California’s Sonoma County is a diverse region with distinctive climate and geography. The Pacific Ocean, Russian River and Mayacamas Mountains are major influences, as is the region’s geologic history. But the basic soil structure is defined by volcanic ash and lava.
The Alexander Valley is distinguished by rocky, less fertile seafloor and volcanic soils on the mountaintops, with richer sedimentary deposits (gravelly, sandy loam) in the benchlands.
Rodney Strong, established in 1959, produces a wide range of wines, but cabernet is its signature. The 2016 Brothers ($75) comes from a hillside vineyard in the northern valley. Its loam, sandstone, shale and ancient greenstone soil is reflected in the wine’s dark fruit and boldly ripe flavors with fresh tannins balancing richness. The 2016 Reserve ($45) uses Alexander Valley grapes and fruit from Rodney Strong’s Cooley Ranch (volcanic soils on the edge of the valley). These origins allow for solid dark fruit and structure but supple tannins with herbal touches.
Sebastiani was established in 1904. Its 2017 Old Vine ($65), showing juicy dark berries and spicy notes, comes mostly from the Eco Tereno Vineyard in northern Alexander Valley. The 2017 Gravel Bed ($65) from gravelly soils reveals sweet blackberry, enticing anise and lush tannins.
Sonoma Valley is framed by the Mayacamas and Sonoma Mountains. Soils in the valley tend to be fertile loam. The 2017 Cherryblock ($125), reflecting the volcanic ash and old vines of Sebastiani’s valley estate, presents ripe, red fruit, a firm, finely honed palate and complementary savory notes.
Paso Robles is known for gravel and limestone soils near the ocean and more alluvial and loam soils inland. J. Lohr, a leader in the region since the 1980s, offers the 2018 Hilltop ($35), a fine value with dark fruit, lush oak and silky tannins, primarily from the gravel soils of the inland El Pomar district. The 2017 Signature ($100), mostly from the nearby Beck Vineyard’s granite and limestone soils, shows concentrated dark fruits, hints of herbs and strong tannins.
Over the past few decades, Washington has emerged as a world-class cabernet sauvignon producer. Established in 1978, Quilceda Creek is one of the state’s premier wineries. Its wines are expressions of four vineyards from the large Columbia Valley appellation: Champoux and Palengat (sandy loam), Mach One (loess and river rock) in the Horse Heaven Hills sub-appellation and Galitzine (sandy and silty loam) in the Red Mountain sub-appellation. The 2017 CVR ($70) combines all four sites. Its precise, spirited blackberry and cherry fruit is well-structured and luscious.
Based in Red Mountain, Canvasback, owned by Duckhorn, has a superb 2017 Grand Passage ($84), a block and barrel selection from the rocky, sandy loam of the Quintessence Vineyard. succulent red and black fruits, highlights of spice and oak are balanced with animated tannins. Its 2017 Red Mountain ($42) is crafted from several area vineyards. It offers fine red fruits with hints of minerals and tobacco and a firmly structured frame.