Petaluma Gap still hoping for wine region designation
Perched high atop a hill just north of Petaluma, Karah Estate Vineyards is easily one of the most recognizable landmarks for drivers making their way over the Cotati grade. Precious few of those travelers, however, have followed their curiosity to Karah’s recently renovated tasting room off West Railroad Avenue, where staff said 20 visitors on a Saturday is considered a decent turnout.
That could all change if Karah and the 80 other grape growers and winemakers in the so-called Petaluma Gap become part of a viticulturally significant region in the eyes of federal regulators, an in-progress effort that could put the area on the map in the same way as famous wine regions like the Alexander Valley.
“Winemakers have known about the quality of this fruit for a long time,” said Doug Cover, a board member of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, a coalition of growers and winemakers in the broad valley stretching from the Sonoma Mountains to the coast.
Having kicked off the application process with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau in 2014, the alliance is still awaiting the results of the agency’s review, Cover said. The bureau notified the group in March of 2015 that it was reviewing the application, which is seeking designation for the Gap as an American Viticultural Area, or AVA.
Approval of the application will open up a 60-day comment period, and after that, possible designation of the region as an official winemaking appellation.
“It’s possible it could all be done this year,” Cover said.
While the windswept area has become better known to consumers, tight regulations on labeling have prevented vintners from actually using “Petaluma Gap” on their packaging. It has created something of a paradox, Cover said.
“We can promote the region and celebrate how great the wines are, but the average consumer is going to go to the store and say, ‘I can’t find a Petaluma Gap wine,’” said Cover, a grape grower who is chair of an Alliance committee focused on the AVA effort.
Being designated as an AVA would lift the labeling restriction, he said, while also raising the area’s profile for visitors. The Gap also dips into parts of Marin County.
The area currently has only a handful of tasting rooms, compared to northern and eastern parts of the county where visitors spend big money meandering between a myriad different stops. More could sprout up with the awarding of an AVA designation, and with them, more tourism dollars for southern Sonoma County, Cover said.
“You can count on one hand the entire number of tasting rooms in the Petaluma Gap,” Cover said. “But I think that’s going to evolve with the approval of the AVA for the Gap as part of wine country, and not just somewhere you drive through to get to the wine country.”
He noted that the roster of tasting rooms could be growing, after Adobe Road Winery obtained approval on Tuesday to set up a location in downtown Petaluma. Others include Keller Estates and Marin County’s McEvoy Ranch.
It is the persistent wind blowing across the area that is a hallmark of the Petaluma Gap, Cover said. The conditions keep it cool enough for grape vines like pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah to thrive.
The conditions mean grapes tend to ripen more slowly in the Gap, with vines generally producing smaller fruit that has thicker skin and a lower sugar content. The result is intense flavors, he said.
The area has a grape growing history stretching back to the 1800s, including vineyards planted near the Petaluma Adobe by General Mariano Guadalupe Vallejo. Over 1,000 acres of vineyards existed in the Gap by the early 1900s, but the area experienced a decline due to prohibition and blight.
As the area comes back as a growing region, that history and sense of place is an asset, said Karissa Kruse, president of the Sonoma County Winegrape Commission, an industry group.
“I think what’s good about Petaluma Gap is, it’s so important in the wine world to connect with consumers with a story,” she said. “Increasingly, just making a pinot noir doesn’t sell a wine. It’s the story of the wine, it’s the story of the winemaker.”
With a name like Petaluma Gap, it’s also a place someone can point to on a map, she noted.
Some big-name brands have wines made from Petaluma Gap grapes, including Kendall Jackson and Rodney Strong, Cover said.
Yet Ana Keller, general manager of Petaluma’s Keller Estate, described the Gap as a place still defined by smaller, upstart growers. Her family-owned winery and vineyards is likely the largest in the region at 5,000 cases, which is minuscule compared to the county’s giants.
The AVA would bestow the area’s smaller growers with greater prestige, which translates to better leverage when negotiating prices with buyers, she said.
“For us, as growers, it really helps to sell your fruit with more distinctive characteristics,” she said.
Formerly pasture land, 40 acres of grapes were planted at the 140-acre Karah estate around 1995, said Joanne Emery-Knight, operations manager. The on-site winery produced its first vintage in 2001, and today produces around 2,000 cases of wine, mostly pinot noir, every year.
The tasting room at Karah opened in 2005, and got a major facelift – including some extra wind protection on the patio – in April.
Patronage of the tasting room on the estate has been steady, she said, but not at the sort of volume seen elsewhere in the county. Yet it was hard to tell on a recent Saturday afternoon, after a limousine delivered a group of exuberant visitors to the sun-drenched hilltop.
Word of the Gap is getting out, Emery-Knight said.
“The Gap is like a little treasure in Sonoma County,” she said.
(Contact Eric Gneckow at firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @Eric_Reports.)