Thursday, December 15, 2022

Sonoma Series: Sonoma Valley & Sonoma Mountain


Jack London, the activist American writer, felt comfortable in the Valley of the Moon, a name he gave to the part of Sonoma Valley he called home. Running southeast from Santa Rosa to the town of Sonoma, the valley includes the sub-region of Sonoma Mountain, with the Jack London Ranch and vineyard.

Fame as a wine region was never quite achieved by Sonoma Valley in the same way as other Sonoma wine areas like Alexander Valley and Sonoma Carneros.  Yet the valley offered a promising climate that attracted wineries such as Chateau St. Jean, Hanzell, Kenwood Vineyards, Ravenswood, St. Francis, Benziger, Arrowood and Buena Vista. And there was space for lots of vineyards on the narrow valley floor and on the hillsides. 

About midway down the valley, west of the small village of Glen Ellen, is Sonoma Mountain.  Rising above the fog, a narrow belt on the mountain is an ideal place  for Cabernet Sauvignon to thrive in a good growing environment. There are a few other grapes, such as Chardonnay, but on Sonoma Mountain Cabernet is king.

Sonoma Valley 

At midday, if you happen to be on the Sonoma Highway, the main road that bisects Sonoma Valley, as you pass Ledson winery, listen closely for the bell at St. Francis winery announcing the noon hour.  The bell was cast in the same foundry that forged the bells in the main cathedral of Assisi, Italy. 

A scattering of vineyards break up the heavily forested west slopes of the low mountains that divide Sonoma from Napa.  At the southern end of the valley, outside the town of Sonoma, the landscape flattens and the vineyards change as you enter Sonoma Carneros.  Varieties that do well on hillsides at higher elevations, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, give way in Carneros, primarily to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. 

Unlike Napa Valley, where wineries line highway 29 and the Silverado Trail, the bulk of the wineries in Sonoma Valley are along Sonoma Highway, especially around Kenwood.  And there are small clusters of wineries on side roads, including the road leading off Sonoma Highway, to the village of Glen Ellen.

Wineries are also in an urban setting, like Carol Shelton and Paradise Ridge in Santa Rosa. In Sonoma, Sebastiani Vineyards is not far from the plaza and Hanzell overlooks the valley from its perch in the hills outside town.

A personal aside: For a wine writer, Sonoma Valley is a great place to live.  My home was less than a mile from a handful of wineries and a short drive from the city of Santa Rosa. The Napa Valley was across low hills to the east and to the west, beyond the coastal mountains was the Pacific Ocean.

The location was ideal...until 2017, when life changed for my wife and me.  Wild fires were racing up the slopes of the hills bordering Sonoma Valley and alerts went out to evacuate. After nine days in a hotel, we returned to find our home tainted by smoke but thankfully intact. 

Could the 2017 fires (and all the subsequent ones) that destroyed hundreds of homes, businesses and vineyards be a one off?  Climate forecasters say no and, in fact, are predicting more dangerous fires in the future.  That prospect was enough to send us packing to Western Washington, where the climate is more benign and the threat of uncontrolled wild fires is far least for now.

Sonoma Mountain 

Although there are few wineries on Sonoma Mountain, three names brought fame to the lofty appellation.  Patrick Campbell founded Laurel Glen Vineyard in 1977, followed by Bruno Benziger's Glen Ellen Vineyards and Winery (later to be known as Benziger Family Winery) and Phil Coturri, along with his brother Tony, started the eponymous family vineyard and winery. 

Phil Coturri
Phil Coturri

Pocket vineyards on the mountain produce a variety of grapes including, but not limited to, Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.  Notable wineries working on Sonoma Mountain include Laurel Glen Vineyard, Coturri Family Wines and Benziger Family Winery.  La Follette Wines sources Pinot Noir from Sonoma Mountain and Paul Hobbes buys mountain-grown Chardonnay. 

Key to the quality of Sonoma Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon is planting vineyards above the fog line.  Laurel Glen and the historic Jack London Vineyard meet these criteria.  The London vineyard is also highly prized for its Zinfandel.

There are a lot of wine regions to choose from for your next bottle of wine, so turn left at Calistoga, drive over the mountain and make that next purchase from Sonoma Valley or Sonoma Mountain.

Next blog: 'Tis the Season for Bubbly

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