Petulama Gap became California’s newest American Viticultural Area (AVA) on December 7, 2017. Though only a tiny sliver of land — it measures 15 miles across — in this case, a little translates into a lot. The AVA contains 4,000 acres of grapevines, three-quarters of which are Pinot Noir. Chardonnay and Syrah make up the balance.
What’s in a name
Petaluma Gap gets its name from a literal gap in the coastal mountain ranges linking the Pacific Ocean to San Pablo Bay. “The Gap” is home to nine wineries including Chasseur, Ramey, MacPhail, and Wind Gap. It’s also home to dozens of growers cultivating prestigious vineyards, such as Gap’s Crown and Sangiacomo. The Gap’s viticulturalists sell fruit to many marquee wineries in Napa, Sonoma, and Mendocino including Kosta Browne, Keller Estate, and Schramsberg Vineyards. The region’s mineral-rich alluvial soils are well-known for their high-quality fruit. But until recently, these distinguishing features had not been recognized with an AVA.
To successfully petition for an AVA designation, applicants must make their case to the U.S. Treasury Department’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. A proposed AVA must be a delimited area with a set of compelling distinguishing features, aka terroir, that influence viticulture. In Petaluma Gap’s case, the PGWA, a group of allied wineries and grape growers, worked for years laying the groundwork and preparing their petition for an AVA designation.
While situated within the vastness — read misnomer — that is the Sonoma Coast AVA, Petaluma Gap’s unique conditions, specifically the wind and fog that blow in off San Pablo Bay are two factors that impart a distinctive character to this cool climate region — think crisp acidity and highly concentrated fruit. The cooling fog paired with big temperature swings between the warm days and cool nights, promotes the development of complex flavors, bright acidity, and tannin that allows these wines to age. Meanwhile, the maritime-influenced winds keep a lid on yields, boosting flavor concentration. Since the windy conditions mean grapes have to work a bit harder to get ripe than those in warmer areas, fruit grown here benefits from longer hang-time. That’s great for mouthfeel and flavor intensity; it also helps keep structure intact and lessens the chance fruit develops the jammy flavors that come with overripeness.
The value in an AVA
Of course there are benefits to having an AVA beyond giving producers greater ability to distinguish their wines from other regions’ and helping consumers associate wine styles with specific geographical areas. One concerns marketing. Being able to add Petaluma Gap to their wine labels means producers and growers can now potentially charge a pricing premium. And vineyard owners could realize tax savings based on the intangible value associated with this enhanced brand appeal. All in all, when it comes to Petaluma Gap, there can definitely be a lot in a name.