California


California Wine Overview

California’s wine industry is probably the best known (and most written about) in the world of wine. Not only is it synonymous with the state of California, but it’s an economic backbone of the California economy and provider of thousands and thousands of jobs — both directly in the wine industry and closely-related industries — such as travel, tourism, marketing and distribution.

The purpose of our Wine Nomad overview is to highlight the California wine industry in layman’s terms. We don’t want to get too technical, nor can we possibly go into detail about every wine growing region. In fact, it’s always been our thinking process that wine travel is all about exploring and discovering some wonderful surprises along the way. And there’s no better place to discover wine than in California.

To give you an idea of the breadth of California’s wine impact, there are 107 American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, in the state — which are basically defined as completely unique environments for growing grapes. California’s AVAs are scattered all the way from the northern California border, through the famous Napa and Sonoma wine country, down south to the San Diego area. These 107 AVAs represent the majority of all the AVAs in the United States. (There were 206 AVAs in the U.S. as of October 2012.) So it’s no wonder California is the most well known wine-producing area in the United States — and possibly the world.

California owes its wine pedigree to its proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Eight hundred miles of coastline and ocean air combine with warm inland temperatures creating warm days and cool nights — a climate grapes love. Further, the terrain (often called terroir) is decidedly different all across the state, which creates highly unique micro-climates, sometimes very short geographical distances apart. In large part, that is why there are are so many designated AVAs here which are basically defined as completely unique grape-growing environments resulting from differences in climate, soil and altitude.

Practically every type of grape is grown here successfully, from warm climate varieties to cool climate grapes. In California, you’ll find exceptional Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs, along with Cabernets and Merlots and countless other spectacular varieties. One could spend a lifetime visiting and sampling all the different types of wines produced at California wineries. With that said, even a brief discovery of one California wine region is a delightful educational pleasure!

California has 107 American Viticultural Areas, or AVAs, vs. 99 in the rest of the U.S.

California Wine Trails

Perhaps because California is so synonymous with wine, the state hasn’t designated any official wine trails. Certain wine-growing areas have, though, and they’re listed under each region below. California’s travel and tourism agencies heavily promote wine and wineries, so even without a official designated wine trail, there’s plenty of detailed information on traveling from Winery Point A to Winery Point B.

There are hundreds of California wineries, nearly everywhere you turn in the state. And while there is a great deal of cross-promotion, it seems the accepted standard in California is dividing the state into wine-producing regions. Within those regions, there are multiple AVAs and an abundance of wineries. So, for our purposes it is best we follow the same practice and divide the state into wine-producing regions.

There are six distinct California wine producing regions, as defined by the Wine Institute of California, the premier authority on California wine. Those areas are North Coast, Central Coast, Sierra Foothills, Inland Valleys, Southern California and Far North California. Let’s take a closer look at each.

In 2012, 90% of U.S. wine exports were California wines.

North Coast

When people bandy about such terms as “California wine” or “wine country” or “Napa,” they’re referring to this region of California known as the North Coast.

In this area, which includes the famous wine-producing Napa Valley and Sonoma regions, you’ll find more than half of California’s wineries. The actual number changes fairly frequently, but as of 2012 it’s about 265.

The North Coast consists of five defined wine producing areas: Lake County, Los Corneros, Mendocino County, Napa Valley and Sonoma County. This is where you’ll find California’s coolest climate, with ocean breezes interacting with warmer inland temperatures in rich, fertile valleys.

