Petaluma Gap seeks its own wine appellation

With its sweeping winds and mineral rich soil, Petaluma stands apart from other wine regions in Sonoma County, and that's just what local winemakers and grape growers are banking on. The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance has launched a campaign to put the area on the map, the American Viticultural Area map, specifically, a move they say will make the industry more lucrative.

"It will establish Petaluma as the gateway to wine country," says Paul Clary, former president of the wine alliance and owner of Clary Ranch Wines. "We need people here to recognize that they do live in wine country. They don't have to drive north or east to get there."

Like winemaking itself, establishing a new AVA takes time and money. But, the alliance says it's necessary thanks to a newly established law that requires all wineries to put both the region and sub-region on wine labels, which for Petaluma wines would be Sonoma County and Sonoma Coast.

"That's redundant," says Doug Cover, vice president of the association. "No where does it say Petaluma Gap."

While Sonoma is a world famous name, Petaluma is still finding its footing as a wine region, and securing its own AVA would help the area better brand products to stand out in the highly saturated Sonoma County wine market. Plus, the alliance says Petaluma meets the United States Department of the Treasury Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau's criteria for a new AVA, which requires that a region must distinguish itself, both in climate and wine flavor profile, from other AVAs on the map.

"We always joke that everyone in Sonoma County gets the fog, but we own the wind," says Ana Keller, current president of the alliance and general manager of Keller Estate winery. "The wind travels a straight shot from Bodega to the San Pablo Bay, it's really a unique microclimate."

Those gusts affect the grapes' flavor, Clary says. He explained that excessive wind exposure shuts down photosynthesis in the vines, which causes the vine to limit the growth of leaves in favor of producing grapes. This stress on the vine creates a richly concentrated flavor that, because of the cooler climate, is lower in natural sugars for a bolder taste.

Then there is the soil, which is rich with an unusual mixture of minerals for Sonoma County due to Petaluma's proximity to the tidal slough that is the Petaluma River. The combination creates an ideal climate for pinot noir and syrah grapes, and some growers have tried their hand at chardonnay. "(Petaluma wines) have a twist of the wild, they really have a very intense flavor," Keller noted. "We have the depth of the Russian River but the lightness of the Sonoma Coast."

Stretching 500,000 acres from the Mendocino County line to the Marin County line and as far east as San Pablo Bay, Sonoma Coast is by far the largest AVA in Sonoma County, and growers say it's easy to get lost in the shuffle. A signature appellation would help consumers distinguish the wines produced in wind-whipped Petaluma versus other areas of the county. Plus, the area has already begun to set itself apart. In 2012, Gap's Crown Roberts Road vineyard became the first in Sonoma County to sell for more than $100,000 an acre; while in 2011, Kosta Browne's 2009 pinot noir made from grapes grown in Petaluma was named Wine of the Year by Wine Spectator.

In addition to establishing its distinctive qualities, to secure an AVA, the alliance must establish the geographical boundaries, ensuring that it doesn't overlap with an existing AVA. The alliance is still deciding those boundaries, but will need to hire experts to draw up the maps, as well as an attorney to handle the application request.

"The whole thing costs about $25,000," Clary says, adding that the process could take around two years. "We'll be fundraising to help pay for that."

The alliance also hopes to raise the profile of Petaluma Gap wines locally. Currently, no tasting rooms downtown feature wines made in Petaluma, which is something the alliance hopes to change.

"It's really going to be great when we can put Petaluma Gap on the label, and then people can go out and ask for it specifically," Cover says, although he admits that not everyone will be happy with their efforts. "They're worried it will look like Napa with vineyards all over the place."

But, Clary says, Sonoma County has a $1.25 billion wine tourism industry and "Petaluma would be remiss to miss out on that."

(Contact Emily Charrier at Emily.charrier@arguscourier.com)