Top Wine Varietals: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
- Anderson Valley
- Col Ranch
- McDowell Valley
- Mendocino Ridge
- Potter Valley Redwood Valley
- Ukiah Valley
- Yorkville Highlands
Spotlight on Anderson Valley: Located more than 100 miles north of San Francisco, the wine producing reputation of this beautiful, remote valley has been steadily climbing for decades. The 16-mile-long, transverse valley extends from the southeast to the northwest and becomes increasingly cool as it nears the Pacific Ocean. Though not as sharply oriented east-west as Santa Maria or Santa Ynez Valley, it also cuts across the coastal range at an angle. It is therefore open to the fog and wind coming off the Pacific Ocean. The geology in the valley is quite diverse but includes a band of rocky southwest facing hillsides that produce intense, mineral-driven wines of great elegance.
Spotlight on Mendocino Ridge: The Mendocino Ridge AVA is still mostly untamed, with small islands of grapes seemingly adrift in a sea of wilderness. Vineyards are at elevations of at least 1,200 feet, and within 10 miles of the Pacific Ocean. “This non-contiguous, isolated appellation is the epitome of high elevation coastal farming,” says Steve Alden, grower for Murder Ridge Wines. “The rugged and steep hillsides require costly and extreme farming techniques, but the result is wine grapes that are highly sought by premium winemakers. Low-vigor vines produce small, loosely packed clusters with tiny berries, creating wines with unique flavors."
Top Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, and Sauvignon Blanc.
- High Valley
- Red Hills
- Guenoc Valley
- Big Valley
Often referred to as “the undiscovered wine country” of Northern California, it is named for Clear Lake, the largest natural lake in California. Sharing borders with Napa, Sonoma and Mendocino counties, this 1,329-square mile California wine region is fast gaining ground among winemakers in the know. The number of vineyard acres increased by 8% in 2015. And it is not just because land is less expensive compared to Napa and Sonoma.
Conglomerates like Kendall Jackson, E&J Gallo and Foley have bought up thousands of acres. Napa’s iconic viticulturist Andy Beckstoffer has also acquired land, and actually recently offered fruit free-of-charge to 10 winemakers – to give them a taste of just what Lake County can do.
Fun Fact: “Lake County’s first important vineyards were cultivated by the enterprising English actress Lillie Langtry, who planted the hillsides of her remote estate in the 1880s, intending to make what she hoped would become ‘the greatest Claret in California.’” —Karen MacNeil, The Wine Bible
Top Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
- Howell Mountain
- Diamond Mountain
- Spring Mountain
- St. Helena
- Atlas Peak
- Stags Leap
- Oak Knoll
- Mt. Veeder
- Wild Horse Valley
- Los Carneros
- Chiles Valley
Just 30 miles long, the California wine region of Napa Valley is an amazing mix of soils, elevations and aspects, all roiled together by millions of years of geological turmoil, including volcanoes, earthquakes, movement of sea tides and yes, fire. The end result for winemaking has been pockets of extraordinarily diverse and distinctive terroir scattered among two mountain ranges and a valley floor, bordering the coolness of San Pablo Bay and further up valley, influenced by hotter inland territory. Napa Valley has five mountain appellations: Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain, Spring Mountain District, Atlas Peak and Mount Veeder.
Meanwhile, down in the valley, in appellations like Oakville, Rutherford and Yountville, mostly alluvial soils, more rain and more heat give a different profile to King Cab. Some say it is more Bordeaux-like – riper than the mountain Cabernet, almost hedonistic in its pleasure points.
Spotlight on Mt. Veeder: While the Mt. Veeder AVA is cooler than most of Napa because of its elevation, it’s the first to see the early morning sun. This extended sun exposure helps ripen the tannins.
Spotlight on Spring Mountain: If you’ve ever visited this appellation just north of St. Helena, you may have wondered where the mountain is. The topography is so topsy-turvy, with gullies and mini-valleys, knolls and steep hillsides that it is hard to get your bearings. The fact is, there is no “Spring Mountain.” The area actually embraces the eastern slopes of the Mayacamas Mountains marking the divider between Sonoma and Napa. There is no peak to climb or mountain to point out in this California wine region. The “spring” refers to the abundance of springs in this area, well known to locals. The first grapes were planted in the 1860s, and early viticulture pioneers included Dr. Crane, Jacob Schram, the York family and the Beringers. The Spring Mountain District’s jumbled topography with many distinct nooks and crannies has made it a favorite among small growers, family wineries and couples fulfilling their winemaking dreams. Vineyards here are often tiny and hand-tended; just 1,000 of its 8,600 acres are planted. The topsy-turvy topography of Spring Mountain offers rocky soils and multiple exposures that have proved to be ideal for complex, high-end Cabernet Sauvignon.
