CENTRAL COAST AVA
Wine Country AVA Communities
CENTRAL COAST AVA
California’s Central Coast Wine Regions & AVA’s produce some of California’s most exciting and promising wines. All along the Central Coast, you will find artisan winemakers creating award-winning wines and warmly sharing their craft.
Following the famous El Camino Real “the royal road”, now the Pacific Coast Highway 101, the Central Coast Wine Regions are among the oldest in the state, with vineyards planted by Franciscan monks in the late 1700s.
California Central Coast – Wine Regions & AVA’s
California’s Central Coast (AVA) Wine Region stretches over 300 miles along the California coastline from San Francisco, south to Santa Barbara, and continuing 60 miles inland from the Pacific. The region is planted with over 93,000 acres of vineyards with Chardonnay the most prevalent.
The Central Coast AVA includes portions of 6 counties: Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey, Contra Coast, and Santa Clara Counties and includes over 27 approved unique AVAs (American Viticultural Areas). These AVA’s include award-winning regions such as wine Paso Robles, York Mountains, Edna Valley, Arroyo Grande, Livermore Valley, Santa Clara Valley, Santa Maria Valley, Santa Ynez Valley many other AVA’s
REGIONS AND AVA'S
San Francisco Bay AVA
San Francisco Bay is a large AVA on California’s Central Coast. Due to its size, a huge array of wine styles come from the region, ranging from cool-climate Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinot Noir to rustic, old-vine Zinfandel.
San Francisco Bay AVA is a vast area covering almost 1.5 million acres with 4,215 acres (1,705 hectares) planted to grapevines. It contains several different counties: Alameda, Solano, Contra Costa, San Benito, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz, each with their own distinctive terroir.
The northern point of the AVA lies on San Francisco city, with the Golden Gate Bridge the northernmost point of the AVA along the coast. Contra Costa County and Livermore Valley lie to the east of the wider bay.
Santa Clara County and the Santa Cruz mountains are in the south. Pacheco Pass, sitting at the very southern end of the Santa Clara Valley, marks the southernmost extent of the AVA and spills over into San Benito County.
This large AVA is extremely diverse in terms of terroir, but fog and wind from the cool waters of San Francisco Bay (and Monterey Bay to an extent) unite the region somewhat. These ocean influences are particularly pronounced in the more coastal regions of Santa Cruz and Contra Costa County, but Livermore Valley and Santa Clara Valley are subject to ocean breezes as well.
The effects of warm sunshine are tempered by these breezes, leading to a long ripening season during which grapes can develop complex flavors and aromas while retaining acidity. Consequently, wines produced in the San Francisco Bay AVA are complex and well balanced, and most of the AVAs here are associated with high quality.
is an AVA on the western edge of the Santa Cruz Mountain AVA. It covers an area of nearly 40,000 acres (16,200ha) in the western Santa Cruz Mountain range. The area surrounds the towns of Ben Lomond and Bonny Doon, and the Pacific Coast is on the western edge of the appellation. Elegant, balanced wines made from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are a speciality of the area; Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel count among the grape varieties which are also grown here.
A few wineries are based within the AVA boundaries, but Beauregard Vineyards – a prime mover of the AVA established in 1983 – is the only one regularly selling wine under the Ben Lomond Mountain AVA. Others prefer to use the more famous Santa Cruz Mountain AVA.
Vines were first planted in the area by John Burns, a Scottish settler who named Ben Lomond for the Scottish mountain of the same name. Prohibition largely killed off winemaking in Ben Lomond Mountain for much of the 20th Century, but the American winemaking renaissance of the 1970s saw renewed interest in the area.
Since then, vine damage caused by local wildlife has been a problem on the mountain, as has the bacterial Pierce’s disease, which rapidly kills vines. In fact, the original vineyard of the iconic Bonny Doon brand, which was located in the area, succumbed to Pierce’s disease in the early to mid-1990s, and the McHenry Vineyard had to be replanted.
The mountain is differentiated from the surrounding area by the factors that affect its cool climate – namely altitude and close proximity to the ocean. Most of the vineyards of Ben Lomond Mountain are between 1300ft and 2000ft (400-600m) above sea level, well above the fog that shrouds the lower areas of Santa Cruz. Vineyards are planted on south-facing slopes to maximize the warm sunshine during the day.
Despite this, the region is not free of cooling oceanic influences. With the farthest edge of the AVA just eight miles (13km) from the ocean, Ben Lomond Mountain experiences cold winds from Monterey Bay, which reduces temperatures in the area. This, combined with the altitude of the mountain vineyards, leads to a significant diurnal temperature variation, where warm days are followed by cold nights. This extends the growing season, giving the grapes time to develop ripe fruit flavors without sacrificing acidity. As a result, wines of Ben Lomond Mountain tend to be bright and fresh, with a firm structure.
There is an array of soil types in the area due to the presence of several fault lines, but vineyards can usually be found on eroded granite and sandstone soils, with some pockets of limestone. These soils drain freely, leading to a lack of water in the soil that stresses the vines which in turn lowers yields and reduces vigor.
Morgan’s label Bedrock Wine Co. makes two different Zins from this legendary vineyard (they bought 10 acres of Evangelho back in 2017): a Bedrock Wine Company California Old Vine Zinfandel and a Heritage Wine Zinfandel blend. Both can be purchased through their mailing list with allotments coming out three times per year.
Also in Oakley, Jesse’s Vineyard is named after the original farmer who owned and farmed the vineyard. Both he and his son (also named Jesse) have passed away, and the legendary vineyard has sold off 58 of its original 60 acres of old vines. Shauna Rousenblum, winemaker at Rock Wall Wine Company in Almada considers herself lucky to be one of the wineries that sources their grapes from the Zinfandel vines at Jesse’s Vineyard.
The 2016 Jesse’s Vineyard zinfandel is a single vineyard wine with flavors of ripe cherry pie, cocoa, black tea, sage, milk chocolate, pipe tobacco, and toasted marshmallow with a brambly blackberry finish—this is the type of Zinfandel that makes people love this varietal. You can buy the zin online or at a select few wine shops around the country.Read more about Jesse’s Vineyards Story here
Live Oak Vineyard
Three Wine Company is a family-owned winery with a long history in Contra Costa County. Winemaker Matt Cline’s career began in the ‘80s by helping his brother at his Oakley winery, just before Matt began as winemaker and creative director at Cline Cellars (originally based in Oakley until moving to Sonoma).
