Unique Territory


Steve Heller frequently finds pieces of petrified wood on his property. His vineyards are located along Petrified Forest Road just a mile west of the Napa County line, an area teeming with volcanic soils created from the eruptions of Mount St. Helena some 3 million years ago.


“The volcanic source of our soil is very good for our grapes,” he says, referring to the 11 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec and Petit Verdot that he farms at an elevation averaging 1,200 feet.


Heller is part of a small group of grapegrowers and vintners comprising the Fountaingrove Appellation Committee. With little fanfare, the group filed a petition with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) in June 2014 to create an American Viticultural Area (AVA) to be known as “Fountaingrove District.” The name is a nod to the historical significance of the old Fountain Grove community and winery that flourished in northeast Santa Rosa in the late 1800s and early 1900s.


In mid-February, the Fountaingrove District AVA was approved by the TTB and will now become the missing puzzle piece on the right-hand side of the Sonoma County AVA map. The AVA designation was set to take effect on March 20. With approximately 38,000 acres, its territory stretches from the Russian River Valley AVA in Santa Rosa on the west, to the Napa County line, to the east. It’s bordered on the north by the Chalk Hill and Knights Valley AVAs, and on the south by the Sonoma Valley AVA. At the Napa County line, it rubs shoulders with the Calistoga, Spring Mountain District and Diamond Mountain District AVAs. All are nested within the much larger North Coast AVA, itself approximately 3 million acres.


Distinguishing characteristics

According to Heller, the Fountaingrove Appellation Committee is a “loose organization” of about a dozen grapegrowers farming approximately 35 vineyards (totaling 500 acres) in the AVA. The primary grapes found there are Bordeaux varietals, along with some Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. With slopes primarily oriented toward the southwest, elevations range from about 400 feet to approximately 2,200 feet. All of the vineyards within the new AVA’s boundaries are planted at between 450 and 2,115 feet.


The Fountaingrove District AVA is cooled by Pacific Ocean breezes and has a median growing season temperature of 63.9 degrees, according to information filed in the petition. It’s generally warmer than the region to the west and cooler than the region to the east. At Heller’s vineyards, some growing days have a temperature swing of 40 degrees, he says. “And we’re above the fog here, so there are all these ridges sticking up in the fog, making it look like a big lake with islands. Some of the vineyards with elevation have the advantage of being quite warm, yet we do get the cool breezes.”


Then there’s that desirable volcanic soil, described in the petition as being “well-drained and having a balance of nutrients favorable for growing grapes.” Numerous soil types are found there, with many rich in high levels of iron, an essential element for vine growth and fruit development.


Impact of an AVA

“Fountaingrove District” doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, says Heller, but some other name options were already spoken for. “We talked about calling it ‘Mayacamas,’ but there’s a winery by that name. ‘Mt. Hood’ was also discussed but, for the consumer, that could create confusion with Mt. Hood in Oregon. And the TTB is pretty vigilant to make certain the name won’t be too similar to something that already exists.”


Receiving an AVA designation can have a big impact on the price of a farmer’s grapes, says Heller. “And you have to market it like crazy. I have the potential to grow the same quality grapes as are grown in the Diamond Mountain District AVA, so those getting the most benefit from the Fountaingrove District AVA designation may be the growers. If we can make that happen, why shouldn’t we?”


Labeling one’s grapes as being from the Sonoma County appellation isn’t bad, he adds, but it’s not distinctive. “To get a designated AVA on your label is better than just saying ‘Sonoma County,’ but it’s really not a problem to be ‘Sonoma County.’”


For his own brand, called HLR Cellars, Heller says he’ll likely add “Fountaingrove District” to the next printing of labels on his estate wines. “And we’ll certainly inform our winegrape customers of this new appellation,” he adds. “I’m not sure if those wineries will label to take advantage of this, as they already have established programs. However, given the increasing consumer demand for vineyard source specificity, I think the Fountaingrove District will be attractive to future marketing programs.”


In late February, Heller had not yet been in touch with other grapegrowers in the new AVA for their reaction, nor were there any plans yet for them to meet to discuss marketing strategies. “This is all too new,” he adds.


In its petition, the Fountaingrove Appellation Committee had recommended a small change to the boundaries of the existing Russian River Valley AVA so that the new AVA would have included the ruins of the old Fountaingrove Winery and the historic Round Barn, the iconic building that sits on the hillside above the Fountaingrove Inn. But Heller says the TTB changed the petition to leave the current Russian River Valley AVA boundaries in place.

Marketing angles

“We received an email from one of our wine club members when the Fountaingrove District AVA was initially proposed. That’s literally how we heard that a petition had been filed,” says Rene Byck, vice president and co-owner of Paradise Ridge Winery, located in Santa Rosa’s historic Fountaingrove area on Thomas Lake Harris Drive. “If this new AVA didn’t carry the Fountaingrove name, it wouldn’t concern me. However, because it does, it’s disappointing that the old winery and the footprint of its old vineyards aren’t within the boundaries of the newly approved AVA that bears its name.


