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About Sonoma County

Sonoma County is not just a special place to grow world-class grapes and make great wines: It’s one of the most beautiful and resource-rich places on earth! 60 miles of pristine Pacific coastline and many other natural wonders are only the beginning of the story. We are blessed with amazing diversity of foods and produce, along with chefs who take full advantage of Sonoma’s bounty. Add to that our relaxed and friendly vibe and it all converges here.

Want to learn more about Sonoma County’s rich wine history, Sonoma’s 13 appellations, and other wine facts? It’s all here waiting for you to discover.

History of Sonoma County Wine Country

Sonoma County Wine Timeline 

1800's

  • 1812 – Russian Colonists planted grapes at Fort Ross (Sonoma Coast.)
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  • 1823 – Spanish Franciscan Father Jose Altamira (Sonoma Mission) planted several thousand vines.
  • 1834 – Political upheaval brought an appropriation of all missions by the Mexican government. During this period, cuttings from Sonoma Mission vineyards were transported and planted throughout northern California.
  • 1845 – Bear Flag Revolt in Sonoma; California becomes independent.
  • 1855 – The Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy “The father of California Wine Industry” founded Buena Vista winery in Sonoma Valley.
  • 1856 – Cyrus Alexander plants grapes in northern Sonoma County.
  • 1873 – Worldwide outbreak of phylloxera destroys vineyards.

1920-50’s

  • 1920 – There were 256 wineries. With more than 22,000 acres (8,900 ha) in production, Sonoma County had surpassed Los Angeles.
  • 1920-33 – 18th Amendment launches Prohibition. Home winemaking booms. 200 gallons (757 liters) per household are allowed. California produces 150 million gallons (567 million liters) of home wine. Acreage grows to over 30,000 acres (12,000 ha) in grape production.
  • 1933 – By the time Prohibition is repealed, only 160 of California’s 700 wineries remained. Less than 50 wineries in Sonoma County survive.
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  • 1933-1945 – WWII prevented importing of French wines, which helped Sonoma County wineries to slowly build and revive; much of new production went into bulk wines.
  • 1945 – 1955 – Post war grape and wine overproduction showed things down, and pro-ration programs were instituted by the government to deal with the glut. Sonoma County pioneers worked through this to rebuild their wine and grape businesses.

1960s to Present

  • 1960's – As the 1960s redefined so many facets of American life, the decade made its mark on the Sonoma County wine industry.  Americans developed a taste for wine and demand began to grow.
  • Early 1970s – A second generation of wineries are started, following a nationwide wine boom. Consumption grows at a 40% rate.
  • 1975 – Wine labels are regulated and appellations begin to be important in marketing Sonoma County’s wines. Planted acreage returns toward 1920s levels of 24,000 acres (9,700 ha.)
  • 1980s – Sonoma County made the transition from being known as a producer dairy, grain and fruit crops with grapes in fourth position.
  • By 1989 grapes were Sonoma County’s top revenue-generating agricultural crop. Technological advances in winemaking improved wines to meet the more discerning tastes of consumers.
  • 1999 – There are over 49,000 acres (19,800 ha) of vineyards owned by more than 750 growers and 180 bonded wineries in Sonoma County.
  • Today – Sonoma County has 13 unique AVAs and more than 50 grape varieties are planted here. It is estimated that the wine industry and related tourism contributes over $8 billion to the local economy each year, about 40% of the county’s contribution to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).

Sonoma County Appellations

AVAs – A to Z

Alexander Valley

15,000 vineyard acres / 42 wineries/Earned AVA status in 1984

Delta Packing Almost as warm as Knights Valley, the valley floor of Alexander Valley has gravelly soil that produces some of the county’s richest Cabernet Sauvignon, along with flavorful, ripe Chardonnay. The Valley’s hillsides produce complex and concentrated Zinfandel, Merlot, and Cabernet Sauvignon.

www.alexandervalley.org

Bennett Valley

650 vineyard acres / 4 wineries/Earned AVA status in 2003

Merlot shines in Bennett Valley like nowhere else, with volcanic-laced, clayey soils and a moderately cool climate that results in extended hang time ideal for the varietal. The long growing season helps maximize flavors and increase concentration, while the cooler temperatures preserve the grape’s natural acidity.