Matt is so passionate about Contra Costa County vineyards that in 2014, he aligned with the City of Oakley and a large group of environmental and historical enthusiasts to stand up to the State of California to save the historic and high-quality vineyards along the delta.
The Live Oak vineyard is separated by Live Oak Road in Oakley, making up two small vineyards under the same name. The Mazzoni block is made up of mostly Zinfandel vineyards, but much like many other older Contra Costa County vineyards, the block is home to Petite Sirah, Carignane, Mataro, and Alicante Bouschet, with a few vines of Muscat of Alexandria as well. The one-and-a-half-acre Live Oak block across the street is 100% Zinfandel. Their 2015 Zinfandel Live Oak Contra Costa County can be found online.
Less than an hour east of San Francisco, Livermore Valley Wine Country welcomes visitors with a flourish expanse of vineyards, wineries, and wine country experiences. Amid picturesque canyons, ridges and outposts of suburbia, the lush vines and convivial tasting rooms increasingly define the quality of life in the valley. To the delight of residents and visitors alike, the region is enjoying a wine renaissance harking back to the golden years of early California wine history.
One of California’s oldest wine regions, the Livermore Valley played a pivotal role in shaping California’s wine industry. Spanish missionaries planted the first wine grapes in the Livermore Valley in the 1760s. In the 1840s, California pioneers looking for outstanding vineyard sites began planting grapes in the region. Robert Livermore planted the first commercial vines in the 1840s. Pioneer winemakers C. H. Wente, James Concannon, and Charles Wetmore recognized the area’s winegrowing potential and founded their wineries in the early 1880s.
Livermore Valley captured America’s first international gold medal for wine in 1889 at the Paris Exposition, putting California on the world wine map.
Livermore Valley wineries were the first to bottle varietal labeled Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Petite Sirah. Nearly 80% of California’s Chardonnay vines trace their genetic roots to a Livermore Valley clone. Livermore Valley also boasted more than 50 wineries until Prohibition and contributed significantly to the state’s enology and viticulture that lives on today.
Attracted to the rich winemaking tradition, climate, soil and geography, new winemakers and vineyardists are working alongside fifth generation winegrowers to create this Livermore Valley wine renaissance. The region now has over 40 wineries, with several more about to open, and more than 3,000 acres of vineyards. Wineries vary in size from limited release, 100-case labors of love to 400,000-case industry heavyweights, and grapes range from familiar Merlot and Chardonnay to Italian, Rhone and Spanish varieties. Welcoming tasting rooms showcase award-winning wines and offer year around activities. In addition to the myriad happenings at individual wineries, the Livermore Valley Winegrowers Association sponsors several consumer events each year, showcasing the talent, energy and fine wines of the region.
TERROIR & APPELLATION
Terroir [tair=WAHR] French for “soil” and used in the phrase gout de terroir (“taste of the soil”) to refer to the earthy flavor of some wines. Terroir not only refers to the type of soil (chalky, claylike, gravelly, sandy), but also to other geographic factors that might influence the microclimate encompassed by an area of land including altitude and elevation, amount of sun received by the growing area, fluctuation of both day and night temperatures, wind, amount and timing of rainfall, and water drainage. These geographic conditions, along with the winemaking savoir-faire all contribute to the personality of the wine produced by a region’s terroir.
In the San Francisco Bay appellation, 30 miles east of San Francisco. Both the Livermore Valley and San Francisco Bay appellations are within the larger Central Coast appellation.
Livermore Valley boasts one of the original U.S. appellations granted by the BATF way back in October, 1982. This designation was largely based on the unique, gravel-based soils and the marine winds that are drawn into the valley every afternoon from San Francisco Bay.
The Livermore Valley has an east-west orientation, making it unique among northern California winegrowing regions. It is 15 miles long (east to west), 10 miles wide (north to south), and surrounded by coastal range mountains and foothills.
The east-west orientation of the valley allows the coastal fog and marine breezes to come in from the Pacific Ocean and the San Francisco Bay and cool the valley’s warm air, resulting in warm days and cool nights ideal conditions for producing fully-ripened, balanced fruit.
Primarily gravel with excellent drainage, a soil type that reduces the vines’ vigor and increases flavor concentration in the grapes.
Is a small AVA located in Santa Clara County, California, although its southernmost part lies within San Benito County. The few vineyards within the AVA produce easy-going wines made of Chardonnay, Merlot and Gewurztraminer, usually for local and tourist consumption.
The Pacheco mountain pass is an important (and supposedly haunted) 15-mile (24-km) route through the Diablo Range connecting the San Francisco Bay area to the Central Valley. The vineyards can be found at the southernmost end of the Santa Clara Valley, just a few miles from the equally obscure San Ysidro District AVA.
The topography in the Pacheco Pass is characterized by gently rolling hills. Wind is sucked into the area through the Pajaro River Gap, which opens up to the cold waters of Monterey Bay in the west.
Pacheco Pass also feels warming influences from the hot Central Valley that lies across the Diablo Hills in the east. It is this moderate, transitional climate that makes Pacheco Pass suitable for grape growing – vines that experience warm sunshine and cooling winds have a longer growing season, leading to a greater balance of ripeness and acidity in the grapes.
The only winery in the region is the third-generation Zanger Vineyards, established in 1908. Pacheco Pass was granted AVA status in 1984 after a petition by the Zanger family, and now produces good-quality, everyday wines.
Covering 2,340 acres (950 hectares) at the base of the Diablo Hills, San Ysidro District is an AVA at the southern end of the Santa Clara Valley, California.
Lying just south of the town of Gilroy, San Ysidro also falls within the Santa Clara Valley AVA with the Pacheco Pass AVA found to the southeast. Also on the border of San Benito County, the appellation predominantly supplies quality Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Merlot grapes to wineries in other parts of the Central Coast.
The San Ysidro District title is rarely seen on wine labels.