Spotlight on Rutherford: About 'Rutherford Dust': "...Beaulieu's legendary post-prohibition winemaker, Andre Tchelistcheff, coined the famous phrase "Rutherford dust' to explain the extraordinary rich and complex character that Cabernet Sauvignon Acquires in this hallowed turf."--The New Connoisseurs' Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries, by Charles Olken
Spotlight on Coombsville: This sub-appellation of Napa Valley lies in its southeast hills, just north of the San Pablo Bay. Other than Carneros, which borders the bay itself, Coombsville is the AVA closest to this body of water. With the bay nearby, fog and cool breezes moderate Coombsville’s growing season. Meanwhile, the elevation of many vineyards here, 1,000 feet and higher, can make conditions even cooler. In fact, during the summer heat, it is generally 10 degrees cooler in Coombsville than up valley. The elevation also helps create a longer growing season. This longer “hang time” is key to developing the complex layers of flavors that attract lovers of Cabernet Sauvignon. Consequently, Coombsville and its bordering areas are home to many wineries producing this varietal, and the vast majority of them are small family ventures. From Sciandri to Silverado, Sodaro to Jarvis, the area can be a study in Cabernet Sauvignon handcrafted in limited quantities.
Fun Fact: Just 4% of California's Wine is grown in Napa Valley.
Famous Varietals: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
- Alexander Valley
- Dry Creek Valley
- Sonoma Coast
- Chalk Hill
- Russian River Valley
- Green Valley
- Sonoma Valley
- Bennett Valley
- Sonoma Mountain
- Los Carneros
- Knights Valley
Ah, Sonoma. What a wonderland of wine this California wine region is, in so many ways. Shall we count them?
1. It’s hot. And it’s not: Way back when, wine lovers thought only Carneros was the cat’s pajamas for cold climate wines like Pinot Noir. Then along came the Sonoma Coast appellation with AVAs like foggy Freestone for top tier cold climate varieties like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Meanwhile, in places like Sonoma Valley, Alexander Valley and Dry Creek Valley, sun and heat welcome warmer climate wine arieties like Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Unlike Napa, a straight up 30-mile long valley, Sonoma has all these pockets of terroir spread from Carneros, then inland, then up the coast. Napa is a symphony. Sonoma is a parade.
2. Little Burgs with Character: Sonoma has some of California’s most charming little wine country burgs. And they’re all different. Healdsburg, with its compact square and dozens of trendy shops and restaurants, has a completely different vibe than Sonoma Square, where Old California history rubs shoulders with viticulturists in overalls and tourists toting cameras. Sebastopol is artsy, Guerneville is more rugged and forested, Occidental is a Zen spot of contemplation, Petaluma is hoppin’ — it is rare for one county to offer so many distinctive wine country enclaves where you can sip and enjoy its fabulous wines.
3. Sonoma is Queen of Cabernet Sauvignon: If Napa is the King of Cab, then Sonoma surely is its queen. There are numerous world-class Cabsernets coming out of Sonoma, including those from Silver Oak Cellars and Rodney Strong in Alexander Valley and Arrowood and Benziger in Sonoma Valley. Twenty percent of Sonoma’s wine production is Cabernet Sauvignon, with 12,000 acres planted. Toast the Queen, with a royal bottling from one of California’s most fascinating AVAs – Sonoma County.
Spotlight on Knights Valley: Situated just north of Calistoga and east of Alexander Valley, Knights Valley is protected from the marine influence of the Pacific Ocean, making it the warmest AVA in Sonoma County. The soil consists of well drained, very gravelly and sandy loams formed from mixed sedimentary and basic rock. The unique topography and soil content create ideal conditions for growing the famed red wine grapes of France’s Bordeaux region.
Spotlight on Sonoma Coast: "It’s an area defined by cooler days, warmer nights, and very high sun intensity, which produces a wine with unctuous fruit depth and rugged tannins," says Steve Dutton, of Dutton-Goldfield Winery.
Encompassing parts of 8 counties and more than 2.5 million acres, the Sierra Foothills wine appellation can seem daunting. A great place to dig into its fascinating Gold Rush history and excellent wine is El Dorado County’s Placerville (for history) and Apple Hill (for wine).
