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.

Introducing a New Positively #Petaluma Column: Petaluma Wine!

Photo: Guarachi Family Winery, From Sherrie Perkovich

PetalumaGap_AVA_Map_poster30x20_MAY2015The wine industry is growing in Petaluma.  As you may be aware (if you been reading our columns see #Petaluma Celebrates “The Birth of an AVA – Petaluma Gap”) that the Petaluma GAP Alliance is pursuing its own AVA. The Petaluma Historic Library and Museum in the recent past had a great display of Petaluma’s viticulture history that some believe dates back over 150 years.  If you live here it is hard not to notice over the past several decades that our landscape is changing from hills of dried grass to beautiful green grape vines.  Petalumans often boast that our city is the “gateway” to the wine country.  We want to give more depth to our rich history and growing industry, so that people visiting the wine country don’t just think of Petaluma as a “gateway”.  A gateway serves as an entrance or a means of access to the wine country.  We would rather like to think of it as – just the “wine country” and a great place to stop and not just a place to drive through to get access to the wine sojourn barrel with wine glassescountry. We decided to create this column dedicated to Petaluma Wine!. We will cover wines made from Petaluma grapes, wineries, tasting rooms, wine makers, owners/families, industry trends, Petaluma GAP, history, and vineyards in the Petaluma (GAP) region as seen in the map. Positively Petaluma will focus on getting the word out to put our wine industry “on the map” by creating content that people from outside our area will find when searching for information on the local wineries but at the same time great for locals to learn more about what’s going on in Petaluma. Hopefully over time more restaurants in Petaluma will offer wines made here, and people will want to visit and stay at Hotel Petaluma and do tastings here and perhaps tours with Pure Luxury Transportation.  More people here and far will come to know our local community wines and share them with friends and come to learn to love and purchase wines made right here.

Stay tuned for more on Petaluma Wine!  We have some very exciting new contributors (wine experts) writing columns in the very near future.  In the next few months we will be also be giving it dedicated space on all social media as well as a new website for those who just want to follow the Petaluma wine industry.




#Petaluma Celebrates “The Birth of an AVA – Petaluma Gap”

Recently the Petaluma Historical Museum and Library had a fantastic display of our city’s viticulture history.  Kaye Chandler did a great job in capturing the display on video (which can be found on the next page of this article).  Over the years our town’s rolling hills have evolved into what now is starting to look like the Sonoma or Napa Valley.  After reviewing Kaye’s film you realize that Petaluma families have been making wine since the mid 1900s (some sources say for over 150 years).

Keller Estate & Petaluma River, Photo by Wayne Dunbar

While we have a rich history in viticulture, 2015 marks the birth of a new American Viticulture Area (AVA), The Petaluma GAP. An AVA is a designated wine grape-growing region in the United States distinguishable by geographic features with boundaries defined by the Alcohol and Tobacco Trade Bureau and United States Department of Treasury. The geographic features that distinguish the Petaluma GAP is the wind and the fog. The “GAP” refers to the wind gap named after a coastal mountain opening that stretches east from the Pacific through the town of Petaluma and then roars south to San Pablo Bay which makes this AVA ideal for growing certain grapes (Pinot, Chardonnay & Syrah).  The AVA designation allows the wine makers to label their bottles indicating the grapes in the wine came from this region.

On Friday, January 30 from 6-8PM located at the Healdsburg Public Library the “The Birth of an AVA – Petaluma GAP” event will be hosted by the Wine Library Associates of Sonoma County and the Petaluma GAP Winegrowers Alliance.  This is a great opportunity to have some wine and learn about the region.  Tickets are $35 per person but only $25 for Wine Library and Alliance members.  You can reserve tickets by calling (707) 433-1660 or purchasing tickets on Eventbrite.