While there are so many reasons to enjoy Sonoma Valley, wine is without a doubt the top attraction. And for good reason: the wineries from Sonoma Valley are some of the most prestigious in North America, and the quality of the local food scene makes the wines shine. Known as “The Valley of the Moon,” Sonoma Valley is rich in natural splendor, creating an incredible setting for grape growing. The valley’s winemaking legacy also makes it a must-see destination for history buffs, who will relish the region’s pioneering past as the birthplace of the California wine industry.
Below is a brief primer to get you ready for your next trip. Surprise the experts at our tasting rooms with your knowledge of Sonoma Valley, and let them take you to the next level.
Nestled between Sonoma Mountain to the west and the Mayacamas Mountains to the east, the valley forms an open-ended tunnel, drawing in the cool breezes from San Pablo Bay and the Petaluma Gap. These beneficial breezes create balance in the wines by protecting the vines from the sun, allowing the grapes to preserve their natural acidity and freshness. For cool-climate grapes like Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, preserving that freshness is key. Even the dozens of other grapes that thrive here, including warm-climate varietals like Zinfandel and Syrah, also benefit from the restraint of the cool air to create elegant wines capable of aging.
The valley is composed of fifteen distinct soil types divided among five different American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs: Sonoma Valley AVA, Los Carneros AVA, Sonoma Mountain AVA, Bennett Valley AVA and Moon Mountain AVA. These sub-regions of the valley are defined by their soil types, geological boundaries, and often microclimates—all of which influence the character of a wine. That is why a Chardonnay from the low-lying Los Carneros AVA will taste very different than one from the mountainous Bennett Valley AVA. Sonoma Valley may only be 17 miles long, but its varied terroirs lend incredible diversity to the wines.
Check out this great map of the Sonoma Valley AVAs from our partners at Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance to better understand the lay of the land.
OUR WINEMAKING HISTORY
Sonoma Valley is steeped in history and legend. The Franciscan missionaries were the first to plant grapes here in 1823, although ranching was the primary cash crop. According to historian Lynn Downey, the missionaries would entice indigenous people to the mission with music and food and baptize them. Once baptized, they were considered bound to the mission and weren't allowed to leave. A recent discovery by local historian Peter Meyerhof suggests that the mission gave one native man, called "Viviano," a land grant in 1832. Viviano is thought to be the first independent winegrower in Sonoma. Secularization in 1834 by General Mariano Vallejo eventually reduced the mission to a local parish and freed the native people who were bound to it, and Vallejo began expanding the vineyards.
It wasn’t until 1857 that Hungarian Agoston Harazthy, known as “the Count,” brought the first vine cuttings from Europe to establish one of the first of California’s commercial wineries—Buena Vista, including what is now Bartholomew Estate—but he began planting on the vineyard land first cultivated by Viviano. This suggests that Viviano was likely the "Father of the California Wine Industry" although for many years, the Count was thought to be. You can visit the wineries today and learn about Harazthy’s incredible vision for the California wine industry, from his fortune to his folly. During this same era, two German families relocated to the Rhinefarm vineyard in Sonoma to form the famous Gundlach Bundschu, still California’s oldest family-owned winery.
The arrival of Italian immigrants to the valley in the late 19th century brought the arrival of Italian grape varietals. In 1904, Samuele Sebastiani started his eponymous winery, having made his fortune mining the nearby hills to pave San Francisco’s streets. Celebrated author Jack London even tried his hand at winemaking around this time, and visitors can still explore his estate and wander his vineyards in Glen Ellen, now called Jack London State Historic Park.
By 1920, Prohibition slowed down most wine production, but some winemakers survived until Prohibition was repealed in 1933 by selling their wine as sacramental wine for the Catholic mass. Some even utilized warning labels on bricks of dehydrated grapes as a ruse for giving home winemakers instructions on how to make wine. Despite the passing of the 21st Amendment, the industry took a hit for decades. But Sonoma Valley winemaking pioneers have a long history of defying the odds, and in 1948 Hanzell Vineyards became one of the valley’s greatest crus.