The region is significantly cooler than the rest of the Santa Clara Valley due to the winds that are funneled through the Pajaro River Gap from Monterey Bay to the west. The deep ocean canyon that runs through Monterey Bay means that the water here is much colder than in San Francisco Bay in the north, and the winds and fog that come from the bay are colder than other Pacific winds in California.
These winds sweep through the vineyards in the afternoon, helping to negate the effects of the morning’s warm sunshine. Vineyards are planted on slopes that face southwest, giving them all-day exposure to the sun.
In all, this ensures that grapes have a longer growing season and can develop rich flavors and aromas while retaining precious acidity.
Soils in San Ysidro District are usually made up of sandy loam and clay. This soil profile allows for excellent drainage while still offering good water retention.
Water runs freely through the sand, keeping the root systems nice and dry, but enough moisture is absorbed by the clay to keep the vines hydrated. Vines grown in free-draining soils produce smaller, more-concentrated berries because there is less water to dilute flavor.
Is an AVA extending south from San Francisco Bay along the edge of the Santa Cruz Mountains. The valley produces premium, concentrated wines made from Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon, but is far more famous for its technology industry – nowadays, Santa Clara Valley is perhaps better known by its adopted name of Silicon Valley.
A part of the larger San Francisco Bay AVA, the Santa Clara Valley AVA spans 332,800 acres (135,000ha) and stretches roughly 70 miles (110km) south from San Francisco. The AVA encompasses the towns of San Jose, Sunnyvale and Saratoga, but most wine production takes place in the southern end of the valley around the town of Morgan Hill, at the entrance to the perpendicular Uvas Valley.
Early explorers in the Santa Clara Valley discovered wild grapes growing on the valley floor and in the neighboring valleys. Uvas Valley was particularly dense with these American grapes, leading explorers to name it uvas, the Spanish word for “grape”. It wasn’t until the late 18th Century that missionaries first planted grapes for the production of wine. During the Gold Rush of the 1850s, European immigrants recognized the potential of the area and began to cultivate French and Italian grape varieties.
Viticulture continued throughout much of the 20th Century, and the area was delimited as an AVA in 1989. However, urban sprawl and industrialization in the past 20 years have taken their toll on the wine industry here, and wine production has been pushed into the southern end of the valley. Most wineries are small in size and boutique in nature, although a few larger ones remain in the northern part of the valley. This is not an uncommon situation in California – Contra Costa County, Livermore Valley, and Cucamonga Valley near Los Angeles have all suffered similar fates.
Most of Santa Clara Valley’s vineyards can be found in the eastern foothills of the Santa Cruz mountain range, and benefit from a variety of aspects and inclines that take advantage of prevailing sunlight. Soils in the area are generally made up of gravelly loam, clay and sandstone. These free-draining soils are excellent for vineyards – by limiting water intake, they cause stress in the vines, leading to less vigor and lower grape yields.
Santa Clara Valley is relatively warm by San Franciscan standards, due to the sheltering influence of the Santa Cruz mountains. The climate can be classified as Mediterranean, and the region enjoys warm days and moderate evenings, cooled by sea breezes from the San Francisco Bay. Early-morning fog settles in the vineyards of Santa Clara Valley, helping to cool the grapes before burning off later in the day. These ocean influences serve to extend the growing season, which helps grapes to achieve phenolic ripeness while retaining a good level of acidity.
Along with Facebook and Google, Santa Clara Valley is home to some of the oldest Zinfandel vineyards in California. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sangiovese can also be found in the valley.
Is, as its name suggests, a mountainous AVA that sits between Monterey Bay and San Francisco. The rugged terroir in the mountains can be extremely trying for vignerons, but those who persevere are rewarded with some of California’s most celebrated wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon.
The AVA covers a huge tract of land in the Santa Cruz Mountain range, including its eponymous county, and spilling into San Mateo and Santa Clara counties in the north and east respectively. Given the inhospitable nature of the land, vineyards cover only a small percentage of the AVA, and are mostly planted at higher altitudes on a variety of different aspects.
Pioneering vignerons began planting land in this troublesome terroir in the 1880s, led by Osea Perrone of Ridge Vineyards (producers of the iconic Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello). After a period of dormancy during the Prohibition era, viticulture began to pick up again in the 1940s.
Santa Cruz Mountains was given its AVA status in 1981, and was the first AVA to be recognized for its altitude. Today, a handful of top producers make premium wines in the appellation.
Individual and site-specific mesoclimates are an important part of the terroir here. Vineyards planted on western slopes feel the cooling effects of strong winds from the Pacific Ocean. Further inland, vineyards planted on east-facing slopes get some protection from the ocean and are therefore much warmer.
Much like the mountainous Mendocino Ridge AVA in the north, the region’s best vineyards are planted on steep ridges well above the reaches of the fog that covers the lower valleys. Exposure to intense sunlight is cooled by prevailing ocean breezes, creating a long, cool growing season. The resultant wines have rich varietal character and firm, structured acidity.
Several fault lines run through the Santa Cruz Mountains, resulting in significant variations in the largely thin and infertile soil – even from one vineyard to the next. Soils made of clay and Franciscan shale can be found layered over bedrock made of decomposing limestone.
The combination of these free-draining soils and the exposure to wind and sunshine causes stress in the vines, leading to small, concentrated berries and lower yields.
Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is the coldest Cabernet Sauvignon-producing region in California. The cool climate – especially closer to the coast – is more classically suited to the Burgundy varieties of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, which also thrive here.
Monterey County, on California’s Central Coast, is a relatively new addition to the United States’ wine map. It was only in the 1960s that commercial-scale viticulture began to take off here, when the Salinas Valley became the place to plant vines on this stretch of the Californian coastline. The wide array of terroir means that a diverse range of wines are produced in the region, most notably from Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
Monterey County roughly follows the path of the Salinas Valley, which stretches approximately 90 miles (145km) from Monterey Bay to the edge of San Luis Obispo County in the south. The valley is bordered by the Galiban Mountains in the east and the Santa Lucia Mountains which run down the edge of the Pacific Coast.
The AVAs in Monterey County can be categorized into three groups: those in the Santa Lucia Mountains, those in the Salinas Valley, and those in the inland Galiban range.
