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Can Sonoma Finally Get Its Act Together?

After years of herding cats, the county may be on the verge
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Jan 30, 2013 12:00pm ET

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.

Dry Creek Vineyard
Bill Smart —  January 30, 2013 1:26pm ET
Tim - thanks for weighing in on this very important issue for our county. Not sure if you read Tom Wark's blog on this topic from the other day.


He obviously has an opposing view. Myself, I tend to land on your side of the argument. The inherent problem with Sonoma County has been that the region has marketed itself in a very myopic way. The result has been that unless you are an uber sophisticated wine drinker, you really have no idea where Sonoma County is on a map! From personal experience, I have encountered this numerous times traveling throughout our great country. The conversation usually goes something like this – “we are from Dry Creek Valley in Northern Sonoma County” Response – “oh, is that near Napa?”

I believe that what the SCV is doing is the right thing in terms of trying to get “Brand Sonoma” on the radar screen of consumers. Wasn’t it Robert Mondavi who coined the phrase (at least in terms of the wine industry) – “A Rising Tide Raises All Boats.” As I understand it, Mondavi spent most of his life sharing not the Mondavi story, but rather the NAPA VALLEY story. This is a large part of why Napa is viewed as the benchmark region in California.

Bill Smart
Dry Creek Vineyard
Honore Comfort
Santa Rosa, CA —  January 30, 2013 4:20pm ET

Thanks for your thoughts on Sonoma County and your comments acknowledging the role of Sonoma Wine Country Weekend in promoting Sonoma County as a whole while celebrating our distinctive “parts”. While you’re right that this region has come from a tradition of rugged independence and individualism, the tide has changed and our winegrowing and winemaking communities have come together to promote our wines and vineyards.

The leadership of the various AVA-based organizations along with the Sonoma County Vintners, Sonoma County Winegrowers, and Sonoma County Tourism began partnering in 2006, and the results of our collaboration are starting to pay off.

The readers of TripAdvisor, one of the top 20 websites in the world, recently voted Sonoma County as the number one wine region to visit in the United States, and second, only to Tuscany in the world. Surely this is a sign that consumer recognition and appreciation of Sonoma County wines is growing.

When we launched the new Sonoma County campaign last August, after two years of brand research and development, we did this in partnership with not only Sonoma Valley, but with the participation and support of every AVA. The new branding, which is specifically designed to work with each AVA, has been so successful, that we are fielding requests from tourism, wineries, vineyards and other community organizations, who would like to add it to their marketing materials. This is a far cry from the provincial attitudes of the past.

Three years ago we started the Presidents’ Council, which brings together the leaders of Sonoma County’s winery, tourism, and grower organizations, on a quarterly basis to discuss our collective work and determine ways that we can all support and enhance each other’s efforts.

And then there is the Sonoma County Winegrowers Grant program, which allocates funds to help the AVA’s promote their region along with the Sonoma County brand efforts for maximum impact.

Finally, the value created by adding “Sonoma County” to our wine labels, even for a region that has “Sonoma” in the name is clearly supported. The recent WineOpinions research strongly makes the case that when the AVA and region appear together on the label, there is much better understanding of where the wine is from. Even among core wine drinkers, who are familiar with some of our AVA’s, the addition of “Sonoma County” helps them. We have conducted this research several times since 2005, and the findings bear out in each case that there is better recognition and quality perception with “Sonoma County” on the label. So it all fits together.

The stories and unique attributes of each region are what make Sonoma County unique, and the new “We Are Sonoma County” campaign embraces and celebrates the diverse people, places, and wines of this region, just as you suggest. Sonoma County is moving from general awareness among consumers, to a deeper understanding and fuller appreciation for all that we offer here, but each of our AVAs needs its clear identity to better reach wine drinkers and attract visitors.

So, to answer your question: Yes, Sonoma County definitely has its act together. Thanks for being a loyal supporter of all things “Sonoma”…
Sonoma, CA —  January 30, 2013 5:07pm ET
Tim -

First, this post, allows me to offer you an invitation to come into our office so that I can share with you the strategic approach and the planning that went into this brand essence project for Sonoma Valley.

In your post you write:
“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…”

Please allow me to take the opportunity to address what SVVGA is trying to accomplish with our new brand identity and how it is intended to work.

The brand identity is a result of a two-year marketing initiative that began with the development of the Sonoma Valley brand essence which served as the directive for creative development of a brand mark, tag and message. This process involved key community members and stakeholders from SVVGA member wineries and growers as well as other leaders in the tourism industry within Sonoma County.

