at the extent of its boundaries to understand that it is a necessarily a descriptor of “place” without all that much meaning.

A couple of years back, the coastal Fort Ross-Seaview AVA was approved as a sub-district of the Sonoma Coast, and there are vocal proponents of the so-called western, “true” Sonoma Coast that envision a few more. There are also those in Southern Sonoma’s Petaluma Gap district who are now calling for an AVA of their own.

Running inland from Bodega and Tomales Bays in the west to a few miles east of Highway 101 and claiming some 4, 000 acres of vineyards, the “Gap” is principally devoted to the production of Pinot Noir with smaller, but significant amounts of Chardonnay and Syrah in its portfolio of vinous successes. Its distinctive feature is the wind that rushes inland from the Pacific Ocean most everyday and appreciably slows sugar accumulation in the grapes without otherwise retarding their physiological development. This of course, meets the winemaker’s holy grail of achieving flavor and ripeness at lower alcohol levels, and there are plenty of fine bottlings to be had that give credence to the claim.

The Petaluma Winegrowers Alliance is looking to fast track the process and plans on petitioning for AVA status early next year with hopes that approval might come as soon as a year after that. They have been spurred to action in part because the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) has recently begun to disallow the term “Petaluma Gap” anywhere on the label, and AVA status would end such proscriptions. Further, they are fairly honest in the admission that, given the efforts of those working to define West Sonoma Coast districts, they are a bit worried about being seen as the leftover “Rest of the Sonoma Coast”.

We wish them the best and hope that the machinery of government runs quickly and smoothly. We will be watching intently over the next year or two.


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Mind The Gap
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/18/2014 10:14:51 AM

Steve Heimoff, who also attended the Petaluma Gap seminar yesterday, has published his own views on the matter, and, if you are interested in wine geography, then his comments over on his eponymously named blog are worth reading as well.

What the Steves (Eliot and Heimoff) have not said out loud and directly is that the current AVA system is a patchwork of places identified by varying standards over the years, with too much of an eye on what the industry wants and not enough attention paid to what would benefit the consumer.

The current "commune-based" AVAs in the center of the Napa Valley in which each community gets its own name regardless of the fact, for instance, that the West Rutherford Bench is very different from valley-floor Rutherford and Silverado Trail Rutherford. 

The overblown AVAs in Sonoma County whose meanings are distorted at best--and here we are talking about recognized names like The Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast--make a mockery of any attempt to use the AVA system to communicate to consumers about "place".

It will never happen that the map of AVAs will be scrapped and the process started all over again. But if that were to happen, the result would ultimately be better for everyone despite the near-term pain of having to deal with real boundaries and not marketing boundaries.

The establishment of the Petaluma Gap AVA will at least begin to divide the excessively broad Sonoma Coast AVA into something meaningful.

Paso districts
by Jim Madsen
Posted on:11/19/2014 7:41:53 AM

not 7, but 11, new districts within the Paso AVA  ;-)

by TomHill
Posted on:11/19/2014 12:00:04 PM

Charlie sez: " with too much of an eye on what the industry wants and not enough attention paid to what would benefit the consumer."


I would hazard a guess that the winemakers ("industry") are far more qualified to identify a potential AVA than any of the consumers I know. IMHO, anything that identifies the origin of the grapes in the wine more precisely is to the benefit of the consumer. It is certainly true that some (some...not many) of the sub-AVA's are established for pure marketing reasons. Won't deny that. But, in most cases I can think of, certainly in the case of Petaluma, these are a colloction of winemakers wanting to identify/establish a sub-AVA that they think can produce unique wines. Probably there is some marketing aspects behind their motivations. Every winemaker whant his wines to be distinctive out there in the marketplace.

   Does it lead to confusion in the minds of the consumer?? I suspect it can. To the consumer walking down the aisles of Safeway or BevMore, I'm sure they would prefer to see "SonomaCnty" on the label rather than "PetalumaGap". But not for me, though.

   I suppose you, and many others, would like an area's "terroir" to be easily identifiable in any proposed sub-AVA. In a perfect world, that would be great. But in the real world, it's probably not agonna happen. I've tasted a few wines from the PetalumaGap from some of my favorite pproducers. With a bit of hand-waving and smoke&mirrors, I may be able to come up w/ some general characteristics of PetalumaGap wines, particularly in Syrah. But I doubt I'll every be able to be able to identify blind the unique "terrior" of a PetalumaGap Syrah.

   Besides, as you've pointed out here on your blog, the winemaker's style (can) oftentimes trump the voice of the "terroir".



Too Big To Fail
by Charlie Olken
Posted on:11/19/2014 12:18:25 PM



Thanks for the comments and the food for thought.

What the Petaluma Gap drive towards AVA status reminds me is that some of the oldest AVAs, of which Sonoma Coast is one, were established in ways that contravened the very heartfelt desire on the parts of folks like thee and me for area delineations that had reasonable meaning.

While I am not at all fond of the commune approach taken in Napa, I am even less pleased with AVAs like Sonoma Coast that mean almost nothing.

There is, I believe, a strong need for the delineation of Western Sonoma AVAs, but when one sees Sonoma Coast on a label, it could mean western Sonoma, Carneros or lots of territory in between.

The now largely expanded Russian River Valley AVA is another that sticks in my craw. It now covers areas like Chalk Hill and parts of what might logically better fit in the Petaluma Gap AVA.

I know of wineries east of Hwy 101, in what is pretty warm territory suited to late-ripening varieties, that are planting Pinot Noir because those wines can carry a Russian River AVA denomination.

Can the wineries better define AVAs than you or me? Certainly in some ways, yes. But it was the wineries that brought the RRV designation to Chalk Hill and the Napa Valley designation to Chiles Valley and Pope Valley.

Today, those kinds of overly generous AVAs would likely not get approved. The rules have changed, gotten more specific as the powers that make the rules have come into better and better knowledge.

I would bet against a complete rethink any time, if ever, but it certainly would serve the consumers if it were to happen. And it would inconvenience the industry--which is why it it not likely to happen.

by TomHill
Posted on:11/20/2014 9:50:47 AM

All points well made, Charlie.

I guess I'm a bit more sanguine about the SonomaCoast AVA. But I guess that's mostly because when I see "SonomaCoast" on the label of one of my favorite producers, I have a pretty good idea where they were getting the grapes. But when I see "SonomaCoast" on a label of some producer I've not heard pretty much means nothing.

   And I do share your angst over the RussianRiverVlly AVA. But, again, it depends upon the producer. If AdamLee puts RRV on the label for his PinotNoir, I'm pretty confident he's not abusing its usage as to where the grapes originate. But not so w/ a lot of other producers.

   So...I guess my point is: For some of these large AVAs that both you & I recognize as being of little value to us, in general, I rely on my favorite producers to use it in an ethical fashion. Other producers...I'm not so sure.

   And, Shirley, you must have an opinion on the NorthCoast AVA??  :-)   Rethorical question, of course.



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