Sonoma County wine producers are heading back to Vancouver next month battered but not beaten. Like most fine producing regions, California's North Coast has struggled during the current recession, especially at home in the United States, where selling any wine over $20 has become a badge of honour.
The push back is good news for California wine lovers who are enjoying prices they could only dream about even a few years ago. In B.C., where wine has become a major source of tax revenue for the government, prices are not falling as dramatically but they are better than they were. It's hardly a fire sale but even small reductions are noticed in a market where the cost of wine is frankly embarrassing.
I guess what I'm saying is now is as good time as ever to check out Sonoma County wines.
Sonoma owes most of its quality and refinement to its geographical position alongside California's cool Pacific coast and the magical fog dance that blankets its vineyards most summer days.
Today some 60,000 acres of grapes, 1,800 wine grape growers and 350 wineries spread across a diverse collection of sites and soils, almost all of which are touched by early- or mid-morning fog banks drawn across the county via the Petaluma Gap in the south and up the Russian River in the north.
The fog literally and figuratively blankets the vineyards, protecting them from excessive exposure to heat and sunlight. The cool mornings and evenings are the perfect antidote to warm afternoons because it allows the grapes to retain vital amounts of acid that keeps the resulting wine fresh and balanced.
The combination of cool mornings, warm days and a multitude of terroirs have allowed Sonoma County to earmark 13 individual approved viticultural areas or AVAS and grow an astounding 60 different grape varieties. In preparation for their arrival next month I thought I would take you on a quick tour of modern day Sonoma followed by some specific picks currently sold in British Columbia.
Sparkling wine is a Sonoma specialty and most are made with chardonnay and pinot noir. The grapes are picked early, often in August, from the coolest regions of Marin, Green Valley, Sonoma Coast and Carneros. The best represent fine value in sparkling wine.
Under transition is Sonoma sauvignon blanc going from soft and overripe to dry and crisp with the best sites planted in Russian River Valley, Chalk Hill and Knights Valley. Some are showing up under screw caps, an almost radical leap of faith for old fashioned California wine producers. Needless to say we welcome anything we can get under screw cap.
Pinot noir has made a serious statement and styles vary widely between sites and clones. The grape appears to thrive in the cool areas of Marin, Sonoma Coast, Carneros, Green Valley and the Russian River Valley. With just over 11,000 acres planted (nearly 2,000 acres more than the entire acreage of all vines planted in British Columbia) pinot noir is fast becoming a Sonoma signature.
The biggest change may be in the quality of chardonnay. It seems to work well in both warm and cool regions. For the coolest examples look for Marin, Carneros and the Russian River Valley AVAs while the richer, rounder versions can be found in Sonoma Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Chalk Hill, Sonoma Mountain and Alexander Valley.
Merlot gets a bum rap in California but in the warmest sites where the fog seldom penetrates, such as the Bennett Valley, Alexander Valley, Dry Creek Valley, Sonoma Valley, Knights Valley and Sonoma Mountain, this much abused variety can really rise above its station.
Zinfandel remain a signature Sonoma grape with the best coming out of warm sites in the Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, Alexander Valley, Rockpile and Sonoma Valley.
In a similar manner, cabernet sauvignon needs the heat of the eastern Sonoma for optimum ripeness so look for the best to come from prime locations in Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek Valley, Knights Valley, Sonoma Valley and Sonoma Mountain.
Finally syrah continues to grow in popularity and the best sites are the warm slopes of the Alexander Valley and Sonoma Valley. Slightly cooler takes (more Rhone-like) can be found growing in the Russian River Valley, Dry Creek Valley and Carneros.
Here is a quick looks at some excellent, food-friendly Sonoma labels you can check out before the travelling road show hits town next month.
La Crema Chardonnay 2008, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County - Always a crowd pleaser with its bright juicy, apple flavours that over deliver in the mouth. Quintessential modern Sonoma chardonnay. $28
Kenwood Pinot Noir 2007, Russian River, Sonoma County - Expect a supple, juicy, fresh palate with wild strawberry jam, plum, compost, celery, dried herbs and orange flavours. Finesse and fruit at an affordable price. $22
MacMurray Ranch Pinot Noir 2007, Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County - Black cherry, barnyard, forest floor aromas preview an elegant pinot with black cherry and liquorice flavours. Duck anyone? $17
Sebastiani Sonoma Chardonnay 2008, Sonoma County - The '08 edition is awash in tropical fruit, vanilla, spicy baked apple with a touch of honey and butterscotch in the finish. A classic pick for lobster. $20
Rodney Strong Sauvignon Blanc Charlotte's Home Estate Vineyards 2009, Sonoma County - So fresh and bright and under screw cap this is home run white and note the new price. Load up. $17
Seghesio Zinfandel 2008 Sonoma County - Nobody does zinfandel better or more interestingly than Seghesio (okay, maybe Ridge too). Expect a ripe red with tons of blueberry jam and smoky, vanilla, coffee, peppery, liquorice flavours. Drink all winter. $35
A Taste of Sonoma 2010 takes place Monday, Oct. 18 from 7 to 9:30 p.m. at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel. Tickets are $55 per person. This intimate wine tasting event features over 30 wineries from the Sonoma region, an opportunity to meet vintners, bid on rare wine auction packages and enjoy palate-cleansing hors d'oeuvres. All proceeds to benefit Arts Umbrella. For more information log onto www.artsumbrella.com/wine .
Anthony Gismondi is a globetrotting wine writer who makes his home in West Vancouver, British Columbia. For more of his thoughts on wine log onto www.gismondionwine.com.