2022 Sonoma Preview: A First Look


Pinot Noir leads the way in what is turning out to be a surprising set of new releases from Sonoma. The 2022 growing season was marked by several key events, most notably record-setting heat over Labor Day weekend. Not surprisingly, there is some variability, but there are also plenty of stunning wines that are well worth seeking out. This Preview covers new releases from Sonoma and neighboring regions. As is our custom for this article, we will post frequent updates in the coming weeks, which we feel is the best way to keep readers current, given the sheer volume of wines released this time of year.

Old-vine Zinfandel planted in the early 1900s at Limerick Lane.

Cutting to the Chase

Based on what I have tasted so far, Pinot Noir is the real surprise of this vintage. The wines are aromatic, deep and exceptionally well-balanced, with terrific fruit purity and plenty of site character. In some cases, the 2022s surpass the 2021s, most notably where accumulated stress from drought was penalizing to the 2021s. Overall, the 2022 Pinots benefitted from healthy canopies and enough availability of water such that they were able to withstand the intense Labor Day heat spikes.

Chardonnay is much more variable. The wines are generally light in structure. Many show elements of dilution and/or flavors that are not fully developed. Vineyard signatures are not as defined as they are in more important vintages. The combined effects of two heat events were too much for many wines. There are notable exceptions where producers benefitted from more favorable conditions and/or were especially selective with what they bottled.

Ted Lemon presented a stellar set of wines at Littorai encompassing the 2021 and 2022 vintages.

Zinfandel and Zinfandel-based field blends are lighter than their 2021 counterparts. The wines show a good bit of freshness and mid-weight structures but with less depth, complexity and textural richness than the norm. These attributes suggest uneven ripening caused by the ups and downs of the growing season, as detailed below.

Most Syrahs and Bordeaux blends have not been bottled yet, so I have not tasted enough wines to have a view as to what the vintage holds.

Sonoma is home to many notable districts, such as this sector of the West Sonoma Coast, where many top sites lie in close proximity to each other.

The 2022 Growing Season

The 2022 growing season is fascinating for many reasons, not the least of which are several events in 2021 that played an important role in shaping the wines. These episodes are a reminder the vine is a living organism with a continuous life cycle. The new year does not begin with January 1 but is rather the result of accumulated events over long periods of time.

Generous rains during late 2021 and the first part of 2022 were beneficial. Warm temperatures in January and February resulted in early bud break. Storms in April were pivotal in creating good reserves of water. In 2021, many vineyards ran out of water and canopies were stunted. It was the exact opposite in 2022. “Our water budget was revised upwards throughout the year. We used every drop,” Stephen Hansel told me as he explained how water is regulated by the county during the growing season. Canopies were healthy, far healthier than in 2021.

Accumulated stress in 2021 meant the vines went into 2022 already set up for a low crop. Severe spring frost in 2022 further lowered potential production. Bad weather during flowering resulted in a high incidence of shatter, again lowering potential yields. Some producers reported a further loss of crop over the Labor Day heat spike. Yields are down significantly, as much as 40-50% for some wineries. “Basically, everyone we sell fruit to get half of what they wanted,” Lee Martinelli Sr. told me, echoing comments I heard pretty much everywhere.

Overall, though, 2020 was a mostly cool vintage. Temperatures remained moderate throughout most of the summer. “It was a really cool summer, and then it got very hot,” Ted Lemon told me. “Peak temperatures were higher than 2017, but the canopies were in better shape, so we had virtually no sunburn. At The Haven, we only had two days above 90 until September 1.”

Mid-August brought a first heat event. Much more severe heat arrived over Labor Day weekend, when temperatures soared to oppressive, record-level highs, as much as 120°F in some sites. These are temperatures that significantly exceeded anything seen in the past. As extreme as the heat was, the “heat dome” was not as severe or sustained as it was further inland, most notably in Napa Valley. “We had some elevated temperatures on August 18, but by Labor Day, Pinot really wasn’t ripe out here yet. It was a cold year until then,” Steve Kistler told me at Occidental. “For us, for where we were the heat was too brief and too late to really affect anything,” Ted Lemon added. Still, scorching temperatures created significant challenges. “We lost a good 20% of production through dehydration on the vine.” Thomas Rivers Brown reported at Rivers-Marie. Where fruit was close to ripe, it came off immediately, resulting in condensed harvests at many wineries. “We picked all our fruit in ten days as opposed to the more typical 20 or so.” Lee Martinelli Sr. added.