By the early 70s, Sonoma Valley’s wine industry reemerged with new gusto with the arrival of St. Francis Winery, Landmark Vineyards, Chateau St. Jean, Kenwood Vineyards and Kunde Family Estate on the scene with high-quality wines. By the 80s, Benziger Family Winery and the former Ravenswood Winery added their names to the lineup, with Benziger launching as one of California’s first biodynamic wineries and Ravenswood’s founder, Joel Peterson making Zinfandel a household name. Today, Joel’s son, Morgan Twain-Peterson of Bedrock Wine Company makes wine from centennial Zinfandel vineyards he’s painstakingly revitalized. We highly recommend scheduling a tasting to sample his extraordinary wines from those first Sonoma Valley vineyards.
While Sonoma Valley is still a Zinfandel hotspot, the 2000s have ushered in new varietals like Syrah, Grenache and Sauvignon Blanc—all well suited to our Mediterranean climate, fog and cool breezes. But today, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are the chief grape varietals planted along the valley, collectively accounting for 35.3% of the valley’s total production. While single-varietal wines are easier to typecast, red and white blends are also extremely popular, whether they are classic Meritage- or Rhone-style blends, or proprietary/field blends that defy common flavor profiling.
SONOMA VALLEY’S TOP GRAPE VARIETALS
As a wine region created by immigrants and pioneers, Sonoma Valley is a hotbed for all sorts of different grapes, from the more classic varietals to more esoteric grapes planted by winemakers looking to experiment. Below are the seven most common grape varietals planted in Sonoma Valley. Try them in single-varietal bottlings or mixed with other grapes in tantalizing blends.
Chardonnay: 25.8% of total production. This widely beloved white grape may have gotten its noble start in the French region of Burgundy, but it has found a happy home here in California, particularly in the Carneros and Bennett Valley AVAs. From crisp and mineral-driven to rich and buttery, there’s a style for everyone to enjoy. Taste for notes of apples and pears of all kinds.
Pinot Noir: 9.5% of total production. Popularized by the hit film, Sideways, this red Burgundian beauty has also found paradise in Sonoma Valley. Its thin skin makes it a fragile grape to grow, but incoming sea breezes lend a lovely salinity to the finished wines, tempering their sun-kissed cherry and berry character with elegant minerals and acidity.
Cabernet Sauvignon: 7.4% of total production. Hailing from France’s Bordeaux region, the mountainous AVAs of Sonoma Valley make this an exciting varietal to grow. With deep, dark berry flavors, dusty notes of minerals and terroir and often penetrating tannins from oak aging, Cabernet Sauvignon can often age well.
Merlot: 5.6% of total production. This classic red varietal, also from Bordeaux, oozes notes of blackberries, currents and sometimes bell pepper. Bottled alone, it can be smooth and easy on the palate. Blended alongside other Bordeaux varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, it becomes a compelling blending grape.
Syrah: 4.6% of total production. After the Pinot Noir craze hit Sonoma Valley in the early 2000s, Syrah began gaining ground in total production. Popularized by France’s Rhone Valley, Syrah has found a happy balance in Sonoma Valley, benefitting from our Mediterranean climate. Notes of violets, leather and red berries make this a great wine for barbecue. Also try it in blends with Grenache, it’s natural blending partner.
Sauvignon Blanc: 2% of total production. From crisp and grassy to round and fruity, Sauvignon Blanc is the perfect blank canvas for its terroir. Try this light white grape alone as an easy-to-drink aperitif to get the taste buds going before dinner or as a picnic wine alongside our local cheeses and salads.
Zinfandel: 1.6% of total production. When introduced to Sonoma Valley in the 19th century by Italian immigrants, Zinfandel was originally known as Primitivo, a grape thought to be Italian but now known to have originated in Croatia. Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery was the first to make red Zinfandel a household name, and his son Morgan Twain Peterson celebrates old vineyard plantings in his bottlings. Spicy, fruity and deep, this red grape is divine alongside hearty dishes, standing up equally well in blends and single-varietal wines alike.
- American Wine by Jancis Robinson & Linda Murphy
- A Short History of Sonoma by Lynn Downey
- The Wine Institute
- Sonoma Valley Vintners & Growers Alliance
- Sonoma County Vintners
- “During Prohibition, Vintners Sold ‘Wine Bricks’ Instead of Wine," Smithsonian Magazine, August 27, 2015
- "New Exhibit on First Privately Held Vineyard in Sonoma Valley," Sonoma Index Tribune, July 25, 2019