www.wdvc.com

Carneros

8,000 vineyard acres / 22 wineries/Earned AVA status in 1983

Delta Packing One of the world’s premier winegrowing regions, Los Carneros – “The Ram” in Spanish – is located less than 40 minutes from San Francisco, Marin County, the East and North Bays. Sacramento and the South Bay are both just a short distance further. A cool climate appellation, Carneros has long been known for its unassailable Chardonnays, elegant Pinot Noirs and its sparkling wines. In recent years, Carneros has been recognized for the quality of its Syrah, its Merlot and new varietals now emerging throughout the appellation.

As inland temperatures rise during the day, moist air over the cold Pacific is drawn inland over Carneros, cooling temperatures from mid afternoon into evening. These fresh afternoon winds slow activity in leaves, stressing the vines even when irrigated. Fog rolls in throughout the night and this provides a gentle buffer to the next morning's sun, repeating the climatic cycle. Carneros was the first wine region based on climate rather than political boundaries. It received its designation in 1983.

Carneros soils tend to be dense, shallow (approximately three feet deep), high in clay content, and of low to moderate fertility. These soils impact the vine's vigor by restricting development of the root system, providing just enough nutrients and water to sustain growth without excess development. Subsoils also vary in Carneros. Each of the different subsoils substantially changes the environment of a grapevine's roots, and affect the composition of the fruit. Thus it is no surprise to find diversity in Carneros wines.

www.carneroswineries.org

Chalk Hill

1,400 vineyard acres / 4 wineries/Earned AVA status in 1983 w/revision in 1988

Soil, climate and elevation all separate Chalk Hill from other parts of Sonoma’s Russian River Valley. Occupying the northeast corner of the larger Russian River AVA, Chalk Hill is named for its unique, volcanically-derived, chalky white ash soils. These mildly fertile soils lend themselves to the production of excellent whites, particularly Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Chalk Hill’s five wineries sit above the rest of the valley, on the western benchland slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains, separating Sonoma from Napa. The appellation enjoys a warmer climate relative to the rest of the Russian River Valley. Due to the higher elevation of this viticultural area, vineyards escape much of the cooling fog that regularly shrouds the lower-lying growing areas near the river.

Dry Creek Valley

10,000 vineyard acres / 50 wineries/Earned AVA status in 1983

Delta Packing Approximately 16 miles long and 2 miles wide, Dry Creek Valley is one of the smallest enclosed American Viticultural Areas. Roughly 9,300 acres of vineyards extend along the valley floor, the surrounding benchlands and hillsides, and 58 wineries produce a diverse selection of wines ranging from the renowned Zinfandels to Bordeaux and Mediterranean varietals. The history of grape growing and winemaking in Dry Creek Valley is among the longest in California, with its roots beginning more than 130 years ago.

Morning fog from the Pacific Ocean tempers warm days – good balance of maritime and inland climates. The stone-strewn soils are ideal for concentrating fruit and flavor character of Zinfandel, the hallmark of Dry Creek Valley, along with Cabernet Sauvignon, and the resulting wines are rock solid examples of their types.

Green Valley

3,600 vineyard acres / 10 wineries/Earned AVA status in 1983

Green Valley is one of the smallest appellations in Sonoma County. It lies in the southwestern part of the Russian River Valley, bounded by the towns of Sebastopol, Forestville and Occidental. It is very tightly delineated, both geographically and climatically, and is the most consistent of any North Coast appellation in terms of soil, climate and flavor.

The fog is Green Valley’s trademark. The predominant soil type (60%) of this American Viticultural Area (AVA) is Goldridge soil, the most sought-after type in Sonoma County—especially for Pinot Noir.

www.greenvalley-russianriver.com

Knights Valley

2,000 vineyard acres / 2 wineries/AVA status in 1983

Delta Packing Knights Valley, the most remote of Sonoma County’s appellations, snuggles up against Mt. St. Helena, the area’s most influential feature. The unique character of this appellation can be discovered in its mountain vineyards , where ideal growing conditions have resulted in cabernet sauvignon of regal quality.