The Salinas Valley, through which the Salinas river flows, is the engine room of Monterey County. It is here along the valley floor where most of the AVA’s vines are planted (including the sizable single-vineyard San Bernabe AVA). San Lucas, Santa Lucia Highlands and Arroyo Seco can also be found along the path of the river and stretching up into the eastern foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains.
The Salinas Valley has a rich agricultural history, and is the setting for many of John Steinbeck’s most famous novels, including East of Eden and Of Mice and Men.
Monterey Bay in the north renders much of the Salinas Valley cold and windy; the presence of a deep ocean canyon in the bay means that the water here is much colder than in San Francisco Bay in the north. Wind and fog is funneled into the valley cooling the vineyards, and this (combined with low rainfall) means that the growing season here is one of the longest in the world.
This is excellent for cool-climate varieties such as Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling. The effects of this wind is diminished as the Salinas Valley cuts inland, and wines produced in the southern end of the valley tend to be full and rich rather than light and crisp.
The Santa Lucia Mountains along the southwestern edge of the county (home to the famous Big Sur coastline) boast several sub-AVAs where altitude has more of an effect on the terroir than the Salinas winds. Carmel Valley, Hames Valley and San Antonio Valley all enjoy a warmer climate, but one with a pronounced diurnal temperature variation.
These mountain AVAs are better suited to the production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.
Altitude is similarly important in the Chalone AVA in the Galiban Mountains, on the opposite side of the valley to the Santa Lucia Highlands. However, the Salinas winds that are felt here make the region somewhat cooler than the Santa Lucia Mountains.
Chalone is often cited as California’s answer to Burgundy due to the similarities in soil and climate, and the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir made here are held in high regard.
Despite the size and topographical diversity of Monterey County, the soils here are mostly loam, albeit of different depths and origins. Sandy loam and gravel can be found along the valley floor, while the mountains have thinner soils of decomposed granite, chalky limestone and shale. These loam soils are much lauded by vignerons as they offer well-drained, premium sites for viticulture.
Monterey County became an AVA in 1984, and since then has become one of California’s most respected cool-climate viticultural areas.
Arroyo Seco is an AVA in the middle of the Salinas Valley in Monterey County, California. Its cool climate means it is blessed with one of the longest growing seasons in California, making it well suited to the production of premium wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Riesling. Arroyo Seco wines are highly respected by critics but not well known by consumers.
The Arroyo Seco River, an eastward-flowing tributary of the larger Salinas River, cuts a narrow gorge into the Santa Lucia mountains just southwest of the town of Greenfield. The AVA covers a long, thin sliver of land inside the gorge starting roughly around the settlement of Sycamore Flat and running due east before fanning out in the flat valley floor to take in the area around Greenfield and stretching out towards Soledad, nine miles (14km) northwest.
There are two distinct climate zones in Arroyo Seco. The flat valley land surrounding Greenfield is cool and foggy, benefiting from the afternoon winds that are funneled down the Salinas Valley from the Pacific Ocean.
This part of Arroyo Seco, whose northwestern boundary borders the thin Santa Lucia Highlands AVA, is also cooled by the fog that is such an important part of the terroir in Monterey. The cool climate means that ripening is extremely slow: sometimes harvest does not take place until November.
The soils in the eastern part of Arroyo Seco complement the climate perfectly. They often comprise distinctive gravelly and sandy loam earth from old river beds. Large river stones, affectionately known locally as ‘Greenfield Potatoes’, retain heat from the sun during the day to be absorbed by the vines during the much-cooler nights, ensuring that the grapes don’t freeze.
The situation is rather different in the western part of the AVA, where the narrow gorge provides shelter from the prevailing Salinas winds and reflective cliffs bounce sunlight onto the vines. Average temperatures in the gorge are slightly higher, and the traditional Bordeaux grape varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot do well here.
The soils here are shallow and infertile, causing the vines to struggle for survival as they work hard for water and nutrients.
Arroyo Seco (meaning ‘dry creek’) was given AVA status in 1983. The high quality of the region’s grapes, however, has prompted outside wine producers to source fruit from Arroyo Seco to be sold under the larger Central Coast and California AVAs.
Consequently, wines carrying the Arroyo Seco AVA on their label are not as well known to consumers, despite their high regard.
Carmel Valley is an AVA within the larger Monterey County AVA 100 miles (160km) south of San Francisco. Located in a narrow valley that runs south from Monterey Bay into the Santa Lucia mountains, the AVA is responsible for some of the best Cabernet Sauvignon wines made in the county.
There are two distinct viticultural areas within the Carmel Valley AVA. Most vineyards sit on the slopes of Cachagua Valley in the southern reaches of the zone. The mountainous terroir here is well suited to the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which make up the majority of plantings in the AVA.
Vineyards in this part of the Carmel Valley are subject to a warmer mesoclimate than other regions in Monterey. Site selection that takes altitude and aspect into account provides vignerons with a way to protect their vineyards from the prevailing winds and can ensure that the fog which sometimes covers the lower valley does not reach high enough to affect estates here.
Vines in Carmel Valley can reach altitudes of up to 2200ft (670m). This means that while daytime temperatures are heightened by more intense sunlight, night-time temperatures can be significantly lower. This diurnal temperature variation is one of the biggest in Monterey, and the lengthened ripening period it causes brings flavor complexity to the grapes.
The soils, made of sandy and gravelly loam, are nutrient-poor and free-draining, causing the vines to struggle and grow deep root systems to access water in the ground. These deep-rooted vines tend to be healthier and stronger and can produce grapes with a greater concentration of flavor.
Vines can also be found in the lower-lying areas surrounding the town of Carmel Valley in the north of the AVA. Here, cooling winds and fog that are funneled up the valley from the Pacific Ocean cause lower overall temperatures and make the area well suited to the production of cool-climate varieties such as Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
Chalone is an isolated AVA clinging to the side of the Gabilan Mountain range in California’s Monterey County. Located about halfway up the eastern side of the Salinas Valley, the unique area is home to the production of some of California’s most prestigious wines made from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
The star of Chalone’s terroir is undoubtedly the soils. The shifting San Andreas Fault that runs through this part of California has deposited decomposed granite soils in the area, and this is complemented by pockets of limestone, which come from decayed marine organisms from an ancient sea floor.
