In wine, the influence of the ocean can’t be understated. The sea provides wind, cooler temperatures, moisture, and more, all of which combine to temper the makeup the flavors of wine grapes and the resulting wines. Geological and climatological character breeds personality in wine.
The Petaluma Gap is one of those storied map features, a unique region in northern California. Extending from the Pacific Ocean to San Pablo Bay, it invites gusty marine air in and through its many corridors, treating the inland foothills to, well, an almost constant breath of fresh air. In 2018, an American Viticultural Area of the same name was granted recognition by the feds, honoring the special set of conditions that unfold here. But the Pertaluma Gap’s affects extend beyond its own namesake appellation.
In the Petaluma Gap AVA, Pinot Noir is dominant, making up about three-fourths of what’s planted. Syrah and Chardonnay flourish here as well, along with a little bit of Albariño, Riesling, Grenache, and a few other varieties. Grape growing in the region dates back to the 1830s when the governor of Mexican California planted vines. The first commercial operation came about a half-century later.
The marine layer here is dramatic, the stuff of post card images even. The mornings are shrouded in coastal fog before it’s burned off by the sun in the afternoon. The climate is Mediterranean in nature, with a significant diurnal shift. Steady breezes in the afternoon funneling in from the coast concentrate flavor and limit yields in the vineyard. And because the elevation remains fairly low, there’s not much getting in the way of this significant marine influence.
Other AVAs altered for the better by the Petaluma Gap include the Russian River Valley and the Sonoma Coast. This is not the sunbaked California we like to think of. Here, high temperatures hover around the mid-70s, extending the growing season and securing a lot of the chemistry (sugar and acid balance especially) that winemakers adore. There’s plenty of precipitation here as well, with a Willamette Valley-esque annual amount of close to 40 inches. Better still, there’s a certain convenience about the Gap, as it starts just 25 short miles north from San Francisco’s iconic Golden Gate Bridge.
Here are a few labels to look out for that champion the distinctive ways of the Petaluma Gap. Together, these brands are helping to elevate this relatively new California appellation with every vintage.
Patz & Hall launched in 1988 and has since established itself as one of the leading labels of the appellation. Its specialty is single-vineyard Burgundian varietals like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. The label dabbles in a number of northern Californian AVAs, including the Santa Lucia Highlands, but some of its best work comes out of the Petaluma Gap. Look out for Gap’s Crown Vineyard on the label, an elegant site offering fruit and wines with a real depth of character and nuance.
Located in the town of Petaluma, Keller Estate is very much worth the visit, situated on an eye-catching estate. But while the pandemic keeps us mindful of travel and group tastings, look out for the label’s stunning estate wines, including some outstanding Syrah. The Chardonnay out of La Cruz Vineyard should also be on any wine enthusiast’s short list, made from grapes grown on an ancient seabed near San Pablo Bay near the mouth of the Gap.
It sounds a lot like the above winery, but Karah Estate is injecting its own bit of skill and creativity into the Petaluma Gap wine scene. The Coati operation pulls from 144 acres in the Sonoma Coast and makes truly lovely Pinot Noir and even some Chenin Blanc. Ever-crafty, Karah Estate also makes a Beaujolais-inspired nouveau wine.
A label in its own right and one worth sampling, Sangiacomo also sells a lot of its fruit to esteemed area producers. The outfit tends some 1,600 vineyards in the Sonoma area, including the Roberts Road Vineyard within the Petaluma Gap. This site in particular, previously used for hay and corn, has become a playground for highly sought-after Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
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