Famous Varietal: Zinfandel
- El Dorado
- Shenandoah Valley
- North Yuba
Of California’s mountain wine regions, the Sierra Foothills is, of course, a stand out. We can’t state the case better than Charles Olken does in The New Connoisseurs’ Guidebook to California Wine & Wineries (a terrific book, by the way):
“It’s almost impossible to live in California and not be in love with the Sierra Foothills. It is the most relaxed, scenic, accessible pathway to California’s rustic, romantic past, and whether one goes up out of the flatlands to swim and hike or to visit the home of the Gold Rush or to forage in the endless supply of antiques shops in small towns that look like they have not changed since the gaslight era, the Sierra Foothills is a place of endless allure, and, not insignificantly, boasts a small but important supply of good, hearty wine and some hundred wineries … this is the land of the rich, tasty, full-bodied red wine …”
Spotlight on Calaveras County:
- Panning for gold? Check.
- River rafting? Check.
- Historic towns to discover? Check.
- Beautiful parks? Check.
- World-class wines? Big CHECK!
Calaveras County has it all. Laid back wine tasting, hiking & biking, fun activities for kids (this may be the MOST kid-friendly California wine region), and a much more relaxed vibe than Napa. And did we mention outstanding wines? It is just a one and half hour drive from Sacramento, but it is a world away.
Fun Fact: Bill Easton’s Terre Rouge Ascent Syrah is consistently the highest rated wine in California’s vast Sierra Foothills appellation.
The Central Valley is not an AVA unto itself, but this California wine region, which encompasses the San Joaquin and Sacramento Valleys, grows 70% of California's grapes.
Famous Varietal: Zinfandel
AVA to Know: Lodi
While vineyards have flourished in Lodi since the mid-19th century, in 1990, there were only eight wineries in Lodi. The fantastic fruit grown there was being bought up by wineries in Napa and Sonoma. “But now, many growers are becoming wineries themselves in a small way by setting up tasting rooms on their properties,” says Rodney Schatz, third generation viticulturalist and co-founder, with wife Gayla, of Peltier Winery & Vineyards. “In Lodi, we have a unique situation, with multi-generation families saying, we can showcase our own wines ourselves.” There are now 80+ wineries in Lodi.
Love big reds? Lodi’s got ’em. More than 30% of California’s premium Zinfandel is grown in Lodi. Their famed Old Vine Zinfandel gets its jammy goodness from their aging vines, some planted as far back as 1888. As vines age, they naturally produce less fruit with more flavor concentration. This area is also well known for its amazing Cabernets (often very well priced when compared to Napa Cabs). “Our warm days and very cool nights are perfect for this varietal,” says Peltier Winemaker Susana Rodriguez Vasquez. Love whites? Top notch Chardonnay is made here as well. But this is also a great place to explore your wine loving palate. They have 100+ wine grapes in production, including German, Portuguese and Spanish varietals. The Lodi Wine Commission, a collection of growers, drives the push for quality and single-vineyard bottlings.
This California wine region stretches from San Francisco to Los Angeles. On the Central Coast of California there are a few American Viticulture Areas wine lovers should know about. Between Middle and Southern Central Coast the key wine regions are Paso Robles, York Mountains, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande, Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley.
SAN FRANCISCO BAY
Famous Varietals: Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir
- Santa Cruz Mountains
- Livermore Valley
- Santa Clara Valley
Spotlight on Santa Cruz: Tucked away just 70 miles south of San Francisco, Santa Cruz County offers a serene retreat and a sense of remoteness, heightened by the region’s turbulent cliffs and gullies and steep hillsides.
From the rugged ridge of the Santa Cruz Mountains, visitors can view the Santa Clara Valley (also known as the Silicon Valley) on one side. On the other side, Monterey Bay sweeps in a graceful arc below, sometimes shrouded by fog, sometimes brilliantly blue, always framed by the redwoods and Douglas firs abundant in these mountains.
Huge stands of redwoods, deep canyons, sunlit meadows, ocean vistas, the charming University town of Santa Cruz, and old Victorians round out the County’s versatile attractions, providing something for everyone who loves beautiful surroundings.
Because of its cool sea breezes and fog, mountainous terrain, and variety of soils, Santa Cruz has been a wine producing area since the late 1800s. But few local wineries survived Prohibition. During the forties, a handful of winemaking pioneers settled in to win kudos for the region’s intensely flavored varietals.
In 1981, the County became one of the first American viticultural areas to be designated an appellation. The boundaries of the Santa Cruz appellation extend from Mt. Madonna in the south to Half Moon Bay in the north. East and west, the boundary lines touch the 800 foot and 400 foot elevation lines respectively.
