The Best of Sonoma

By Antonio Galloni

I spent eight days in Sonoma County in January and also tasted a number of additional Sonoma wines late last year for this article. Getting a good look at the wines of Sonoma is not an easy task. For starters, at approximately three times the size of Napa Valley, Sonoma is a vast region made even more complicated by the distances that are often required to visit the top addresses with thoroughness. I have to be honest and say that I have very mixed feelings about Sonoma wines. I tasted 1,100 wines for this article of which 693 scored 85 points or higher (69%) and thus merited inclusion in this report. I have always strived for the most democratic tastings possible, and we cast a very wide net, so it is possible that the large percentage of wines that scored under 85 points is more a reflection of the sheer scale of Sonoma rather than a true indicator of average quality. Still, even under the most forgiving of scenarios, the reality is that I tasted hundreds of boring wines with no real personalities. The proliferation of vineyard-designate wines from sites that are average in quality is truly alarming because they threaten to confuse the marketplace given the lack of a formal qualitative ranking of vineyards. I won’t bore readers too much with the number of instances in which I tasted a lineup of multiple Pinot Noirs from a single producer that all tasted basically the same.

 But I won’t let the large quantity of insipid wines I tasted detract from the sheer excitement of the best wines I encountered. And there is a lot to get excited about in Sonoma. The emergence of a number of young producers making great wines over the last few years is energizing. In particular, the growing focus on marginal, cooler-climate sites close to the Pacific Ocean is yielding many compelling wines. Sonoma is fascinating because it encompasses most of the main grapes grown in California. The best known are the Burgundian varieties Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, followed by Syrah, but I was also deeply impressed with the progress being made with Bordeaux varieties and Bordeaux-styled reds in general. Quite a few producers are appearing in our pages for the first time. In short, there is a lot to like about the state of Sonoma today. My hope is that the success of the top properties will inspire underachievers to pick up their game. The potential in many of these sites has yet to be fully tapped.

California: Where is the Value?

I heard about pricing from many readers after the publication of Issue 198. Subscribers lamented the eye-popping prices that the best wines of Napa command. It is no secret that while Napa may be a compelling region for many reasons, supplying the market with an abundance of well-made, affordable wines is not one of them. Readers should look closely at Sonoma (and the Central Coast, too) for wines that deliver high quality at prices most of us can afford. I was struck by the number of fabulous, fairly priced wines I tasted for this article.

Vintage 2009

It is impossible to spend any time in Sonoma – and Northern California, for that matter –and not realize the profound impact vintages 2009, 2010 and 2011 are having on producers. All three years are cold vintages, each seemingly cooler and more challenging than the preceding vintage. With conditions that are making it impossible to turn out the rich, concentrated wines that are so common in California, winemakers – many for the first time – are discovering what they can do in cooler years and are clearly thrilled with the results. At the same time, more than one winemaker told me he was unhappy with the way his wines had aged and there is clearly a group of winemakers who have moved to slightly earlier picking and made other changes in their overall approach with the aim of trying to preserve as much freshness as possible.

 The 2009 vintage has turned out beautifully for all of the main varieties. In 2009 the set was fairly regular and ripening was even for Chardonnay, Pinot and Zinfandel. Some producers reported lower than average yields, most likely because of rain and humidity in May, but for the most part, 2009 can be considered a very consistent year. There was a heavy downpour on October 13th, but that affected only the later-ripening varieties, as the Chardonnay, Pinot and Zinfandel had been picked several weeks to a month prior. It is a wonderful vintage, especially for the Pinots, which are open, silky, radiant and simply flat-out delicious. It is a vintage with considerable early appeal.

Vintage 2010

Vintage 2010 presented growers with far more challenges than 2009. The set was highly irregular. A cold, wet summer in some places registered the lowest temperatures in 50 years. Then, in late August, a brutal heat wave arrived that literally torched a large number of vineyards. I have heard multiple theories as to why some fruit was so heavily compromised, while other sites were less affected. Some producers claim that aggressive leaf pulling left the vines particularly vulnerable to the heat. Others contend that the cold summer caused the plants to stop developing and thus the vines did not have enough nutrients to stand up to the heat. There are a few growers who believe row orientation was the key to surviving and yet others who think the critical element was veraison and where certain grapes stood in their maturation cycles when the heat arrived. To complicate the matter even further, a second set of heat spikes arrived in September. Obviously there is no simple answer or answers, but a lot to think about. The one thing that is certain is that 2010 is a long, cold growing season with lower than average yields and very late harvests. The most consistent grape is probably Chardonnay, where so many wines have great focus and minerality. For Pinot and Syrah the vintage is less consistent overall, but there are a few stellar wines that outperform their 2009 counterparts. I tasted a limited number of Bordeaux varieties (most of the 2010s are still in barrel), but very much liked what I did taste. In general, the 2010s will appeal to readers who appreciate energy, focus and length in wines, and that includes me.