Our new expert guide, developed by Bryce Wiatrak, focuses on Sonoma County. Read an excerpt below, then continue on to the full guide!
At the north of the San Francisco Bay Area, Sonoma County is one of the most recognizable wine countries in the New World. Yet it is difficult to pin down an identity for Sonoma wine. Is it the lean and pristine Pinot Noir and Chardonnay of the Sonoma Coast, grown within a stone’s throw of the Pacific Ocean? Or is it their satisfying and singular counterparts found in the Russian River Valley? Or perhaps Sonoma should be best known for its treasured centenarian Zinfandel vineyards, found in patches across the county, or for its structured, savory Cabernet Sauvignon and velvety Merlot.
Of course, Sonoma is all of this and more, and its diversity continues growing as young producers experiment with new varieties and expand the region’s stylistic spectrum. Still, Sonoma can be confusing. The county’s 18 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) intersect to create a labyrinthine system that is rarely intuitive. Sonoma’s top grape varieties yield wildly divergent results in the hands of winemakers across its 1,800-square-mile expanse. In many regards, Sonoma fits inside one county the entire breadth of the California wine industry.
This guide will explore Sonoma County as well as the other wine-focused counties of the North Coast: Mendocino County, Lake County, and Solano County. (Napa County is addressed in a separate expert guide.) Despite their proximity, these counties likewise vary in climate and terroir, and their exciting potential is only just being realized.
It is believed that Sonoma County has been inhabited for at least 10,000 years. Three primary Native American tribes were present in the area prior to European arrival: the Coast Miwok, the Wappo, and the Kashaya Pomo. The Miwok settled near Bodega Bay, and their first documented encounter with Europeans comes from 1579, noted by Chaplain Fletcher, who was aboard a ship of Sir Francis Drake. The Pomo were just north, near what became Fort Ross, while the Wappo lived to the interior, also occupying the Napa Valley. Before European settlement, an estimated 5,000 Native Americans populated Sonoma. When the Europeans arrived, Mexican land grant holders forced many Native Americans into work as laborers. While Native American populations are still found in Sonoma, their numbers have steeply declined.
The Russians beat the Spanish and Mexicans to Sonoma County, landing at Bodega Bay and constructing Fort Ross in 1812. This became the southernmost outpost of the Russian-American Fur Company, an operation that descended the West Coast from its headquarters in Alaska and exploited Native Alaskans and the Indigenous peoples of Sonoma as sources of labor. Beyond fur trapping, the Russians are also credited with planting the first grapevines in Sonoma County. Their initial efforts at Fort Ross, unsurprisingly, failed—and it would be another century and a half before coastal viticulture took hold in Sonoma. The Russians found greater success farther inland, and in 1836, Igor Chernykh planted the first vineyard in what is today the Russian River Valley. The Russians’ stay in Sonoma, however, was short lived; they sold Fort Ross in 1841 and retreated to Alaska.
Bryce... very well researched and written. Thank you!