The soil profile in Chalone is often compared favorably to that of Burgundy. It is shallow, dry and free-draining – perfect for the cultivation of premium fruit.
Vines have to struggle for survival, producing small, thickly skinned berries that can have an excellent concentration of flavor. Much has been made of the translation of these soils into the wine itself; it is often said that flinty, stony characters in the wines come directly from the influence of the ground in which they are grown.
The effects of terroir in Chalone are amplified by the dry, windy climate. While the area is exposed to intense sunshine, high altitudes and cold breezes from the nearby Monterey Bay keep it cool enough to produce elegant wines.
A huge fluctuation in temperature between day and night effectively slows ripening, letting the berries develop rich aromatics and flavors while retaining good acidity. The wind also helps to keep the bunches free from rot and additionally stresses the grapes, contributing to their smaller size.
Vines were first planted in Chalone in the early 1900s by a French immigrant who was inspired by the potential of the region for the production of the Burgundy varieties. Chalone gained prestige in 1976 when a Chalone Chardonnay placed highly in the famous Paris Judgment, and the region was granted AVA status in 1982.
Hames Valley is an AVA in the south of Monterey County. It is located at the end of the long Salinas Valley that runs southward from Monterey Bay toward San Luis Obispo County. Big, full-flavored wines made from Syrah and Petite Sarah are a speciality of the area.
Hames Valley received AVA approval in 1994 and currently has 2,000 acres (809 hectares) currently planted to vineyards. Located in the southeast foothills of the Santa Lucia Mountains, Hames Valley lies just west of the town of Bradley and about 20 miles (32km) north of the Paso Robles AVA.
Hames Valley is too far away from Monterey Bay to feel the influence of the winds that are funneled down the Salinas Valley from the Pacific Ocean. Consequently, Hames Valley has one of the hottest and driest climates of Monterey.
The diurnal temperature variation is an important feature of the terroir. During the growing season, hot days are followed by significantly cooler nights, sometimes dropping up to 50°F (38°C) in temperature. This cooling-off period slows ripening in the grapes, giving them time to develop rich aromatics without sacrificing essential acidity.
The free-draining soils are made of loam with pockets of rockier shale. Fracture lines in the soil allow root systems to penetrate deep into the ground for water and nutrients.
These soils, when combined with the low rainfall in Hames Valley, encourage low yields and small berries with a high skin-to-juice ratio. The resultant wines are rich and concentrated with firm tannins and intense, bold flavors.
Other wines produced in Hames Valley include Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Zinfandel, and some port-style fortified wines made from Touriga Nacional and Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo).
The Monterey AVA is a long, thin viticultural area in California’s Central Coast wine region. The AVA traces the Salinas river valley from the San Luis Obispo county line in the southeast to the river’s mouth 90 miles (145km) in the northwest. Although within the Monterey County, the Monterey AVA is a separate area, covering a total of 640,000 acres (259,000 hectares).
Granted an AVA in 1983, Monterey now has a total of 40,000 acres (16,200 hectares) planted to grapevines. The valley floor is in classic Californian style, flat and several miles wide creating ideal topography for grapevines. It runs between the Gabilan Mountains and the Sierra de Salinas acting as a natural funnel, drawing cool air inland from the coast. Fog and cool breezes are a vital part of the Monterey terroir, just as they are further north in Napa and Sonoma valleys.
As the largest of all of the AVAs, the region is home to considerable variations in microclimates and soil types. Dominate soil types are loam based. In areas closer to the cold Pacific Ocean, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay are the predominant varieties, while warmer pockets further south have more plantings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel. Chardonnay is the predominate variety of the region composing approximately 50 percent of the vines in production.
The Salinas is the largest river of the central coast of California and is vital to the success of viticulture in the area. It stretches for 170 miles (270km), draining a land area of 4160 square miles (10,774 square km). On its route between the Los Padres National Forest and the Pacific, it passes through Paso Robles and San Lucas before it even reaches the Monterey County line. Once north of the border the river runs through the heart of the Hames Valley, San Bernabe and Arroyo Seco AVAs, and the Monterey AVA.
San Antonio Valley is an AVA in the southern reaches of the Santa Lucia Mountains in Monterey County, California. This bowl-shaped mountain valley enjoys a warm, dry climate and produces distinctively intense wines from the Bordeaux and Rhône varieties, particularly Cabernet Sauvignon.
The valley is located about 10 miles (16 kilometers) southwest from, and parallel to, the upper Salinas Valley, where most of the wine production in Monterey takes place. San Antonio Valley is a watershed for the San Antonio River, which flows into Lake San Antonio at the southern end of the valley. The Pacific coast is 15 miles (24km) further southwest.
While still within Monterey, the region is relatively isolated from the main zones of production, much like the (similarly parallel) Carmel Valley to the northwest. Only the small Hames Valley in the south forms a bridge between San Antonio and the wider Salinas Valley zone. San Luis Obispo County, and Paso Robles, lie to the southeast.
San Antonio Valley’s sheltered position away from the cold winds that buffet the Salinas Valley means that it is considerably warmer and drier than much of Monterey. However, some cool ocean breezes make their way into the valley in the afternoons, and a cooling morning fog is sometimes produced by Lake San Antonio.
The relatively high altitude of the vineyards, between 500ft and 2000ft (150-600m) above sea level, means that intense sunlight during the day is followed by much colder nights and mornings. This diurnal temperature shift ensures that grapes are given a cooling-off period each day, extending the growing season and allowing for the development of rich fruit characters in the grapes without sacrificing acidity.
The area’s soils are alluvial, deposited over time by the San Antonio River. Made up of clay, loam and gravel, they are free-draining and fairly deep in parts.
Winemaking came to the San Antonio Valley in the 1770s via the “padres” of the San Antonio Mission. However, the area came into fashion as a modern wine-producing region only in the late 1990s, and was given AVA status in 2006. Many small, boutique producers can be found in the valley making inky, concentrated wines from Petite Sirah, Grenache and Syrah, along with Cabernet Sauvignon.
