The West of the West Wine Fest: Reality Over Fantasy

SonoavaSomething happened on the way to the the 2nd Annual "West of the West Wine Festival": Fort Ross-Seaview, a new American Viticultural Area, was approved by the Federal Government and further refined the meaning of the region celebrated and promoted by a band of California vintners dedicated to the idea that reality is better than fantasy.

First, the fantasy: The Sonoma Coast American Viticultural Area. This monumentally large and meaningless federally approved appellation encompasses more than 500,000 acres in the western part of Sonoma County. Within its boundaries lie in whole or part a number of other federally approved appellations including Chalk Hill AVA, Green Valley of Russian River Valley AVA, Los Carneros AVA, Northern Sonoma AVA, Russian River Valley AVA, and the Sonoma Valley AVA. There are so many diverse growing regions within this appellation that consumers who buy a bottle of wine with the "Sonoma Coast" appellation on the label can have absolutely no expectation for the character of the wine in the bottle.

Now the Realty: Re-defining the area known a the "Sonoma Coast" is the only way to give meaning to the varied growing regions currently inside its very long borders. An organization of vintners dedicated to farming grapes in the coolest and western-most reaches of this appellation have banded together to promote what some have called "The True Sonoma Coast". These vintners, unwilling to put too arrogant a spin on the issue, have called their organization the West Sonoma Coast Vintners. Anyone with an eye on the North Coast's greatest Chardonnays, Pinot Noirs and Syrahs will step back and lift an eyebrow upon noticing the members of this relatively new group: Among the members are: Anthill Farms, Benovia, Cobb, Failla, Flowers, Freeman, Hirsch, LaRue, Littorai, MacPhail, Patz & Hall, Peay, Ramey, Red Car, Siduri and Wind Gap.

The coming out party for this new regional association was the WEST OF THE WEST WINE FEST, Wowfestheld last year way out in western Sonoma in the town of Occidental. It sold out. The event sold out in its first incarnation for a simple reason: This far western stretch of coastal land, inhabited by rugged, windswept, lonely vineyards, is the most exciting new growing region in California. The wines tend to be unique, under-adulterated, elegant and pristine. They are the source of great excitement among wine lovers looking for sheer quality.

The second West of the West Wine Fest will again take place in the remote town of Occidental in western Sonoma. It will feature the same thing many other wine fests feature: Tutored tastings, dinners and grand tastings. It too will sell out. The attraction of the wines from this region are confirmed by some of the luminaries that will be heading up seminars at the event: Eric Asimov of the New York Times, Jon Bonne of the San Francisco Chronicle, and Alder Yarrow of Vinography.

But back to the "happening" that occurred between last year's inaugural Festival and this year's Fest: The approval of the Fort Ross-Seaview appellation.

The only way to correct the travesty that is the gargantuan and meaningless "Sonoma Coast" appellation is to carve that baby up into smaller appellations. The Fort Ross-Seaview AVA encompasses about 27,500 acre smack dab in the middle of the larger "Sonoma Coast" appellation. Most of the new appellation includes land that falls between 800 to 1800 feet above sea level. Only about 600 acres of the total area is dedicated to vineyards, about 20 of them. This new appellation is a brilliant step in correcting the Sonoma Coast Appellation.

Other appellations are proposed including "Sebastopol Hills" and "West Sonoma Coast", which encompasses roughly the area that the West Sonoma Coast Vintners have carved out of the "Sonoma Coast Appellation as their own promotional landscape. Other sub-regions deserve their own federal approval, including, prominently in my mind, the "Petaluma Gap" area.

The upcoming 2nd Annual West of the West Wine Fest (lovingly shortened by some to "WOW") is for those who want to learn more about or are attracted to or feel the need to celebrate, articulate, artisan-made, true-cool climate California wines. It's for Pinot Noir lovers. It's for those that know that the Chardonnay grape is capable of making among the noblest wines. It's a festival that for those that crave the meaty, exotic character that comes with deftly handled cool climate Syrah.

The West Sonoma Coast Vintners have a big and important job on their hands. It is their wines, those that depict that far west Sonoma Coast landscape, that have given wines with "Sonoma Coast" on the label real significance at the sophisticated end of the wine market. It's also their winemaking efforts, combined with the gargantuan size of the appellation, that have allowed other vintners making wine from grapes grown inside the same appellation, to piggy back on the West Sonoma Coast Vintners' efforts and results. That's not fair.

Bottom Line: These vintners out on the far reaches of the Sonoma Coast should work hard to remove the beneficial meaning currently attached to the "Sonoma Coast AVA" that resides on many wine labels. The Festival celebrating their wines is a good start. The "Fort Ross-Seaview" appellation is a great continuance of this needed effort and I hope the appellation starts to turn up on many more labels. But more can be done to help denigrate the "Sonoma Coast" appellation and lift up this remarkable brand of wines being made by the WOW Fest vintners:

1. I'd love to see a little "West of the West" symbol that could be placed on back labels of those wines made in this far western Sonoma region.

2. I'd like to see more efforts to educate the media about the fraud that is the "Sonoma Coast" AVA

3. I'd like to see more movement to carve up the "Sonoma Coast" in many other, smaller AVAs.

In the mean time, your best bet to really understand where the best wines from the North Coast are being being made and what they mean is to attend the West of the West Wine Fest:

WHEN: August 3 – August 5
WHERE: Occidental, CA
WHAT: Tastings, Seminars, Grand Tastings, Dinners
COST: $125 -$450


2 Responses

  1. tom merle - June 5, 2012

    Isn’t the Sonoma Coast a bit like the North Coast AVA? When wineries source grapes for a given wine from Lake, Yolo, Mendo etc. on goes North Coast to the label (or California). Ditto when wineries get their grapes from different areas within the Sonoma Coast, which will gradually be broken up into sub AVAs. Of course all the areas within Sonoma Coast enjoy excellent terroir.

  2. Tom Wark - June 6, 2012

    Correct. This makes the “Sonoma Coast” something of a “holding company” for other areas that fall within its borders.
    What really great about what the West Sonoma Coast vintners are doing is that they are making the case that what’s inside the lines on an appellation map ought to relate to the quality and character of the wines that come out of the region, rather than just being semi-arbitrary, politically drawn lines.

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