Petaluma: A History of Winegrowing, and a Look to the Future

When most people hear Petaluma, they think of butter and eggs. Over the last few years, the fortunes of the wine coming from this area have risen. But while this recent surge in grapes and wine has added to the area’s notoriety, this is by no means recent. The Petaluma region has been involved in quality grape and wine production for decades.

In the beginning…

Bihler Ranch House 1828
Bihler Ranch House 1828, Photo From Sonoma County Library Archives

Today’s grape growers and winemakers in the Petaluma area can trace a long lineage in this vinous endeavor. The area around Petaluma had many thriving vineyards in the mid-1800s. John Staedler had vineyards near the town in the 1860s. William Bihler planted vines on the banks of Petaluma Creek, on the hillsides, then out in the Lakeville area by the late 1870s. Many others, including James Fair, as well as immigrants from Germany, Italy, France and Switzerland, planted vineyards of various sizes during this time.

In 1884, G.V. Fischer established the first winery in Petaluma; James Fair started on in the Lakeville area shortly after. Fair’s winery soon had a 600,000 gallons capacity – one of the largest 8575024694_1d225d51c6_min the state at the time. Along with the problems in the French winegrowing industry at around this time (due to phylloxera), many areas in California, including Petaluma, established more vineyards, to meet the demand for wine for a global market. Around the turn of the 29th Century, the area had a bit more than 1,000 acres under vine. Of course, there were changes in the wind: Phylloxera and Prohibition. Because of the devastation of the vineyards by the former, and the lack of need for grapes caused by the latter, many vineyards simply changed to other agriculture.

A New Hope

bihler ranch house 2
Bihler Ranch House, Photo By Positively Petaluma

But, luckily, by the early 1990s, growers were looking for places that could grow top-quality grapes, and many started looking at the Petaluma area as a source.ove the last quarter century, vineyard acreage has grown to around 4,000 acres. The predominant grape during this resurgence has been Pinot Noir. Approximately 75% of the acreage in the area is this wonderful, if sometimes fickle, variety. The next two varieties are Chardonnay and Syrah (nearly equal), with less than 1% comprised of some exciting varieties, such as Tempranillo, Viognier and Pinot Gris.

Bihler Ranch House Today
Bihler Ranch House Today, Photo By Positively Petaluma

While the soils and contours of the land are special in shaping the vineyards, what gives the grapes in the Petaluma Gap (as it is called) their distinctness is the weather – mainly the fog and wind. The fog brings cooling, in the early morning and late afternoon to the area, and helps the vines and grapes “relax” after a day of growing. The wind not only brings additional cooling, but helps the skins of the grapes toughen up, to withstand the barrage of the gusts. This toughening, especially in the red grapes, 9325607743_bedc86355d_zhelps them achieve more color and flavors, which yield wines of deeper color, aromas and tastes. The Gap stretches from Bodega Bay and Dillon Beach on the coast, eastward through southern Sonoma and northern Marin Counties, through the Petaluma area, and finally sweeping south east, down the Petaluma River and out to San Pablo Bay. The winds are pulled through this area at much higher speed than the surrounding areas, giving the grapes there toughness, flavor and distinct characters that have become the hallmark of wines from the Petaluma Gap. All of this has lead for the application for American Viticultural Area status with the federal government. While still in its early stages, all signs are pointing toward establishing the Petaluma Gap as a new AVA.

With a long history of quality grape growing and winemaking, the Petaluma area is poised to keep advancing forward – in quality, in recognition, and of enjoyment of its wines.

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