Bounded by climate and topography, the Carneros wine-growing region in Northern California is uniquely unbounded by political affiliation — Sonoma County shares Carneros with Napa Valley, and many vineyards of the Sonoma Valley American Viticulture Area (AVA) are also located within this sub-appellation.
Carneros is also distinctive, among Sonoma County’s wine regions, for its relatively uniform landscape of gently rolling, sparsely wooded hills above a wide, flat plain.
The name Los Carneros, “the rams” in Spanish, dates from the 1830s, when Mexico administered this region. Sheep ranches, dairies, and hay fields continued to dominate until the 1970s. Today Carneros has 8,000 vineyard acres and more than 20 wineries. AVA status was given in 1983.
Top billing goes to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay for sparkling and still wine. Because Carneros garnered acclaim early in California’s wine renaissance, many vineyards here were planted with so-called “California clones” like Martini, Swan, and old Wente. Syrah is an exciting newcomer, along with Rhône regional white varietals like Roussanne and Marsanne. Merlot remains strong, and there’s some Cabernet Sauvignon to be found.
The Lay of the Land
From certain vantage points, much of the entire Sonoma portion of the AVA can be seen at once. The AVA’s western border is shared with the Sonoma Valley AVA, roughly along the spine of hills that divides the Cotati Valley (and Petaluma Gap area) from the Sonoma Creek watershed.
The northern extent is marked by Napa Road on the outskirts of the city of Sonoma; the southern border is delineated partly by the NWP railroad tracks, but mainly by the wetlands and reclaimed hay fields bordering the San Pablo Bay.
Compared with Sonoma County’s other cool-climate AVAs, like the Sonoma Coast and Green Valley of the Russian River Valley, Carneros receives much less rainfall, and it’s farther from the Pacific Ocean.
The moderating influence of the San Pablo Bay, the northern portion of the greater San Francisco Bay, keeps Carneros cool and windy, but not too cold. Despite the broad agricultural vista it presents, the area’s dense, clay soils are not particularly deep or fertile.
Gloria Ferrer’s Sonoma Brut is a Sonoman’s standby sparkling wine. Down the road, Cline Cellars and Jacuzzi have extensive grounds. Ram’s Gate is perched above the vineyards and the Bay; Viansa Sonoma also sports a good view and a deli for picnics. Last chance before Napa, Nicholson Ranch anchors the southeastern corner of Carneros Sonoma.
Named for a local anabatic wind, Anaba makes Pinot Noir from Las Brisas Vineyard, named for the Carneros wind. Schug Carneros Estate and Larson Family Winery are off the beaten path. The Robledo Family welcomes visitors to their courtyard winery. Cornerstone Sonoma discoveries include Meadowcroft Wines and Obsidian Wine Co.
Restaurants and Lodging in the Carneros
The Carneros region is easily explored from the historic town of Sonoma, where many of the best restaurant and lodging options can be found.
Along the Carneros Highway, Schellville Grill has the house-smoked pork ribs covered; Angelo’s Wine Country Deli (look for the red and white cow on the roof) features homemade cold cuts, sausages, and condiments like garlic salsa and garlic mustard; or stop for lunch at Cornerstone Sonoma and have a post-dining stroll through the gardens.
Lodging can range from high-end luxury at the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn, nearby in Sonoma Valley, to vintage motor-court chic at the Vineyard Inn Hotel, and cottage charming at Sonoma’s Best Guest Cottages.
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