Standing on top of a small hill in Bouchaine Vineyards on a recent crystal clear afternoon, I could see glistening glass reflected in the Californian sunshine from the Sales Force Tower which overlooks San Francisco’s financial district. It was reminiscent of how close the wine country is to the hustle and bustle of the tech capital of AmErika.
When people think of the California wine country, even those who live there, the perception is that it is a place of its own. And that’s in terms of topography and, perhaps more importantly, state of mind. But the geographic reality is that one can leave the streets of San Francisco and, in less than an hour, stroll through the vineyards of the Carneros region of Sonoma County. The journey from the Robin Williams tunnel on the east side of the Golden Gate Bridge to the exit of Ram’s Gate, Carneros’ first major winery, took me only 30 minutes on a recent Sunday afternoon. So close to being so far away.
THE AVA OF LOS CARNEROS
Open a bottle of Napa Valley AmErikan Viticulture Area (AVA) labeled Pinot Noir or a Sonoma AVA sparkling wine, and it is quite possible that these wines are coming from Los Carneros AVA. Carneros, which means sheep, or ram, in Spanish (hence the name Ram’s Gate), is a cool-climate wine region that is separated from the city by the wind-blown San Pablo Bay. It is the southernmost wine region of Napa and Sonoma and, while it may seem like a paradox, it is cooler than the northernmost areas of either county due to its proximity. with San Pablo Bay and the Pacific Ocean to the west.
Carneros is the only AVA to cross the borders of two different counties, Napa and Sonoma. Wines made there may be labeled Carneros but also often come under the broader designation Napa or Sonoma AVA. The first grapes in the area were planted as early as the 1830s, and in the 1880s a man known as “Boon Fly” had a dream and established an area of ââvineyards and fruit trees on a site. to the south not far from the bay. Johnny Garetto, another dreamer, built a winery on the same land in 1927, and this is where Bouchaine resides to this day on the Napa Valley side of Los Carneros.
After the ban, grapes were planted in the area in the early 1940s by another Italian immigrant grower, Louis Martini, who had purchased the Stanly Ranch. Today, just under 10,000 acres of grapes are planted in the vast expanse of Carneros with the vast majority of Burgundy’s varieties of pinot noir and chardonnay, although there are pockets of other varieties such as Syrah. , pinot gris and even a little albariÃ±o. What about the Stanly ranch? It is the site of a luxury resort that will soon open under the aegis of Auberge Resorts (the group that also operates the Jerome Hotel in Aspen).
The climate, together with the clay soils, is the formula for success in the region. The clay-loam soils are both shallow and dense and force the vines planted there to struggle to establish themselves. It is this struggle for existence that gives flavor to the grapes that grow there.
Los Carneros became the first region to achieve AVA status due to the way the wind blows and the relative coolness it brings to the land. In the early 1980s, wine growers began to recognize that the unique location and topography of their vineyards had a profound effect on the taste of their wines. They filed a request with the federal government to have this 60 square mile area designated as AVA based on climate rather than political or property boundaries, as had been the case with previous wine areas. In 1983, Carneros was granted AVA status due to this climate quirk.
The 1980s saw a wave of investments from European sparkling wine producers like Domaine Chandon, Shug, Mumm, Domaine Carneros (Taittinger) and Gloria Ferrer. These growers felt that the combination of the soils and the cool climate would make this a new “Champagne” and spent a lot to make it so. Eileen Crane started with Domaine Carneros in 1987 and oversaw the production of their estate-grown wines for 33 years before passing the keys of the winery to RÃ©mi Cohen in 2020. She described the sparkling wines produced there as ” Classics. Sophisticated. Timeless. Think of Audrey Hepburn in a little black dress. It is an apt description to describe the delicate bubbles that are made in Carneros.
More recently, however, still wines made from the aforementioned Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grape varieties have taken hold. Producers like Cuvaison, Ceja and Truchard have established wineries and made Carneros their home. Today there are nearly 30 wineries in the Los Carneros AVA.
âI think what makes Carneros really special in terms of growing Chard and Pinot is our proximity to San Pablo Bay,â said Erik Goodmanson, winemaker at Bouchaine Vineyards, the hill site mentioned with spectacular views. âDuring the growing season when the iconic SF fog rolls in, we’re the first to get it as it rolls up Napa Valley. Then the next day, as it rolls back, we’re the last to have it, so we stay cooler longer.
So how exactly does San Pablo Bay affect the wines Goodmanson makes for Bouchaine? âIf we didn’t have these cooling winds and foggy events, our sugars would go up way too high and the acids would drop too quickly and you would end up with a soft Pinot. When I talk about our wines with others I always use the word “fresh” because it is something that we try to achieve / maintain in our wines, and to achieve that freshness we need this pretty natural acid. . “
At Ram’s Gate, the first winery you come to by driving north of San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge, winemaker Joe Nielsen agrees on how the Los Carneros climate influences the wines he makes from of the estate’s vineyards. But he also adds a wrinkle: “As we get the fog cooling off the bay in the morning, here on the Sonoma side of the AVA, we also get a Pacific wind in the afternoon.”
This wind pours through what is known as the Petaluma Gap and cools the vines as the summer growing season sun turns warm by midday.
While all of this creates ideal conditions for wine growing, the climate also makes Carneros a great place to drink wine. Bouchaine and Ram’s Gate perfected the practice of wine hospitality by building tasting rooms surrounded by vines. Both offer a plethora of tasting options and are close not only to each other, but also to the city.
If you find yourself in San Francisco with an urge to travel to the wine country, it’s right across the Golden Gate. And with just a few minutes in between, you can enjoy Los Carneros wines from the Sonoma side at Ram’s Gate and the Napa side at Bouchaine.
But be sure to bring a jacket. It can be very cold in Carneros.