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Pfendler Vineyards: Savor the Gap

Pfendler Vineyards represents the legacy of Peter Pfendler, who first planted vineyards on Sonoma Mountain in 1992. He was a graduate of the United States Air Force Academy and served as a distinguished fighter pilot in Vietnam. He later founded Polaris Aircraft Leasing Corporation which became the world’s largest commercial aircraft leasing company. In 1989, Pfendler sold Polaris to General Electric and bought a 1000- acre ranch on Sonoma Mountain east of the town of Petaluma in Sonoma County, pursuing his life long dream of cattle ranching, wildlife and land conservation and winegrowing.

Pfendler was fond of Cheval Blanc and other Bordeaux wines and planted Bordeaux varieties including Cabernet Franc, later discovering that these struggled to ripen in the cool climate. He also planted Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in Petaluma’s Gap’s Crown region, a very cool and windy area now highly regarded for its cool climate varieties. Before his untimely passing in 2007, veteran winemaker Don Baumhefner worked with Pfendler and bottled wines from Pfendler’s vineyards under the Copeland Creek label.

Peter’s widow, Kimberly, who left a career in Creative Management in Hollywood in 2004 to marry Pfendler, chose to launch a luxury wine brand in his memory and christened the project Pfendler Vineyards, releasing the first Pinot Noir and Chardonnay with the 2007 vintage. All the previously existing Bordeaux plantings have been grafted over to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, the two varietals Pfendler Vineyards now specializes in. Two wines are planned initially: an Estate Pinot Noir and an Estate Chardonnay.

Noted winemaker and viticulturist, Greg Bjornstad, was hired to direct the winegrowing and winemaking. He has overseen the grafting of the Pfendler vineyards and updated the farming protocols including converting the trellising to a double Guyot configuration. Greg has worked as the viticulturist at Joseph Phelps Vineyards and Newton Vineyards. In 1996, he joined Flowers Vineyard & Winery as assistant winemaker and vineyard manager and during his tenure there, Flowers was awarded the title, “Artisan Winery of the Year,” twice, by Wine & Spirits magazine. In 1999, Bjornstad launched an international vineyard consulting business which included well-known North American clients such as DuMOL, Hirsch, Kistler, Kosta Browne, Paul Hobbs, Pisoni and Scott Paul. He founded his own label, Bjornstad Cellars, in 2005, specializing in vineyard-designated Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from Sonoma County appellations.

Currently Pfendler Vineyards consists of 19 acres of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay distributed among four estate vineyards situation at varying altitudes on Sonoma Mountain in the Sonoma Coast appellation. The Penngrove Vineyard is a 6-acre parcel adjacent Gap’s Crown Vineyard and is planted to the Wente clone of Chardonnay and Dijon clones 114, 115, 777 and 828 and Swan selection of Pinot Noir. The Pullis Vineyard (Pullis is Kimberly’s maiden name) is the coolest and foggiest vineyard of the four, situated at about 1,000 feet on Sonoma Mountain. It was planted to Pinot Noir clone 828 in 2005. Pfendler Vineyard is part way up Sonoma Mountain at 1,200 feet in the middle of the fog line and sheltered from the wind. It was budded over from Cabernet Franc (planted in 1992) to the Hyde selection of Chardonnay (1 acre) and the Pommard 4 clone of Pinot Noir (3 acres) in 2008. The Helgren Vineyard sits at 2,000 to 2,200 feet near the mountain top and was budded over to Calera and Swan selections of Pinot Noir in 2008. The diversity in vineyard sites with their different soils, exposure, aspect, and altitude will give Bjornstad plenty of variety to work with to assemble the estate Pinot Noir, and the wines should pick up interest with each vintage as the newer plantings and grafted vines come into full production and he familiarizes himself with the different sites.

Bjornstad’s Pinot Noir winemaking starts with vigorous sorting, 100% de-stemming, followed by native yeast fermentations. The cooperage program is evolving as Bjornstad seeks to match barrels to the multiple blocks of vines scattered throughout the four estate vineyards. Aging currently is in 50% new French oak barrels. Both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay receive 8 months of sur lies aging and are racked twice before being bottled unfined and unfiltered. Bjornstad’s trademark is pleasing textures and the Pfendler wines exhibit this beautifully. The wines are crafted at Vinify Wine Services in Santa Rosa.

I recently visited Pfendler Vineyards and toured the four vineyards with Greg and Kimberly. It was a magnificent day and from the Pfendler home site, the Petaluma Gap could be clearly seen all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The first photo below shows the Petaluma Valley in the foreground and the Gap in the distance. The second photo is taken from the Halgren Vineyard, again showing the Gap in the far distance.

