Most wine enthusiasts probably are familiar with Russian River Valley Pinot Noir, Carneros Chardonnay, Dry Creek Valley Zinfandel and Alexander Valley Cabernet.
But these signature bottlings aside, Sonoma County is about more, so much more. A vast county with variegated terrains, it is home to 17 American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). Many of them are vast (13,896 acres under vine in the Russian River AVA, 14,449 in Alexander Valley), but the smaller ones often have more distinctive wines.
And given that many of the wineries out Sonoma way could use some support after the devastating fires last month, it's a good time to be buying wine from there. Especially from these offbeat, off-the-beaten-path locales:
Rockpile (192 acres planted)
High above the northwest corner of the Dry Creek Valley and bordering Mendocino County, this steep territory has seriously shallow soils. That translates to stressed vines with very concentrated fruit — and thus large-and-in-charge reds, particularly zinfandel, syrah and petite sirah.
Scott and Lynn Adams moved out west to open Bella Vineyards, whose robust Rockpile-sourced zins get better every year. Equally worth seeking out: the silky, voluptuous Carol Shelton Rocky Reserve Zinfandel.
Pine Mountain-Cloverdale Peak (310 acres)
Looming up to 3,000 feet above the Alexander Valley, this AVA boasts even higher elevation than Rockpile. It's cabernet country, with a cooler climate than the valley floor below, meaning more hang time for the grapes, which results in powerful, structured wines.
Taking full advantage of these conditions is my favorite Bulgarian winemaker, Miro Tcholakov. His Miro Cellars Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon boasts loads of perfectly ripe dark fruit and is ready to drink upon release, but has the backbone for aging.
Fort Ross-Seaview (550 acres)
One of the coolest appellations anywhere, in terms of both temperature and overall swellness, Sonoma's newest AVA (dating to 2012) spawns cool-weather gems because of its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. For years, Wild Hog was the only noteworthy winery here, while growers produced pristine, precise wines for the likes of Martinelli and Williams-Selyem.
One of those longtime growers, David Hirsch, began bottling some of his own juice in 2002, and his Hirsch Vineyards "San Andreas Fault" Pinot Noir is a spectacular exemplar of the region year in and year out. Also look for the AVA's wines, especially pinots, from Benovia, Failla, Wayfarer and Dutton-Goldfield.
Sonoma Mountain (667 acres)
Wildfires roared through this area last month but fortunately did little damage to vineyards — although they did close the Jack London State Historic Park for two weeks. Again, this is a high-elevation locale, up to 2,400 feet, and thus produces wines that nail the pas de deux between intensity and elegance.
These include longtime staple Kenwood Jack London Cabernet, spendy-but-worth-it Paul Hobbs chardonnays, Benovia Grenache and stalwart pinot noirs from Siduri and De Loach.
Bennett Valley (700 acres)
Although it's dubbed a valley, this AVA is actually a cool-weather spot, thanks to daily winds from the Petaluma Gap. On the valley floor, a volcanic/clay soil amalgam results in wonderful merlots, and on the hillsides sauvignon blancs abide.
The area's primary vinous denizen, Matanzas Creek, has been revitalized by new owners Jackson Family, but note that many of the wines are blends from several regions. This is also home to one of my very favorite sauv blancs, from Grey Stack estate's Rosemary's Block vineyard.
These disparate subregions exemplify what makes Sonoma one of the world's great wine regions: quality and diversity.
Bill Ward writes at
decant-this.com. Follow him on Twitter: @billward4.