Sonoma County encompasses thirteen wine growing appellations with more acres of vineyards than Napa. Sonoma County has a wide and diverse range of scenery from redwood rainforests to rolling grassy hills to dense hardwood forests of Oak and Madrone and the rugged high country of the Mayacamas Mountains to the east. Sonoma is considered more laid back than some of its neighbors to the east providing a less hurried and more personal experience.
Napa County Napa Valley is approximately 35 miles long and one to five miles wide. It’s snug between the Mayacamas and Vaca mountains in northern California and claims some of the most expensive agricultural land in the world. The convergence of the right soils, climate, elevation, with the skills of the grape grower and winemaker, makes Napa Valley one of the most revered wine appellations in North America.
Alexander Valley - Sonoma County
Alexander Valley is home to Cabernet Sauvignon which thrives in the warm, dry, gravelly volcanic soils of the valley floor. Over 16,000 vineyard acres blanket the area with notable Chardonnay, Zinfandel, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc. You will also find the excellent Rhone varieties of Syrah and Viognier. This long north – south region along highway 101 and highway 128 have dozens of exceptional wineries to explore.
Alexander Valley is the perfect blend of charm, sophistication and outstanding, award winning wines offered in a most relaxed atmosphere. Located at the northern end of Sonoma County, the Alexander Valley is 22 miles long and varies in width from two to seven miles. There are over 75 thousand acres of land, with 15,000 of them planted to premium wine grapes.
The Chalk Hill soils and climate produce distinctive Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. In the warmer upper hills the vines produce great Cabernet Sauvignon. The area is named for its white, volcanically-derived, chalky white ash soils.
Dry Creek Valley
Dry Creek valley’s modern reputation for premium wine is testament to ideal grape growing conditions – a unique blend of soil, geography and climate – which creates wine of singular quality and place.
One of the smallest AVAs in size (16 miles long by two miles wide), Dry Creek Valley is a dense concentration of floor, benchland and hillside vineyards. The soil is primarily gravelly and sandy loam – deep, well drained and fertile dirt that produces good crops of flavorful grapes. This very rocky soil drains exceptionally well, helping to stress the vines late in the growing season, concentrating varietal character.
70 miles north of San Francisco and 20 miles east of the Pacific Ocean, Dry Creek Valley is ideally situated for winegrapes (similar to Bordeaux region in France)… the perfect growing conditions for Zinfandel and Sauvignon Blanc, the region’s signature wines, as well as Bordeaux and Rhone varietals.
Los Carneros shares its appellation with Napa Valley. Its close proximity to the cool influences of the San Francisco Bay create a perfect environment to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as Merlot and Syrah.
The soils are clay dominated, very shallow in general, with more loam and hillside alluvials in the northern section. With the lowest rainfall in the Napa Valley, yields typically are restrained by the hard claypan subsoil, which prevents deep-rooting. Principal varieties: Chardonnay, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.
Russian River Valley
The Russian River Valley Region includes small family-owned vineyards and larger ranches. The vineyards share the land with sheep, goats, cattle, apples, berries, and other animals and crops. The combination of well-drained soils, cooling fog and warm summer afternoons provide ideal growing conditions for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, as well as Pinot Gris, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Zinfandel. Chalk Hill and Green Valley are sub-AVAs of this cool growing region.
The Sonoma Coast AVA extends from San Pablo Bay to the border with Mendocino County. The appellation is known for its cool climate and high rainfall relative to other parts of Sonoma County. Close to the Pacific, with more than twice the annual rainfall of its inland neighbors, it can still be warm enough to ripen wine grapes because most vineyards are above the fog line. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay shine, along with cool-climate Syrah.
The 2,400-foot Sonoma Mountain range begins to rise above the town of Glen Ellen at the western edge of the Valley of the Moon. Found here are high-altitude, steep-sloped vineyards, with eastern exposures to catch the fog-free morning sun. These vineyards fall within the larger Sonoma Valley AVA.