Petaluma Gap

The Petaluma Gap is a term coined as recently as thirteen years ago and refers to a narrow coastal mountain opening in the southern Sonoma County countryside connecting the Pacific Ocean near Bodega Bay and Tomales to the San Francisco Bay. The Gap is roughly 22 to 31 miles in width with walls rising 2,000 to 3,000 feet above sea level. The western edge runs approximately from Tomales to Bodega. The southern border is the hamlet of Nicasio and the northern and eastern borders start around Penngrove and Cotati and run southeast along the Carneros Ridge, ending in San Pablo Bay. In the simplest of terms, the Petaluma Gap can be thought of as the area south of the Russian River Valley to Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County.

On the map below I have roughly outlined the Petaluma Gap. Bodega is a few miles inland from Bodega Bay and Tomales is just east and south of Dillon Beach. The tiny town of Nicasio is a few miles east of where the Highway 1 marker is on the map. San Pablo Bay is the body of water bordered on the North by Highway 37.

The Petaluma Gap region is not a separate appellation, but lies within the very large Sonoma Coast appellation. Wines from this region are currently labeled as Sonoma Coast appellation but the Petaluma Gap designation may be added in the future as the area becomes more well-known. The region could also eventually become its own appellation.

The Petaluma Gap creates a very unique microclimate. Early morning ocean fog enters the Petaluma Valley, advances north through Cotati into the Russian River Valley and south to San Pablo Bay. Intense midday heat is moderated in the early afternoon by cooling Pacific Ocean breezes (thus the often-used term, “Petaluma Wind Gap,”) and chilly evening temperatures helps the ripening grapes maintain crisp, refreshing levels of acidity. The area has been compared to Carneros which is under similar climatic influences, but the fog and wind arrive earlier in the day than in Carneros and stay longer the next morning. Some areas of the Petaluma Gap are as cold, or even colder than Green Valley, Freestone, Santa Maria and Sta. Rita Hills. Rainfall is moderate (20 to 24 inches) so that irrigation is necessary for at least part of the growing season.

In 2006, the Petaluma Gap Grape and Wine Alliance was formed to promote the region's identity (visit the website at The Petaluma Gap has a 150 year tradition of grape growing and currently there are over 3,000 acres of vineyards and four wine tasting facilities in the Petaluma Gap (Adobe Road, Corda, Kastania, and Keller Estate). An accurate map of the Petaluma Gap is available for viewing and purchase at

2008 Pfendler Vineyards Estate Grown Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.5% alc., 200 cases, $38. Wente (4) clone. · Pale straw color in the glass. Shy upon opening revealing subtle aromas of fresh brioche, butter creme, poached pear and crushed rock with smoky oak showing up over time in the glass. Understated and seductive in style with appealing flavors of vanilla creme and lemon zest and the faintest cinnamon spice and minerality. Bright acidity lifts the pleasing finish. Still young and I am sure will match the 2007 version tit for tat with another year in the cellar. Very good.

2008 Pfendler Vineyards Estate Grown Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 400 cases, $45. · Swan selection and Dijon 114, 115, 777 and 828 clones. Very lovely, even captivating, perfume of ripe strawberries, raspberries, herbs, red licorice and graham. Tasty black raspberry and strawberry attack with a touch of earthiness. Beautifully composed with striking mid-palate intensity and a velvety mouth feel. Even at this young age, this is a charming wine that is drinking nicely and well worth your interest. Very good (+).

2007 Pfendler Vineyards Estate Grown Sonoma Coast Chardonnay

14.2% alc., $38. · A marvelous wine styled perfectly to my preferences. Complex nose of buttered popcorn, honey, lemon zest, honeydew and spiced apple. Delicious flavors of pear tart and baking spices. A demure wine that is beautifully proportioned with a lasting and aromatic finish.

2007 Pfendler Vineyards Estate Grown Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir

14.5% alc., 350 cases, $45. · Delicate aromas of well-oaked cherries and berries. Medium-weighted core of dark red stone fruits and blueberries with underlying oak toast. A gentle wine with admirable finesse, soft tannins and a silky mouthfeel, but with more intrusion of oak than I prefer. Decent.

Pfendler Vineyards is poised for success. The mature Chardonnay plantings are already showing their pedigree and Bjornstad will find his sure footing with the Pinot Noir with each passing vintage. Both Kimberly and Greg (pictured below) are cut out of the same mold, that is, soft spoken and disarmingly charming, creating a good match up for this new winery.

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