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In Search of Terroir in the Petaluma Gap

by Dr. Liz Thach
August 16, 2013

In today’s crowded wine market with thousands of labels from around the world, new wine regions are challenged even more to identify a means of differentiation. This is especially the case if they specialize in classic grape varietals such as Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Syrah. They struggle to describe how they are different from their neighboring wine regions, and search for the words to explain these unique attributes to the consumer.

One such case story is the Petaluma Gap, a region within the Sonoma Coast AVA that is much cooler and receives more wind because of a “gap” in the coastal mountain range. This geographic feature allows the more than 70 growers in the region to produce high quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and cool climate Syrah, which they sell to over 80 wineries in other parts of Sonoma and Napa counties. The Petaluma Gap itself is home to six small family-operated wineries, only three of which have tasting rooms. The challenge is that since the Gap is selling most of its grapes to other wineries, it has not established a cohesive story around its distinctive attributes.

Describing Terroir Differences in Other Appellations
These are many definitions for “terroir,” but the most basic is “taste of place.” Burgundy probably does the best job of describing this based on its wines from different villages. For example, Gevrey-Chambertin usually produces rich fleshy wines with concentrated, velvety, red fruit notes, cherries and raspberries; whereas Chambolle-Musigny is known for delicate, feminine, highly perfumed, wines with silky tannins, and Vougeot is more masculine with bigger tannins and notes of licorice, coffee and blackberries.

Certain regions within California have also become skilled at differentiating their Pinot Noirs. The Russian River AVA is famous for medium-bodied, darker colored wines with raspberry, cola, and spice. Carneros is known for lighter bodied strawberry flavored wines, and Santa Lucia for big chewy Pinots with lots of rich red fruit and higher alcohol.

Calling in the Experts
In the first of a series of focused tastings to better articulate the distinctive character of wines made from Petaluma Gap grapes, the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance (PGWA, an organization of local growers and wineries) called upon the expertise of Chris Sawyer, Head Sommelier at the Carneros Inn, and Wilfred Wong, Cellar Master at BevMo. The PGWA assembled a group of 28 wines crafted from 100 percent Petaluma Gap grapes (see list below), and the two experienced wine judges set to work to describe the “terroir” they were tasting in the glass. After the end of a long afternoon of tasting and discussion, the consensus is that Petaluma Gap wines not only exhibit crisp acidity and complex flavors, but have a profile of “elegance with a touch of the wild.”

  • Pinot Noirs exhibit “rich red and blue fruit with wonderful savory notes of sage, mint, and wild herbs - elegant with a touch of the wild.”
  • Chardonnays are “very bright, lively and full of tart fruit and mineral flavors.”
  • Cool Climate Syrahs show “red and black fruit, white pepper, and delight the palette with elegance and structure . . . more Northern Rhone in style.”

Slowly Building a Reputation Over Time
It is very helpful to rely upon the palates of experts to assist in the identification of regional attributes. This, accompanied by consistent high quality production and award winning wines, such as the 2009 Kosta Browne Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir that was fashioned from more than 60 percent Petaluma Gap grapes and won #1 wine in the world according to the Wine Spectator ranking in 2011, aids a region in slowing building a reputation.

Wines Showcased in the Tasting (vineyard numbers refer to the Petaluma Gap map available for download at

Pinot Noir
2010 Clouds Rest
Clouds Rest Estate Vineyard (#30)
2010 Enriquez Estate
Enriquez Estate/Flying Rooster Vineyard (#36)
2010 Keller Estate, La Cruz
Keller Estate, La Cruz Vineyard (#61)
2010 Keller Estate, El Coro
Keller Estate, El Coro Vineyard (#60)
2010 Kendric Vineyards
Kendric Estate Vineyard (#71)
2010 Kosta Browne
Gap’s Crown Vineyard (#26)
2010 Moshin
Morris Ranch Vineyard (#34)
2011 Waxwing Wines
Spring Hill Vineyard (#43)
2011 Benzinger
de Coelo Vineyard (#1)
2011 Cline Cellars, Cool Climate
Cline Vineyard (#59)
2011 Flocchini Wines
Flocchini Estate Vineyard (#65)
2011 Pfendler
Pfendler Vineyard (#28/29)
2011 Wind Gap, Sonoma Coast
Gap’s Crown & Griffin’s Lair Vineyards (#26 & 66)
2011 Wind Gap
Gap’s Crown Vineyard (#26)

2011 Keller Estate Oro de Plata
Keller Estate Vineyard (#60)
2011 B Kosuge Wines
Keller Estate, La Cruz Vineyard (#61)
2011 Flocchini Wines
Flocchini Estate Vineyard (#65)
2011 Keller Estate
Keller Estate, La Cruz Vineyard (#61)
2011 OM Wines
Rockin’ H Ranch Vineyard (#64)
2011 Clouds Rest
Clouds Rest Estate Vineyard (#30)

2010 Arnot-Roberts
Griffin’s Lair Vineyard (#66)
2010 Flocchini Wines, Saddle-Up
Flocchini Estate Vineyard (#65)
2010 Keller Estate
Keller Estate Vineyard (#60)
2011 Arnot-Roberts
Clary Ranch - Grand Vent Vineyard (#38)
2011 Bedrock
Griffin’s Lair Vineyard (#66)
2011 Bouchaine
Rockin’ H Ranch Vineyard (#64)
2011 Cline Cellars
Cline Lazy C Vineyard (#37)
2011 Flocchini Wines
Flocchini Estate Vineyard (#65)

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