Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Region of the Year: Sonoma County

Wine Region of the Year: Sonoma County

Wine Enthusiast

Photo by George Rose

Sonoma County is a study in contrast: It’s historic yet forward-thinking, innovative yet traditional, and coastal yet mountainous. The most dynamic and resilient wine region in America right now, it’s as complex as its outstanding wines.

About an hour north of San Francisco and to the west of Napa Valley, the county spans more than one million acres. Only about 59,000 acres are planted to wine grapes, just 6% of its total area. The county is also home to more than 50 miles of Pacific coastline.

While small in size, the wine industry looms large in importance. As reported through 2018, wine grapes account for just over 70% of the total crop value in Sonoma County, and the wine industry represents 40% of its gross domestic product (GDP). Estimates put the value of its wine industry and related tourism, which is well-established with a range of superb visitor amenities and oeno-centric experiences at many wineries throughout the county, at $11 billion per year.

Sonoma County is home to more than 425 wineries of all sizes, from global powerhouses to multigenerational family farms. It nurtures a wide variety of wine grapes that include the most Pinot Noir in California and the second-highest tally of Chardonnay, both of which thrive here to yield outstanding varietal bottlings. Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandel and Merlot are also well represented, with more than 60 varieties planted in all.

Of the nearly 1,500 Sonoma wines published in 2019, around 65% scored 90 points or more, emphasizing the high caliber and consistent quality of the wines from across the region.

The county was first recognized as an American Viticultural Area (AVA) in 1981, the same year as the Napa Valley.

In 2017, Sonoma County welcomed its 18th appellation, the Petaluma Gap. One of the county’s southernmost appellations, it borders the well-known Sonoma Coast, Russian River Valley and Carneros AVAs.

With wine roots that date to 1812, Sonoma County has borne witness to Spanish and Mexican rule, California statehood, phylloxera, Prohibition and the tremendous growth of wine in America. In 1989, wine grapes became the region’s top-earning crop and, last year, Sonoma earned the state’s second highest average price for grapes.

The reasons for its success are many. In Sonoma County, elevation ranges from sea level to 2,600 feet, with valleys, benchlands and mountain slopes in between. Soils are extremely varied, thanks to tectonic plate collisions, volcanic eruptions and coastal erosion.

The region is not only bountiful, but resilient. In the devastating fires of October 2017, fewer than 500 acres of Sonoma County vineyards, less than 1% of the region’s total acreage, were destroyed or damaged. While it sounds small in scope, it impacted the entire county, as the fires affected additional infrastructure and resources. Since then, the wine industry has helped lead the community’s rebuilding and recovery. And it is a community. Of the 1,800 grape growers in Sonoma County, 85% are family owned and operated.

For every acre of vineyards, Sonoma farmers grow two acres of diversified agriculture, from hay to apples. The county has long been a leader in the farm-to-table movement, as it contributes greatness in cheese, beer, meats and more.

Because of this strong agricultural legacy, the Sonoma County Winegrowers organization sought to have Sonoma County become the first 100% sustainable wine region by the end of this year. The aim was to ensure a future around environmental stewardship, social responsibility and economic viability.

In September, the group announced that 99% of Sonoma County vineyards have been certified sustainable. It’s now the most sustainable wine region in the world.

As they continue toward 100% sustainability, Sonoma County Winegrowers has been chosen as the exclusive partner for the launch of the California Land Stewardship Institute’s Climate Adaptation Certification program. The program will be piloted in Sonoma County and then rolled out to other wine regions and agricultural commodities worldwide.

A first-of-its-kind effort for vineyards, certification will highlight the unique role and opportunity agriculture has in climate adaptation and mitigation, and the importance of local solutions to a global crisis.

For its long history, resilience, commitment to diversity and global leadership in sustainability, Wine Enthusiast is proud to recognize Sonoma County as its Wine Region of the Year. —Virginie Boone