“It seems that calling it ‘Fountaingrove District’ isn’t accurate,” he adds. “The place we Santa Rosans know as the Fountaingrove area isn’t within the boundaries of this new AVA.”


Byck says he’s always been under the impression that AVAs must have historical significance. Yet when he contacted the TTB to inquire, he was told the Fountaingrove District AVA was approved in large part because the filers of the petition were able to show that soils and other distinguishing characteristics were significantly different from neighboring AVAs. Byck was also told by the TTB that the boundaries of the new AVA and the existing Russian River Valley AVA could not be allowed to overlap. “My concern is that the legacy of Thomas Lake Harris and Kanaye Nagasawa has been inaccurately portrayed to give this AVA some historical significance.” (See “Origin of a Name,” below.)


Fisher Vineyards, a small winery within the new AVA, located off St. Helena Road near the Napa County line, also wasn’t involved in discussions before the petition was filed. “AVAs have relatively little bearing on wine style or quality and, as such, have little bearing on our brand or our business,” says CEO Rob Fisher.


“We value the independence and uniqueness of our estate vineyard locations,” he adds. “Our family has been at this for more than 40 years—long before AVAs became a marketing angle. For us, it’s just as well to say we’re in the Mayacamas Mountains on the far eastern edge of Sonoma County. A geographic reference like that and our elevation are more meaningful than the new AVA.”

In the Wind

On February 23, the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance filed its petition with the TTB to become an AVA known as “Petaluma Gap.” The proposed boundaries of the 200,000 acres (4,000 acres in vineyards) would nestle within the existing Sonoma Coast AVA in Sonoma County but would also extend south into Marin County. More than 100 wines are made with Gap-sourced fruit.


“Most of these AVA petitions are industry-driven,” explains Ana Keller, director of Keller Estate Winery in Petaluma. “So part of what makes our effort unique is how much the Petaluma community has contributed to it. This is a tight and strong community, and we’ve received donations from people who’ve expressed interest in making it happen. It’s not only important for the grapegrowing industry but also for the agricultural heritage of Petaluma. We expect an AVA designation to bring good things to this community.”


Keller says the cost of preparing an AVA petition can go as high as $25,000 in legal fees and consultants’ services, and the alliance has successfully raised this amount from its members and the community at-large. The alliance will be hosting a consumer-focused event August 8 in Petaluma to continue promoting the wines from this region and to celebrate submission of the AVA petition. The theme of the event is “Wind to Wine”.

Criteria for establishing the proposed AVA borders was based mostly on wind patterns, says Keller, with wind and temperature data from its member vineyards as well as public and private weather stations used to support the analysis. “We like to say that the fog comes into all of the Sonoma Coast, but we own the wind. We get sustained winds of eight miles per hour nearly every afternoon during the growing season. It’s a very windy area.”
The wind flows off the ocean between Tomales Bay and Bodega Bay in a naturally formed, 15-mile gap in the coastal mountains. As inland valley air warms, the cooler air is funneled into the gap and builds up speed, eventually dispersing north into the Santa Rosa plain and south into San Pablo Bay.


“We put soil analysis into the mix [for the AVA petition], but the entire county is a vast mix of soil types,” says Keller. “So our focus is on the distinctive wind pattern.”


Several vineyards located in Marin County, not far from the Sonoma County line, fall into the proposed boundaries of Petaluma Gap. Vineyard acreage countywide in Marin totals approximately 175, much of it planted to Pinot Noir, according to Andy Podshadley, president and winemaker of Trek Winery in Novato. “There’s also a little Chardonnay and Sangiovese being grown here.” Still, Podshadley says he sources most of his fruit from Sonoma and Napa counties and also the Sierra foothills. “We don’t buy much fruit from Marin County growers because the price is too high.”


The Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance was established in 2005, and the process to become an AVA began in early 2014. “We wanted to understand the region better before we embarked on the path to AVA status,” Keller says. “It became clear that the Sonoma Coast AVA was large and could benefit from further refinement into smaller AVAs with unique distinguishing characteristics.”


Determining boundaries

If the Petaluma Gap’s distinguishing characteristic is the wind, the West Sonoma Coast Vintners Association (WSCV) focuses exclusively on the westernmost portion of the Sonoma Coast, where the climate is maritime, rainfall can be above normal and daytime temperatures are typically cool. Much like the Petaluma Gap, grape varietals that grow best in these vineyards tend to be Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

“When we started the West Sonoma Coast Vintners Association [WSCV] in 2010, our members knew that another AVA was necessary,” says Carroll Kemp, winemaker at Red Car Winery, which operates a tasting room in Graton. “We wanted a new AVA to be based on terroir instead of politics and marketing, so we initiated a multiyear study to help define it.”