  • Lake County: is best known for two distinct geographical features — Clear Lake, the largest freshwater lake in California and Mt. Konocti, a dormant volcano. The soil here tends to be red and somewhat rocky, a direct result of volcanic activity over the centuries. There are more than 30 wineries and five AVAs in Lake County, which is best known for producing Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. You can find specific details at Lake County Wineries.
  • Los Carneros: (Spanish for “the sheep”) is an area bounded by Sonoma and Napa Counties and is best known for producing sparkling wines as well as the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs that are prevalent in the overall area. Domaine Carneros, located in Napa, is particularly noted for its sparkling wines. Learn more about Domaine Carneros and other wineries at Los Carneros.
  • Mendocino County: Along with Sonoma and Napa, Mendocino County is what many people refer to when they’re talking about California wine. The county itself is known for more than just great wine, though. This is California redwood country, and more than half of Mendocino County is covered in redwood forests. In terms of grape-growing, Mendocino is home to 10 distinct AVAs and more than 100 wineries. Many organic wines are produced here, in addition to familiar vintages of literally dozens of reds and whites. In Mendocino, you’ll find famous wineries like Fetzer, and numerous smaller, boutique-style wineries that are particularly delightful for touring and tasting. This is an absolutely beautiful area and you’re only an hour and a half from San Francisco, so it’s well worth an overnight stay or two. Learn more at Mendocino Wines.
  • Napa Valley: The granddaddy, the heavyweight, the pre-eminent California wine region, and one can perhaps carry these distinctions to say worldwide — Napa Valley is the epicenter of California’s wine industry. There are 16 AVAs here, more than 600 wineries, and almost 50,000 acres of vineyards producing some of the best wine grapes anywhere. It’s no wonder that Napa Valley is one of the United States most prominent and beloved agritourism attractions.One of the (many) reasons why Napa Valley is so popular with wine lovers is that not only is the wine spectacular, the cuisine is as well. Nowhere that we know of will you find such exquisite attention to the blissful marriage of wine and food. Coming here is truly the experience of a lifetime, and with the aforementioned 600+ wineries, it might take a lifetime to truly encompass Napa. Learn more about Napa Valley wines at Napa Vintners.
  • Sonoma County: Best known for its spectacular Pinot Noirs, Sonoma County’s wine scene is in lock step with Napa in terms of appeal. Sonoma County actually has a bit more vineyard acreage than Napa, and is bursting with wineries too — more than 500 are located here. The county is home to a staggering 13 AVAs, and prominent wineries such as Clos du Bois and DeLoach are located here. In addition to Pinot Noir, Sonoma is well known for producing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and of course, Chardonnay wines. Take a virtual tour of Sonoma County at Sonoma Wine.

Central Coast

California’s central coast stretches about 300 miles south from San Francisco Bay down to Santa Barbara, which is a stunning coastal drive along legendary Highway 101. Many of California’s sun kissed oceanside towns run along the Central Coast, one of the reasons why touring this part of California is so popular. From Los Angeles to San Francisco (or the reverse), you will find more attractions than you ever thought possible, most natural and uniquely California. Small cities like Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo and Monterey are known world wide for their cuisine, coastal vibe and hospitality.

Included in the Central Coast’s attractions are, of course, its many wineries. About 200 call this area their home, and they’re scattered across nine distinct growing regions. Many of these growing regions have multiple AVAs, as the terrain is as varied as the California coastline.

The nine wine-producing regions in the Central Coast are: Livermore Valley, Monterey County, Paso Robles, San Benito County, San Francisco Bay, San Luis Obispo County, Santa Barbara County, Santa Clara Country and Santa Cruz Mountains. Let’s explore each one.

