Petaluma Gap Shows Off Its Cool

By Published On: September 4, 2023

Straddling northern Marin and southern Sonoma counties, The Petaluma Gap acts as a 200,000-funnel for the breezes off the Pacific. From its western edge at Bodega Bay, The Gap stretches southeast to Highway 37 at Sears Point on San Pablo Bay, then north to the base of Sonoma Mountain. Becoming Sonoma’s 17th sub-AVA in 2017, it counts two dozen plus wineries within its boundaries, and many others who are buying grapes from its vineyards.

Currently, there are 4k acres planted to vines in Petaluma Gap, of which 75 percent are Pinot Noir, 13 percent are Chardonnay and 11-ish percent, Syrah. You’ll also find Albarino, Blaufrankisch, Riesling and Viognier. And mostly, you’ll find in your face flavors, with plenty of acid, kind of like standing on a cliff facing west into a stiff ocean breeze.

The best way to get an overview of a region’s wares is to attend a walk around tasting, where all the local wineries, and those who purchase fruit from the area, show up to share their stories and wines. Organized by Executive Director, Cheryl Quist of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance, “Wind to Wine,” held Saturday, August 5, at Sally Tomatoes in Rohnert Park, was just such an occasion. And a fine example of how to throw a wine event it was, too, with plentiful food and a water station, necessary on a very warm day. 

With a marine influenced climate, one expects Pinot Noir and Chardonnay to thrive, and there was no lack thereof, but there were also fine examples of Blaufrankisch (Brooks Note), Sauvignon Blanc (Leghorn), Viognier (Kendric) and Syrah (Cline). Many 90+ point wines were on display: the list is updated monthly on the Petaluma Gap website, and the critics ratings are quite consistent.

In wine, as in real estate, it’s all about location, location and location.  Ana Keller of Keller Estate has 90 acres of vines in the southeastern part of the Gap, some installed over 30 years ago. Even though UC Davis cautioned her that Chardonnay would be tough to ripen and advised her not to plant Pinot Noir, the level of ripeness the Chardonnay achieved came as a pleasant surprise. And the Pinot Noir turned out surprisingly meaty and with good color. She credits the pervasive Gap wind for helping to thicken skins and provide darker tannins and brooding fruit flavors, especially on the Keller Syrahs, which are massive.

Standout Vineyards

When you notice certain names cropping up again and again on labels, you know a couple of things are true: winemakers are mad for the fruit and they are proud to showcase it as a vineyard designate. These are the top three: Roberts Road (owned and farmed by the Sangiacomo family), Sun Chase (owned by Alex Guarachi of Guarachi Family Wines) and Gap’s Crown (owned by Bill Price of Three Sticks Wines). All are planted to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and sell grapes to many producers in and outside of the Gap.

“Pinot Noir expresses the trademark Petaluma Gap lushness the region has become known for,” says Steve Sangiacomo, whose family owns and farms 130 acres of vineyard at the base of Sonoma Mountain.

And that was certainly my experience: the wines have a lushness that matches the inherent acidity, making them easy to love now, yet with many years of development ahead of them.

Standout Wines

Blue Note Farms 2021 Gap’s Crown Pinot Noir  – Blue Farm is Donum founder Anne Moller-Racke’s personal winegrowing project, begun in 2001. For this elegant and racy wine, brimming with wild strawberries, red raspberry, and a hint of mandarin, she tapped Gapʼs Crown, one of The Gap’s prized vineyards for its multi-layered Pinot Noirs. The “Crown,” indeed, is fitting.

Brooks Note 2022 Paradise Vineyard Riesling – Floral with orchard fruit and nectarine. Just lovely. The Blaufrankisch, also from Paradise Ridge, was dark and powerful. Paradise Ridge Vineyard, which is across from Sonoma Raceway, gets hit by wind from both San Pablo Bay and the Petaluma Gap. It may not be ideal for sitting outside for a picnic, but it produces amazing grapes.

Keller Estate 2004 La Cruz Vineyard Syrah – Ana Keller was pouring this library selection to demonstrate how masterfully their cool climate Syrah can age. Still plenty peppery, but going more meaty and deeply plummy with age, this wine exhibits a wonderful density and intensity of red fruit and roasted meats. The 2019 Keller La Cruz Vineyard Pinot Noir is remarkable, from its splendid hue, to its fleshy, intense mulled strawberry and ripe red cherry flavors, tightly wound around a core of acid.

McEvoy Ranch 2019 The Evening Standard Pinot Noir – With a classic typewriter (several generations before the IBM Selectric) on the label, this is a tribute to the McEvoy’s history in journalism, as founders of the San Francisco Chronicle in 1865. This Pinot Noir is straightforward, lovely, lithe and juicy, fragrant and finely spiced, yet it has plenty of charms left in the music box. The perfect Pinot Noir, it is sourced mostly from the Estate McEvoy Ranch, with 35% coming from Azaya Vineyard to the west.  Made by longtime Burgundy star, Byron Kosuge, and aged only in neutral French puncheons, this wine leverages its subtle prelude to draw you in, slowly revealing the next layer of engaging music.

