When I think of Napa Valley, it mostly, well, makes sense.  It is clearly defining geographically—basically one straight shot 30 miles long and 5 miles wide.  It has a clear varietal leader—in Napa, of course, Cab is King.  It is straightforward logistically, with two roads running the length of the valley, and the occasional cross street linking the two.  From Google Earth, it looks like a ladder.

Then there’s Sonoma County.  It’s often mistakenly referred to by novices as Sonoma Valley, perhaps because that would make it easier to understand.

But Sonoma County as a wine region is something of an enigma.  It’s amorphous, a geographic blob that stretches up, over, and around.  It’s has five distinct major appellations, and several smaller appellations and sub-appellations.  The Russian River Valley, alone stretches as far as Napa Valley and quite a bit wider. 

And that’s what makes Sonoma County so interesting as a wine region.   From the old, established hot spots like Alexander Valley, where heat-seeking Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot thrive to produce world-class Bordeaux varietals and blends, to the more recently developed cold spots like the Sonoma Coast and Annapolis, where by landslide consensus the Pinot Noir and cold-climate Syrah are terrific.  (Even legendary Napa Valley producer Joseph Phelps is on to these areas, with a winery opening at later this year in Freestone, in the Sonoma Coast appellation.) 

If variety is the spice of life, think of Sonoma County as, well, spicy.  Let me count the ways:

Varietally.  In Sonoma County all the major grape varietals, almost literally from A (Alicante Bouchet) to Z (Zinfandel), are grown and produced.  There is probably the greatest variety on the red side, where beyond the Big Five (Cab, Merlot, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, Syrah), some other European varietals are gaining a foothold, including the Rhones Petite Sirah and Grenache and Italian varietals such as Barbera  and Sangiovese.

And in white, while it’s true that Chardonnay has a six-fold advantage in acres planted over runner-up Sauvignon Blanc, there are still plenty of alternate whites to be found, including Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris in the Russian River Valley, Viognier in Alexander Valley, and even a sprinkling of Semillon, Roussanne and Marsanne.

Within varietals.  This is where it gets most interesting.  Take, for example, Chardonnay, the most planted white varietal in Sonoma County.  If you favor a more Burgundian style--minerally, crisp--you’ll find that in Carneros.  On the other end of the spectrum, in Alexander Valley you’ll typically find a more opulent, California style.  And in the geographic “in between”—the Russian River Valley, Sonoma Valley, and Dry Creek Valley—you’ll also find the stylistic middle ground for Chardonnay: still fruit driven but more elegance and balance. 

There’s perhaps a less obvious stylistic difference among Sonoma County Zinfandels. Dry Creek Zinfandel is classically known for its briary blackberry and black pepper characteristics.  Yet just a few miles away, the Zinfandels of the Russian River Valley, where the summer days are ever so slightly cooler, the Zinfandels show more of the red fruit flavors (especially raspberry), accented by white pepper and often a distinctive floral characteristic.

Geographically.  There’s tremendous geographical variety in Sonoma County, both across and within its appellations.  From long flat expanses on the valley floors to the benches and hill terrain above, from low sections by the Russian River to high spots at Rockpile and Sonoma Mountain.  Not just great wine, but great roads—a sports car’s dream.

And that’s not even touching so many other areas that make Sonoma County fascinating as a wine region:  historically, geologically, climate, etc.  Over the next months I’ll use this space to explore all the spice that Sonoma County wine serves up.  Cheers!