Found on Forbes
Story by Michelle Williams
“It takes a lot to birth an AVA,” explains Anna Keller, Estate Director of Keller Estate in Petaluma, California, speaking of Petaluma Gap, designated an American Viticultural Area (AVA) December 7, 2017, “but it’s not surprising a dynamic group of women took up this charge—as women, we are used to being an underdog, having to fight harder for a seat at the table.”
I met Keller for lunch in the bustling Cucina Paradiso, a local hot-spot in the charming town of Petaluma. We were joined by Kerith Overstreet, proprietor and winemaker of Bruliam Wines, and Kimberly Pfendler, proprietor of Pfendler Wines, to discuss Petaluma Gap and taste their wines. There was a comfortable ease about these women—warm, friendly, welcoming—by lunch’s end I felt I had known them for years.
Wine growers outnumber wineries three to one in Petaluma. Formerly known as the “egg basket of the world,” this region was predominately agriculture until the early 1990’s, when dairies began planting grapes for diversification. Most grape growers are small family run businesses, with women playing an integral role.
Through the process of transitioning her family estate from grape-growing to wine production, Keller became passionate about establishing Petaluma Gap as an AVA, so she he began holding industry tastings to increase enthusiasm for the region’s wines.
Out of 50 bottles of wine presented for tasting, 75% of them were crafted solely of Petaluma fruit – opening eyes and shifting attitudes about grape quality inside and outside the region. By 2015, the time had come to file for AVA status.
Birthing an AVA
Rickey Trombetta, president of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance (PGWA) during the AVA process and proprietor of Trombetta Family Wines, recalls working closely with Keller, former president and board member, Liz Thach, MW Ph. D., Distinguished Professor of Wine at Sonoma State University, and growers Teela Binh, Gail Crane, and Joan Griffin of the iconic Griffin’s Lair Vineyard on the petition.
With the help of Doug Cover’s detailed environmental impact study, they worked tirelessly for years to see the process to fruition. Trombetta lassoed U.S. Representative Mike Thompson of California and head of the Wine Caucus, not letting go until he pushed the petition through to Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin’s desk for signing. Trombetta, and the women of Petaluma, were an unstoppable force.
“It did catch the attention of the press and many of our supporters in Washington DC that there seems to be a larger number of women winemakers in this region,” shares Trombetta, “and all of the women were very collaborative in our collected efforts to bring this AVA to a reality.”
This hard-working effort did not go unnoticed by the next generation. “We have a lot of female growers and powerhouse women winemakers, many who were involved in putting this AVA together, picking it up, and carrying it over the finish line,” expresses Rickey’s daughter, Erica Stancliff, Winemaker of Trombetta Family Wines and Pfendler Vineyards and current President of the PGWA.
Defined by Wind
The Petaluma Gap AVA designation was a hard-fought finish line. Extensive scientific research revealed only one unifying quality of the region—the wind. By employing anemometers to measure the wind speed and pattern, the unique quality of the gap and how it manifests in grape growing and ultimately wine was established.
Beginning in San Francisco Bay, the coastal mountain range runs perpendicular to the coast, instead of parallel. Within the range lies a 15-mile wide gap, creating fingers moving inland to Sonoma Mountain, where they turn south, traveling through Petaluma Valley, then out to San Pablo Bay—a horseshoe, water to water. Instead of the fog rolling in like it does in Russian River, it blows through the region from evening till mid-morning. The daily temperatures from cool morning to warm afternoon to cool evening swing 40-50˚F.
“The gap is defined by wind, explains Overstreet, “which has serious implications for winemaking, creating thinker skin on the grapes, maintaining acidity, and lessening disease pressure. Traveling the country with my wines, I explain that while Sonoma Coast is cool, Petaluma Gap is cool plus the wind, providing elevated richness and texture on the palate, ending up with beautiful phenolic ripeness of acid and tannins without increasing sugars.”
As I stood on the western side of Sonoma Mountain in Pfendler’s Helgren Vineyard, elevation of 2,200 feet, with Stancliff and Pfendler sipping Pinot Noir from this vineyard, Stancliff spoke of this wind-driven AVA as a “magical growing place,” because it provides an immense sense of where the fruit is actually coming from, as opposed to other Sonoma County AVAs that produce Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. “Petaluma Gap in a glass is a concentrated aromatic with a mouthfeel that offers balance of flavor, structure, and acid. While it smells concentrated, it hits all points of the mouth, nothing is too extreme—the palate thinks, ‘wow, that is a beautiful wine.’”