However, due to the unique hillside terroir, they are entitled to use the more specific designation of the Sonoma Mountain AVA. Powerful, yet elegant Cabernet Sauvignons – the appellation’s specialty – grow here on well-drained soils. The irregular folds and crevices of the mountain slopes also create microclimates suitable for limited production of a diverse range of other varieties, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, as well as Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.
The Sonoma Valley AVA centers on the Sonoma Valley (also known as The Valley of the Moon) in the southern portion of the county. The appellation is bordered by two mountain ranges: the Mayacamas Mountains to the east and the Sonoma Mountains to the west.
Along with being the area where so much of Sonoma County’s winemaking history took place, the area is known for its unique terroir, with Sonoma Mountain protecting the area from the wet and cool influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean. The Sonoma Mountains to the west help protect the valley from excessive rainfall. The cool air that does affect the region comes northward from the Los Carneros region and southward from the Santa Rosa Plain.
Because the valley is cooled from the north and south, it is different from other California north-south-oriented grape growing valleys in the interior. In addition, the daily wind that makes its way into the northern and southern sections of the valley slows ripening, which prolongs hang time and promotes natural balance in the wines. In the appellations of the North Coast, the wind is unique to Sonoma Valley and Carneros.
The soils of the Sonoma Valley, like the rest of the county are varied. One finds a wide disparity between valley floor and mountain soils; those found in flatter, valley areas tend to be quite fertile, loamy and have better water-retention while the soils at higher elevations are meager, rocky and well-drained. In general, the structure, rather than the composition of the soil, is the deciding factor where grape plantings are concerned.
Atlas Peak - Napa County
Climate: Cool, mountain-influenced, with temperatures about 10 to 15°F cooler than the Valley floor in summer. Above the fog line, there is a low diurnal change, with summer temperatures rarely above 90°F (32.2°C).
Elevation: 760 to 2600 ft (231m to 792m).
Rainfall: 38 inches (96cm) annually.
Soils: Volcanic in origin, with basaltic red color, shallow with limited water retention, so irrigation is often essential.
Principal varieties & characteristics: Cabernet Sauvignon: Bright berry and cherry fruit, and more acidity than wines from Stags Leap District. Chardonnay: Crisp, floral, aromatic, with distinctive pear-mineral flavors and bright acidity.
Los Carneros shares its appellation with Sonoma Its close proximity to the cool influences of the San Francisco Bay create a perfect environment to grow Chardonnay and Pinot Noir as well as Merlot and Syrah.
The soils are clay dominated, very shallow in general, with more loam and hillside alluvials in the northern section. With the lowest rainfall in the Napa Valley and Sonoma area, yields typically are restrained by the hard claypan subsoil, which prevents deep-rooting. Principal varieties: Chardonnay, Merlot, and Pinot Noir.
Climate: Similar to the facing Spring Mountain AVA, however slightly warmer and dryer overall due to strong afternoon sun influence. Fairly cool nights in both ranges and higher elevations help maintain good acidity.
Elevation: 600 to 2200 ft (184 to 675m).
Rainfall: 40 to 50 inches (125cm) annually.
Soils: Predominantly volcanic, shallow and infertile. Drainage is high, fertility low.
Principal varieties & characteristics: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel: Powerful, firm, blackberry-currant flavors and often richly tannic, with excellent acidity for aging. Chardonnay, Viognier: Sinewy, firm and not as fruity as those of the valley floor, revealing more citrus and stone fruit flavors.
Climate: Cool to moderate, with most vineyards above the fog-line, meaning warmer nights and cooler days and less diurnal range than the valley floor. Typical mid-summer high temperatures about 85°F (30°C).
Elevation: 600 to 2100 ft. (183 to 650m).
Rainfall: 35 inches (87.5cm) annually.
Soils: Sedimentary based, former seabed, shallow and generally well drained, as well as more acidic, with low fertility. Most have a sandy or sandy-loam texture.