  • Livermore Valley: Livermore Valley Wine Country, home to more than 40 wineries, is known as the founding father of Chardonnay. Most Chardonnay grapes can be linked back to this area, where grape-growing began in earnest in the 1840s. This area is a popular wine destination for those living in the Bay Area, as it’s less than a one hour drive to reach here from San Francisco or San Jose. Among the well known and highly respected wineries here are Nottingham Cellars and Eagle Ridge, both noted for their outstanding vintages. You can learn more at Livermore Valley Wine.
  • Monterey County: Monterey County is beloved for more than just wine, although with more than 80 wineries located in the area, it’s a big reason to visit. This beautiful coastal area attracts ocean lovers who revel in the many outdoor and outdoor activities available. Golf is another attraction, with the legendary Pebble Beach course drawing golfers here for almost 100 years. With nine distinct AVAs and more than 40,000 acres of vineyards, there’s ample wine variety available. Over 40 varietals are produced in this 90-mile-long area brimming with unique micro-climates and varied soil conditions. Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio, and Pinot Noir are among the most popular styles you’ll find here, but it’s hardly limited to those three — as is the case in practically every California wine producing region. Interestingly, there is a wide temperature range in this area on a typical summer day. Temperatures can be as much as 40 degrees cooler from the north end of Monterey County to the south end, which is farther away from the ocean. It’s no wonder there’s such a bountiful variety of grapes grown here! Learn more at Monterey Wines.
  • Paso Robles: This is the halfway point between San Francisco and Los Angeles, and the people who live and visit here say it’s a perfect mix between the two. There are more than 180 wineries in this area, which is most known for it’s Rhone varietels. It’s also one of the oldest grape-growing areas in California, as its first vineyards are reported to date back to the 1790s. You’ll find a predominance of red wine production here — Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah being the most abundant. Discover more at Peso Wines.
  • San Benito County: Located adjacent to Highway 101, San Benito County is where you’ll find Pinnacles National Monument, most known as a habitat and breeding ground for the endangered condor species. The small handful of wineries here are best known for producing Syrah and Pinot Noir varieties.
  • San Francisco Bay: As the name suggests, this area encompasses the San Francisco metropolitan area. The “City by the Bay,” Oakland and other suburban areas are surrounded by mountains, valleys and farmland that provide grapes for urban wineries that are ideal to explore if you don’t have the time to venture farther afield.
  • San Luis Obispo County: Most people stop in San Luis Obispo County to visit the legendary Hearst Castle, built by the newspaper magnate of the same name. The town of San Luis Obispo, or SLO for short, is one of the prettiest and most laid back along this stretch of California coastline. SLO County technically encompasses the Paso Robles area (see above) and is tempered by maritime breezes off the coast. It’s about as ideal an environment to grow grapes as anywhere, as these breezes meet up with warmer inland temperatures to create the warm days and cool nights in which grapes thrive. Throughout the county’s wineries, you’ll find a rich array of Rhone, Zinfandel and Chardonnays (again, see Paso Robles) … and quite a few varietels of Pinot Noirs. A good site for more detail on the area is SLO Wine.
  • Santa Barbara County: Driving north toward the coast from Los Angeles, the oceanside small city of Santa Barbara is quintessentially California. There’s a free and easy vibe blending with the inventive cuisine and artistic flair for which the state is known. The county itself is known for turning out some outstanding Pinot Noir, and is home to four AVAs and more than 175 wineries. You’re about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles here, but it may as well be 1,000 miles. The pace is much more relaxed and it’s the beginning of the spectacular journey up the California coast. Santa Barbara is an ideal overnight destination, whether you’re traveling up the coast or just seeking an escape from the hustle and bustle of L.A. Learn more about the Santa Barbara County wine scene at SB County Wines.
  • Santa Clara County: Also known as Silicon Valley, Santa Clara County is the most populated in the greater San Francisco Bay area and probably better known for high tech than growing grapes. That being said, wineries have taken full advantage of the ideal climate conditions here which accounts for the Santa Clara Valley AVA and more than two dozen wineries. The county has a rich wine production and grape growing history.In fact, where Stanford University stands now was once the site of a large vineyard. If you drive around the area, you’ll see many historical nods to former wineries and vineyards in the form of markers and wine-themed street names. Learn more about the history of wine production in Santa Clara County at Santa Clara Wines.
  • Santa Cruz Mountains: This is an area that’s part of — and adjacent to — Santa Clara County. As one would expect from a mountainous area, the climate is cool and the terrain rugged. The Santa Cruz Mountain AVA was one of California’s first, dating back to 1981. This is yet another of California’s very scenic areas. It’s as much hilly as mountainous, and it’s a very green environment. It’s no wonder so many vineyards thrive here in valleys and hillsides, aided by cool ocean air and warmer inland air. In particular, you’ll find the Cabernet Sauvignon from this region quite exceptional. Almost 90 wineries call this area their home. The Santa Cruz Mountains Winegrowers Association hosts the definitive informative site on this area. Generally defined as the east-central part of California, the Sierra Foothills have a different type of climate than its coastal California cousins. Fertile valleys benefit from nearby mountainous terrain, with melting snow bringing new life and new growth … and each of the five counties in this region offer something new and different to wine travelers. From Nevada County in the north to Calaveras County in the southern part of the region, you’ll find ranches, farms, and local vineyards dotting the landscape. While not as well known as other California wine growing regions, the Sierra Foothills boasts an impressive array of mostly under the radar wines.