Goddesses of Wind (and Wine)
Sonoma County Vintners hosts an annual barrel auction, with wines made specifically for the event, since 2015. After Petaluma Gap received AVA status, they decided to make their own lot, but, as Overstreet explains, there were many winemakers involved, causing disorganized from the start.
Putting their heads together, Trombetta and Keller, decided a friendly competition of “guys verses gals” would be fun. Overstreet, Keller, Pfendler/Stancliff, and Meagan Cline of Cline Cellars joined forces to create the first Petaluma Gap AVA women’s barrel lot. “Sometimes women act like junior high, this was not that way. It was an easy endeavor, these women are truly amazing,” adds Trombetta.
Success leads to repetition. In 2019, Keller, Overstreet, and Stancliff encored with a ten-case lot named “Aura,” after the Titan Goddess of Wind. “It was so easy; we just did the work. There was no drama about roles, blending percentages, or anything. It was a highly collaborative and supportive group of women,” Overstreet elaborates.
In addition to grape-growing, wine making, and PGWA roles, these women have taken it upon themselves through marketing, industry information, and travel to promote the unique qualities of the Petaluma Gap.
Stancliff believes knowing where grapes are grown and wine is made is an extension of the farm to table movement. She would like to see a Petaluma Gap section on restaurant wine lists.
Keller feels if industry and trade become educated about how the wind-driven cool climate manifests in the wine, enthusiasm will continue to grow. Traveling across the U.S. for wine events, Overstreet finds consumers are captivated by the Gap, “once the effects of the wind are explained, they taste it in the glass.”
The future of Petaluma Gap blows strong because of these tenacious women. “It took us [women] a little longer to get started, we were distracted with raising a family. We are a little bit older than men doing the same thing—but, we are here now,” shares Keller.
Stancliff represents the next generation of women growers, vineyard managers, and winemakers, standing on the shoulders of those who have gone before them.
“Women like Keller and Pfendler, who have been pushing for so long with their family’s properties, and the amount of work they have had to put in to it is remarkable. It is because of women like them I get to stand where I am now,” explains Stancliff. “Petaluma Gap has some really impressive women who don’t have the notoriety I think they deserve. They work so hard; it is their passion—it’s nice to have a light shined on them.”
Wines to Try
Bruliam Wines produces two exceptional and contrasting Petaluma Gap Pinot Noirs—2017 Gap’s Crown Vineyard, cellar worthy with dark fruit, spice, black tea and dusty earth; plus, bold, and structured, and 2017 Sangiacomo Roberts Road, approachable with bright red fruit, spice, dried herbs, lively with long acidity.
Gust Wines are the brain child of Megan and Hilary Cline, with Tom Gendall. The project is designed to illustrate Petaluma Gap’s potential, by specifically highlighting two vineyards – Catapult Ranch and Diamond Pile. 2017’s inaugural vintage includes a Chardonnay, bright and textural, fresh citrus and white flowers, Pinot Noir, complex layers of red berries, spice, and dusty earth, expressive, and Syrah, ample black brambleberry fruit, pepper, cured meat, bold, firm and powerful.
Keller Estate Winery produces an array of wines in Petaluma Gap AVA, including the 2016 El Coro Pinot Noir, bold red and black fruit, dusty earth, warm spice, forest floor, bold yet elegantly refined, and 2016 Rôtie Syrah, dark fruit, olive tapenade, cured meat, dusty cocoa, white pepper, crushed velvet, structured, balanced, long, focused
Pfendler Vineyards offers both a 2018 Chardonnay, citrus, stone fruit, blossom, honey, lush yet focused, and Pinot Noir, blue fruit, black tea, crushed violets, and fresh herbs, feminine, refined, sophisticated.
Trombetta Family Wines produces both a Gap’s Crown 2018 Chardonnay, ripe melon, tropical fruit, cedar, voluptuous yet fresh with long acidity, and a 2015 Pinot Noir, tart red berries, dried roses, baking spice, pepper, earthy, rustic yet refined, cellar worthy.