Wine Tip: Get to Know the True Sonoma Coast

A small enclave of this larger appellation makes well-structured, fruit-filled Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that are among the state's best
Wine Tip: Get to Know the True Sonoma Coast
Flowers winery's Sea View Ridge vineyard (Courtesy of Flowers)
Feb 4, 2019

Note: This tip originally appeared in the Feb. 28, 2019, issue of Wine Spectator, "Editors' Notebook."

One of California's most stunning and challenging winemaking realms is the rugged Sonoma Coast.

But first there's the matter of definition. The Sonoma Coast is a huge appellation; at 750 square miles, it covers half the land area of Sonoma County itself. It sprawls over vastly different terroirs, from the warm interior vineyards of Sonoma Valley to the windswept headlands of the Pacific Coast, a conglomeration that makes little sense taken as a whole.

In my opinion, the true Sonoma Coast lies in the far western reaches of the county, where the climate is ideal for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It's a fine balance at the edge of the continent to realize high quality: The frigid waters of the Pacific generate breezes that transport fog inland during summer and result in cool, mild growing conditions, but it takes a skilled hand to find the pockets warm enough for optimal quality. And just at the end of 2018, a new appellation called Western Sonoma Coast that essentially comprises the most maritime influenced terrain—from Annapolis in the north to Freestone in the south—was proposed by the federal government at the behest of local vintners.

In 2018, I visited three vineyards that epitomize this true Sonoma Coast—all with the perfect amount of warmth for success amid the cool maritime influences and rugged geography. All stand as dramatic expressions of what the region can produce—well-structured, fruit-filled Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays that are among the state's best.

The farthest inland of the trio is UV-SL vineyard. Six miles from the Pacific, it lies atop a ridge near the village of Occidental, on the home ranch of late vineyard manager Ulises Valdez, who was critical to developing many prime sites in Sonoma. The soils are a mix of the sandy loams called the Goldridge formation, a key component of many leading vineyards of the Sonoma Coast. The towering firs and redwoods that surround the property give it an ethereal beauty that is a hallmark of the Sonoma Coast for me. Napa-based vintner Mark Aubert made his crisp Chardonnay Sonoma Coast UV-SL Vineyard 2016 from the site; the wine features concentrated white fruit flavors and a minerally finish backed by fresh acidity.

Farther north and west, and in an even more remote location, is the Goldrock Estate of Sonoma's Paul Hobbs. It's situated in a sheltered vale on the second ridge inland from the ocean, about 5 miles from the crashing waves. The 42-acre vineyard, essentially carved out of the dense forest, stretches over rolling terrain with slopes as steep as 23 percent. It too has Goldridge loam, and is planted mostly to Pinot Noir. Hobbs purchased the vineyard in 2016, and his Pinot Noir Goldrock Estates is one of the highest-rated Pinots of the vintage, with rich plum, blackberry, cherry and wild berry flavors that pick up a light touch of oak and fresh earth.

Lastly, and within sight of the ocean itself at a distance of a little less than 2 miles, is the Sea View Ridge vineyard of Flowers winery, owned by Napa-based Huneeus Vintners. It's in the neighborhood of fabled names such as Marcassin and Boar's View. What makes grapegrowing possible here is the altitude. At almost 1,900 feet above sea level, the vineyard is above the fog most days and so can bask in the warming rays of the summer sun. The 43 acres are mostly planted to California heritage clones of Pinot Noir, such as Calera and Jensen. Winemaker Chantal Forthun crafted the Flowers Sonoma Coast Sea View Ridge 2016, which is powerfully juicy, with concentrated red plum, currant and dried strawberry flavors that are well-framed by toasty notes and minerality.

Each of these unique sites produces delicious wine, going a long way to explain what makes the true Sonoma Coast so special.

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