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Sonoma County
Trying to pin down a “Sonoma County style” is virtually hopeless. That being said it is important to point out why. Sonoma County is a designation used as a catch all for wines from the far more precise sub-appellations of the Russian River, Dry Creek, Alexander, and Sonoma Valleys, with many further divisions among them. Each area is unique and distinctive. What many producers choose to do, however, is blend wines from the various regions within the county and label accordingly. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

Following the Australian model, it makes perfect sense that if one were trying to make a balanced and well rounded wine year in and year out, the best solution might be to blend from vineyards which share complimentary qualities. Alexander Valley grapes for richness, Russian River for acidity, and Dry Creek for intensity of fruit perhaps? The resultant wines are quite good and may even be more consistent, but the blending tends to mitigate the notion of terroir, and it is dangerous to attempt to pigeon hole Sonoma County wines as a whole because they are bound to be blended from different regions, in different proportions, and for different reasons. Despite this fact, three regions in particular within Sonoma have become known for the production of high quality Cabernet: the Alexander, Sonoma, and Dry Creek Valleys.

The Alexander Valley is one of the most notable of the AVAs within Sonoma County for Cabernet. It features one of the warmest climates in Sonoma County, and as such, it is ideally suited to Bordeaux varietals. Although it is only some 18 miles from the ocean, the maritime influence is not what it is in, say, the Russian River Valley, as it is shielded by north-south mountain ranges. Alexander Valley Cabernets tend to be relatively rich, though without the weight one associates with Napa bottlings. Additionally, the acidity levels seem a shade more prominent. In this way, it might be fairly said that Alexander Valley cabernet is somewhat of a bridge in style between Napa and Sonoma, taking some of the better attributes of each, with a telltale, supple, plummy, fruit-driven quality.

As for the Sonoma Valley, it sits at the southern end of Sonoma County, abutting the Carneros. The valley proper runs between the Mayacamas Mountains, which form the border with Napa, and Sonoma Mountain. As the valley opens up past Sonoma Mountain at the town of Glen Ellen, the climate changes from that in the southern end. The area as a whole is filled with wild and precipitous hills which afford the vineyards ideal exposures to the sun. This, in combination with a lengthy growing season, moderate temperatures afforded by the cooling breezes of the San Pablo Bay and the Petaluma Gap, and fertile though well-drained soils have made for a vine growing Eden. Sonoma Valley Cabernet tends to be quite extracted with exotically deep colors and black fruit aromas. This intensity of fruit character is the wines’ hallmark, and despite the unusual level of extract, generally pronounced acidity lends a measure of balance.

As for the Dry Creek Valley, though a stones throw from the Russian River and Alexander Valleys, it is quite unique. As per usual Sonoma County’s tortured and eternally confusing geography is to blame. The natural boundaries of the valley, however, make this an exceptionally tight and well-defined appellation. The Dry Creek parallels the Alexander Valley on the western side and drains into the Russian River. From the point where the Dry Creek meets the Russian River, it is about 16 miles to the northwest where the Dry Creek Valley abruptly ends. Surrounded by mountains on three sides, with the only opening being at the Russian River, there is no outlet for wind as in the Alexander Valley. Additionally, what fog does enter from the Russian River Valley often comes in at night and burns off quickly during the day. Hence, temperatures are far warmer than in the Russian River Valley, particularly at the northern end. The valley is only two miles wide at its widest point, and the valley floor itself is quite narrow. Benchlands and hillsides dominate the region, and in the warmer northern end of the valley, red wine is king.

The Dry Creek area was largely settled in the late 19th century by Italian families, and as in other parts of Sonoma County, Zinfandel was the favored grape, interspersed with the usual blend of black varieties. Cabernet has taken root, however, and the resultant wines have that signature Dry Creek stamp, an exotic briar fruit character with crisp acidity. The wines are lighter in body than those from the Alexander or Sonoma Valleys, yet are well balanced and eminently drinkable. (Wine/Appellations)