Exploring Petaluma Gap wines

It's just about time for the grape harvest in Petaluma, and the busy crush that will produce the delicious wines for which Sonoma County is famous. Vintners at Petaluma's 70-plus vineyards are checking the sugar content of their grapes daily, waiting for it to hit the magic number indicating that the grapes are ready to harvest.

Sonoma County is divided into several officially recognized wine regions, or appellations, and within the Sonoma Coastal AVA appellation sits the region known as the Petaluma Gap. It stretches from the Pacific coast down Valley Ford Road through Petaluma, over to the hills that border the Petaluma Valley to the mouth of the Petaluma River in San Pablo Bay. The so-called "gap" is actually a break in the coastal mountain range that allows the cool Pacific fog to reach far inland, creating an ideal climate for pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah grapes.

According to Dr. Liz Thach, director of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance (PGWA), and professor of Wine Business and Management at SSU, grapes have been grown in the Petaluma Valley since they were first planted by General Mariano Vallejo in the 1860s. The numerous vineyards that operate here cover more than 3,000 acres and sell their grapes to more than 80 wineries in other parts of Sonoma and Napa counties.

The region has most recently been dubbed "one of the top ten up and coming wine regions around the US" by travel publication Travel Nerd. A panel of experts at a recent tasting held by the PGWA agreed that the wines have their own distinct profile, described as "elegance with a touch of the wild."

The experts determined that the region's pinot noir, for instance, exhibited "rich red and blue fruit with wonderful savory notes of sage, mint and wild herbs."

It was a local pinot noir that first turned Kamal Azari, of Azari Vineyards, onto the business of winemaking. Formerly a professor at UC Berkeley, Azari said he was drinking a Sonoma County pinot noir with a colleague one evening and fell in love with the taste. When an opportunity arose to buy property in Sonoma County, he did so. He and his wife now run the sustainably farmed vineyard and winery at 1399 Springhill Road. They grow their own grapes, crush them on site, and cellar and bottle their wines under the Azari Vineyard and Corkscrew labels. They have grown pinot poir, riesling and shiraz grapes since 2000 and produce pinot noir, shiraz wines and a dry riesling. They invite people to come taste them.

"We like people to come and share their thoughts," Azari said. In the relatively short time that he has been producing wine, Azari has won many awards, including from the prestigious SF Chronicle competition.

The Azaris aren't the only ones who have flocked to the Gap region to grow wine. Cecilia Enriquez, who owns and operates Enriquez Wines, is one of the few Hispanic female winery owners in the county. She moved to California from the east coast after a wrong turn on a family wine tasting trip brought her to Sonoma County. She says that she didn't know much about wine making until she started working in the industry.

It was her father, who co-owns the estate, who got excited about owning a property in Petaluma after researching parcels in Sonoma county and tasting the wines produced from the grapes on this ranch.

"We didn't pick this property; this one picked us," she says. The vineyard, Flying Rooster, is located at 3062 Old Adobe Road, on which Enriquez grows 29 acres of grapes and produces pinot, petite syrah, muscat, and sauvignon blanc wines. She is also one of the few U.S. producers of tempranillo wines (a red Spanish-style wine described as one of the most food friendly). And she produces a brisa, a farmer's blend of white wines, which utilizes the sauvignon blanc and muscat grapes from her vines, and chardonnay from a neighbor's. She relates that it tastes different every year, depending on the available grapes.

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