You may be surprised to learn that the first wine appellation in the world based on wind patterns can be found in Sonoma County, California. Called the ‘Petaluma Gap
,’ it achieved this name because of the unusual gap in the coastal mountains along this cold and wild section of the Pacific Ocean. The gap allows the cool wind and fog to rush inland towards the historic town of Petaluma, making it one of the windiest and foggiest locations to grown wine grapes in the U.S..
“I still remember visiting the Petaluma Gap and standing on top of a hillside,” said Tonya Pitts, Sommelier and Wine Director at One Market Restaurant in San Francisco, in an online interview. “The wind was so strong it was literally whipping the vines from side to side.”
Yet it is this wind, combined with the cooling fog, that makes the Petaluma Gap one of the best places to grow chardonnay, pinot noir, and cool-climate syrah grapes. This is because the wind causes the grape skins to thicken, resulting in more concentrated fruit flavors, tannins, and layered texture in the wines. At the same time, the cooler climate and fog maintains the bright acidity and freshness.
Because of these factors, wines from the Petaluma Gap AVA (established 2017; 20 wineries, 4,000 vineyard acres, 30 miles north of San Francisco) are not only distinctive in taste, but are also especially food friendly. It is for this reason that I interviewed six sommeliers (some in person and others online) regarding their opinions on Gap wines and some food pairing tips.
Six Sommeliers From Around the Nation
The six sommeliers consulted for this article had experience in tasting Petaluma Gap wines by visiting the region or receiving wine samples in the mail. They are:
- Ms. Eumi Lee, Sommelier at The Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter, Florida
- Mr. Chris Sawyer, Wine Educator and former Private Sommelier at the Getty Mansion, California
- Ms. Andrea Morris, Beverage Director and Sommelier at Essential by Christophe, New York, NY
- Ms. Tonya Pitts, Wine Director and Sommelier, One Market Restaurant, San Francisco, California
- Ms. Devon Jesse, Assistant Wine Director and Sommelier, Wrigley Mansion, Phoenix, Arizona
- Mr. David Glancy, Master Sommelier and Founder of the San Francisco Wine School, California
The Taste of Petaluma Gap Pinot Noir and Food Pairings
As pinot noir is probably the most famous grape grown in the Petaluma Gap, all six of the sommeliers provided their impressions for wine crafted from this grape, along with food pairings.
“Pinot noir is the star, and I am a fan,” reported David Glancy, MS. “The cool breezes and fog help preserve the mouthwatering acidity. A great food pairing is seared duck breast with pomegranate reduction, but so many preparations of fatty fish or fatty poultry would work.”
Eumi Lee from Florida agrees. “The pinots are not shy. They have the masculinity of a Pommard, but still show elegance. There is good acidity, fresh berry and spice. I would pair with uni sushi, with is like a sexy melon in your mouth. I think people should stop shying away from seafood and red pairings.”
Tonya Pitts from San Francisco joins the seafood pairing camp. “This region gives you quintessential balanced wine with fruit, acidity, minerality with layers of complexity. My favorite pairing would be Roasted Stuffed Sardines with Tomato, Zucchini, Green Olive, and Parsley.” She notes that in addition to pinot noir, this could also work with Petaluma Gap chardonnay and rose.
Andrea Morris from New York, describes the pinot noirs as having “a freshness combined with intensity of flavor that is uncommon in California.” She recommends, “a savory dish that includes a sweet element, such as duck with cherries, which can be tricky to pair, but the ripe fruit of a Petaluma Gap pinot noir can handle it, while the signature acidity stops the pairing from feeling cloying.”
Devon Jesse from Arizona states, “The Pinot noirs have a wonderful elevated tannin structure and the power to make them great with food.” From the Wrigley Mansion menu, she suggests, “our 14-day Dry Aged Duck Breast with huitlacoche tamale, preserved mulberry, and honey jus. The fruitiness of the wine would make the mulberries pop; and the elevated tannin would be soothed by the rich honey jus.”
Chris Sawyer, a local to Petaluma, agrees with duck breast. “Poultry is the signature of Petaluma. I would suggest pairing around Petaluma’s own Liberty duck, roasted with a pomegranate au jus.”
Chardonnay and Syrah from the Petaluma Gap
Two other famous grape varietals that thrive in the Petaluma Gap are chardonnay and cool climate syrah. Devon Jesse and Eumi Lee both commented on the distinctiveness of these two varieties in the region.
“Many of the producers of chardonnay that I tasted chose to use minimal new French oak, which really highlighted the fresh, savory aromas of true chardonnay,” reported Devon Jesse. “The syrahs had a dark fruit characteristic, and due to the cooler climate brought on by the fog, they also had flavors and aromas of black pepper and cured meat.”
“The chardonnay are very creamy, but not in an offensive way. They smell ripe on the nose, but on the palate are more Chablis like,” stated Eumi Lee. “The syrahs are sultry and sexy, with a twang of acidity that seduces you. They show a good balance of power and elegance. There is a hint of spearmint, dill and fennel in the wines.”
Food pairings for the Petaluma Gap chardonnays included:
- Pan seared scallops, risotto with wild mushrooms and lemon, and seasonal soups (Chris Sawyer).
- Richer fish dishes, like grilled salmon or even a pork chop with apples (Andrea Morris)
- 5-day dry aged Steelhead Trout with beurre cancalaise, fava beans, and yuzu gel (Devon Jesse)
Food pairings for the Petaluma Gap syrahs included:
- A meaty grilled fish, like a tuna (Eumi Lee).
- New Zealand Venison Lion with plum, brioche pan perdu, beetroot, and parsnip (Devon Jesse)
Chris Sawyer provided a fitting synopsis to Petaluma Gap wines in general; “To me, wines produced in the Petaluma Gap represent the Goldilocks of California viticulture: Once poured, the young energetic flavors are at the forefront (but as) the flavors expand, there is a dazzling combination of deeper richer flavors and true vintage characteristics.”
The Wind to Wine Festival in the Petaluma Gap
Several of the sommeliers interviewed for this story were able to attend the annual ‘Wind to Wine Festival’ that is held every summer in the Petaluma Gap. This year around 30 wineries were in attendance to share their Petaluma Gap wines with wine fans. Local food purveyors, such as Point Reyes Cheese Company and Bert’s Dessert, also provided delicious food samples, and music was provided by classical guitarist, Mark Taylor. This year’s event was held at the Sally Tomatoes Event Center in Rohnert Park, CA.
The Petaluma Gap wine region begins about 30 miles north of San Francisco, and includes parts of northern Marin and southern Sonoma County. It extends along the Pacific Coast at Bodega Bay and marches up parts of Sonoma Mountain, encompassing 4,000 vineyard acres and around 20 wineries. However, many additional wineries purchase grapes from the Gap to produce award winning wines.