Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Draft AVA Petition

Russian River Valley expansion forces redrawing of borders for new California wine district

by Kate Lavin
The proposed Petaluma Gap AVA is outlined in blue, while the Russian River AVA is outlined in red. There are 11 vineyards (seen above as green dots) in the overlapping shaded area.
Petaluma, Calif.—Members of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance are finalizing their petition to create a new American Viticultural Area (AVA). With an eye toward submitting a watertight proposal that will pass the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) review process without incident, the group is running into a problem: overlap with the Russian River Valley AVA.

The original map for a Petaluma Gap growing area was drawn in 2005. Since that time, the Russian River Valley AVA has successfully lobbied twice to expand its boundaries. In 2011 the TTB approved an expansion led by E. & J. Gallo in spite of arguments that the new area was more aptly defined as the Petaluma Gap. (Gallo’s Two Rock Vineyard is located in the contested area west of Cotati, Calif.)

With this section now federally recognized as part of the Russian River Valley growing area, and the growers’ alliance finally ready to submit a petition, leadership is in a difficult position. While TTB regulation does not prohibit the agency from approving two sub-AVAs that overlap, anecdotal evidence and guidance from inside the TTB suggest that such an application would not be approved.

At this point, there are “very slim chances we’ll submit a petition with an overlap,” said Ana Keller, president of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance and director of winemaking at Keller Estate. Reiterating that her organization wants to do everything possible to ensure quick approval, Keller told Wines & Vines, “We’re trying to make the best decision understanding that the TTB does not favor overlaps.”

Lay of the land
The proposed Petaluma Gap currently includes nine licensed wineries and 80-plus vineyards. With more than 4,000 acres planted to wine grapes, the region produces fruit for 720,000 cases of wine per year—among them more than 50 vineyard-designate labels. Three-fourths of the vineyard acres are planted to Pinot Noir, 13% to Chardonnay and 12% to Syrah.

The proposed AVA would fall almost entirely inside the 50,000-acre Sonoma Coast AVA that extends from the Pacific Ocean in the west to San Pablo Bay in the southeast. (The part outside the Sonoma Coast AVA is in northern Marin County.) If approved, Petaluma Gap would be the seventh sub-AVA in the greater Sonoma Coast AVA.

Keller said that in the future she’d like to see a “Sonoma Coast Congress,” in which growers’ organizations from across the region gather to iron out boundary issues and clear up the overlaps.

Defining characteristics
“Sonoma Coast is a very large, amorphous AVA,” said Doug Cover, vice president of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance. Much of the region experiences cool temperatures with morning fog. What sets the Petaluma Gap apart is a break in the coastal ranges that follow the Pacific Coast. Funneled in by higher terrain to the north and south, sea breezes rush inland toward San Pablo Bay through a channel local growers have dubbed the Petaluma Gap.

“It’s our natural air conditioning,” Cover said. “Some gaps in the mountains permit wind to come roaring through here during the growing season.”

Winemaker Evan Pontoriero, owner of 1,200-case Fogline Vineyards in the Petaluma Gap’s northeast corner, makes a point of telling his customers, “Pinot Noir is a notoriously thin-skinned fruit, but wind creates thicker skins. And the flavor compounds are in the skins. For them to understand that the Petaluma Gap produces that style of wines is very important.”

The Petaluma Gap’s sustained wind speeds of at least 8mph during ripening season slow sugar development and photosynthesis in grapevines, elongating the growing season.

General manager and associate winemaker Randy Bennet, whose 5,000-case Sojourn Cellars creates vineyard-designate wines from Sangiacomo Vineyard (a Pinot Noir and a Chardonnay) and Gap’s Crown (a Pinot Noir) in the Petaluma Gap, said, “We call it ‘a winemaker’s AVA.’”

“We get longer hang times in the Petaluma Gap vineyards. It tends to ripen later,” Bennet said. “It’s also forgiving. When we’ve seen heat spikes, like in 2008, it has fog that might protect it as well.”

Time to submit a petition
While grapegrowers had been tossing around the idea of a formal AVA since 2005, the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Association finally got serious about putting together a petition when TTB started rejecting labels that mentioned the area—even on back labels.

The permissions were not uniformly enforced, however. TTB bounced one label back to Pontoriero with the threat that if Fogline submitted another mention of Petaluma Gap, the agency would “take back COLAs from the previous year.”

With this in mind, the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Association is intent on presenting TTB with a flawless petition. “We’re trying to do our homework to get this approved as quickly as possible,” Cover said.

To learn more about the group’s plans for an AVA, visit petalumagap.com.

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