Rockpile

150 vineyard acres (out of 16,000 in the AVA!)/Became an AVA in 2002

Spreading west of Lake Sonoma to the Mendocino County border, Rockpile is known for intensely-flavored red grape varietals with great concentration and balance. At elevations up to 1,900 feet, Rockpile is too far upland for the penetrating fogs that influence other Sonoma appellations. This exposes grapes to more California warmth and sunshine, boosting their ripeness and richness. The appellation is designated by altitude and geography.

Russian River Valley

15,000 vineyard acres / 70 wineries/Earned AVA status in 1983

Delta Packing The Russian River Valley climate is sculpted by the regular intrusion of cooling fog from the Pacific Ocean a few miles to the west. Much like the tide, it ebbs and flows through the Petaluma Wind Gap and the channel cut by the Russian River through the coastal hills. The fog usually arrives in the evening, often dropping the temperature 35 to 40 degrees from its daytime high, and retreats to the ocean the following morning. This natural air-conditioning allows the grapes to develop full flavor maturity over an extended growing season - often 15 to 20 percent longer than neighboring areas, while retaining their all-important natural acidity.

Sonoma Coast 7,000 vineyard acres, excluding acres where it overlaps the Russian River Valley and Carneros AVAs / 5 wineries/ Earned AVA status in 1987

The Sonoma Coast AVA extends from San Pablo Bay to the border with Mendocino County. The appellation is known for its cool climate and high rainfall relative to other parts of Sonoma County. Close to the Pacific, with more than twice the annual rainfall of its inland neighbors, it can still be warm enough to ripen wine grapes because most vineyards are above the fog line. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay shine, along with cool-climate Syrah.

www.rrvw.org

Sonoma Mountain

800 vineyard acres / 3 wineries/Obtained AVA status in 1985

The 2,400-foot Sonoma Mountain range begins to rise above the town of Glen Ellen at the western edge of the Valley of the Moon. Found here are high-altitude, steep-sloped vineyards, with eastern exposures to catch the fog-free morning sun. These vineyards fall within the larger Sonoma Valley AVA. However, due to the unique hillside terroir, they are entitled to use the more specific designation of the Sonoma Mountain AVA. Powerful, yet elegant Cabernet Sauvignons – the appellation’s specialty – grow here on well-drained soils. The irregular folds and crevices of the mountain slopes also create microclimates suitable for limited production of a diverse range of other varieties, including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, as well as Pinot Noir and Zinfandel.

Sonoma Valley

14,000 vineyard acres / 55 wineries/ Earned AVA status in 1981 (amended in ’85 & ’87)

Delta Packing The Sonoma Valley AVA centers on the Sonoma Valley (also known as The Valley of the Moon) in the southern portion of the county. The appellation is bordered by two mountain ranges: the Mayacamas Mountains to the east and the Sonoma Mountains to the west.

Along with being the area where so much of Sonoma County’s winemaking history took place, the area is known for its unique terroir, with Sonoma Mountain protecting the area from the wet and cool influence of the nearby Pacific Ocean. The Sonoma Mountains to the west help protect the valley from excessive rainfall. The cool air that does affect the region comes northward from the Los Carneros region and southward from the Santa Rosa Plain.

Because the valley is cooled from the north and south, it is different from other California north-south-oriented grape growing valleys in the interior.  In addition, the daily wind that makes its way into the northern and southern sections of the valley slows ripening, which prolongs hang time and promotes natural balance in the wines. In the appellations of the North Coast, the wind is unique to Sonoma Valley and Carneros.

The soils of the Sonoma Valley, like the rest of the county are varied. One finds a wide disparity between valley floor and mountain soils; those found in flatter, valley areas tend to be quite fertile, loamy and have better water-retention while the soils at higher elevations are meager, rocky and well-drained. In general, the structure, rather than the composition of the soil, is the deciding factor where grape plantings are concerned.

Sonoma County Wine Varietals

Chardonnay

Once thought to be part of the pinot family, the Chardonnay grape is now believed to be related to Pinot Noir and the obscure Gouais Blanc grape. Even with sketchy ancestry, Chardonnay is one hot grape and is Sonoma County's leading variety.