The Santa Cruz Mountains are the only California appellation (or perhaps, only one of two, if we count Malibu) where Cabernet is grown on the Coast with stellar results. Located just south of San Francisco, this is an historic winemaking region, with winemaking going back 100 years. Monte Bello produced world class Cabernet Sauvignon here, and Martin Ray became one of the first California winemakers to focus on 100% varietal wines. David Bruce Winery, Ridge Vineyards … this is an appellation of pioneers who weren’t seeking gold in the rivers, but instead, Gold Medals for their wine from the Santa Cruz Mountains.
Established as an official appellation in 1981, these mountains encompass 480,000 acres, cover three counties and rise to 2,600 feet. Santa Cruz Mountains was one of the first American appellations to be defined as such by its mountainous terrain.
Don’t expect to explore Santa Cruz Mountains quickly or thoroughly. The roads are winding, often steep. Wineries are spread out from the foothills to the mountaintops, Corralitos to Hollister. But you’ll enjoy some great views as you wine taste, and great wines too. The region is known for Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Zinfandel and Rhone wines. A cool side and a warmer side allows wine variety.
Activities here center around the beach. You can surf (or watch the surfers at Pleasure Point, 41st Ave.), beach walk or ride bicycles on the strand. You can ride a wooden roller coaster or a carousel with a real brass ring dispenser on the boardwalk or walk the pier. You can also check out the state parks (this is redwood country) for hiking and biking.
Famous Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Merlot
- Santa Lucia Highlands
- Carmel Valley
- Arroyo Seco
Whale watching in the Monterey Bay happens April through November – a wine country first! Amongst the larger Monterey appellation, there are 8 sub AVAs that each have distinguishable characteristics that define that specific area.
Spotlight on Arroyo Seco: One of the smallest AVAs in Monterey, covering approximately 18,000 acres, fruit from this AVA is difficult to secure and highly prized. Arroyo Seco is nestled between Greenfield and Soledad. This appellation includes a wide variety of topography, perfectly positioned against the Santa Lucia Mountains then opening up into a valley. The topography of the AVA is an enabling factor of the variety of micro-climates and soil. The mountain range protects the vines in the heart of the valley from the cool Pacific Ocean breeze, while moving east the cool breeze gains access to the valley floor. The soil throughout the valley is also varied; the soil closer to the valley floor is stubborn and forces the vines to dig deep for nutrients. This type of soil and micro-climate create an ideal environment for Rhone and Bordeaux varietals. The eastern part of the appellation is well-suited to cool-loving varietals, including Chardonnay and Riesling. Chardonnay from Arroyo Seco often shows distinct melon and apricot flavors. Although Arroyo Seco is small in acreage compared to other California AVAs this area has the spirit and strength to take on anything that comes its way.
SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY
Famous Varietals: Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Rhône-Style Varietals
- Paso Robles
- York Mountain
- Edna Valley
- Arroyo Grande Valley
- San Luis Obispo proper lies between Santa Maria and Paso Robles and is comprised of two of the key wine regions; Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande. The nearby Pacific ocean is a key influencer in both AVAs, and actually helps make the Edna Valley the coolest AVA in California.
Spotlight on Paso Robles: Paso Robles encompasses a very large stretch of California, thankfully, as it is a very fast growing part of California’s wine scene. In 1983, Castoro Cellars became only the 13th bonded winery in Paso. Today, more than 200 wineries call this part of the central coast home. So beyond great wines, what’s to love about Paso?
1. It’s a Festival Fan: Though it is off the beaten track mid-way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Paso Robles turned itself into an early center for significant wine festivals. In fact, its annual Paso Robles Wine Festival may boast more visitors than any other such event in California. It also hosts Hospice du Rhône: This festival was precocious, one of the first to feature international winemakers. It premiered in 1993. Billed as a “rad and Rhoney weekend,” it welcomes local and international Rhône producers “and the largest collection of Rhône variety wines on the planet.”
2. It’s the Water Conservation Epicenter: “Technically, our last drought was erased with 2018's winter rain, but we are still in conservation mode,” says Le Vigne Winemaker Michael Barreto, who has worked with Paso Robles terroir for 15 years. “No one has come up with solutions to water shortages; hopefully this respite from drought won’t cause people to get lazy about conserving water. I’m pretty sure we will move forward with a solution.” A solution is needed: with the thousands of acres of vines dotting Paso Robles countryside, there are many “straws” reaching down to the water table.
3. It has a Sudden Deluge of AVAs: When touring Paso Robles wine country, you may cross boundaries of appellations that did not exist until very recently. First designated in 1983, the Paso Robles AVA had just one appellation until 2014 when the federal government designated a whopping 11 more. This flood of appellations was a long time coming, but by and large, local winemakers are thrilled.
Fun Tip: The delightful, artsy village of Cambria is about 40 minutes from downtown Paso, through the Templeton Gap down to the sea, a gorgeous drive.
