In some ways, California is an odd place when it comes to wine. Regions tend to become associated with a particular variety: Napa with Cabernet, Santa Barbara with Pinot Noir, Lodi with Zinfandel. It's not that these regions can't do anything else well, it's just that they really excel with these particular varieties.
Sonoma, on the other hand, seems to be able to do quite well, though the appellations within the County are indeed best known for specific wines. For example, Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel or Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon just seem to fit together naturally. But when it comes down to it the grape that just might be most associated with Sonoma County turns out to be Pinot Noir.
I'm not saying Sonoma is best suited to Pinot Noir (though there are regions where the grape really excels), but given the relative popularity of Pinot Noir, and the myriad locations within Sonoma County where the grape thrives, I'm also not surprised Sonoma is becoming known as “Pinot Country.”
It doesn’t hurt that one last piece of the puzzle seems to be falling into place: winemaking. There are still plenty of outsized, effusively fruity Pinots coming out of Sonoma, but the move has decidedly been away from exaggeration and towards restrained expressions of terroir. There are probably a lot of factors that play into this, from improved farming practices to a detailed understanding of the effects root stock and clones have in specific soils, but ultimately the marketplace is deciding that it likes what it sees.
Of course, many critics still fawn over wines that are powerful and packed with fruit. But there’s also been a resurgence of interest in wines that offer complexity even if that means vegetal and herbal elements are present in the wines. At the same time, many people are realizing that a wine needn't be 12% alcohol, nor 15% alcohol, to show well. Rather it needs to be ripe, and in many cases in California that means 14% plus alcohol, even if you might never know it simply from tasting the wine.
In short we, both consumers and producers, are beginning to accept Pinot Noir for what it is rather than trying to mold it into what we would like it to be. That's why when you look to Sonoma, you think of Pinot Noir so often. Winemakers in the Russian River Valley started the movement, or rather gained the earliest recognition for the region as Pinot Noir Country.
I was fortunate to be able to spend some time recently with Walter Schug. If you really want to better understand the story of Pinot Noir in California, it's worth listening to some of my interview with Walter. While we’re all pretty familiar with the pioneers of Cabernet in California (keeping in mind that as the first winemaker at Joseph Phelps, Walter certainly has to be included in that esteemed group), Walter has somehow remained a bit under the radar, despite his instrumental work in developing Pinot Noir in California, and in recognizing Carneros as one the key terroirs for Pinot Noir in the state. I also spend a few minutes discussing Carneros terroir with Schug winemaker Michael Cox, who filled me in on some of the details of the appellation, though one fundamental influence, the wind, made itself entirely apparent!
Gregory Dal Piaz, Snooth