'Bucolic' and 'pristine' are appropriate and common descriptors of Bennett Valley, a small and modest corner of Sonoma County. Bennett Valley is actually more of an alluvial benchland than a valley; it is constantly cooled by ocean breezes and fog. Led by the efforts of Jackson Family Wines and the Matanzas Creek Winery, the largest and only commercial winery in Bennett Valley, the region was granted AVA status, relatively recently, on December 23, 2003 - it is the newest AVA in the Sonoma County region. The area is known for is pastoral beauty including hillsides, ranches and small closely held family style vineyards. Bennett Valley itself is one of the most peaceful, serene and unspoiled parts of Sonoma. It is a lesser known hidden gem of the Sonoma County appellations.
This section of Sonoma County has produced high quality wine product since the mid 1800s. But before that, Russian and Spanish settlers had originally moved into the area now known as Bennett Valley and quickly wiped out most of the indigenous Miwok, Wappo, and Pomo tribes with smallpox. By the 1830s, General Vallejo’s land grants prompted further Spanish settlement into the area and, in 1849, a Missouri immigrant named James Bennett purchased property called “Yulupa”. Mr. Bennett's family name is what the name of the valley is derived from. In 1862 a man named Isaac De Turk began growing grapes on land he acquired from James N. Bennett and named his winery Belle Mount. More settlers continued to move into the area and this spawned the early beginnings of the wine industry in Bennett Valley.
Geography and Climate
Bennett Valley lies between three mountainous peaks: Taylor Mountain to the west, Sonoma Mountain to the south, and Bennett Peak and Bennett Ridge to the east. Bennett Valley is a northwest to southeast trending valley. It is approximately 1 mile (1.6 km) wide in its northwestern portion bordering the city of Santa Rosa and the south, east, and west surrounded by the Sonoma Mountains. The AVA is an excellent location for growing premium wine grapes in part due to the yeas of accumulated ash on the valley floor from the surrounding volcanic mountains. The AVA receives cool coastal fogs and ocean breeze from the Pacific that creep into the area from the southwest through Crane Canyon between Sonoma Mountain and Taylor Mountain. This region gets more fog and rain that most other Sonoma AVAs. The dominant surface soil category of Bennett Valley is Clear Lake clay. The soils are not too deep, which minimizes excessive vine vigor, and that, combined with the area's cool temperatures, produces grapes that have high flavor, low sugar and good acidity.
The varied elevations of Bennett valley, between 250 and 1850 feet, leading to varied sun exposures and numerous microclimates, permit the successful cultivation of numerous varietals in this region. However, the coastal influences create ideal growing conditions for cool weather varietals such as Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir with cool climate characteristics: spicy, peppery and moderate in alcohol. Barbera, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, and Sauvignon Blanc are other leading grape varietals that are grown successfully here.
The well-drained mountain benchland soils combined with the fog cooled climate creates an environment ideal for the production of award winning class wines. Yet Bennett Valley has less than 9,000 acres, of which about 850 are planted with grapes. This makes Bennett Valley one of the smaller appellations in all of California. The vines are farmed primarily by small independent growers with a passion for quality and history over quantity and commercial over-expansion. One wine maker from Matanzas Creek Winery says, “This place is an artist’s palate for us, it has so many microclimates and differences in terroir, even just on our property. So part of what we’re doing right now is producing small batch wines, of about 200-250 cases, to represent those specific areas.”
Due to the cool weather, the wines produced from Bennett Valley grapes experience extended vine time ensuring grapes will reach optimal maturity. The cooler climate means a longer hang time without getting too high of a brix level. The acid stays high and the sugar stays low. The longer growing season of Bennett Valley, usually two to three weeks later than other regions, helps maximize flavors, increase concentration and soften green astringent tannins enabling wines to be made which reflect the essence of each individual varietal. We look forward to watching the stature and popularity of this region continue to increase.