By Celia Strong
Oh no, oh no! Another new wine for us to learn. Remember, though, we can only learn by drinking. So, let’s buckle up and get to it. We’re in Sonoma County, California, this week. For those who haven’t been there, or maybe have been and just haven’t paid attention, Sonoma County is located on the northern coast of the state. In the world of wine, it is the southwestern county of California’s Wine Country that includes Napa, Sonoma, Mendocino and Lake counties. It has 13 AVAs and more than 250 wineries.
Going back in time for our history lesson, Sonoma County is home to several Native American tribes. The Pomo, Coast Miwok and Wappo peoples were the earliest Sonoma County settlers between 8,000 and 5,000 B.C. Rock carvings have been found as archaeological evidence that these people lived off the land. (To this day, Sonoma is known as more agricultural than most other wines areas in California.) “Sonoma” as a name is a Native American tribe name. Spaniards and Russians came to Sonoma from the late 16th to mid-19th century. They came not just for rich farmland, but timber and fur as well. The Russians were the first of all the Sonoma settlers to establish permanent footholds. They built Fort Ross in 1812 and stayed there until 1841, when they sold it to John Sutter (Think Sutter Home.) In 1823, the last and most northern of twenty-one missions was founded, in what is now the city of Sonoma. Comandante General Vallejo was in command of the missions, charged with watching the Russians and secularizing the Missions with help from Native Americans. (Not around any more, but M.G. Vallejo used to be a very popular wine label.) When California became a state in 1850, Sonoma was one of the original counties. Shortly after statehood, commerce and population declined in the city of Sonoma and other,growing, cities like Petaluma, Santa Rosa and Healdsburg all vied for county seat status. Santa Rosa won for both agricultural and political reasons. Between Healdsburg and Santa Rosa is a great stretch of flatland suited to crops. And, the arrival of the railroads in the 1860’s, made the area a prime source for vegetables and fruits for the rest of the country. Since 1542, six different nations have laid claim to Sonoma County: Spain in 1542, England in 1579, Spain again in 1775, Russia in 1812, the First Mexican Empire in 1821, the Mexican Republic in 1823, the California Republic in 1846 (for about three and a half weeks), and the United States in 1846.
The city of Sonoma is located in the Sonoma Valley. This valley makes up the southeastern part of the county and includes other valleys and cities. The Mayacamus Mountains and the Sonoma Mountains, where our winery this week is located. But back to that in a minute. Sonoma County has woodlands, redwood forest, grassland, marshland and more. As varied as the geography is, so is the climate. Cool and moist weather on the coast with lots of fog changes to less fog and warmer days inland by Petaluma and Santa Rosa. All of the resulting microclimates play their part in the vineyards.
Which takes us to our grape for this week — Pinot Blanc. This variety, which is not nearly as well known as its cousins, Pinot Gris/Grigio and Pinot Noir, is more widely used in parts of Europe than in the United States. Before DNA studies were done on grape varieties, Pinot Blanc was often confused with Chardonnay. Wineries still often vinify it like Chardonnay with barrel fermentation, new oak and malolactic fermentation. With lighter treatment it can make crisper wines. Most of the Pinot Blanc that we see here comes from the Alsace region in eastern France. In this region, Pinot Blanc is known as the “work horse” variety. It is used to make still wines as well as most the region’s “cremant,” sparkling, wines. In Alsatian wine laws, it can get confusing as to how pure a wine you are getting. There is some bit of all the Pinot varieties allowed to be labeled “Pinot Blanc.” There are a bit more then 3,000 acres of Pinot Blanc planted in France, almost all of it in Alsace. In addition to France, Germany and Italy also produce some wines from Pinot Blanc. In the United States, it gets more confusing. Some of the wines made here, while labeled Pinot Blanc, are actually not a Pinot at all. Some of them have been found to be Melon de Bourgogne, the original name for Musdacdet now grown in the Loire Valley. Yikes! Sometimes too much information just gets in the way. Wines from real Pinot Blanc have fruity aromas, in particular apples and citrus, and floral notes. The better quality clones of the grape yield more floral wines. The wines are crisp and clean, less complex than Chardonnays but not as lean and acidic as some Pinot Grigios.
Our Pinot Blanc comes from Valley of the Moon Winery. This winery has some of the longest history in Sonoma. It was founded in 1863. A stone winery was built in 1887. There is actually a Valley of the Moon inside Sonoma Valley. It has rich volcanic soil and a distinctive warm (“banana belt” they call it) microclimate. Grapes have been grown here for more than a century. There is a block of old vine Zinfandel on part of one hill that was planted in the 1940’s. For part of its history, the winery was known as Madrone Vineyards. At one time it was owned by Senator George Hearst, father of William Randolph Hearst. In 1941, Madrone Vineyards was purchased and revitalized by Enrico Parducci and Peter Domenici. They were also responsible for renaming it “Valley of the Moon,” the Native American name for their location. (The label on the wine bottles is a white moon.) In 1997, the winery became part of Heck Estates that includes Kenwood.
Pinot Blanc is one the trademark wines that Valley of the Moon makes. Possibly because they do such a good job with this grape? It is medium bodied with soft acidity, very moderate oak, a creamy texture and lovely apple and lemon flavors. And just as you swallow, a hint of flowers. Yummy, yummy. For as delightful as it is, this wine is definitely worth its $15.99 price tag. But, how lucky are we? We don’t have to pay that price tag. We can have it for $9.97 a bottle. That means we can try it as much as we want and learn to enjoy Pinot Blanc. Won’t it be nice for the moon to rise just for you? Enjoy.
By Celia Strong