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  • Varietal Description: Ripe Chardonnay on the vine displays light green leaves, cylindrical-shaped clusters, often with wings and spherical yellow to medium brown-yellow grapes. In the vineyard, Chardonnay is difficult to distinguish from Pinot Blanc.
  • County Acreage: An estimated 16,000 acres.
  • Usage: Chardonnay is used mostly in making still and sparkling wines.
  • Appellations: Among the county's most popular appellations for Chardonnay are Russian River Valley, Sonoma Coast, and Sonoma-Carneros.
  • Synonyms: In France, Chardonnay appears bearing different names, including Epinette in Champagne, Melon Blanc in the Jura, and Chaudonnet in Burgundy's Cote Chalonnaise.

Sauvignon Blanc

The historical homeland of the Sauvignon Blanc grape is generally thought to be the Bordeaux region of France, although some say it is the Loire Valley. Today’s zesty Sauvignon Blanc pairs nicely with Sonoma County briny oysters and the bounty of Pacific seafood.

  • Varietal Description: In the vineyard, Sauvignon Blanc leaves are golden yellow with a bronzed tint. The clusters are small and compact with small ovoid golden-yellow berries.
  • County Acreage: Of the popular classic varieties planted in Sonoma County, Sauvignon Blanc accounts for approximately 2,700 acres.
  • Usage: Sauvignon Blanc is used exclusively for making dry floral-grassy white wines and a little sweet dessert wine.
  • Appellations: Popular county appellations for Sauvignon Blanc include Dry Creek Valley and Russian River Valley.
  • Synonyms: Confusingly, Sauvignon Blanc is also known as Fume Blanc in California, Feigentraube in Germany and Muskat Sylvaner in Austria.

Other Whites

Chardonnay is the 800-pound gorilla of white wine – it goes anywhere and does anything it wants, while Sauvignon Blanc is its less dominant traveling companion. Good news, though, for the curious -- there are other white grapes of interest grown in Sonoma County.

Pinot Blanc is the less known cousin to Chardonnay. Subtle and not too assertive, Pinot Blanc has just enough body to marry nicely with a little oak seasoning; thus, it is often made like Chardonnay and mistaken for Chardonnay. Sonoma-grown Pinot Blanc has a rounded creamy texture, with a touch of spice.

Pinot Gris, also known by its Italian name, Pinot Grigio, is fast becoming a white grape of interest and excitement in Sonoma County. Firmly established as one of the most pleasing aromatic whites, Pinot Gris offers the wine adventurer juicy, lightly honeyed fruit flavors of ginger and tropical fruit. Mostly tank fermented to retain its freshness, Pinot Gris is a versatile white wine, great as an aperitif, but also ideal with light foods.

Fruitier, with aromas and flavors reminiscent of fresh peaches and honeysuckle, Sonoma County Viognier strikes a perfect balance between dry oak-seasoned Chardonnay and aromatic whites like Riesling and Pinot Gris. Viognier, the primary white grape of France’s Northern Rhone Valley, has earned respect among American drinkers for its lush flavors, ample fruit, and great balance.

Cabernet Sauvignon

Although there have been many fanciful theories of the origin of the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, modern fingerprinting indicates that it is a chance crossing of Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. No matter, because as Sonoma County's second most planted wine grape, Cabernet Sauvignon thrives in places such as Alexander Valley, Sonoma Valley, and Sonoma Mountain.

  • Varietal Description: A highly adaptable variety, Cabernet Sauvignon has shiny dark green leaves that take on a red hue at harvest. Clusters are small and conical with small black thick-skinned berries.
  • County Acreage: An estimated 12,600 acres.
  • Usage: Chardonnay is used mostly in making still and sparkling wines.
  • Synonyms: In Bordeaux Cabernet Sauvignon is also known as Vidure, while in St. Emilion it is often called Bouchet. In Spain the variety is sometimes known as Burdeos Tinto, while in Russia, the colloquial name of Cabernet Sauvignon draws on one the Medoc's famed chateau, Lafite.

Merlot

Although most experts agree that Merlot is native to Bordeaux, there is disagreement regarding its parentage. One theory has it deriving from Cabernet Franc, while another opinion claims the grape was named for the blackbird, or merle, which loves to eat the sweet grape. Regardless, Merlot is a popular red grape in Sonoma County for its up-front fruitiness and smooth flavors.