Sierra Foothills

The Sierra Mountains evoke images of the California Gold Rush, Yosemite National Park, and Lake Tahoe — but not far away in the Sierra Foothills is a thriving grape growing culture and a burgeoning wine scene. Let’s touch upon each of the five counties in the Sierra Foothills region.

  • Amador County: This is Gold Rush country, and reminders still exist in towns like Sutter Creek and others. This is also red grape terroir, with styles like Syrah and Sangiovese commonly produced here. The pace for a wine traveler is much more unhurried and relaxed than in other parts of California, so it’s a great way to experience California wine. Not to mention it’s a little less expensive here than along the coast! Amador County is home to about three dozen wineries, so there’s plenty of touring and tasting to be done … plan your specific wine travel adventure at Amador Wine.
  • Calaveras County: This southern part of the Sierra Foothills is also known for its offerings of deep, rich red wines … you’ll find about two dozen wineries in the county, as well as a distinctly “old California” feel. There’s lots of history here waiting to be discovered, along with groves of giant sequoia trees. The Calaveras WineGrape Alliance offers a passport program for wine travelers and provides details on wineries in Calaveras County.
  • El Dorado County: If the name sounds like an old John Wayne movie, well, the Old West vibe here might make you want to sit down and watch The Duke in action. This is the site of the largest gold vein in California that set off the famous Gold Rush. Now, the pace is much more relaxed, and more than three dozen wineries welcome you to sample their wares. El Dorado County is a prominent Zinfandel grape growing area, so if a good Zin suits your fancy, this is the place to be. In terms of geographics, you’re about an hour’s drive from Sacramento and South Lake Tahoe to reach the heart of El Dorado County’s wine region. If you’re a history buff and enjoy learning about a region’s wine production and grape growing history, you’ll find a great book titled, “Gold and Wine: A History of Winemaking in El Dorado County,” available at El Dorado Wines.
  • Nevada County: Located on the far northern edge of the Sierra Foothills, Nevada County has a relatively small wine industry presence. The county is more scenic and rural than others surrounding it, with ample opportunities for nature lovers to enjoy the sights and sounds. There are a few wineries here though, like Lucchesi Vineyards and Winery, located in Grass Valley. Grass Valley is a great town to visit over a weekend as Grass Valley offers a healthy dose of Old West charm.
  • Placer County: Placer County, home to Lake Tahoe, has had a wine-making presence since gold speculators arrived in the 1840s. Now, in addition to all of Lake Tahoe’s many attractions, almost twenty wineries beckon. In fact, Placer County offers a wine trail consisting of 18 wineries located just 30-45 minutes from Sacramento … learn about Placer County Wine Trail events at Placer Wine.

California’s inland valleys are one of America’s largest agricultural resources.

Inland Valleys

California’s inland valleys are one of the largest agricultural resources in America. Just about everything you can imagine — or put on your dinner plate — grows here in abundance. The area itself stretches about half the length of California in a north-south direction, encompassing the area directly in between the Pacific coast and the Nevada and Arizona borders.

