Wind, Fog, Wine: The Story of “The Gap”


Staying on the terroir track for today, I was alerted to an article in a local paper by a good reader of FERMENTATION. The article spoke to the formation of a new regional grape growing and winery alliance that is focusing on a swath of land that deserves focusing on for its special and unique climate.

The "Petaluma Gap" might be a term you’ve heard of lately, particularly if you are an aficionado of Sonoma County wines. The Petaluma Gap is exactly what it sounds like—a gap in the coastal range mountains. The significance of this 15 mile wide "gap" in the coastal range mountains in southern Sonoma county is that it is the passage way through which a vast amount of fog regularly flows inland and allows Sonoma County the climate needed to cultivate grapes that thrive in a a cool climate, such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

As you can see from this set of photos, the fog flows through the Petaluma Gap and really spreads out across the county northward and southward.

The gap area itself is particularly cool and is affected in a terrific fashion by the winds that woosh through the gap. Growing grapes in this region is about as "on the edge" as one gets for this neck of the woods. And it’s the folk who have vineyards and wineries in this region that have formed a new alliance they are calling The Petaluma Gap Grape & Wine Alliance.

You may have heard of some of the vineyards that inhabit this neck of the woods and that are also part of the Alliance: Stubbs, Kastania, Devils Gulch, Stage Gulch.

Officially, this region is part of the vast Sonoma Coast appellation, an official American Viticultural Area that really has no value to the wine consumer simply because it means nothing. The "Sonoma Coast appellation is a pure marketing vehicle that got approved as an AVA by the feds because….well, because they’ll approve any selection of land large or small that can be said to once have beebn observed by one person once. They seem to need no other justification for granting AVA status.

This philosophy is the near opposite of what the Petaluma Gap folk are focusing on and what official appellation creation in America should be about: locating and identifying regions that have a very specific climate and/or soils that help produce wines of a particular character. The Pinots and Chardonnays from grapes grown in the Petaluma Gap tend to me crisper, higher in acid, offer brighter fruit and in Pinot Noir lean toward the cherry flavors. Dutton Goldfield’s Devil’s Gulch Pinot is a particularly good example.

Word is that the Alliance of producers and growers will not petition the Feds for a "Petaluma Gap" AVA anytime soon. So, you probably won’t see "Petaluma Gap" show up on labels. However, look for wines from Green Valley, Marin County and single vineyard wines with the Sonoma Coast appellation that identify the vineyard being located on the west side of Highway 101 or very nearby it on the east side of the highway near the town of Petaluma.

3 Responses

  1. Al - May 9, 2006

    Actually the Sonoma Coast app does have merit, and for exactly the reasons you champion this Gap-App.
    The cool ocean breezes and fog sit over those coastal areas more often than not and mitigates summer high temps. That helps keep the acid higher there as well, though you do have a point that the wind never seems to stop in Petaluma and south of Sonoma near the Arnold Dr./121 intersection.
    I wonder – does “Sonoma County” have merit as an app in your view?

  2. tom - May 9, 2006

    Al, if AVA’s are supposed to deliver expectations as to the character of the wines made from grapes grown in a particular AVA, then “Sonoma County” has no value because the vareity of terrain and climate that is encompassed within it. I would say the same for the Sonoma Coast. This AVA is gigantic and can’t possibly offer a consisten set of climatic and soil characteristics.

  3. JohnLopresti - May 9, 2006

    I am grateful for the links, and will see what they hold. Experience reminds me of some factors going in to the research at the outset for me: in indigenous plant surveys the zone in the Petaluma hills where all the new plantings have appeared is known for wind. It is posted just like the Napa River is along the hiway for caution if you are driving a tall rig.
    Here is a riddle: How much brix does a wind pruned pinot noir reach in the Petaluma Gap?
    Actually, the degree-day summation highland area of the gap is likely very different from that of the fog draped Petaluma Valley proper; my estimation would be Petaluma Valley is offscale below region I all the time; but some years the Petaluma Gap highlands attain low Region I. Gewurz anyone? We know only a handful of US citizens actually still sip JRiesling. Though varietal selection is a process that may take generations to evolve in this microclimate.
    One of the largest vineyard holders in the world, one renowned for premier viticultural technique, and slowly entering the $50./bottle club for private reserves, has planted several hundred acres in the highlands of the Petaluma Gap.
    I also know of a former rather prominent local politician who has produced some of his yearly crush in the GapTopLands for several decades.
    To my eyes, most of this land was cleared for livestock pasture years ago, so little impact is likely from the introduction of vineyards. A brave and challenging venture there.

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