By Barbara Barrielle
Establishing an American Viticultural Area, or AVA, is a slog. The effort it takes to gain recognition for a bit of the earth that allows grapes to grow with a distinction that should warrant a “stamp” that screams quality, uniqueness and, yes, a higher price tag takes time, money, paperwork and then more time.
When I attended the Petaluma Gap luncheon at the World of Pinot Noir event held annually at the fancy Ritz-Carlton Bacara Resort outside of Santa Barbara, I had heard much about the AVA and knew the wines fairly well, so I expected a sellout, not the sparsely attended but well-heeled lunch I walked into in the resort’s Angel Oak restaurant that Friday. Packed with rock star winemakers and serving first rate Pinot Noirs, this should have been a no-brainer for those Pinot fans looking for latest and greatest. I think the winery reps outnumbered the guests.
The Petaluma Gap AVA is now a thing and the appellation can be displayed proudly on the labels of wine made from grapes primarily sourced in this wind-driven slice of grape growing paradise bearing the funny but descriptive name. Petaluma Gap is not necessarily the town of the same name but signifies a break between east-west hill ranges that pulls wind in from the Pacific Ocean along the growing area and out through the San Pablo Bay. It is an area of low land 22 to 31 miles wide north of San Francisco and much of it within the well-known Sonoma Coast appellation which is within the Sonoma County AVA.
Rickey Trombetta Stancliff, of Trombetta Wines, and the former president of the AVA who was instrumental in getting the Petaluma Gap its recognition, explains it. “Sonoma Coast is huge with no continuity of terroir or weather. We took something Mother Nature handed us in the wind and the weather of the Gap. Around 3 PM the cold air is drawn in along the east-west hills and the physiological effect is small clusters and berries, a concentration of flavor and bright acidity.”
Justin Seidenfeld is the current Petaluma Gap AVA president and director of winemaking at Rodney Strong Vineyards. He is also a grower in the Gap and explains the weather effect with admiration, “grapes hang lower and ripen longer and are some of the last picked for the Rodney Strong line of wines. The Chardonnay from our Blue Wing Vineyard was picked late, over the period of September 15-19. The wines have a sense of minerality and saltiness and a great mid-palate mouthfeel and, at Rodney Strong, place matters.”
Kendall Jackson Winemaster Randy Ullom comments on the significance of this appellation, “The Petaluma Gap is the next sequence in defining and refining the special terroirs in Sonoma County, especially those that receive the effect of the coastal fog. More preciseness in origin always brings greater character in a wine and greater acclaim. Let this region shine – through the fog that is!”
Pfendler Vineyards’ winemaker Justin Harmon says enthusiastically, “With the formal recognition of this area as an official AVA, wineries have been supplied with the tools to directly market their wines to the consumers. Prior, this area fell within the significantly larger Sonoma Coast AVA. Over the years, consumers have come to recognize the distinct personality that wines borne from The Petaluma Gap AVA exhibit, and have come to seek them out. With the power to label the wines as such, Petaluma Gap wineries have been provided the crucial tool to communicate their place of origin with the consumer.”
Incorporating the Petaluma Gap distinction onto a wine’s label may be another matter altogether. The AVA received its formal recognition in December 2017 so wines bottled incorporating grapes from the area have the option to use the new AVA labeling. Wineries like Trombetta, Rodney Strong, DeLoach, Kendrick, McEvoy, Kendall Jackson, Cline, Adobe, Keller and more have indicated they will adopt the AVA distinction as soon as their next bottling. Alex Guarachi, of Guarachi Wines, is so excited about the AVA, he labeled his wines before the AVA was recognized and then had to relabel without Petaluma Gap on the label. Cline Cellars already has two wines (Amphorae label) bearing the Petaluma Gap AVA in the marketplace and, when out for review, proudly received 92 points from The Wine Advocate for their 100% Viognier. A Cline Syrah from the Gap received 89 points.
But others, like Kosta Browne and Patz & Hall may take more time in incorporating Petaluma Gap. As Seidenfeld points out, “If you are Patz & Hall and are selling 30,000 cases of Sonoma Coast wine and have a reputation in the marketplace for that wine, then it may be a slow integration of the new appellation on the bottle.” Rock star Pinot Noir producer Kosta Browne proudly pours a Gap’s Crown single vineyard Pinot Noir but the AVA remains Sonoma Coast. Petaluma Gap Executive Director Cheryl Quist does not know how many of the association’s members will adopt the AVA labeling immediately and how many will wait and see.
Winemaker Bob Cabral’s renowned Three Sticks Pinot Noirs and Chardonnays from the Petaluma Gap will not adopt the AVA on the label for the foreseeable future yet are proud members of the association and pour wines at events. This is indicative of several wineries making highly sought after wines from the Petaluma Gap area but waiting on adopting the AVA labeling. They are still members of the AVA association and supportive of efforts but each winery will make their own choice in the marketing of the wines from the area. David Ramey became creative with the Syrah he makes from Petaluma Gap for his Ramey label and now incorporates “Petaluma Gap – Sonoma Coast” to indicate it is still the Sonoma Coast wine fans have loved in the past but it is from this heralded slice of that vast region.
Marketing the Petaluma Gap AVA began before the confirmation of the AVA with distinctive tasting tents for the last couple years at the huge Labor Day weekend Taste of Sonoma event, luncheons like the one at World of Pinot Noir and, recently, a big post-AVA confirmation celebration at the Gap’s Crown Vineyard in May with two influential Congressmen, Mike Thompson and Jared Huffman, in attendance.
Rickey Trombetta and winemaking daughter, Erica Stancliff, recently presented the Trombetta Wines to several sommeliers in New York and reported that the buzz is beginning and the somms’ recognition of the bright acidity and flavor in the bottle was unmistakable. At this early point in the marketing game, the “hand sell” will be important and sommelier outreach is crucial. Erica, winemaker at both Trombetta and Furthermore Wines, will attend the popular TexSomm in August to present Petaluma Gap wines at a luncheon and many more activities are planned through 2019.
Marketing an appellation is important and, therefore, will take time. Establishing a sense of place, reliability and significance for this specific wine-growing region is important in establishing demand and, in effect, price. As one vintner points out, “If I were to think of one appellation that has done it well, I would say we respect the Russian River Valley and how they have marketed and grown the reputation of the AVA. On the other hand, I would say that the Carneros region has gotten a little lost. Maybe it is because it shares two major regions, Napa and Sonoma, but the AVA does not have the distinction we hope to build in the Petaluma Gap AVA.”