Grapes also thrive in this warm and sunny climate, and the Inland Valleys are divided into four separate wine producing regions: Lodi and The Delta, Madera County, Sacramento Valley and the San Joaquin Valley. Sacramento Valley is the farthest north, and directly to the south is Lodi and The Delta. The two southernmost areas are San Joaquin Valley and finally Madera County, which sits on a north-south parallel with Monterey.

While not as well known as other wine-producing regions, grapes are an important crop. Not all of California’s grapes are used to make wine in California. Many are sold to other wineries across the United States. In fact, it’s quite common for wineries outside of California to make styles that aren’t “native” or indigenous to their growing region; hence, the need for California grapes. At Wine Trails USA, we’re big fans of experiencing and tasting the root of U.S. wines — their terroir, so to speak. That might mean Norton grapes in Missouri or fruit wines in Maine, as you can surmise from the many travelogues on our site.

Nevertheless, many of the grapes grown in the Inland Valleys are in fact used by winemakers located here, so let’s give you an overview of each of the four growing regions.

  • Sacramento Valley: The area surrounding California’s state capital city, Sacramento, is a verdant valley nestled between the Sierra Nevada and California Coastal Range Mountains. Visitors to the area can experience 15 wineries, all within a reasonably short drive from Sacramento, which itself is about a 90 minute drive from San Francisco.
  • Lodi and The Delta: This area, situated directly west of Amador County, is well known for its superior Zinfandel grapes. Many of the wineries are in or near the small city of Lodi, and there’s actually a wine trail which is known as Lodi Wine Country. All told, there are about 60 wineries in the area, which is really too many for one one trail, but there are plenty of other diversions if you spread your winery visits over several weekends or more. Downtown Lodi is a special place to visit and is brimming with specialty shops and historic charm. You can order a free visitors guide and learn more about the area, including its many wineries, at Lodi Wine.
  • San Joaquin Valley: You’d never guess it, but the San Joaquin Valley area has the largest concentration of vineyards in the state (in one defined wine producing region). There are more than 150,000 acres of vineyards here! Everything else grows here too, so much so that the San Joaquin Valley is often called “The Food Basket of the World.” The wide range of crops here is almost dizzying, from fruit to vegetables to garlic to livestock feed like hay and alfalfa. The San Joaquin Valley stretches from the city of Modesto in the north down to the Tehachapi Mountains in the south. There are seven counties in the area, and four distinct AVAs, so it’s clear that wine production is big business here. In fact you’ll find prominent names like E. and J. Gallo are among the roughly 15 wineries found in the valley. One big advantage San Joaquin Valley has over other grape growing regions is the weather. It is very consistent and quite predictable here, which makes it much easier to plan crop yields and maintain consistency from year to year. It’s also why so many wineries across the U.S. buy grapes grown here. Learn more about the San Joaquin Valley at I Drink Wine.
  • Madera County: Known particularly for port and dessert style wines, Madera County has designated a wine trail, appropriately named the Madera Wine Trail. The trail is active with events on weekends throughout the year and the twelve member wineries are located in or in close proximity to the charming town of Madera. A long weekend visit is ideal for visiting all of the wineries and other local attractions like Yosemite National Park, which is close nearby.

Southern California

Sunny southern California evokes images of beaches, sunshine and movie stars … but did you know there are four thriving wine regions in the southern part of The Golden State? The area is much more than beaches and suburban sprawl. The terrain is hilly at minimum and, in many areas, mountainous. The San Gabriel Mountains run north-south through the area, and where there are mountains, there are valleys. And where there are valleys, you’ll usually find grape growing and wine making. Such is the case in southern California, where you’ll find vineyards and wineries in diverse communities producing wines that stand up to any in the state.

Between Los Angeles and San Diego, the ocean brings a climate that is downright Mediterranean. Slightly inland, in places like Temecula, you’ll discover thriving wine regions that are just now beginning to attract the attention of wine publications and the public at large.

