When you look back at the history of grape growing in California, all roads lead to Sonoma Valley. Located around the cities of Sonoma and Kenwood in the southeast corner of Sonoma County, the valley is naturally defined by the Sonoma Mountains to the west, the southern end of the Mayacamas Mountains to the east, and San Pablo Bay to the south.
Spanish Padres planted the first grapes near the mission in Sonoma in the 1820s. Three decades later, the commercial wine boom began when Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy founded Buena Vista Winery in 1857. A year later, Bavarian immigrant Jacob Gundlach started his winery a mile down the road in 1858. Today, Buena Vista remains the oldest winery in California, and Gundlach Bundschu is the oldest family-owned winery in the state.
At the turn of last century, the region was thriving with vineyards planted throughout the valley. Some of the families that made early investments were the Kundes and Sebastianis, who would later go on to build well-known brands and promote the region around the globe.
After World War II, Hanzell Vineyards, a beautiful hillside winery established by James Zellerbach in 1952, inspired the new renaissance. The winery would go on to become the first to use stainless steel fermenters and French oak barrels in California. In the decades that followed, new vineyards were planted and talented winemakers like Richard Arrowood, Merry Edwards, Steve MacRostie, Tom Mackey, Jeff Baker, and Walter Schug moved to the region. With new technology and better plant material, the region has become associated with high-quality wines from the 1970s onward.
In 1982, Sonoma Valley received the first appellation status granted in Sonoma County. Since then, the boundaries of the valley are overlapped by newer appellations that include Carneros, Sonoma Coast, Moon Mountain, Sonoma Mountain and Bennett Valley.
Currently, there are over 500 members of the Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance (SVVGA), a non-profit trade organization that promotes the awareness of Sonoma Valley grapes, wine and history as the birthplace of the California wine industry. www.SonomaValleyWine.com.
Whites: Chardonnay is the main white grape planted in the valley. The pioneering vineyards of this first rush of plantings are Hanzell, Sangiacamo and Durell. Other popular white varieties include Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, Viognier, Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Picpoul Blanc, Vermentino.
Reds: The original workhorse varietal of the valley was Zinfandel. Today, Sonoma Valley boasts one of the largest concentrations of old vine Zinfandel vines in California. Many of these vineyards are interplanted with Petite Sirah, Alicante Bouschet, Mourvedre, Grenache Noir and other “mixed black” varietals. Some of the classic vineyards of the region are Monte Rosso, Old Hill, Bedrock, Chauvet and Los Chamizal. Cabernet Sauvignon has been planted in the region since the 1880s. Today, many of the best sites are on hillsides where the vines struggle. As a result, the flavors of the fruit are intensive and concentrated. In the early 1970s, some of the first Merlot vines in America were planted in the valley by Gundlach Bundschu and St. Francis wineries. And today, the varietal thrives in the warm climate conditions and the finished wines are commonly used in blends or bottled separately. Other special varietals from the valley include Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Sangiovese, Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Tannat.
White Wines: There is no doubt that some of the finest Chardonnays in America are made with fruit from the southern segment of Sonoma Valley, that is influenced by its close proximity to San Pablo Bay, and the strong winds blowing in from the west in the last afternoon. As a result, the flavors are distinct and delicious. On the palate, the most noticeable characteristic is citrus. Particularly lemon, Meyer lemon, lemon meringue, lemon peel, fresh lime juice, and grapefruit. From there, think apple, pear, peach, stone fruit and fresh, lively acidity. From the best hillside vineyards, it’s also typical to pick up hints of mineral or wet stone. Sauvignon Blanc is more aromatic and crisp with tangy notes of melon, grapefruit, pineapple, mango, kiwi fresh herbs, and racy acidity. And Viognier and the other fragrant grape varieties are equally enjoyable with notes of honeysuckle, apricot, peach, pear, and fresh stone fruits.
Red Wines: The Pinot Noirs from the region are intriguing and distinct. Flavors and aromas include Bing cherry, cranberry, strawberry, plum, bergamot, rose petals, earth, spice, and sometimes a hint of citrus. The old vine Zinfandels have more pronounced flavors concentrated on ripe blackberry, raspberry, strawberry, nectarine, licorice, black pepper, cardamom, and allspice. Syrahs are elegant and complex with deeper notes of dark fruit, seasoned meats, chocolate, and savory spices. And the bigger, more full-bodied red wines and proprietary blends made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc often have extracted aromas and dense flavors of briary blackberry, blueberry, black raspberry, dark cherry, pepper, chocolate, coffee, tobacco, and wild herbs.
With food, the wines from the region are extremely versatile and rewarding to the senses. Try Sauvignon Blanc and other aromatic white wines with goat cheese, oysters, chilled soups, gourmet salads, scallops, fish tacos, Japanese and Vietnamese cuisine, grilled veggies, chicken skewers, and pork with mango chutney. With Chardonnay and complex white wine blends, serve fresh creamy soups, Dungeness crab, swordfish, halibut, seafood pasta, Thai cuisine, risotto with lemon zest, roasted chicken and other gamey meats.
For red wines with balanced tannins like Pinot Noir, Grenache and Merlot, serve complex cheeses, fruit chutney, wild mushrooms, salmon and sturgeon, Indian cuisine, grilled chicken, pork and lamb sliders. With the more powerful reds, think grilled portabella mushrooms, fennel, gourmet pizzas, extravagant hamburgers, fresh pasta with red sauce, chicken with complex sauces, duck, grilled meats, barbecued ribs, rack of lamb, and hard cheese, especially Vella Dry Jack, a trademark of the region.