If you’ve lived in California then you probably know how much the Pacific Ocean affects the air temperature. Coastal towns and cities can experience temperatures that are routinely 15-20 degrees cooler than locations just a few miles inland, and this juxtaposition is at its starkest in the summer. [Top Photo: Cathleen Evangelista]
Santa Monica, for example, might be 20 degrees cooler than the San Fernando Valley this time of year. The same is true in Northern California where San Francisco is like an air-conditioned room compared to towns just a few miles away in the East Bay. Winemakers in California are all too familiar with this climate variance. After all, without the cooling effects of the Pacific Ocean it would literally be impossible to grow certain varietals, like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, that require cool, temperate conditions. Thus, finding cooler microclimates in a state that basks in unrelenting sun for most of the summer is key to not only initial grape growth but also expected quality. Enter the Petaluma Gap—Sonoma’s newest AVA (American Viticultural Area) and, if you ask certain wine experts, its best.
Situated about 40 miles north of San Francisco, the town of Petaluma has a long agricultural history and was once known as the egg basket of Sonoma County. Turophiles may recognize the area for its artisanal cheeses, while beer lovers will know it as the home of the Lagunitas Brewing Company. And if you don’t know much about this area or its increasingly famous gap, then you’re about to learn. Located in northern Marin County and southern Sonoma County, the Petaluma Gap comprises approximately 200,000 acres, with 4,000 of them planted as vineyards that grow mostly Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and Syrah. The trademark of the region is its unique combination of wind and fog. The “Gap” is actually a wind gap named after a coastal mountain opening that stretches east from the Pacific through the town of Petaluma and then roars south to San Pablo Bay.
The Petaluma Gap’s excellence was a mystery even to me until recently. While dining on a perfectly cooked ahi tuna steak in the wine cellar of Stark’s Steak & Seafood (a timeless outpost in Santa Rosa that is popular with locals and visiting wine tasters, alike), the topic of best Pinot Noir AVAs in the U.S. arose. One local wine critic, whom I later found out was the somewhat renowned wine columnist Dan Berger (columns in the LA Times, Associated Press and Santa Rosa Press-Democrat dating back to 1976), declared that there are three AVAs in a league of their own: the Russian River Valley, Santa Lucia Highlands and Petaluma Gap.
While all of these AVAs boast a cool climate, it was the Petaluma Gap that caught my ear because, quite frankly, I was not familiar with it. I knew of the town of Petaluma, and also of the “Gaps Crown” vineyard in the Sonoma Coast region that produces some of my favorite Pinot Noirs (think heavy hitters like Kosta Browne and Gary Farrell). But I was not aware of an AVA by the name of Petaluma Gap. As it turns out, the Petaluma Gap (aka Petaluma Wind Gap) had only recently been designated as an official AVA (December 7, 2017), thus making it Sonoma’s newest AVA and partly accounting for my oblivion. Superior critics like Berger, however, have known this area and coveted wines from it for years.
Why? As Berger explained, the Petaluma Gap’s topography combined with its ability to pull cool air and fog in from the Pacific renders it superior to other regions, such as neighboring Carneros. Cool air and fog are vital to Pinot Noir, allowing for greater hang time of the grapes.
Justin Harmon, winemaker for Pfendler Vineyards (who was also present at our luncheon/panel discussion), further described its distinction: “The Petaluma Gap provides a uniquely advantageous opportunity to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir under cool-climate conditions, while still retaining distinct California character. Due to the profound influence the Pacific Ocean impresses upon the region by way of both wind and fog, The Gap’s vines are afforded the opportunity to slowly ripen their fruit under clear California skies each day, all while persistent, cooling westerly winds temper the AVA’s daily high temperatures. This balance of sunshine and cool temperatures allows for an exceptional balance of sugar accumulation and phenolic ripeness in the grapes at harvest time.”
Now, you may be musing to yourself right about now that California has dozens of cool microclimates up and down its coast, many of which are planted to vineyards. So what, exactly, makes the Petaluma Gap so special? The answer lies not just in the region’s cool temperatures, but also in the wind itself. In fact, it is arguably the only AVA in California that owes its uniqueness more to the wind than the soil or fog or temperature. Also known as the “Wind Gap,” this sliver of land experiences unusually windy conditions.
It is the persistent wind and the cool air it ushers into the Gap that helps grapes develop thick skins and smaller clusters. It’s a fair assumption that the flavors in wine would be derived simply from the grape’s juice, but there is much to be gained from the skin as well. Phenolic compounds are more present in the skins and this is where color density and acid come to the fore. Unsurprisingly, Petaluma Gap wines are known for their high acid levels and complex flavors due to the long growing season. A local winemaker I spoke with, Theresa Heredia of Gary Farrell Wines, was a strong proponent of such claims.
“The Petaluma Gap yields wines with muscle, depth and rustic fruit character,” said Heredia. “It’s a cool, windy region, highly influenced by the coastal fog from the Pacific, which I feel makes it ideal for Pinot Noir. It’s one of the most promising appellations in California, and grapes from top vineyards are highly sought after by winemakers.”
In addition to being ideal for growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, “The Gap” is also highly suited for Syrah—a varietal that is often overshadowed in California by Cabernet, Merlot and Pinot Noir, despite how well it flourishes in certain areas of the state. As someone who loves the Rhone Valley varietal, I have always felt there is a distinct difference when you compare it to New World Syrah (from the likes of California, Washington and Australia). This opinion did not hold once I tried David Ramey’s Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah (hailing from Ramey Wine Cellars). Had I tasted this blind I might have mistaken it for a Chateauneuf-du-Pape or Cote-Rotie given its earthiness and restraint, with classic notes of white pepper and smoked meats backed by plenty of fruit. It was deftly balanced, something many California Syrahs—which can often be fruit bombs with alcohol levels pushing 15 percent—unfortunately lack. Not this one. This was a food friendly, complex wine that is undoubtedly characteristic of its locale.
“In our case, our Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah, grown at 800 feet on the southwest slope of Sonoma Mountain, benefits from the cool ocean air, producing a Syrah of classic northern Rhône inflection, laced with flavors of peppercorns, smoked meat, green olives, and grapefruit,” said Ramey. “Cool-climate Syrah like this is distinctly savory, rather than fruity—quite complex—with a structure more akin to Pinot Noir than Cabernet.”
Now that you’ve received a heavy pour of education, there is only one question that remains: What will you do with your newfound knowledge? I highly suggest heading straight to your local seller to sample the goods. Did I mention that this unique style of wine happens to pair excellently with summer cookout fare? Invite your friends over; make it a party and thank me later.
For selection tips, here are a few of my favorites.
Pfendler Vineyards 2015 Chardonnay ($38)
Pfendler Vineyards 2015 Pinot Noir ($45): Textbook “Gap” wines, with great acidity and complex flavors—the beneficiaries of a long growing season.
Capiuax Cellars Gap Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir 2014 ($50)
Ramey Wine Cellars 2014 Rodgers Creek Vineyard Syrah ($60): A new world version of the great Northern Rhone wines that actually tastes like it, with white pepper, smoked meats, luscious dark fruits and a long finish.
Gary Farrell 2014 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast ($70)
Bevan Pinot Noir Petaluma Gap Sonoma Coast 2014 ($80)