Kemp says his group, with about 45 members, will likely file its AVA petition later this year. “We haven’t made any firm decisions on our boundaries, so it would be premature to say what they are. But we’re working with the Petaluma Gap Alliance and are completely in-sync with each other. We’re all friends and will come to a mutually agreeable set of boundaries. The TTB no longer lets new AVAs overlap existing ones, so when we file there won’t be any overlap with Petaluma Gap.”


The goals of the WSCV, according to the group’s website, are to preserve and protect the history and landscape of the western Sonoma coast, increase collaboration among producers and growers in the region, and increase the appeal and prestige of the wines and vineyards.


For now, Sonoma County seems to be where all the action is for emerging new AVAs, with no similar campaigns underway in Napa or Marin counties.


“We don’t know of any new proposals being worked on at this time,” says Patsy McGaughy, communications director for Napa Valley Vintners. “Seeking AVA status requires a lot of time and effort,” she adds, “so it’s not undertaken lightly.” The newest “nested” AVA in Napa Valley (itself an AVA since 1981, the second in the nation) is Coombsville, which was approved in 2011.


Seeking Status

Wineries and grapegrowers in three areas of Sonoma County have achieved or are seeking American Viticultural Area (AVA) status from the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB):


Fountaingrove District: A group known as the Fountaingrove Appellation Committee filed a petition with the TTB in June 2014 seeking establishment of an AVA called “Fountaingrove District.” The name is derived from the historic colony of Fountain Grove, founded in 1875 by Thomas Lake Harris along the northern edge of Santa Rosa. Winery operations were active there from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, with 500 acres of vineyards and a winery producing 70,000 gallons annually, making it one of the 10 largest wineries in California during that period (the winery was abandoned in the 1930s and its buildings are now in ruins). Encompassing approximately 38,000 acres (500 acres in vineyards), primary varietals grown within the AVA include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Zinfandel and Viognier. The TTB approved the new AVA in mid-February, and it became effective on March 20.


Petaluma Gap: More than 4,000 acres of vineyards are found within this strip of land famous for its wind and fog. The nearly 35 growers and vintners that comprise the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance filed their petition for an AVA on February 23. Its proposed boundaries fall within the existing Sonoma Coast AVA and also dip over the Marin County line––roughly bordering Valley Ford to the west, Sonoma Mountain to the east, Cotati to the north, and Lakeville to the southeast. The alliance has long promoted its wines to consumers as being produced from “Petaluma Gap” grapes, with this cool-climate region ideal for growing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Syrah.


West Sonoma Coast: The West Sonoma Coast Vintners founded its alliance in 2010 with the goal of promoting the maritime influence on winegrapes grown in the region, and to eventually seek an AVA designation. The precise boundaries for the AVA are still being determined, but the group hopes to file its petition with the TTB later this year. The vintners have worked closely with the Petaluma Gap Alliance to demarcate exact boundaries so that these two proposed AVAs won’t overlap. The region is known for excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.


Appellation or AVA?

The terms “appellation of origin” and “appellation” are frequently used by wineries to educate consumers in the origin of their winegrapes. Yet an appellation isn’t necessarily the same as an American Viticultural Area (AVA). AVAs were first introduced in the United States in 1978 by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (now the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB).


As described by the San Francisco-based Wine Institute, AVAs are one kind of appellation, but not all appellations are AVAs. “AVAs are to appellations of origin as grapes are to fruit,” states the institute. “Appellations are defined by either political boundaries, such as the name of a county or state, or by federally recognized growing regions (AVAs), which are grapegrowing areas distinguishable by geographic, climatic and historic features––and the boundaries of those areas have been delineated in a petition filed and accepted by the federal government.”


Technically, “Sonoma County” is not an AVA but an appellation, for example, while “Sonoma Valley,” “Sonoma Coast” and “Sonoma Mountain” are all AVAs.


Origin of a Name

An exhibit on the lower level of Paradise Ridge Winery details the colorful history of this picturesque region of Santa Rosa, the name inspiration for the newly approved “Fountaingrove District” AVA.


In 1875, Thomas Lake Harris arrived in Santa Rosa from Brocton, N.Y., to create a new site for his spiritual colony (known as the Brotherhood of the New Life). Harris was joined by some of his students, including Japanese immigrant Kanaye Nagasawa, who learned the science of viticulture while living in the New York colony. The group bought 1,500 acres north of Santa Rosa and construction began on several buildings that Harris called Fountaingrove Ranch. The colony planted several hundred acres of winegrapes, and the massive Fountaingrove Winery was completed in 1882.


When Harris returned to New York a few years later, Nagasawa became the leader of Fountaingrove Ranch. The winery thrived, and most of the wines produced under the Fountaingrove label were shipped to New York for international distribution.


To learn more, visit the Nagasawa historical exhibit at Paradise Ridge Winery at 4545 Thomas Lake Harris Drive in Santa Rosa.