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A Brief History of Sonoma Wine Country in California

Sonoma Cabernet Vine

If Napa Valley was a Hollywood Movie, then Sonoma Valley would be an Independent Film.  

Both attract a crowd for leisurely fun and both are

known for high quality wine, but while Napa basks in a little more

culinary glitz and luxurious wine glamour, Sonoma is more grounded in

its rustic mystique, California history, and large definitive grape

growing appellations.

The first known grape vines planted in Sonoma were by Russian fur

trappers and farmers along the Pacific coastline in 1812 as part of an

outpost to grow crops and hunt sea otter pelts that supported the

Alaskan fur trade.  Although never rising to more than about 400

inhabitants and only forty years in existence, what was known as the

Russian’s Fort Ross is now a state park, historical landmark, and part

of the Fort Ross-Seaview American Viticulture Area (AVA).  In Sonoma

County, fifteen sub-regions are designated as AVA’s–recognized for

particular microclimates, soil, and topography and thus unique grapes

and farming practices.  Fort Ross-Seaview AVA, established 2012, is

the newest and probably least known AVA; however, its cool climate

coastline terroir grows what Sonoma is most known for—Pinot Noir and

Chardonnay.  Flowers, Faila, and Martinelli are the more notable

wineries of just a few in the area.

Grape growing didn’t really begin to take off until shortly after 1823

when Spanish missionaries began construction of its last California

mission, Mission San Francisco Solano.  Father Jose Altamira, or maybe

it was his Native American newly baptized workers, planted several

thousand vines to be made into sacramental wine and other untold

activities.  Having been restored and now a historical landmark, it’s

worth cruising by the still standing Mission San Francisco Solano

located in the town square of Sonoma.  Make it a quick stop on your

way to a popular lunch spot, The Girl and the Fig, just down the street.

Another historical stop in Sonoma’s town square is where Mexican

General Mariano Vallejo lived when thirty-three armed rag-tag

Americans pounded on his door at dawn in June of 1846 demanding

Mexican rule to surrender the territory to them.  Ever the diplomatic

gentleman, General Vallejo invited the group in for breakfast and wine

from his vineyards.  With wine came reason and General Vallejo,

seeking future political aspirations, wisely stepped aside, giving way

to the roots of California independence from Mexico. In what was known

as the Bear Flag Revolt, the flag, bearing the symbol of a grizzly

bear for strength, was raised over Sonoma plaza and later became the

California state flag.

A few miles northeast of the town square of Sonoma, a Hungarian

immigrant, Count Agoston Haraszthy founded the first premium winery of

Sonoma County in 1857, Buena Vista Vineyards (still there today).

Over the next decade the gregarious Haraszthy lead the establishment

of viticulture and winemaking as a permanent fixture in the California

economy. At his height in 1861, he was appointed by the Governor of

California to commission a report to the California Legislature on the

“ways and means best adapted to promote the improvement and growth of

the grapevine in California.”  Haraszthy responded with a trip to

Europe, investigating best practices in viticulture and winemaking,

returning with over 100,000 cuttings from more than 350 varietals.

Barrell look over a Sonoma Vineyard

With every boom there is a bust and by the mid 1860’s, things began to

unravel a bit.

Despite his good intentions, turns out that Haraszthy, known as the

“Father of California Viticulture,” and his trip to Europe helped

contribute to reckless planting and the infestation of phylloxera—an

insect that feasts on grapevine rootstock.  As a result, Sonoma

struggled to survive the phylloxera outbreak for the last few decades

of the 19th century.  However, by 1920, ingenuity and some thirsty

folks managed to turn things back around with the establishment of

over 200 wineries.  That same year though, the 18th Amendment passed

and Prohibition toppled all but about 50 winery estates until its

tenure ended in 1933. The lull continued through the Great Depression

and World War II, not reaching the same 1920 level of grape growing

until 1975.

Coming off a post-war generation of American cocktails, the wine

industry began to boom in the late 70’s and 80’s.  The desire for

market space and differentiation prompted wine label regulation and

defined how wine labels designated where grapes came from. It was at

this time in Sonoma that the American Viticulture Areas (AVAs) were

born. If your wine label reads Carneros or Sonoma Coast, you know

you’re more than likely getting a lighter body cool climate Pinot

Noir.  Donum Estate can’t be missed in Carneros.  Swing to the other

end of the spectrum, Dry Creek Valley implies heat-loving Zinfandel

while the equally warm Alexander Valley showcases thick-skinned

Cabernet Sauvignon.  Vérité and Jordan offer some amazing cabs.  But

perhaps most famous of them all though is Russian River Valley where

the seabed limestone reminiscent of France combined with foggy

mornings and hot afternoons produces a Pinot Noir known for a

particular sarsaparilla/root beer type of spice.  The likes of

Williams Selyem, Rochioli, and Paul Hobbs reign supreme here.

A day in the Valley of the Moon, as coined by American author, Jack

London, should be enjoyed very leisurely.   Triple the size and

growing almost 50% more grapes than Napa, Sonoma is largely farmland

and spread out over a large area.  Pick a region or two within the

area to focus your day based on your wine tasting needs, there are

well over 300 wineries to choose from.  The throwback towns of Sonoma,

Healdsburg, and Glen Ellen offer refuge and a home base with the best

restaurants, shopping, and boutique inns.   Just remember, the pace in

Sonoma is slower, less is more.  Don’t be afraid to get lost in the

moment, but be sure to do so with a glass of wine in hand.