San Antonio Valley should not be confused with the San Antonio Valley wine region in Chile.
San Bernabe is a single-vineyard AVA in the southern part of the Salinas Valley in Monterey, California. This 5,000 acre (2,000 hectare) wine estate is said to be one of the largest in the world and is home to a diverse range of soil types, mesoclimates and grape varieties.
The AVA covers a tract of land that extends from the Salinas River in the east to the foothills of the Santa Lucia mountains in the west. San Bernabe is open to the cooling breezes and sea fogs that are funneled down the Salinas Valley from the cold Monterey Bay, but it is far enough down the valley that these influences are only moderate.
Today, the San Bernabe vineyard produces grapes for a variety of wines that are sold under the larger Monterey County AVA. The estate is home to a diverse array of soil types, with sandy loam being the most prevalent. These sandy soils are free-draining, causing the vines to develop deep root systems, leading to healthier, stronger plants to produce concentrated flavor components.
There are a range of mesoclimates in San Bernabe, ranging from cooler conditions in the northern part of the vineyard (where the ocean influences are more pronounced) to warmer conditions in the south. Temperature can vary up to five degrees from the north to the south end of the site.
As a result, the estate is home to both warm and cool climate varieties: not many vineyards in the world boast plantings of both Riesling and Zinfandel. The combination of warm days and cool nights across the whole area leads to a longer growing season, allowing grapes to develop varietal character while retaining acidity.
A total of 21 varieties can be found in the vineyard, from the classic Californian growers’ favorites of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon to some more unusual plantings of Malvasia, Barbera and Lagrein.
San Bernabe was home to California’s third Catholic mission station in the 1770s, and in 1842, the land was granted to a retired commander, Petronillo Rios. Rios planted vineyards around his home and was the first to make wine in the area.
In the 1980s, the land was bought by Delicato Family Vineyards, which spent 10 years replanting the estate and reviving the area. San Bernabe was granted AVA status in 2004, separating it from the San Lucas AVA in the southeast.
San Benito County
The San Benito County AVA, an inland portion of California’s Central Coast wine region, lies wedged between the Gabilan mountain ranges (to the west) and the southern end of the Diablo Mountains (to the east). It is home to a small cluster of sub-AVAs (Mount Harlan, Cienega Valley, Lime Kiln Valley, San Benito and Paicines), located mostly at its lower-lying northern end.
San Benito County has a relatively moderate climate, particularly in the northern half where the majority of its vineyards are located. Pacific winds find their way to the San Benito river valley from Monterey Bay and through gaps in the Gablian ranges, cooling and refreshing the vines on hot summer days.
Vines were first planted here in the 1850s by a French immigrant named Theophile Vache, who established a vineyard in the Cienega Valley. From the 1950s onwards, many San Benito vineyards were bought by the giant Almaden winery, but that changed when the company was sold to Constellation Brands in the 1980s. Blossom Hill (also owned by an international conglomerate wine company) retains a large acreage here, although none of the wines bear the San Benito AVA title.
Unusually for a viticultural area this close to the equator (36 degrees north), the key grape varieties are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, best known as the heart and soul of Burgundy. By contrast, Burgundy’s main vineyard area lies at a latitude of 47 degrees north. If the two regions were aligned on Burgundy’s longitude, they would be separated by 700 miles (1125km), and San Benito would be located in the deserts of Algeria, north Africa. However, the Pacific Ocean brings significant cooling effects to vineyards the length and breadth of western California.
Cienega Valley is an AVA just south of the town of Hollister in California’s San Benito County. Its position along the San Andreas fault gives it a unique terroir that is well suited to the production of complex, elegant red wines made from Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon and old-vine Negrette.
The thin valley covered by the AVA juts northwest into the Gabilan Range under the watchful presence of Mount Harlan (home to the Mount Harlan AVA) to the southwest. The San Benito AVA runs the length of the Cienega Valley’s eastern boundaries, from north to southeast, with the Paicines region a little way further east.
The Monterey AVA is on the other side of the Galiban mountains. Vineyards sit on the valley floor and along the higher ridge lines, sometimes reaching altitudes of up to 335m (1,100ft).
The famous fault line Cienega Valley sits on contributes significantly to the geology of central California. It effectively splits the soil profile of the valley into two distinct areas.
On the western side, the soils are made up of granite and limestone, while on the eastern side they are granite and sandstone. Although geologically different, these soil types are both excellent for the production of quality grapes – both are free-draining and restrict vigor and grape yields, leading to more-concentrated flavors in the berries.
The climate in Cienega Valley is moderate, because the area is protected by surrounding mountain ranges from both the cool Salinas Valley in the west and the hot Central Valley in the east. Warmth during the day is moderated by cooling breezes from Monterey Bay, and a diurnal temperature shift sees temperatures drop in the evenings.
Viticulture in Cienega Valley is largely accredited to a French settler named Theophile Vache, who first planted grapes here in the early 1850s. The history of the area is dominated, however, by the giant Almaden winery, which purchased vineyards in the region in the 1950s and grew grapes until the company was sold to an international conglomerate in the late 1980s.
Subsequent sales of vineyard sites had a devastating effect on the local economy for many years, but now Cienega Valley hosts a handful of producers making interesting wines from a range of grape varieties.
Lime Kiln Valley AVA is a southern enclave within the wider Cienega Valley AVA in the south of San Benito County, California. It is currently home to just one wine estate, Enz Vineyard, where rich, intense red wines are made from a small plot of 90-year-old Mourvedre vines, as well as other, more recently planted varietals including Zinfandel and Syrah.
The AVA occupies a long, narrow valley and its offshoots that cuts a rift roughly southwest into the Gabilan Mountains, the range that separates San Benito from Monterey in the west. The Mount Harlan AVA lies just to the west of Lime Kiln Valley.
Lime Kiln Valley is one of California’s smaller AVAs, covering just 2300 acres (930ha), of which only a tiny percentage is under vine. The valley takes its name from its once-thriving limestone mining and kilning industry of the 1890s, the remnants of which can still be seen scattered throughout the area today.
