At long last, wine growers in the Petaluma Gap area will be able to put "Petaluma Gap" on their wine labels, as the Petaluma Gap officially becomes California's newest American Viticultural Area (AVA) on Friday, Dec. 8.
The passage of the AVA, however, comes almost a year later than its stakeholders expected, delayed by bureaucratic shuffling in the new presidential administration.
"It's been a very long, frustrating road," says Rickey Trombetta Stancliff, president of the Petaluma Gap Winegrowers Alliance and owner of Trombetta Family Wines.
Rep. Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, called the AVA's passage "long overdue."
"It's going to have marketing and economic benefits for the communities I represent," he said. "But you could also say that (wine) consumers will benefit, who haven't had the benefit of an accurate designation for all these years."
AVAs are government-designated boundaries for grape growing, and they affect how wine can be labeled. Grapes grown within the boundaries of the Napa Valley AVA, for example, can produce wines labeled as "Napa Valley." The Petaluma Gap would be the 17th sub-AVA within Sonoma County, though its 203,000 acres -- from Tomales Bay to Sonoma Mountain -- encompass slivers of Marin County, too.
Viticulturally speaking, it's marked by its west-east wind pattern, which can result in wines with high acidity and high tannin, whose flavors can develop over a longer growing season.
The original Petaluma Gap AVA petition was filed in early 2015, and moved through the pipeline relatively quickly; a public comment period ended last December, with no opposition. At that point, Stancliff believed, it was just a matter of a couple of quick signatures in Washington.
"We thought, terrific, this won't take very long," Stancliff said.
If only it had been so simple. In the final step before it can publish a new rule (as AVAs are classified) in the Federal Register, the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) needs to obtain final approval from the Department of the Treasury. When President Donald Trump took office in January, several crucial positions at Treasury, whose signatures would have been necessary for the AVA passage, were left vacant.
On Aug. 3, the U.S. Senate confirmed several of Trump's nominees for Treasury positions, including Brent James McIntosh as general counsel and David Kautter as assistant secretary for tax policy. Four months later, the Petaluma Gap AVA rule was signed off.
Many in the wine industry also feared that the executive order issued by Trump on Jan. 30, directing government agencies to repeal two regulations in order to pass one new regulation, would halt the passage of any new AVAs, which might have been interpreted as regulations themselves. Fortunately for Petaluma Gap producers, that did not seem to be a problem.
"Starting Dec. 8, we can start submitting our labels to the TTB for putting the Petaluma Gap AVA on our labels," Stancliff said. This applies to any wines that have not yet been labeled, which could mean you'll be seeing wines from the 2014 vintage (or even, in some cases, earlier) labeled as Petaluma Gap.
For small wine producers, being able to label a wine with the Petaluma Gap AVA could make a big difference. Such labeling helps with marketing, as it can communicate nuances to customers about vineyard qualities at a more precise level than a simple "Sonoma County" or "Sonoma Coast" label could. And it helps a region's members communicate a coherent message about what makes their place special: One Petaluma Gap vintner's success becomes every Petaluma Gap vintner's success.
"It's really significant," Stancliff said. "Now instead of competing with a cast of thousands (in Sonoma County), we're now down to a much smaller number, a more rarefied group.
"It really helps a little brand like ours stand up and get noticed."