Merryvale 2022 Sun Chase Chardonnay – It surprised me to see Merryvale pouring at this event, but CEO & Proprietor, René Schlatter, a Swiss native turned Californian who has been with the winery since 1995 (he started as a cellar hand), explained that with global warming, ocean influence is more important than ever to achieving balanced wines. One sip of the 2022 Sun Chase Chardonnay from barrel sample revealed a thing of beauty, and the Sun Chase Pinot Noir also proved remarkably lithe. Using three sizes of vessels, including 228L standard barrels plus mainly 500L and 600L puncheons, along with partial malo and lees stirring, helps maintain that tiptoe balance that makes a pirouette possible. Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir were impressive for their elegance of texture combined with persistence of fresh fruit. This was by far the most memorable Chardonnay of the day for its persistent delicacy and fresh assertiveness.

Sangiacomo 2020 Roberts Road Chardonnay – Best known for selling fruit, the Sangiacomo family tapped winemaker James MacPhail in 2016, to produce wines under their own brand. This 2020 overdelivers on the gorgeous lemon curd and lemon zest aromatics. There’s also orange peel, baked pear and a flintiness that turns to cardamom and a sneeze of white pepper on the finish. A most intriguing wine, and just one of many that MacPhail makes from the Sangiacomo family’s many different vineyards in The Gap and Carneros. A wealth of flavors awaits your discovery across this rich and varied lineup.

Guarachi Family Wines 2021 Sun Chase Pinot Noir – A bit more fleshy than the Merryvale rendition, this Pinot Noir added to my favorable impression of Sun Chase Vineyard, located at 1400ft elevation in the north east corner of the Petaluma Gap AVA. The intense floral rose garden nose is captivating, and the juicy, mouthwatering red fruits, along with the smooth minerality makes for a decidedly complete and engaging wine.  Definitely an early drinker, or perhaps we should say, a child prodigy.

Sojourn Cellars 2021 Rodgers Creek Pinot Noir – If you’re looking for a lineup of single vineyard Pinot Noirs that precisely and definitively spells out the alphabet of this AVA, along with some beauties from the greater Sonoma Coast, take a sojourn to this bastion of terroir. While the 2021 Petaluma Gap Pinot Noir, is the only one of their Pinot Noirs to explicitly state “Petaluma Gap” on the front label, many of Sojourn’s single vineyard efforts are, indeed, from The Gap, even though they state Sonoma Coast. I appreciated them all, and the Chardonnays too, but this Pinot Noir, from Rodgers Creek, high on a steep ridge, really stood out. From the Pommard clone comes earth, mushroom and vivid red fruits, that absolutely dance and spin and shine. The 2021 Sangiacomo Pinot Noir is also a chime-ringer. Most impressive lineup.

Schug 2021 Roberts Road Pinot Noir – This is full on Roberts Road, with brambly red and black fruits and a distinct savoriness amplified by the persistent tang of acid.  It sang of its maritime influence and laid down track after track of harmonious flavors that stayed with me long after, like the reverberation in your head after a gratifying concert. GM of Schug Winery, Dave Moore, told me they are increasingly enamored of the Petaluma Gap, and were very proud to have gotten 95 points and Editor’s Choice for this wine from Wine Enthusiast. They also make Pinot Noir from Sangiacomo’s “El Novillero”vineyard, which borders the Schug property in Carneros.

Discovery of the Day: McEvoy Ranch

In the most south and western part of the AVA, squarely in the southern reaches of Marin, McEvoy Ranch has 27 acres of grapes. Its plantings include Pinot Noir and Syrah, but also Montepulciano, Refosco, Sagrantino and Vermentino. Another 57 acres are devoted to olives, from which they make a good selection of olive oils, available for tasting at their outlet store in Petaluma. The range of expression across the four wine selections they brought to share displayed keenly not only the distinctive terroir of each vineyard, but the winemaker’s ample talent. Byron Kosuge does an equally masterful job on the breezy, fresh almond tinged 2021 Blue Sky Chardonnay from La Cruz Vineyard as he does on the savory, violet, pepper and olive Red Piano Syrah, also from La Cruz.  The aforementioned 2019 Evening Standard Pinot Noir, and the wildly coastal, floral and red raspberry rich 2019 Azaya Pinot Noir, also done in neutral puncheons, both set a great table for appreciating the energy and drive of Petaluma Gap Pinot Noirs. They truly need no new oak to be as riveting as the maritime breezes that give them such intense and soulful character. 

About the Author: Laura Ness

Laura Ness is a longtime wine journalist and wine judge who enjoys telling tales of winemakers, winegrowers and wines. Each bottle of wine has a story to tell, and becomes part of the story of those who consume it. For over 20 years, she has written regularly for a variety of industry and consumer publications. Every purse she owns contains a corkscrew.