Spotlight on Edna Valley: Located just north of the small town of Arroyo Grande. It runs northwest to southwest just a few miles from the Pacific Ocean. Encompassing approximately 21,000 acres, this appellation supports a vast array of varietals including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Syrah, Grenache, Riesling and Viognier. However, because it is such a cool growing region, the most widely planted varietals are Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. The valley is surrounded by volcanic mountains that contribute to the soil by providing dark humus and rich clay that enhances the shale and coarse sand brought in by the ocean. The soil, climate and elevation bring balance to the grapes by balancing the complexity of the sugar and acidity. The cool ocean breeze and marine layer makes its way through Los Osos and Morro Bay and brings a damp breeze to the vines. This gives the fruit and the resulting wines a distinctive crispness and energy.
SANTA BARBARA COUNTY
Famous Varietals: Syrah, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay
- Santa Maria Valley
- Santa Ynez Valley
- Sta. Rita Hills
Santa Barbara’s wine country is spread out like a beach blanket, scattered for 50 miles from the seaside (the “Funk Zone” Urban Wine Trail) to the county’s far north (Foxen Wine Trail). Think WEST for cool-climate Burgundies (Pinot Noir & Chardonnay), EAST for warmth loving Bordeaux (Cab & Merlot) and all around for Syrah.
So what’s the best way to maneuver such a vast wine country?
Slowly, says Taylor Hart of the Santa Barbara Vintners Association (SBVA). “You can’t do everything in one day—don’t even try.”
Santa Barbara’s signature wines are Pinot Noir and Rhone-style wines like Syrah, Viognier, Grenache and more. Yet, despite the first vineyard being planted in 1964, it wasn’t until the early 2000s that Santa Barbara found its groove.
Why? The terroir of Santa Ynez Valley complicated the picture for winemakers. The valley has rare, transverse mountain ranges, meaning they run east to west, perpendicular to the ocean. This allows cold ocean air to pour into this valley, obstructed only by topography.
Santa Barbara County is the most outstanding expression of this transverse valley topography. Twenty million years ago, a shift in the tectonic plates redirected the mountains running up the coast from a north-south trajectory to an east-west orientation. The mountains run that way for 50 miles. According to the Wine Institute, “This is the only stretch of land from Alaska to Cape Horn constituting an east-west transverse. The unique topography allows the flow of fog and ocean breezes to shape distinct micro-climates and makes the region one of the coolest viticultural areas in California.”
Spotlight on Sta. Rita Hills: "The Sta. Rita Hills is one of the finest growing regions for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay in the world, with more the 2,100 acres planted to Pinot Noir alone," says Mark Oliver of Windrun Wines. "The Sta. Rita Hills bifurcate the appellation, meaning they split the growing area into two 'branches' or 'forks'.
On the southern side, the Santa Rosa-to-Sweeney-Rd portion of the Sta. Rita Hills is separated from the Highway 246 corridor on the Northern side by a central hill formation. The soils on the southern side tend to be silica-based soils, ranging from diatomaceous earth to shale with varying degrees of clay. The northern side soils are more consistently sandy loom.
Grapes grown on the southern side contain more tannins and have a higher acidity. The wines show more structure or firmness, are more layered, and more tannic. The grapes grown on the northern side generally show more opulence, more fruit, and have softer textures and tannins. The difference in taste is quite evident.
Of course, climate plays a big part in affecting the character of the grapes. The Sta. Rita Hills is part of a unique west-east transverse range, which funnels cool morning and evening air from the Pacific to the interior of the southern and northern sides, and further into the Santa Ynez Valley proper. These cool wind conditions are ideal for the slow-growing Pinot Noir and Chardonnay grapes."
What is California wine country’s best-kept secret? It’s the fun wine lovers discover in Temecula. This California wine region is a compact valley with only 40+ wineries just north of San Diego.
Famous Varietal: Syrah
AVA to Know: Temecula
Temecula is a ferment of winery wedding venues, restaurants, music festivals and more.
Why is it great for wine grapes? Two gaps in the north-south coastal mountain range –the Rainbow Gap and The Santa Margarita Gap—allow cooling influence from the Pacific Ocean 22 miles from Temecula to moderate its vineyard temperatures. Temecula’s elevation of 1,500 feet is another moderating factor.
Just an hour north of San Diego County, Temecula is typically dry and warm. There is a cooling breeze coming through the gap in the coastal mountains, but this is desert-like territory. Shorts, sleeveless shirts will serve you well. Temecula is upscale wine country. You can wear nice shoes here since hiking on dirt trails will be at a minimum, if at all.