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Sonoma County AVAs

by Staff Writer - K. Ash | February 10, 2012

When reviewing Northern California wine regions, Sonoma County stands out as one of the top wine producing areas in the United States. Originally overshadowed by the explosion of winemaking in the Napa Valley, Sonoma County is slowly transforming into an area of producing wines that rival the Napa Valley. Today Sonoma County is one of Northern California’s top grape producers and produces far more grapes than neighboring Napa Valley.


Sonoma County has a rich history concerning California winemaking. It was in Sonoma County that California winemaking got started. In 1824 the Mission San Francisco successfully planted over 1,000 acres in Sonoma County. It was from these vineyards that George Yount obtained his cuttings for his famous Napa Valley vineyard. Around this time the vineyards of the Mission San Francisco became the private holdings of lieutenant Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. This was the same Vallejo who laid out the town of Sonoma and established the Lachryma Montis vineyard, one of the first vineyards in California to utilize irrigation.

Sonoma County continued to attract the attention of serious wine growers and investors. Agoston Haraszthy started his Buena Vista winery in mid 1800s. Jacob Gundlach and Charles Kohler also starting wineries at around the same time. Even with investments in wineries, by the end of the 1800s it was clear that Napa was the area attracting wealthy wine investors. The Napa Valley proved to be the area where the wealthy invested significant resources and built their show-off wineries. The preference of the Napa Valley over Sonoma County had to do with the size and topography of Sonoma County.

When comparing Sonoma County to Napa Valley, one can easily see that Sonoma County is significantly larger than Napa Valley. One could argue that the smaller size of the Napa valley appeals to investors looking at building show wineries. In addition to this fact, the actual topography of Sonoma County is vastly different than that of Napa valley. The topography found in Sonoma County tends to make privacy almost assured among local residents. For investors looking to develop wine estates, the last thing they want is a state of absolute privacy. This reason more than anything else explains the preference of Napa valley.

While Sonoma County historically came in second place when compared to Napa Valley, there were some areas where the level of privacy was beneficial. One such area would be wine-communes. From the end of the 1800s to recent times, wine communes have come and gone from Sonoma County. Recently, the commune style club known as the Boheman Club has been known for hosting two-week retreats at its private estate known as Bohemian grove. While not a commune per say, the nature of privacy works well for the atmosphere of the club as undue attention is frowned upon.

Like most regions, Sonoma County has various American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) scattered throughout. When comparing the AVAs of Sonoma County with the AVAs of Napa Valley, it becomes clear that there are notable differences. This can be seen in that most of the Sonoma County AVAs overlap each other. Today some of the AVAs found within Sonoma County include Alexander Valley, Bennett Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Knights Valley, Los Carneros, Northern Sonoma, Rockpile, Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma Mountain and the Sonoma Valley.

Los Carneros AVA

Of the various AVAs listed above, the Los Carneros AVA is unique in that it is a county overlapping AVA. As the Los Carneros AVA was defined on climate characteristics rather than political boundaries, roughly half of the Los Carneros AVA is located in Sonoma County while the other half is located in the Napa Valley. The climate of the Los Carneros AVA is unique in that temperature wise Los Carneros is slightly cooler than other AVAs found within Sonoma County. Also, the soil shows clay characteristics resulting in poor drainage. In this environment the grape varieties of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are popular, however the Terroir can make growing quality grapes challenging.

Northern Sonoma AVA

The remaining balance of AVAs found within Sonoma County represent one of the United States most unique and confusing systems of AVAs. Sonoma County is sub divided into various smaller AVAs and many of these AVAs overlap within Sonoma County itself. A good example of this overlapping would be the Northern Sonoma AVA. The Northern Sonoma AVA is a region encompassing 544 square miles as well as seven of Sonoma County’s eleven AVAs. The main reason for the existence of the Northern Sonoma AVA is for the support of labeling wines as "Estate Bottled." Prerequisites for labeling wines as "Estate Bottled" state that all grapes used in a wine must be located in the same region as the winery itself. For certain wineries that obtain grapes from various sources, having an AVA that encompasses these sources allows the winery to legally use "Estate Bottled" on its label.

Sonoma Coast AVA

The Sonoma Coast AVA is another large overlapping AVA found within Sonoma County. At 750 acres and overlapping five other Sonoma County AVAs, the Sonoma Coast AVA is the largest AVA in Sonoma County. The Sonoma Coast AVA is defined primarily based on weather and temperature conditions and exists to allow wineries the practice of blending grapes from different regions while still allowing the use of "Estate Bottled" on wine labels.

The western AVAs of Sonoma County

The western AVAs of Sonoma County are situated within close proximity of the Pacific Ocean and as such are moderated by the cool breezes and moist air from the ocean. AVAs included in this region are the Russian River Valley AVA and two subsets, the Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA and the Chalk Hill AVA. Grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and Gewurztraminer are all poplar varieties for these AVAs.

Eastern Sonoma County

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On the eastern side of Sonoma County, topographical features exist that prohibit the natural cooling breezes and fogs of the Pacific Ocean from affecting the local AVAs. This can be seen in the AVAs nestled between the mountain regions on the eastern part of Sonoma County. These eastern AVAs include Dry Creek Valley, Alexander Valley, Knights Valley, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain. Grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, Syrah and Barbera are popular.

In 2002 a new AVA was created in the northwest corner of Sonoma County. This AVA is known as Rockpile and is essentially an extension of the Dry Creek Valley AVA. No wineries exist within this AVA and only about 200 acres of vineyards have been planted. The more popular grape grown in this AVA is Zinfandel.

Sonoma County’s newest AVA was created in 2003. This AVA is known as Bennett Valley and only contains about 650 acres of grapes. The Bennett Valley AVA overlaps the Sonoma Valley, the Sonoma Mountain and the Sonoma Coast AVAs. Cabernet Sauvignon is the grape of choice in this AVA although some Zinfandels can be rather impressive.

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