Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Petaluma Gap Seeks to be the next AVA in Sonoma County

The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance hosted a press conference on November 17 to announce that they have recently taken the initial steps towards eventually establishing the Petaluma Gap AVA (American Viticultural Area) as a sub-AVA to the current Sonoma Coast AVA.  Once the new Petaluma Gap AVA is approved by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) the wineries in this new region will be allowed to mark their wines as originating in the Petaluma Gap AVA.  

The Petaluma Gap region currently has over 80 vineyards with 4000+ acres planted in vines.  They have 9 licensed wineries in the area and produce 720,000 cases of wine.  By being their own AVA it will allow vineyards and winemakers to distinguish their wines by labeling them as grown in the Petaluma Gap and thus establish a strong reputation for wine grapes grown in the region.  This will also help consumers find Petaluma Gap wines more easily.  While the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance has been promoting the region and the wines produced with grapes grown in the region, they cannot able to label their wines appropriately as grown in Petaluma Gap.

Currently the Sonoma Coast appellation in the southern and western portion of Sonoma County is a very large AVA stretching from Mendocino County to the shores of San Pablo Bay.  It was established as an AVA in 1987.  A key element in making this region unique as an AVA is the influence of the Pacific Ocean, whether it is the fog of the northern portion or the wind of the southern portion.  The primary grapes grown throughout this region are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. 
So what steps are necessary to achieve this ultimate goal of being an AVA?  Per definitions set by the TTB, an AVA is a grape-growing region that has distinguishing features, a name, and a delineated boundary.  These distinguishing features could include climate, elevation, soil types or more. The name of the AVA must have a basis in evidence.  The boundary must be consistent with and best supported by the name, historical evidence and distinguishing features. 

The Alliance will need to complete and submit their petition to be an AVA based upon these definitions.  The TTB will review the petition and write up the proposed new rules.  There will be a period for public comments and then the TTB will produce the final rules for the new AVA.  The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance plans on submitting their application in early 2015.
The primary distinguishing feature for this new AVA is the wind speed.  The geographical feature called the Petaluma Gap is a gap in the coast range between the Pacific Coast and the town of Petaluma.  As the day heats up the warmer air in the interior valley will rise up and cause the air from the Pacific Ocean to rapidly come in to replace the rising air.  As the temperatures increase the winds increase and the average wind speed in much of the area exceeds 8 mph in the afternoon.  The wind moves eastward through the gap to the Sonoma Mountain where it is split into northward and southward paths.

Thus a typical summer day in the area will start with fog in the morning and sun before noon with heat increasing by 2:00 p.m.  by 4:00 p.m. the wind might be 8 to 20 mph.  As the evening comes on and the sun sets, the wind dies down and fog will appear in the late evening.

So what is important about the wind in the vineyards?  At 8 mph the stomata on the grape leaf will close which puts a stop to photosynthesis.  The stomata’s are the pores on the leaf that allows the passage of carbon dioxide coming into the leaf and oxygen being expelled. The result is lower yields of grapes that reach physiological ripeness at lower sugar levels, thus developing wonderful flavors and fruit characters while maintaining ideal levels of acidity.  It is the perfect recipe for intense but well-balanced wines with character and distinction.

At the recent press event announcing the proposed petition for AVA status, The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers talked about the process and shared their wines to show the distinctive flavors of wines from this region.  Sampling through a flight of Chardonnay produced with grapes from various points of the region you realize that all of these wines have a common bright acidity and fresh flavors as a result of the effect the winds have on the grapes.

The flight of Pinot Noir showed a similar common bright acidity.  As Randy Bennett of Sojourn Cellars said, “the Pinot Noir of Petaluma Gap retains its acidity and ripens later than those in nearby Russian River Valley which allows for a long hangtime.”

Evan Pontoriero of Fogline Vineyards says, “The wines of Petaluma Gap are distinguished in showing more depth in flavor.”

Obtaining a new AVA approval is never a sure thing and is a difficult, often time-consuming process.  The Winegrowers Alliance expects the process to take 1-2 years.  Other regions in California have seen it take much longer.    

For more information:  Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance

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