The SVVGA has been struggling for many years to identify the unique points we can call our own, the definition of Sonoma Valley as a wine region with so many incredible stories. As the organization grew and started focusing on bigger marketing initiatives, it became more clear to the alliance that Sonoma Valley did not have a tag or a consistent message we could use to promote our region. Moreover, SVVGA did not have the tools to educate trade, media or consumers.

This is when the board of SVVGA and the members committed to the brand essence project so that we could clearly identify Sonoma Valley’s message and bring the valley together under one story. Most importantly, the new brand messaging and identity would be created specifically to work in conjunction with the work that Sonoma County Vintners, Sonoma County Winegrowers and Sonoma County Tourism as well as Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau had previously established. The strategy is to work hand in hand with the broader efforts to promote Sonoma County, not compete!

Over the past several years, SVVGA has demonstrated leadership amongst the other AVA groups that illustrate that we value collaboration and partnership. SVVGA has played an integral role on the Sonoma County Strategic Leadership Team (the committee that worked on the brand essence piece, Sonoma in the City events produced by Sonoma County Vintners and Winegrowers, and locally worked together with the Sonoma Valley Visitors Bureau to produce ONE winery map. Lastly, five years ago, SVVGA made the biggest commitment to collaboration when we partnered with Sonoma County Vintners to produce Sonoma Wine Country Weekend. Understanding that our partnership was key to the success of the event as well as bringing the entire county together to position Sonoma County as a world-class winegrowing region which includes Sonoma Valley.

As you can see, the Vintners and Growers of Sonoma Valley are very involved and supportive when it comes to the bigger picture promotion of Sonoma County. Only by working together will we all succeed!

I look forward to meeting with you so that we can dive in to our strategy and plan! As a resident of Sonoma County, you will be proud!
Jo Diaz
Windsor, Californai, USA —  January 30, 2013 5:20pm ET
I'll never forget one company that I worked for in Sonoma County. The tasting room manager told me, "Everyone knows that the tasting room and the marketing department are enemies." I thought, "What planet is she from?" I knew that the enemy was outside of the county... You've got to love (or not love) small town thinking...
Vince Liotta
Elmhurst, Il —  January 30, 2013 6:19pm ET
Not sure about the politics. Sure did enjoy Tim's line though, "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."

Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  January 30, 2013 8:48pm ET
Thanks for the comments everyone. Much appreciated.

Honore I know you've worked very hard to bring the various regions of the county in more harmony. Not an easy task. And it sounds like you and Maureen are doing your homework. Maureen, I think I've had a good understanding of SVVGA's research and goals, and from what you've said in your comments here, it sounds like the intentions for better unity are there too. That's good to hear. If you still want to chat, I'm open.
Brian Loring
Lompoc, CA, US —  January 31, 2013 9:43am ET
And how is all this marketing funded? A new mandatory tax has been applied to all wineries that buy fruit from Sonoma County. Even if our winery isn't in Somoma County, we still pay the tax. We will also be forced to change our labels - at no small expense, which includes all new TTB and state approvals.

So now our Keefer Ranch Pinot will have to have...

"Keefer Ranch Vineyard - Green Valley of Russian River Valley of Sonoma". I'm half tempted to add " of California of the United States of North America of Earth" just to make sure there's no confusion. Ugh.
Eric Hall
Healdsburg, CA —  January 31, 2013 1:34pm ET
Thank you Brian Loring, that's where the tire really hits the road.

I too have to put a long and rather silly:

XXXXX XXXXX Vineyard, Green Valley of Russian River Valley, Sonoma County, CA on the FRONT of my label.

If it was OK to put it on the back, (even tho I have to redesign all of my labels) I would, but Nooooo it's got to be on the front.

So what most wineries will do is designate their former front label as their back label, and visa versa in order to fit all that required text in and still have a nice "front" label that doesn't look like some kind of small print disclosure statement.

Eric Hall-
Roadhouse Winery
Tim Fish
Sonoma County —  January 31, 2013 1:58pm ET
To be fair, Brian and Eric, it's the "Green Valley of Russian River Valley" that's the mouthful.
Glenn Alexander
Russian River Valley —  February 1, 2013 12:44am ET
I farm some great vineyards in nearly every Sonoma County AVA and make small lots of wines from some of the vineyards I farm. The quality of grapes (representing nearly all of the noble varietals) that we grow is astounding. Even more so when you realize they exist within one county, not one country. I have always put Sonoma County on my label, simply because it is a very, very special place.

Glenn Alexander
Bacchus Vineyard Management
Sanglier Cellars

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