Petaluma wine makers toast successful viticulture region

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The journey that culminated with Petaluma’s official viticulture area designation began more than a decade ago with a handful of grape growers talking about the unique challenges of producing fruit in an unusually windy region.

The federal application alone took nearly three years, an effort complicated by a change in administrations that required congressional intervention.

“It was like watching a submarine race,” said Doug Cover, a member of the board of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance. “You never knew what was happening.”

Finally, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau approved a rule that went into affect in January, giving the Petaluma Gap status as an official American Viticulture Area.

“With the AVA approval, it allows wineries that use Petaluma Gap grapes to put Petaluma Gap on the bottle,” said Cheryl Quist, executive director of the PGWA. “The intent is for consumers to seek out these wines because they can associate the quality of what they are tasting with the place, the Petaluma Gap.”

The 4,000 acres of vineyards, known for producing full bodied pinot noirs, spans from northern Marin County to southern Sonoma County and includes vineyards along Lakeville Highway and the slopes of Sonoma Mountain. This week, officials and wine makers gathered to celebrate the new AVA at one such hillside vineyard overlooking Penngrove and a flat notch in the coastal hills that allows the ocean breeze to funnel through and keep the region cool.

Guests drank some of the dozens of wines made with Petaluma Gap grapes. Cover said the process of getting AVA designation was complicated by the change in administration. President Trump put a moratorium on federal rule making, which put Petaluma Gap’s AVA on hold. Reps Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, and Mike Thompson, D-St. Helena, stepped in and pushed the process over the finish line.

“Don’t for a moment think you’ve been discriminated against,” Thompson told the grape growers. “I’ve been through 100 AVAs, and they’re all hard. You’ve accomplished a lot. Your leaders have been on this like the proverbial dog on a bone, for your benefit.”

Huffman said it was nice to celebrate a positive accomplishment after a tough year that included the devastating October wildfires.

“This will contribute to the region and the economy,” he said.

Before this year, Petaluma wines were lumped into the Sonoma Coast AVA, which spans some 500,000 acres. Having a federally-recognized AVA allows wine makers to distinguish and market their wines from a certain region.

“It allows us to give consumers a detailed picture of where their wines come from,” said Justin Seidenfeld, president of the PGWA and director of wine making at Rodney Strong.

The Tuesday event, held at Gap’s Crown Vineyard above Pressley Road, was the first opportunity for Petaluma Gap Winegrowers to gather and toast their success. Rob Harris, who manages Gap’s Crown and other vineyards, said the real guest of honor is the marine-influenced breeze.

“The wind is really the story,” he said. “It makes for a longer growing season.”

Rick Davis, proprietor and wine maker for Calstar Cellars, uncorked a bottle of his pinot noir made with Petaluma Gap fruit that he said has good acidity. He hasn’t used the Petaluma Gap label yet since it was only recently approved, but he said next year’s vintage would carry the designation.

“It increases the specificity,” he said. “The Sonoma Coast, that could be anywhere.”

(Contact Matt Brown at

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