The Sonoma Coast American Viticulture Area (known as an AVA or appellation) may be Sonoma County’s most enigmatic wine region. From the wild, wind-swept northern coast to the gently rolling hills of the southern dairy land, it spans the county.
The Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau officially designates AVAs, each with its own unique characteristics, to help winemakers clearly describe the origin of their wines and to make it easier for consumers to identify the wines they buy. Sonoma Coast AVA status was awarded in 1987.
Much of Sonoma County’s most celebrated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are grown here, yet few wines are actually made in the Sonoma Coast AVA, and several of its most distinctive sub-regions are not officially recognized AVAs.
But there’s little mystery about this: Some of California’s highest scoring and most coveted cool-climate style wines are grown in the Sonoma Coast AVA. It includes about 2,000 vineyard acres, and fewer than 10 wineries (not counting wineries that belong to overlapping appellations such as the Russian River Valley).
Burgundian varietals Pinot Noir and Chardonnay star in this cool-climate appellation. Syrah is an exciting runner-up. Varietals grown within the crossover appellations are rarely labeled as Sonoma Coast.
The Lay of the Land
With apologies to the Dungeness crab for which the local fishing region is famed, the Sonoma Coast AVA is shaped somewhat like a lobster, tilted at 45 degrees, and headed northwest. The “head” and the “tail” of this lobster overlap the Russian River Valley and Carneros appellations, respectively. It’s the body and claw that make the meat of the Sonoma Coast AVA.
Direct, daily influence from the Pacific Ocean defines the appellation. In the northern reach, vineyards are planted high on ridges just a few miles inland. Many lie above the fog that moves in to blanket lower elevations in the afternoon.
The heart of the AVA includes the Freestone area, a sheltered, pastoral valley where hillside vineyards bask in sun when it breaks through the fog. In the south, vines in adobe soils grow to the edge of salt mashes bordering San Pablo Bay. And within the Sonoma Coast AVA lies the wind- and fog-influenced Petaluma Gap area, named after a coastal mountain opening that allows winds from the Pacific to breeze through the town of Petaluma and then roar south to San Pablo Bay. Wineries here are represented by the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, which is working to get this area its own AVA designation.
Joseph Phelps Freestone offers one of the few tasting experiences in the heart of the appellation; Keller Estate offers expansive views of the Petaluma Gap area. Sonoma Valley’s Cline Cellars also has locations in the Sonoma Coast AVA.
Martinelli has important vineyards in the Sonoma Coast and is open for tasting daily; Kistler, Kosta Browne, Hirsch, Williams Selyem, Peay, Evening Land, and Marcassin, to name a few, are not typyically open for tasting. Some of these wineries participate in the West of the West Festival held in August by the West Sonoma Coast Vintners, to celebrate wines from the “true Sonoma Coast.”
Restaurants and Lodging on the Sonoma Coast
Take in views of the dramatic coastline at Timber Cove Inn, Jenner Inn, River's End Restaurant & Inn, or of Bodega Bay at Tides Wharf Restaurant. “Surf” local wines at wine shop Gourmet au Bay in Bodega Bay. And La Dolce Vita wine lounge in Petaluma's theater district spotlights Petaluma Gap wines.
The Sheraton Petaluma and Santa Rosa’s Hyatt Vineyard Creek are centrally located, while Inn at the Tides, Bodega Bay Lodge and Drakes Sonoma Coast Cuisine offer fine dining and accommodations on the coast.
Written by Sonoma Insider James Knight
Sonoma County Appellations (AVA):
Carneros - Sonoma
Dry Creek Valley
Fort Ross - Seaview
Green Valley of Russian River Valley
Pine Mountain - Cloverdale Peak
Russian River Valley