The four distinct southern California wine producing areas are Cucamonga Valley, the Los Angeles Area, San Diego County, and the Temecula Valley. Here’s a brief look at each.

  • Cucamonga Valley: About an hour directly east from Los Angeles, Cucamonga Valley was actually a large grape-growing and wine-producing area a century ago. Ranches and farms dotted the landscape, with agriculture being the prime industry. All that changed to an extent, with the pronounced population growth in southern California. But a number of ranches and vineyard survive or have been re-established. Farm wineries are common here, producing in particular Zinfandel styles and also port-style wines.
  • Los Angeles Area: The northwest section of the Los Angeles area is home to beautiful coastal communities, none more iconic than Malibu and Ventura. In addition to the picturesque views and gorgeous homes, there’s an agricultural element here that benefits from the temperate climate, moderated by the Pacific Ocean. There are almost 20 wineries in this immediate area, perched at higher elevations where grape-growing is as natural as the surf pounding the sand on the beaches. The wineries here are highly popular, and it seems each local restaurant (or local resident) has their personal favorite.
  • San Diego County: About two hours south of Los Angeles lies San Diego County, which offers arguably one of the best year-around climates in the United States. Practically twelve months of the year, you’ll enjoy warm days and cool nights. The climate here is not only embraced by those who live here and visitors, but vineyards as well. Known for its Merlot and Chardonnay grapes, San Diego County has the distinction of being the oldest grape growing county in California. Settled by Spanish explorers in the mid-1700s, grapes have been successfully grown here ever since. And with more than 50 wineries, you’ll have no trouble sampling a taste of southern California wines. Many of the wineries are clustered about 30 minutes northeast of San Diego, near the community of Rancho Bernardo. It’s relatively easy to visit a handful in one day, as driving distances are quite manageable. Learn more about San Diego County’s wine at San Diego Wine Tour and San Diego Wine Country, the San Diego County Vintner’s Association website.
  • Temecula Valley: The community of Temecula and the surrounding Temecula Valley is well known to tourists and retirees as a great place to visit. The weather is comfortable all year around, and there’s plenty to see and do. This area is about an hour’s drive from both Orange County and San Diego, so it’s perfect for a day trip or quick overnighter. The valley itself is rural in nature and has a blossoming reputation for producing excellent California wines. The climate here is particularly kind to Italian varietels, and this part of the state has come to be known as “Southern California’s Wine Country.” You’ll find about three dozen wineries, and Temecula Wines offers a very useful self guided tour outline which groups wineries by location and taste interest. It also outlines four wine trails in the valley, which are Calle Contento Wine Trail, De Portola Wine Trail, Rancho California Wine Trail East, and Rancho California Wine Trail West.

Far North California

Far North California, the area approaching the California-Oregon border, is defined as redwood country. Compared to most of the rest of California, this area is somewhat undiscovered and certainly less traversed. The Pacific coastline is among the most spectacular features in this largely rural, yet quite artistic and eclectic part of the state.

Three counties in particular — Shasta, Siskiyou and Humboldt — are known for grape growing and wine production. Because the terrain is so diverse here, there are numerous micro-climates which affect grape growing and the nuances of the fruit. So, expect a fair amount of diversity from winery to winery! And there are plenty of wineries to visit … about 75 roughly … which you can learn more about at Humboldt Wines and at the viticultural site for the Northern California wine region – Shasta Cascade Viticultural Association.

Summary

We hope this page provides you with a general yet comprehensive and complete overview of California’s many wine producing regions. If you have the time and interest, we suggest you delve deeper into one of the many areas listed here and get to know their wineries and the particular regional styles. While it may be impossible to discover all of the California wine gems out there, it sure is fun to try! We also suggest taking advantage of guided tours, which let drivers familiar with the area do the leg work for you. Many of the individual wine sites listed above list wine tour companies that can show you around in comfort.

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