Russian settlements in what is now Sonoma County preceded those sponsored by the Mexican government. The Russian-American Company, formed by decree by Tsar Paul I of Russia in 1799, was tasked with colonizing and setting up trade in areas of North America under Russian control. They established a port settlement near Bodega Bay and also Fort Ross, further north, in 1812. So it was that Russians, not Spanish or Mexican missionaries, planted the first wine grapes in California north of San Francisco Bay in 1817.
The Russians continued to plant vineyards in the area, but by the 1840s the Russian empire had largely abandoned the Sonoma Coast, having over-hunted the animals they trapped for fur. And, whereas food grown in Sonoma had once fed Russia’s Alaskan settlements, they now had sources in the Oregon Territory.
Of course, this departure didn’t curtail grape and wine production in Sonoma County. On the contrary, it grew substantially and thrived. That included many vineyards on the coast. However, starting around 1860 almost all vines in the county were progressively wiped out by phylloxera.
A resurgence in the county came about thanks to grafted vines, but other circumstances intervened and hampered the market. Demand had declined, given Europe’s own recovery from phylloxera. That, and a global depression, led to a sharp decline in the prices California wine could demand. And, due to the climate and terrain, the coast was a more challenging place for vines than the valleys further inland. So, the west Sonoma Coast wine industry essentially disappeared until the 1970s.
Michael Bohan was first among the newcomers, planting near Fort Ross in 1972. Quite a few vineyards followed soon thereafter and the area hasn’t looked back. Nor has the varietal mix changed much. More than 50 varieties exist in the West Sonoma Coast AVA, but it was clear from the outset that Pinot Noir and Chardonnay were perfect for the climate. The Sonoma Coast AVA was granted in 1987.
In 1999, growers in the Fort Ross area began thinking about creating a more specific AVA. In 2003, they submitted a proposal. For a variety of reasons, including concerns about what to call it, TTB approval took 9 years. In 2018, the Petaluma Gap AVA, which includes coastal territory, was established. Petaluma Gap is climatically and geologically distinct and thus was not included within the new AVA.