  • Varietal Description: The Merlot has dark green leaves with well-defined lobes. The grape clusters, sometimes winged, are dense with medium blue-black grapes.
  • County Acreage: Merlot accounts for 7,500 acres of Sonoma County grapes.
  • Usage: Merlot is used exclusively for the making of still red wines and as a blending component in Bordeaux-style red blends.
  • Wineries: Popular county appellations for Merlot include Bennett Valley and Sonoma Valley
  • Synonyms: Local dialect term in Bordeaux for Merlot is Petit Merle, while curiously in some areas the variety is also called Semilhoun Rouge.

Pinot Noir

One of the oldest cultivated grapes, Pinot Noir is thought to have taken root 2,000 years ago in the Burgundy region of France, establishing the noble pinot as the ancestor of no fewer than 16 modern grapes.

  • Varietal Description: Pinot Noir sports a three-lobed leaf with yellow-red color. The clusters are small, sometimes with wings and the small blue-black berries are closely clustered.
  • County Acreage: Pinot Noir acreage, presently at 11,000 acres reflects the growing popularity of the soft and silky red wine.
  • Usage: Pinot Noir is used mainly for the production of still dry red wines and sparkling wines.
  • Wineries: Deep black-cherry flavored pinots are most often seen from the Russian River Valley, while less dense and spicier ones are more common from Carneros. Pinots from the Sonoma Coast generally strike a balance between the two.
  • Synonyms: Throughout Europe, Pinot Noir takes on many names including Plant Dore in Champagne, Gros Noiren in the Jura, Klevner in Switzerland and Blauer Burgunder and Spatburgunder in Germany.

Syrah

There are many romantic stories about the origin of Syrah; it originated in ancient Persia and was named for one of its cities, Shiraz.

The most current origin-story has Syrah related to the red Dureza and Mondeuse Blanche, or that the Syrah originated in the Northern Rhone. Sonoma County’s range of different micro-climates makes it an ideal spot for a versatile and adaptable grape like Syrah.

  • Varietal Description: The five-lobe green leaves take on a red edge at harvest, while the cylindrical clusters, sometimes winged, are compact with small blue-black berries.
  • County Acreage: Syrah accounts for 1,820 acres in Sonoma County.
  • Usage: Syrah is used almost exclusively for making dry red wines.
  • Appellations: Syrah grows well in both the cooler and warmer climates of Sonoma County, including Sonoma Coast, Russian River, Alexander Valley, and Dry Creek Valley.
  • Synonyms: In addition to the different spellings in France, such as Syra and Sirah, Syrah is also known as Shiraz in Australia.

Zinfandel

Although it is now determined, thanks to DNA testing, that Zinfandel is identical to the Croatian grape Crljenak Kastelanski, the popular California grape has a strong Austrian connection. The first Zinfandel vines showed up in a Long Island nursery, brought there from Vienna; and the name Zinfandel is likely confused with the Austrian vine Zierfandler.

  • Varietal Description: Zinfandel leaves are shiny green with well-defined lobes. The medium-large blue-black berries are tightly grouped in a cylindrical bunch.
  • County Acreage: County wide there are approximately 6,000 acres of Zinfandel.
  • Usage: Zinfandel is used mainly for making still red and pink wines and as base material for port-style wines.
  • Appellations: Bright berry-rich, slightly jammy Zinfandels can be found from the Dry Creek Valley, while those with greater density are coming from Rockpile.
  • Synonyms: Outside California, Zinfandel has been identified as Primitivo in Italy.

Other Reds

If it's true that wine's first duty is to be red, then Sonoma County is a dutiful supplier of leading reds such as Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, Dry Creek Zinfandel and Russian River Pinot Noir. But that's only part of the Sonoma red wine story.

Sharing some of the spotlight with Cabernet Sauvignon is Cabernet Franc, a grape that serves double duty as a reliable component in Bordeaux-style blends and as a stand-alone varietal with its own personality and flavor of ripe blueberry and licorice. Where ever you find Cabernet Sauvignon planted in Sonoma County you're likely to find Cabernet Franc.

