Can Sonoma Finally Get Its Act Together?

After years of herding cats, the county may be on the verge
Jan 30, 2013

The wine regions of Sonoma County don't play well together.

It has been that way since I can remember and I've lived there for 25 years. Being a stubborn bastard is a rich tradition in Sonoma County for some reason. I think it dates to those grumpy old Italian farmers who spawned the local wine industry. Everything had to be their way, even if they didn't know what the hell they were talking about.

Sonoma County's American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) aren't much different. Each region has been so busy promoting itself that the big picture is fuzzy. What brings this up is a new effort by Sonoma Valley Vintners and Growers Alliance (SVVGA) to rebrand Sonoma Valley—the area in the southeastern part of the county.

The brand seemed just fine to me but then I'm not a tourist or a typical wine consumer. It's their dollars that matter, and the SVVGA believes consumers are confused about what "Sonoma" means. In fact, within Sonoma County there are AVAs named "Sonoma Valley" and "Sonoma Mountain" and "Sonoma Coast," so it can be baffling.

I'm not sure whether the SVVGA is trying to distinguish itself as the "real" Sonoma or simply trying to better define its piece within the greater Sonoma County wine puzzle. I hope it's the latter because over the years Sonoma County has been divided and, frankly, limited by too much provincial thinking.

That sort of separatist approach might have been necessary in the early days when Sonoma County producers were trying to establish some sort of regional identity and had an inferiority complex about Napa.

The Pinot Noir producers of Russian River Valley didn't particularly want to associate themselves with the Cabernet winemakers in Alexander Valley, and Dry Creek seemed a million miles from Sonoma Valley. And there were enough mediocre wines labeled "Sonoma County" that few regional producers wanted to be associated with them.

Certainly geography has been part of the issue, and a natural divider. Sonoma is big and cordoned off by mountains. People in the city of Sonoma rarely venture north into the heart of the county. Napa is much closer and San Francisco is about the same distance as Healdsburg. Sonoma Valley—obstinately—decided the Sonoma County Wine Auction wasn't good enough and established it own auction 20 years ago, further emphasizing the divide between valley and county.

Look at it this way: The drive from Healdsburg to the city of Sonoma is not much shorter than cruising from the vineyards of Côte-Rôtie in the Northern Rhone to Pouilly-Fuissé in Burgundy. And we all know how chummy Burgundy and the Rhône have been over the years.

That doesn't change my point, however. I'm convinced the need for Sonoma separatism is becoming a thing of the past. Sonoma County as a whole has established its own cachet. No region in the state makes better Pinots, Chardonnays and Zinfandels. It competes with the best when it comes to Sauvignon Blanc and sparkling wine, and its Cabernets and Rhône reds are worth watching.

Sonoma County shouldn't fear diversity. It should embrace it, make it the calling card, pool all the efforts and run with it. There's no better example of that potential than "Taste of Sonoma," a wine and food tasting event that's part of the greater "Sonoma Wine Country Weekend," which recombined the Sonoma County and Sonoma Valley efforts in 2008.

"Taste of Sonoma" embraces the entire county while giving the key regions their due. Alexander, Russian River, Dry Creek and Sonoma Valley AVAs each have a separate tent in which the producers pour new releases with nibbles from area restaurants.

Honore Comfort, executive director of Sonoma County Vintners, appreciates the need for Sonoma's various AVAs to retain a distinct personality but sees signs of a renewed effort for the greater whole. In 2013, for example, the "Sonoma Valley Harvest Wine Auction, the second major event of  "Sonoma Wine Country Weekend," is now named simply "Sonoma Harvest Wine Auction."

It's a step in the right direction. As someone who lives in the county and has written about wine travel in Northern California for 20 years, I can tell you wine lovers are ready for it.

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