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Sonoma Valley Wineries And Wines
by Benjamin Bicais

Although many AVAs in Sonoma County are well-known for one or two specific varietals, the Sonoma Valley enjoys diverse terroir, and successfully grows many different grape types. The Sonoma Valley AVA was established in 1982, and is approximately 160 square miles. About 28,000 acres are planted with vineyards.


The history of viticulture in the Sonoma Valley began when a Franciscan Padre named Jose Altimira established the Sonoma Mission in 1823. This was the last, and northernmost Spanish Mission built in California. Altimira established the first of the Sonoma Valley Wineries, and simple wines were produced for ecclesiastical purposes.

After Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1835, General Vallejo was sent by the new government to secularize the Sonoma Mission and its surrounding properties. The Bear Flag Revolt occured 11 years later, and authority shifted to the United States Government shortly thereafter.

Agaston Harazsthy founded the first commercial Sonoma Valley Winery in 1857. Harazsthy experimented with different vitis vinifera varietals and greatly increased the perception of the Sonoma Valley as a quality wine region. Although Harazsthy's winery ultimately went bankrupt, it laid the foundation for future wine producers. Because of his contributions to Sonoma viticulture, Harazsthy is known as the "Father of the California Wine Industry".

The combined devastation of Phylloxera and Prohibition eliminated all but the most hearty and innovative Sonoma Valley Wineries. Sebastiani was able to persevere due to a contract with the Church to make wine. However, most vineyards were converted to other crops or used to raise livestock.

Despite the fact that the Sonoma Valley AVA has a long history of winemaking, it was not until the 1970s that quality wine production became widespread. The legacy of Phylloxera and Prohibition caused the region to stagnate for over a generation. Between the repeal of Prohibition and the renaissance of the 1970s, Sonoma Valley Wineries primarily produced jug wine.

During the 1970s, renowned wineries such as Gundlach-Bundschu, and Chateau St. Jean experimented successfully with several different varietals. As a result, one varietal does not dominate production as Cabernet Sauvignon does in the Rutherford and Oakville AVAs.


The terroir of the Sonoma Valley AVA is dominated by unpredictable fog patterns. A substantial amount of fog from the Southern San Pablo Bay regularly covers the region. Additionally, a lesser amount of fog creeps through a gap in the mountains near Santa Rosa in the north.

The Southern Sonoma Valley is very cool and includes the eastern part of the Carneros AVA. Temperature steadily rise as one travels north. The town of Sonoma is located about one-third of the way north within the AVA and has a moderate, pleasant climate. The northern towns of Glen Ellen and Kenwood are substantially warmer.

Wines, Wineries, and Varietals

As alluded to earlier, unpredictable fog patterns make it difficult to typecast specific areas in the Sonoma Valley AVA as being suited to particular varietals. Although exceptions abound, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay generally thrive in the southern part of the Appellation. At the same time, there are areas around Kenwood in the northern part of the AVA that produce great Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

Pinot Noir from Sonoma Valley varies dramatically from the south to the north. Northern Pinots have almost Rhone-like characteristics, while southern Pinots are lighter and more reminiscent of production from the Russian River Valley.

The eastern hills of the valley below Sonoma Mountain are increasingly best known for Zinfandel. McCrea Vineyards is an exceptional example of this production. While great Cabernet Sauvignon can also be found on the Eastern Sonoma Mountain, Louis M Martini's Monte Rosso in the Western Mayacamas Mountains has arguably been the most consistently excellent Cab grown by any Sonoma Valley Winery. Exceptional Gewurztraminers and Sauvignon Blancs are also produced in the Sonoma Valley AVA.


Benjamin Bicais lives in the Napa Valley and is the webmaster of