Sangiovese, like Pinot Noir, has a reputation for being a difficult grape for the grower and the winemaker. Of Italian origin, Sangiovese produces wines of different weight and complexity according to where it is grown. Sonoma County Sangiovese, such as the small amount in the Alexander Valley, hints of a juicy blend of savory herbs and ripe raspberries, supported by bracing acidity.

Petite Sirah, fondly known as "Pet," is a long-time resident of Sonoma County. Dense and concentrated, Petite Sirah offers ripe berry fruit on a muscular framework of tannins and acidity. Petite Sirah has been a stalwart part of Sonoma County viticulture for decades, both as a blending partner and a varietal in its own right. The recent rising interest in Syrah, a distant cousin of Petite Sirah, encourages a resurgence of "Pet" in Sonoma County, especially among the hillside vineyards of the Russian River.

Wine Facts

Wine Production Overview

The Sonoma County lifestyle is attractive to an increasing number of people who appreciate the county’s efforts in melding and satisfying the needs of expanding  communities, with those of grape growing and wine making. The annual Sonoma County grape harvest is, after all, worth an estimated $200 million and represents 61 percent of the county’s total agriculture.

Delta Packing Throughout the county, grape growing and wine production are on a region-by-region basis. To pick just a few examples, cool Carneros and the Russian River Valley are best known for Chardonnay and Pinot, while the warmer Dry Creek Valley and Rockpile boasts some of the state’s best Zinfandel and the Alexander Valley is noted for its excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Chardonnay, America’s most popular white wine is also the county’s leading variety with an impressive 16,000 acres. Sauvignon Blanc is a distant second among white varieties, at 2,500 acres. For red varieties, Cabernet Sauvignon heads the roster with 12,000 acres, followed by Pinot Noir, 10,000, Merlot, 7,500 and Zinfandel, with 5,000 acres. Countywide, annual production of still, sparkling and dessert wine is estimated at more than 30 million gallons, from approximately 200, 000 tons of grapes.

Geography & Climate

Climate

Sonoma County is a diverse landscape for grape growing that, climatically, is strongly influenced by maritime variations. Cool nights and days that rarely get hot contribute to layers of oceanic fog that creep into Sonoma’s interior valleys through numerous spots like the Petaluma Gap.

Delta Packing Daytime temperatures average a comfortable 71F, with the warmest summer days rarely topping 84F.  Nighttime temperatures stay mostly in the 40s, meaning hard frosts are a rarity, even in the spring, the critical flowering time for grapes.  In September, at the start of the autumn grape harvest, the weather remains moderate with little to no rainfall. Sonoma County experiences no measurable snow or hail and normal rainfall measures between 25 and 30 inches a year.

Grapes thrive in this climate and while the county does experience the occasional temperature extreme and hard rains, the reliably moderate diurnal swings are tempered by coastal fog and only trace amounts of summer rain.

While growing premium wine grapes in Sonoma County is not quite as easy as putting a stick in the ground then stepping back to watch it grow, for grape growers and winemakers, Sonoma County is truly a Garden of Eden.

Geography

In the triumvirate of North Coast counties, Sonoma stands out for its diversity of vineyard locations and grape varieties. Within the broad east-west expanse, bounded by the moderating Pacific Ocean and a range of low mountains, Sonoma County is a land of unlimited potential for grape growing and wine making.

Delta Packing Long before vineyards covered much of the land, what we now know as Sonoma County was an inland sea. Violent tectonic upheavals of the coastal plates created present day Mayacamas Mountains that form the eastern boundary of the county. In sharp contrast are the southern rolling hills of Sonoma Carneros, once grazing land for sheep but now highly praised land for grape vines, and the slightly higher coastal hills that run the length of the county’s western edge.

All great world wine regions benefit from a body of water, often a river, to moderate climatic swings. In Sonoma County, the mighty moderator is the Russian River, meandering through a lush valley of vineyards, it provides a conduit pulling fog through Healdsburg and into the Alexander Valley, as well as forming its own appellation. On the west side of the county, the Russian River continues its run through Green Valley, finally emptying into the ocean at Jenner.

Today, Sonoma County physical geography is a balance of redwood forests, viticulture and orchards, all in a delicate dance with the pulse and growth of Sonoma County’s business and residential communities.


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