Lime Kiln Valley enjoys a climate in which warm, sunny days precede long, cool nights. While the valley is fairly sheltered, some cooling breezes from the cold Monterey Bay find their way into the vineyards through the Pajaro River Gap.
This contributes to the significant diurnal temperature shift of the area, leading to a longer growing season. This results in the grapes retaining acidity, which is especially important when balancing the big, high-alcohol red-wine styles produced here.
Vines thrive in the Lime Kiln Valley’s decomposed granite and limestone soils (formed by the action of the San Andreas fault and floodwaters of the last Ice Age), with plentiful groundwater encouraging them to grow deep root systems. Both bush vine and trellising systems are employed in the vineyards here.
Lime Kiln Valley is a relatively unknown AVA with only a handful of producers from other parts of California sourcing grapes and producing wines from its vineyards and putting the AVA on their labels.
The Mount Harlan AVA of San Benito County is located high in the Gabilan Mountains, a range of coastal mountains which run north-west to south-east along the boundary of San Benito and Monterey counties.
Nestled here in California’s Coast Ranges, 22 miles (35km) from the coast and at an altitude of roughly 2,000ft (600m), Mount Harlan is one of the highest, coolest and driest AVAs in California. While the landscape of scrubby, part-forested hillsides resembles that of northern Spain, the climate is closer to that of southern Burgundy, with little rain, cool winds, consistent sunshine and a long growing season.
As a result, Mount Harlan vines often experience a degree of water stress, causing them to dig deep, strong root systems. Another effect of the environment is that the vines give low yields of small berries, resulting in wines with concentrated flavors and aromas.
Although the mountain after which the AVA is named peaks at roughly 3,800ft (1,160m) above sea level, the vines are planted in a single band about halfway up the slope. This elevation was chosen to give the vines enough sunshine exposure to reach full ripeness without having to endure the strong, cold winds which characterize the mesoclimate further up.
The AVA boundaries encompass almost 7,500 acres (3,035 hectares), but at present only about 100 acres (40ha) are under vine.
The vineyards on Mount Harlan belong to one commercial winery: Josh Jensen’s Calera Wine Company. Calera (the Spanish word for ‘lime kiln’) serves as a reminder of the now-disused limestone quarries here. The AVA almost immediately east of Mount Harlan is Lime Kiln Valley and the wider Cienega Valley AVA.
The benefits of limestone on Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes are famously demonstrated in Burgundy, so with a Burgundian climate and a Burgundian soil type, the two varieties were the obvious choice for Mount Harlan’s terroir. Jensen has also experimented with Aligoté, Burgundy’s other white grape, to critical acclaim.
Although they share a name, Mount Harlan and the cult Napa Valley winery Harlan Estate (named after its founder Bill Harlan) are unconnected. The two are separated by 120 miles (195km) and San Francisco Bay.
Paicines is the southernmost AVA in San Benito County, California. Previously associated with the production of bulk wine in the 1980s and 1990s, the region is now home to some premium vineyards producing higher quality wines made of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
The AVA covers an area inside a valley about 12 miles (19km) south of the city of Hollister. It is separated from Monterey by the Galiban Mountain range, which is home to the Chalone AVA further south. The San Benito AVA is on Paicines’ northern border.
Paicines has the warmest climate in San Benito County, mostly because it is the least elevated. However, cooling ocean breezes are funneled into the valley from the cold Monterey Bay, which serves to bring temperatures down overnight, extending the growing season. The vineyards are relatively exposed on the flat valley floor, exacerbating the cooling effects of the wind. This exposure means that fog does not often settle in Paicines.
Sandy soils with gravel and limestone components are scattered throughout the region. The soils are of varying depths and often provide good drainage, which forces the vines to grow deep root systems to access the water in the ground, thus strengthening them.
Most of the grapes grown in the Paicines AVA are supplied to wineries outside the region. The AVA is home to the 500-acre (200-ha) Vista Verde Vineyard, one of the many in San Benito previously owned by the giant Almaden Vineyards before the company was sold and split up in the 1980s.
The San Benito AVA is located among the low rolling hills of northern San Benito County, California. One of a cluster of AVAs in this geologically complex, inland area of California’s Central Coast AVA, its neighbors are Cienega Valley, Lime Kiln Valley, Paicines and Mount Harlan. Together these AVAs cover a sizable tranche of north-western San Benito County, with San Benito AVA at the northern end, just outside Hollister, the county seat.
The San Benito climate is moderated by oceanic breezes flowing in from the Pacific via gaps in the Gabilan Mountains, which separate San Benito County from Monterey County and the Pacific coast beyond. The southern end of the Diablo Range forms the eastern edge of this area, and helps to guide southerly winds down from Monterey Bay. Significant variations in elevation and soil type mean there are numerous mesoclimates favoring a range of different grape varieties, including Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Merlot. Most of the region’s grapes are sold to wineries in other areas, but there are small winemakers whose wines are worth seeking out.
Before Almaden Vineyards were bought out by an international conglomerate and moved their operations out of the AVA in the late 1980s and early 1990s, viticulture was a thriving industry in San Benito. There were more than 15,000 acres (6070ha) under vine within the AVA’s boundaries, producing vast quantities of grapes and employment opportunities for many in the region. Almaden’s move was a shock to the local economy, and it took ten years for the vineyard area here to return to anything like its former glory (the story is much the same in Cienega Valley next door).
By contrast, the smaller-production, boutique wines of Josh Jensen’s Calera winery have long used fruit sourced from this part of San Benito County, most famously Mount Harlan, whose mountainside location blesses the vineyards with panoramic views over the San Benito river valley below. Typically the fruit from the San Benito vineyards is blended with fruit from San Benito’s neighbors, and goes into a Calera wine labeled with the generic Central Coast AVA title.
Today, most of the AVA’s grapes are sold to wineries based in other areas, of which Calera is just one example. That said, there remain small-scale winemakers here who have continued to produce quality wines amid the changes of the past few decades.
