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A toast to Petaluma Gap wines

Damien Wilson, Hamel Family Chair of Wine Business Education at the Wine Spectator Institute with SSU, chats with Ana Keller, of Keller Estate Winery, and Joan Griffin, pouring for Griffin's Lair at Petaluma Gap’s inaugural WIND to WINE Festival at the Sheraton Petaluma on Saturday, August 8, 2015. (RACHEL SIMPSON/FOR THE ARGUS-COURIER)

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With its distinctive morning fog, afternoon winds and mineral-rich soil, Petaluma stands apart from other wine growing regions in Sonoma County. But until now, there was no official way of differentiating the great wines produced here from those coming from other parts of the county.

Following a federal decision made earlier this month, the Petaluma Gap is now the country’s newest American Viticultural Area (AVA), officially establishing Petaluma as a premier area for producing uniquely flavorful pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah wines.

The awarding of the new appellation by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau was the culmination of a 12-year effort by the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance representing 80 local grape growers and nine winery owners.

The Petaluma Gap, a 200,000-acre region in southern Sonoma County and northern Marin County, with 4,000 acres planted in grapes, is defined by its local microclimate thanks to a geographic gap in the hills northwest of town which enables a steady coastal breeze to chill the grapes, causing them to form thicker skins which produces more flavorful wines. The soil, rich with an unusual mixture of minerals due to Petaluma’s proximity to the Petaluma River tidal slough, adds to the wines’ distinctive flavors.

AVAs help consumers better understand the wines they’re buying. More importantly, they also help vintners market their wines more effectively. By using the “Petaluma Gap” designation on their bottle labels, local wine makers can now better differentiate themselves in the competitive $34 billion marketplace for California wines.

While Sonoma is a world famous name, Petaluma is still finding its footing as a wine region. Securing its own AVA will enhance the branding of local products to stand out in the highly saturated Sonoma County wine industry.

Petaluma currently has only a handful of tasting rooms, compared to northern and eastern parts of the county where visitors spend big money meandering amongst a myriad of different wineries. With the new AVA designation, Petaluma vintners believe they will attract more wine tourists, particularly given that Petaluma Gap is now the shortest drive to an AVA region from San Francisco.

Adobe Road Winery, which opened a tasting room in downtown Petaluma 18 months ago, is already planning a new state-of-the-art winery here complete with tasting room and auto racing museum, a facility expected to prove popular with locals and visitors alike.

The Gap is a place still defined by smaller, upstart growers like Keller Estate, Kastania Vineyards and Trombetta Family Wines. Such family-owned wineries and vineyards will benefit from the new AVA, which bestows the area with greater identity and prestige, translating to better leverage when negotiating prices with buyers.

For Petaluma, already known for producing a wide array of first-rate products including organic milk, artisan cheeses, ice cream, olive oil, custom meats, poultry, eggs, beers and distilled spirits, the new Petaluma Gap AVA only strengthens this community’s growing reputation for agricultural excellence and being a mecca for food and beverage lovers.

Petaluma’s grape growing history stretches back to the 1800s, including vineyards planted near the Petaluma Adobe by General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. More than 1,000 acres of vineyards existed here by the early 1900s before prohibition forced a decline in grape-growing. The new Petaluma Gap designation demonstrates that Petaluma winemaking is officially back and will be around for quite some time

When you sit down to enjoy your holiday meal next week, try opening a bottle of Petaluma Gap wine to show support for your community and its rich agricultural heritage.