First of two parts
on California pinot noir

When you buy an American wine, do you pay attention to the geographic description on the label? Most people probably don’t, as long as the word “California” is in there somewhere.

In Europe, place is paramount. That geographic label is called an “appellation,” formalized in 20th-century France as “appellation d’origine controllee” or AOC. The legal tag was designed as a guard against fraud: cheap plonk passed off as more reputable and expensive wines. But the concept lies in the realization that certain areas and vineyards produce superior wines. The smaller and more precise the designation, the closer the connection to the wine’s terroir, and of course, the wines become more rare and expensive.

Recommended Sonoma Coast wines

In the United States, the “American Viticultural Area” (AVA) designation is based more on, well, politics and marketing. AVAs often seem to have no rhyme or reason except for their marketing value, which is questionable.

Take the Sonoma Coast, for example. That AVA covers about 750 square miles stretching from Marin County in the south to Mendocino in the north, and includes the Russian River Valley and parts of the Sonoma Valley and Carneros AVAs; essentially, any part of Sonoma County known for producing chardonnay or pinot noir. If there’s an “appellation” justification to the wide-ranging AVA, it’s the coastal influence that moderates temperatures and helps preserve acidity in the wines.

The problem is, the coastal influence varies throughout Sonoma County. Up north, on remote hillsides near Cazadero or the small town of Annapolis approaching the Mendocino County line, is an area known informally as the “extreme Sonoma Coast.” Here the first Western explorers were Russians, not Spaniards. Vineyards sprawl along steep slopes where the biggest threat to grapes is not mildew but wild boar. These vineyards are accessible only by driving the Pacific Coast Highway, up switchback curves along roads frequently washed out by storms.

This is where the San Andreas Fault arcs toward the Pacific, having churned up a melange of soil types millenniums ago. And it is where you’ll find Hirsch Vineyards, producing stellar pinot noir grown on 45-degree slopes just two miles from the ocean. Within sight across the San Andreas, but about a 20-minute roundabout drive away, is Flowers Vineyard and Winery and its Camp Meeting Ridge Vineyard, another source of stunning pinot noir.

These vineyards lie above the fog line, with exposure to the sun and its warmth. Should they really be in the same AVA as vineyards farther south in the Petaluma Gap or Carneros, where fog regularly shrouds the vines? The AVA is so disrespected that several wineries closer to the Pacific have formed a group they call the “West Sonoma Coast Vintners.” Efforts are underway to carve smaller AVAs out of the Sonoma Coast.

A small part of the “extreme coast” was granted appellation status last fall as Fort Ross-Seaview, but some wineries, at least, are not rushing to adopt the new address.

“We haven’t decided yet, but I think within a few years we will have the Fort Ross-Seaview designation on our labels,” says Jasmine Hirsch, of Hirsch Vineyards. “I strongly believe that the more specific we can be about where the wine comes from, the better it is for the consumer.”

Other wineries, including Flowers, are more hesitant. “We feel that consumers know us as a Sonoma Coast winery,” says winemaker Darrin Low. “Instead of promoting the appellation, we want to promote the vineyard.”

So for now, “Sonoma Coast” leaves much to explore, but the name itself is not a guide. The best wines are exclusive and expensive, often found on finer restaurant wine lists. But they are worth seeking out as some of the best pinot noir California has to offer.

Recommended Sonoma Coast wines

Next week: A group of vintners is trying to strike a different direction in style.

McIntyre blogs at Follow him on Twitter: @dmwine.