Sonoma County Gets New Wine Region: Moon Mountain AVA
Say hello to Sonoma County’s newest American Viticultural Area (AVA or wine region) designation, “Moon Mountain District.”
Where? You’ll have to look a little higher. Up there, east of Glen Ellen, where the full moon rises over the Sonoma Valley, at elevations ranging from 400 to more than 2,000 feet above sea level.
Where 1,500 acres of grapevines cling to thin, volcanic soils on ancient lava flows beneath craggy peaks, alternately basking in the sun and cooling in the crosswinds from the Pacific Ocean to the west, and San Pablo Bay to the south.
Now a sub-appellation of the Sonoma Valley AVA, recognized back in 1981, Moon Mountain has been a source of prized wine grapes since the 1860s. Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel reign supreme in this area, which is crowned by Louis M. Martini’s famed Monte Rosso vineyard. But that’s not all.
Hanzell Vineyards has been vinting legendary, brooding Pinot Noir on the southern edge of the appellation since the 1950s. While winemaker Michael McNeill said that since they haven’t changed their label in seven decades, they’ll likely stick with Sonoma Valley. “We do believe that there are big differences in farming here in the mountains, versus the valley floor. And we appreciate that difference here,” he explained.
Local vintners don’t expect the designation to win immediate consumer recognition. “It’s a starting point, not an end point,” said Christian Borcher, co-founder of Repris Wines (a revival of the former Carmenet winery, which was dynamite-blasted into the volcanic rock).
Borcher led the effort to shepherd the application through the government regulatory entities. What’s valuable right now, he said, is that the designation helps to enhance the consumer’s understanding of the diversity of Sonoma County wine growing regions.
Winemaker Morgan Twain-Peterson scours the state in search of heritage vineyards, and is interested more in their uniqueness qualities than in their particular appellation.
“That said,” Peterson allowed, “if Mt. Veeder, Diamond Mountain, Howell Mountain, and Sonoma Mountain have an AVA, then the generally distinct soil types and elevation found (in the) Moon Mountain AVA certainly deserves to have one too.” He releases a Monte Rosso Zinfandel under his Bedrock Wine Co. label.
So once the cork is popped and you’re swirling a deep, ruby Moon Mountain wine in your glass, what can you expect? Do gorgeous views make great wines?
“I think one thing you can expect is high quality,” said Borcher, “and a focus on making world-class wine.”
The grapes here are typically smaller, and thick-skinned, which enhances the wine’s concentration, but simple economics also come with the terroir, he explained. Because it’s so expensive to farm on the mountainous terrain, the wines must compete on quality.
“You’ve gone down the path of high cost, so you have to combine that with high quality. Top-notch quality,” he added.
Although plainly visible from Highway 12 as it wends through the Valley of the Moon, Moon Mountain is fairly rugged, and you can’t just pop in to a winery for a taste. If you plan ahead, have a little extra time and a spirit of adventure, several wineries do offer tours by appointment. Sipping Chardonnay with a 60-mile view to the Golden Gate is well worth it. See B Wise Vineyards, Hanzell Vineyards, Kamen Estate, and Repris Wines for their current programs.