Principal varieties & characteristics: Ageability is a hallmark of Mt. Veeder wines. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel: Low yields give red wines a firm, tannic structure with strong earth-berry aromas and rich, but powerful flavors. Chardonnay: minerally, appley, even citrus flavors with good acidity.
Climate: Moderately warm, with temperatures commonly in the mid-90°F (34-35.5°C) range in high summer, but also still strongly affected by night and early morning fog which helps keep acidity levels good. East side of the AVA receives more of warmer afternoon sun.
Elevation: 75 to 500 ft (23 to 150m).
Rainfall: 35 inches (87.5cm) annually.
Soils: Primarily sedimentary gravelly alluvial loams on the western side, with more volcanic but heavier soils on the eastern side. Low to moderate fertility and fairly deep, with average water retention.
Principal varieties & characteristics: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot: Ripe currant and mint flavors, rich texture and full, firm structure tempered by rich fruit. Sauvignon Blanc: Full, steely, yet very fleshy.
Oak Knoll District
Climate: Moderate to cool: marine air and fog can remain until mid-morning. Late afternoon breezes frequently occur, maintaining slightly cooler temperatures than upper valley. Mid-summer temperatures may reach 92° F (33.3°C) and drop to around 50°F (10°C) at night.
Elevation: sea level to 800 feet (244m)
Rainfall: 36 inches (90cm) annually.
Soils: The valley’s largest alluvial fan formed by Dry Creek creates the defining feature of the district. The northwest area is composed of volcanically derived soils, with stony or gravelly consistency. South and east areas are transitional from gravel to silty clay loam.
Principal varieties & characteristics: Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon. Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon benefit from a longer growing season with slightly cooler temperature, though crop size is typically less than in other AVAs. Elegant style is the common note with fruit flavors of cassis, tobacco and spice typical to Bordeaux-style reds. Chardonnay showcases flavors of crisp apple, mineral notes and tropical fruit with fine acidity.
Climate: Moderately warm, still marginally influenced by early morning fog. Western bench area is cooler, with less late afternoon sun, tempered by afternoon marine winds. (This AVA averages a bit warmer than Oakville and Stags Leap District). Usual summer peak temperatures are mid-90°F (34-35.5°C) with good diurnal range.
Elevation: 100 to 500 ft. (33 to 150m).
Rainfall: 38 inches (95cm) annually.
Soils: Western benchland is sedimentary, gravelly-sandy and alluvial, with good water retention and moderate fertility. The eastern side has more volcanic soils, moderately deep and more fertile.
Principal varieties & characteristics: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel: Quite intense cherry and mineral, almost earthy aromas. Flavors are full, ripe, and notably currant with firm, but supple tannins for extended aging.
This region is warmer than some, due to greater protection from western hills, with less fog or wind incursions. In addition, this narrowest part of the Napa Valley floor provides more heat reflection off the hillsides. The soil is a more sedimentary, gravel-clay, with lower fertility and moderate water retention.
Principal varieties and characteristics you’ll find here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot. You will be introduced to the area’s best Syrah, Viognier, and Zinfandel. The area also produces great Sauvignon Blanc.
Stag's Leap District
Climate: Moderately warm, with afternoon marine winds acting as an ‘air-conditioner’ to cool the warmer air radiating off the bare rocks of Stags Leap itself and the surrounding hillsides. This AVA is often up to 10°F warmer than in Yountville AVA. Mid-summer temperatures can reach 100°F (37.7°C), but more regularly are in mid-90° range (32-34°C).
Elevation: 66 to 400 ft. (20 to 123m).
Rainfall: 30 inches (75cm) annually.
Soils: Volcanic gravel-loams on the floor of the valley, with rocky hillsides, and low to moderate fertility due to hard clay bedrock subsoils 2 to 6 feet down.
Principal varieties & characteristics: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sangiovese: Distinguished by lush, velvety textures and fine perfumed cherry and red berry flavors, supported by soft tannins. Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc: Round and ripe, especially Sauvignon Blanc, yet retain excellent citrus and apple flavors.
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