Last Updated on September 26, 2022.
Located north and west of San Francisco, Sonoma is part of the North Coast AVA and surrounded by Napa Valley, Marin, and Mendocino Counties. Its western edge is the Pacific Coast, ensuring a wide range of micro-climates that wine grapes absolutely love.
The History of Sonoma
Sonoma’s rich soil and diverse micro-climates have drawn settlers for thousands of years. Indigenous tribes settled all throughout the region and developed trade between groups, due to the natural bounty of the region.
By the early 1800s, Spanish missionaries arrived and with them, wine. The first vineyards were planted in 1824 by Padre Jose Altimira at the Mission San Francisco Solano in current-day Sonoma. Others planted vineyards as well while the region transitioned from Mexican territory under Spanish control to full American statehood by 1850.
By 1855, Hungarian Agoston Haraszthy established Buena Vista Winery, which is the oldest winery in California still in operation. Haraszthy’s travels to and from Europe resulted in the establishment of vineyards from European vine cuttings. Other immigrants flocked to Sonoma, and in particular, the influx of Italians helped establish many more commercial wineries, some of which still stand.
However, the region suffered the same phylloxera devastation as Napa, followed by the equally devastating Prohibition. By the time Prohibition ended in 1933, the true toll was clear: only about 50 wineries still existed. Sonoma recovered much more slowly than neighboring Napa. It wasn’t until the 1960s that it saw an increase in population, which slowly doubled by the 1980s.
By the 1990s, more and more wineries flourished as American interest in wine increased. Winemakers priced out of Napa sought land elsewhere and Sonoma provided the perfect region in which to plant and establish new vineyards. This slower expansion helped maintain the laid-back vibe that is still enjoyed in the region that is lovingly nicknamed “Slow-noma.”
Sonoma Grape Varieties
Similar to Napa, almost anything can grow in Sonoma and the micro-climates here are more varied. You’re just as likely to find a bold Zinfandel as you are to find a spicy Gewurztraminer. The most commonly found wine grapes are similar to those of Napa, but in a slightly different order:
Chardonnay loves Sonoma, and Chardonnay lovers will find everything from lean and unoaked to rich and buttery. The expansive Sonoma Coast AVA is home to a wide range, but the smaller Fort Ross-Seaview AVA nestled within Sonoma Coast and Los Carneros (also known simply as Carneros) that straddles Napa both have stellar examples.
While Chardonnay dominates more coastal regions, Cabernet thrives in the more eastern AVAs of the area. Alexander Valley is probably where it does best, producing some of the top Cabs from Sonoma, though Chalk Hill and Knights Valley are certainly jockeying for position.
Pinot and Chardonnay tend to love similar climates, so Pinot is also found throughout Sonoma Coast, Fort Ross-Seaview, Los Carneros, and Sonoma Valley. Look towards coastal regions for the best examples.
Sonoma is actually the perfect place for Merlot because the climactic diversity allows different expressions of the varietal to be produced. Often used in Bordeaux-style blends, an increasing number of producers are once again bottling it on its own.
Despite cool-loving Pinot thriving in Sonoma, heat-seeking Zin does as well! Look to the inland AVAs of Rockpile and Dry Creek Valley for particularly delicious examples.
Sonoma County Sub-AVAs
Sonoma is BIG, with more than 70,000 acres under vine. Sonoma Coast AVA is the largest, stretching along the Pacific Coast from just north of San Francisco all the way to the Mendocino County line. In the northern end of it, the Fort Ross-Seaview AVA is nested. While it’s a newer AVA, it’s definitely one to watch.
Moving slightly inland, the Russian River Valley AVA and the Green Valley AVA are found. Both experience a cooling effect from the Petaluma Gap, so Pinot and Chardonnay do well. North of the Russian River Valley, we hit a much hotter and drier AVA with Dry Creek Valley, which Rockpile overlaps. Their names imply how dry they are, which the Zinfandel variety absolutely loves.
Back down at the southern end, the eastern-most AVAs within Sonoma start with the larger Sonoma Valley AVA, in which Los Carneros AVA, Moon Mountain AVA, Sonoma Mountain AVA, and Bennett Valley AVA are all nested. There are varying micro-climates here, so everything from Pinot Noir to Syrah can be found.
Finally, sandwiched between Dry Creek Valley AVA and Lake County, we find Chalk Hill AVA, Knights Valley AVA, Alexander Valley AVA and the tiny Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak AVA. These are all hotter and drier than much of Sonoma, and are home to magnificent Cabernet Sauvignons.
Sonoma Wines to Try
California wines generally do not suffer a lack of distribution nationally, so Sonoma wines are fairly easily found. Some of the best-known Sonoma Cabs are Jordan and Silver Oak; prized Pinots include Kosta Browne and Williams Selyem; and charming Chardonnays include Patz & Hall and Flowers. It’s worth trying some more esoteric varietals as well to see how versatile Sonoma truly is.
If you’re thinking of visiting Sonoma County or any of its sub-regions, check out our comprehensive guide here, which includes wineries, tours, restaurants, and hotels. If you’re rather a more tailored itinerary, we have a fabulous 3-Day Itinerary here.
Written By Jamie Metzgar
Jamie Elizabeth Metzgar began her career in wine by pouring in a tasting room on the East End of Long Island, NY. After moving to New York City, she landed a position at Chambers Street Wines where she was encouraged to pursue wine education at the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET). She earned Level III certification there and has since earned California Wine Appellation Specialist and Certified Specialist of Wine certifications as well. After way too many moves, she has recently landed in the Central Coast of California where she is compiling an unofficial roster of dog-friendly tasting rooms.