Did You Wine Know… All About Sonoma County Regions

No matter what store you’re in while on a wine shopping trip, you’ll see Sonoma County, CA wines on the shelf. And each of them says something about a valley or a region. Do you ever stand there and wonder (like I do), “what difference is there between Alexander Valley and the Russian River Valley?”  While I’ve always been curious about the differences between these sub-regions within one of California’s biggest wine-making region, I have been too lazy to look up the answer. Until now…

Sonoma County Fun Facts: Before jumping into the details, let’s look at some quick facts on the region.
  • Located directly north of San Francisco and borders the Pacific Ocean
  • Consists of 1 million acres of land (two times bigger than Napa Valley)
  • The first vineyards in Sonoma were planted in the early 1800s, initially by Russian fisherman.  (Who would have guessed?!?!)
  • Made up of 12 “American Viticulture Areas” (AVAs). What’s an AVA, you ask? Well, upon an initial glance, I think we need a whole post just on this topic. But in summary, AVAs are wine regions based on geographical/climate differences.

Sonoma County RegionsSonoma’s American Viticulture Areas (AVAs):  So let’s talk about these AVAs. Because Sonoma is so big, it has quite the landscape variety – mountains, valleys, rivers, plains, etc.  And all of these climate differences change the way vines grow… and therefore, the make-up of the grapes… and ultimately, how the wine will taste.

While Sonoma has 12 AVAs, there are four key regions. And those are the four regions that we’re going to discuss here. Why is this information important to know? Well, because we’re going to review what each region produces best…. so when you’re at the store wondering if you should get a Pinot or a Cab from say, Alexander Valley, you’ll know which is your best bet. That or you can impress the fellow shopper with your wine know about Sonoma.
Alexander Valley: 15,000 vineyard acres, 42 wineries
This area is located on the northern end of Sonoma County, and has a warm days, relative to the area, and cool nights due to coastal fogs.  Because of the warm days, it best grows grapes that do better in warm climates, including Cabernet Sauvignons and Chardonnays. My favorite part of this post’s research are these words from the Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine: “Alexander Valley is noteworthy among other Sonoma county appellations for the fleshy voluptuousness of its wines.”  Finally! I’ve been looking for a fleshy voluptuous wine!! The Wine Bible notes that Alexander Valley Cabs are “agreeable with notes of chocolate warmth”.  Chardonnays from this area are more bold, full-bodied that Chardonnays from cooler climates.
Wineries from Alexander Valley to check out: Geyser Peak, Clos du Bois, Murphy-Good, Silver Oak
W2WK Note: Anyone who has been following this blog for a little while knows that W2WK is a fan of the Costco and Trader Joe’s wine selections… both have delightful self-labeled Cabernet Sauvignons from this region!
Russian River Valley: 15,000 vineyard acres, 70 wineries
The Russian River Valley is much cooler than the Alexander Valley as much of it is only 10 miles from the ocean.  Naturally, this results in the production of more wines from grapes that grow best in cooler climates. This primarily includes Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The Chardonnays from the Russian River Valley will be less full-bodied than those of Alexander Valley, but more well-balanced. Pinots from here will have a lovely richness and and complexity to them.  Grapes from this region are also used for Sonoma sparkling wines.
Wineries from the Russian River Valley to check out: Williams & Selyem, J. Rochioli, Kistler, Iron Horse, Sonoma-Cutrer, Gary Farrell, ad Dehlinger
Dry Creek Valley: 10,000 vineyard acres, 50 wineries
This region is one of the oldest in Sonoma, where one can see lots of old gnarled vines (indicative of old vines). The climate is warm during the day with night/morning fog. This leads to a balance between typical maritime and inland climates. The warm days result in the region being known for producing Zinfandels and Cabernets.  “Some Dry Creek zinfandels are big and meaty; others, soft and graceful. What the rest of them share is a sensual richness of flavor that can be irresistible.” (The Wine Bible)  As far as white wines go, look for Sauvignon Blancs from Dry Creek.
Wineries for the Dry Creek Valley to check out: A. Rafanelli, Ferrari-Carano, Mazzocco, Ridge
W2WK Note: This blog has posted about a Ridge Zinfandel before. Check it out!
Sonoma Valley: 14,000 vineyard acres, 55 wineries
Sonoma Valley has a variety of geography and climate as it sits at the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountans.  This variability allows for a large variety of grapes to be grown in the region.  This includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Zinfandels, Pinot Noirs, and Chardonnays.
Wineries from Sonoma Valley to check out: Laurel Glen, Ravenswood, Hanzell, Kistler, Matanzas Creek.
What are your favorite Sonoma wines? And which do you think you’ll run out to try? I think I’m going to dive into some Dry Creek Valley wines myself!
Sources of all Wine Know for this post:
  • The Oxford Encyclopedia of Wine
  • The Wine Bible
  • www.sonomawine.com


  1. couuusin E says:

    I love Silver Oak (chardonnay)!!! It my fav. Makes sense that it comes from an area that is good for those kinds of grapes.

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