Petaluma Gap appellation designation sought

Azari Vineyards just southwest of Petaluma (Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance)

JEFF QUACKENBUSH, BUSINESS JOURNAL STAFF REPORTER

PETALUMA — About 200,000 acres in southern Sonoma and northern Marin counties could become a new federal-designated winegrowing region called Petaluma Gap, boosters of the effort announced.

The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance (petalumagap.com) said a petition was submitted to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, asking for official recognition of the area, the Sonoma County portion of which would be inside the existing Sonoma Coast appellation. The proposed region runs on both sides of Valley Ford Road, Bodega Avenue and Lakeville Highway from Bodega Bay to San Pablo Bay as well as encompassing Petaluma, Rohnert Park and Cotati along Petaluma Hill Road.

Established in the early 1980s, American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, are federally recognized grape-growing regions, akin to the appellation of origin system in Europe. The intent was to give consumers an accurate picture of where the grapes in a bottle came from, and the TTB enforces that by approving use of AVA names on wine packaging.

The grape-growing history in the Petaluma Gap area extends for more than 150 years, including more than 4,000 acres of vines in 80-plus properties today. Primary varieties grown in the proposed AVA are pinot noir, chardonnay and syrah.

“We felt that the Sonoma Coast AVA was too broad and that a separate Petaluma Gap AVA would help consumers recognize the special character of this area,” said Ana Keller, alliance president, in a statement.

Three key reasons the group noted when launching a fundraising campaign for the petition a few months ago were:

The TTB recently began to disallow the term “Petaluma Gap” on wine labels, deeming the name to be “viticulturally significant.”

The new conjunctive labeling law requires the use of “Sonoma County” on the labels of all wines produced from grapes grown in Sonoma County. “Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County” would be redundant, while “Petaluma Gap, Sonoma County” (or “Petaluma Gap, Marin County”) would be clear and informative to the consumer.

Growers and vintners in northwest portion of the Sonoma Coast AVA are working on a petition to establish the “West Sonoma Coast” AVA.

“We don’t want to be known as the leftover ‘Rest of Sonoma Coast,’” the trade group said in a fact sheet about the petition.

Vintners that wish to continue to use “Sonoma Coast, Sonoma County” or simply “Marin County” on their labels could still do so, the group emphasized.

For the past two years, the trade group has been compiling information on the uniqueness of the area’s topography, geology, soils, watershed and groundwater, climate and other characteristics.

“The years of groundwork that made this moment possible involved a great many hours of effort by our team of directors and community volunteers, with the overall goal of increasing awareness and respect for the region,” said Paul Clary, of Clary Ranch Wines, alliance president from 2010–2012.

Distinctiveness and history are key considerations in AVA petitions. Petaluma Gap is known for a cool climate, morning fog and, particularly, the daily afternoon “wind tunnel” effect, the alliance said.

“It is the regularity and intensity of the afternoon wind during the winegrape growing season that makes the gap unique to surrounding areas from a viticultural perspective,” said Doug Cover, a longtime Petaluma resident and vineyard owner as well as alliance vice president and chairman of the group’s AVA Committee.

Ms. Keller said key factors may speed the outcome of the petition.

“We don’t overlap any other AVAs, our constituency is mainly growers, rather than wineries, and there’s really no reason for any opposition,” she said. “Our board of directors and the general membership are of the same mind as to how important being granted this AVA designation will be to the area.”

If approved, Petaluma Gap would join several new local AVAs established in the past five years: Calistoga (January 2010), Pine Mountain–Cloverdale Peak straddling the Sonoma–Mendocino county line (November 2011), Coombsville in Napa Valley (January 2012), Fort Ross–Seaview in Sonoma Coast (January 2012), Big Valley District–Lake County (November 2013), Moon Mountain District Sonoma County (November 2013), Kelsey Bench–Lake County (November 2013), Eagle Peak Mendocino County (November 2014) and Fountaingrove District southeast of Santa Rosa (March 2015).