On a more positive note, as high as temperatures were during Labor Day, they were not as sustained or severe as they were in Napa Valley. Vinifications seemed to be less stressed than what I saw in Napa, although the threat of elevated volatile acidities required constant attention. In the worst cases, a few wines were casualties of issues in the cellar. Some 2022s were not bottled because of impractically small yields. In other cases, producers bulked out unsatisfactory lots and only bottled their best wines. It’s a vintage in which readers need to be selective. Many 2022s are richly deserving of attention, while the best are truly exceptional.

Ross Cobb presented a magnificent set of 2021s that are his finest wines ever.

2021 Redux

Last year, I wrote that “the 2021s are both very high in quality and consistent across the board. It’s a vintage full of stunning, compelling wines.” My tastings this year only confirmed that view. Two-thousand twenty-one is an exceptional vintage, a rare year in which all main varieties performed brilliantly. The whites are especially superb compared to the more mixed 2022s.

Catherine and Steve Kistler at their Occidental winery.

A Deeper Look at Sonoma

I have written this before, but it bears repeating, especially in challenging vintages. Sonoma County is a very large and diverse region. That diversity is a huge plus in many ways. But also means Sonoma is not identified with a single wine, like Napa Valley is with Cabernet Sauvignon. Perhaps the complexity of Sonoma is one of the reasons the general public often takes the view that the quality of the vintage in Sonoma is the same as it is in Napa Valley. That’s a big mistake in most vintages, especially in 2022.

Starting in the east, the rugged slopes of Moon Mountain excel with Bordeaux varieties, then with Chardonnay and Syrah, which are less commonly found. The vineyards around Highway 12, in Sonoma Valley’s Central Corridor, are home to numerous vineyards, including many field blends. Sonoma Mountain and Bennett Valley are cool-climate regions. The Russian River Valley generally produces boisterous Chardonnays and Pinots, except for its Green Valley and Sebastopol Hills districts, which are cooler. Carneros is another cool and windy pocket. The West Sonoma Coast features a wide range of districts, each of them incredibly distinctive. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay star, but recent years have seen a growth in Syrah and even Cabernet Sauvignon. Leaving aside very few instances, it is next to impossible to generalize about vintages in Sonoma County because most years will offer plenty of exceptions to any broad view. 

Tom Rochioli with his children, Rachel and Ryan, who are taking on increasing responsibility at their family winery in the heart of the Russian River Valley.

Latest Trends

This year I saw a marked increase in the number of sparkling wines and Cabernet Sauvignons producers showed. The fascination with sparkling wines is obvious. Most wine people adore Champagne, so it is only natural for producers in the cool regions within Sonoma County to try their hand at making similar wines. I have mixed feelings, as I am not sure sparkling wines are the best use of world-class Chardonnay and Pinot Noir fruit. At the same time, there is no denying the best examples are delicious.

Cabernet Sauvignon is a different story. The simple reality is that producers in Sonoma have found they can sell Cabernet Sauvignon more easily and at higher prices than Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. That is true even in the West Sonoma Coast, a region where Cabernet is only very sparsely planted. The best Sonoma Cabernets offer a mix of dark varietal fruit along with generous savory and mineral undertones. It’s a style of Cabernet I have admired for a very long time. Even so, I hope Pinot and Chardonnay-centric wineries do not lose their identities.

Some of the highlights of recent tastings.

This report covers new releases from Sonoma and neighboring regions. As is our custom for this article, we will post frequent updates in the coming weeks and months, which we feel is the best way to keep readers current, given the sheer volume of wines that are released this time of year.

© 2024, Vinous. No portion of this article may be copied, shared or re-distributed without prior consent from Vinous. Doing so is not only a violation of our copyright, but also threatens the survival of independent wine criticism.

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