Few Sonoma County wine regions are so singularly determined by elevation, exposure and geographical feature as Sonoma Mountain American Viticulture Area (AVA).
When viewed from the west, Sonoma Mountain isn’t a particularly dramatic peak. Comprised of a lumpy series of hills piled on top of each other, briefly green and mostly golden and dotted with groves of live oak, its western flank meets cool winds and fog from the Petaluma Gap.
Wineries pay a premium for the Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah that manages to ripen here.
But just on the other side, you might think you are looking at a different mountain: forested, rugged, darkly looming over the Valley of the Moon.
This is Cabernet country — among other grapes — and this is the country that author and resident Jack London was thinking about in 1913 when he wrote, “The air is wine.
The grapes on a score of rolling hills are red with autumn flame. Across Sonoma Mountain, wisps of sea fog are stealing. The afternoon sun smolders in the drowsy sky. I have everything to make me glad I am alive.”
The Sonoma Mountain AVA contains 800 vineyard acres, and was recognized with AVA status in 1985.
The fact that both Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir thrive in close proximity to each other on Sonoma Mountain is no accident of misplaced enthusiasm on the part of farmers — it’s a testament to the complex interplay of topography, sun and wind exposure on the mountain’s slopes. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Zinfandel, and Syrah are also grown here; there’s even a little Grenache and Grüner Veltliner to be found.
The Lay of the Land
The Sonoma Mountain AVA is located within the northwest area of the greater Sonoma Valley appellation. One of the earlier AVAs to be determined by specific elevation rather than the broad outlines of a valley, the appellation occupies elevations between 400 and 1,200 feet, and only on the north and eastern slopes of Sonoma Mountain.
It overlaps the Bennet Valley AVA on the northwestern end, where the cooling influence of the Petaluma Gap enhances Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Much of the Cabernet is grown on the fog-sheltered eastern side of the mountain — sunny, warm, but facing the morning, not the evening, sun. Most vineyards on Sonoma Mountain are not contiguous, instead being isolated amid woods and grazing land.
Benziger Family Winery is the leading wine tasting attraction on Sonoma Mountain. After the Benzigers sold their successful Glen Ellen brand in 1993, they transitioned their estate to become a model of Biodynamic practices. Benziger’s Tribute and Ooanapais blends typify their mountain-grown Cabernet-based wines.
Just up the road, Kenwood Vineyards has had long relationship with the Jack London Vineyard, located on California author Jack London’s original Beauty Ranch and operated by his heirs.
Laurel Glen has been another noted producer of Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon, while much of the area’s top product is released by wineries outside of the appellation: Look for vineyard names like Van der Kamp, Richard Dinner, Steiner, Jewell, Kistler, and Pickberry.
Restaurants and Lodging around Sonoma Mountain
At the base of Sonoma Mountain, the hamlet of Glen Ellen offers the best amenities in the area.
The Glen Ellen Inn, The Jack London Lodge, and Gaige House + Ryokan offer a place to retire for the evening; locals start the morning with coffee and croissants, quiche, or other delicious goodies at Les Pascals, or traditional American fare (including seven types of Eggs Benedict) at the Garden Court Café.
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