San Luis Obispo County
San Luis Obispo County is located half way between San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. It is is home to a handful of more location-specific AVAs, from the enormous Paso Robles to its diminutive neighbor, York Mountain. Sandwiched between Santa Barbara County to the south and Monterey County to the north, San Luis Obispo is hemmed-in close to the Pacific coastline by the Santa Lucia Hills. The county is subject to similar climatic influences as its northern counterparts, Napa and Sonoma. Just over the hills lies the southern end of the Central Valley, which connects this area with northern California.
Despite its low latitude (34°N to 35°N), San Luis Obispo is home to some California’s coolest winemaking areas. The proximity to the Pacific coastline, especially in the lower end of Arroyo Grande allows cooling marine air to have ample influence over the vineyards. This Maritime climate keeps temperatures so low that, year-round, vineyards are often enveloped in fog for much of the day. If ever an example were needed to counter the stereotype of sun-baked Californian wine grapes, this is it. San Luis Obispo in characterized by shallow loam and calcereous soil with ample deposits of limestone and calcium. Being such a large area, vineyard owners see everything from sandy loam to clay rich in volcanic deposits across the 408,000 acres (165,110 hectares) of the county.
Very few modern Californian vignerons would consider the Edna Valley or Arroyo Grande of the county as obvious places to plant vineyards. But the determination of the area’s viticultural pioneers have been rewarded with high quality, crisp, lean white wines proving cool-climate viticulture a triumph. The finest wines to come from Arroyo Grande are sparkling blends of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. However, Paso Robles has little shelter of any kind from the intense Californian sunshine. The vineyards here have long produced the kind of robust, highly alcoholic Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon which earned California its early reputation for bold, brash red wines. Among the county’s other wine grape varieties, Cabernet’s Bordeaux stablemate Merlot has a small but respectable presence here, as do the Rhône varieties Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre.
Stretching from the border of Santa Barbara County to the Monterey County Line, this AVA includes all vineyards within this 15-mile swath, bordered by the Pacific Ocean and the Santa Lucia Mountains. This corridor houses 78 vineyards with 3,942 acres planted to vines and while a majority may be Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, this cool-climate region also plays host to a diversified lineup of other varieties like Albariño, Riesling, Grenache, Zinfandel, and Syrah. For consumers, this new designation gives their wine a true sense of place and understanding of climate soils, and geographic location.
Stephen Dooley started making wine in the area in 1987 and points out that the San Luis Obispo Coast AVA is, “Really cool! No pun intended, but we are one of the coldest spots to grow grapes because we are so close to the Pacific Ocean. What makes this area interesting is the low temperatures coupled with a lot of sunlight. Cool preserves acid and in grapes like Pinot Noir, the sun helps with pigment, color, and tannin.” The San Luis Obispo Coast AVA’s soils range from marine to volcanic depending on the location of the vineyard.
Thinking about the new AVA in a global context, Molly Bohlman, winemaker at Niner Wine Estates, observes, “When I visited Australia, the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria reminded me of the SLO Coast– rolling hills, a strong coastal influence, and Pinot Noir and Chardonnay demonstrating verve and elegance.”
Setting this AVA apart from other coastal regions, Bohlman points out, “Wines from the SLO Coast AVA have a vibrancy and elegance to them that reflects the coastal climate. The Santa Lucia mountain range marks the eastern boundary of the SLO Coast AVA and separates it from the warmer AVAs on the inland side of the mountains. Wine is, above all, a reflection of where it is grown. Having a designated AVA on the label helps consumers identify what they like and assists in differentiating the many, unique growing regions we have in California.” While Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are pervasive varieties in the region, other varieties are grown and according to Bohlman, “Albariño is a varietal that seems to have found a home in the SLO Coast AVA, with 20% of California’s acreage of Albariño found here. It thrives in the cool, coastal climate and results in a fresh style with bright acidity and showcases the salinity typical of the varietal.”
In addition to the new AVA calling out the coastal aspect of the wines, the San Luis Obispo proper location is helpful when it comes to a consumer-facing label. While many Californians know the area colloquially as “SLO,” Dooley points out that, “When you’re selling wine in Boston or when the wine is on a shelf somewhere in the midwest, consumers will better understand where in California these wines come from.”
There are over 30 wineries that are part of the SLO Coast Wine Collective and all are producing wines from this region. The development of the San Luis Obispo Coast AVA will not only set these wines apart from others in the area, but they will also make a space for themselves.
The Edna Valley AVA is located in the south-western corner of San Luis Obispo County (affectionately nicknamed ‘SLO County’), on California’s Central Coast. The first vines (Mission) were planted here in the early 1800s, and winemaking remains popular today. The area’s naturally varied landscape offers various options for vineyard site selection – one of the reasons why winegrowing has continued here successfully for so long.
The AVA runs northwest to southeast for 10 miles (16km) along the Edna Valley, immediately southeast of San Luis Obispo city. At the heart of this area is the small town of Edna (known today as Old Edna since the town’s commercial and industrial interests shifted northwards into to the sprawl of San Luis Obispo).
Further southeast lies the Arroyo Grande Valley with Santa Barbara County (and its northernmost AVA, Santa Maria Valley) beyond. North of Edna, and San Luis Obispo town, is the wider Paso Robles and its associated AVAs.
Thanks to the cooling moist winds which travel up the Edna Valley from the coast, the climate here is much cooler than that experienced further inland. Just across the Los Machos hills is Kern County, where temperatures are significantly higher (and rainfall significantly lower), and just beyond that is the California High Desert.
Because of these relatively moderate temperatures, the Edna Valley growing season is typically a little longer and more even than in the warmer areas of the Central Coast, and its wines are perceptibly more balanced in terms of sugars and acidity.
Edna Valley has one of the longest growing seasons in California. Grapes hang longer on the vine here, resulting in higher levels of phenolic ripeness and increased varietal character in the finished wines.
The region also has a complex array of soils, most of which are well-suited to quality viticulture. Much of the valley was once part of the Pacific Ocean and ancient marine sediments have left a fertile base. The soil is further enriched with dark humus, loam and clay.
The terroir in the valley is well suited to Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, both of which are renowned for their ability to produce fine wines in cooler climates. These two Burgundian varieties dominate plantings in Edna Valley vineyards, although Syrah, one of California’s up-and-coming varieties, is hot on their heels and producing some very well-received wines. Rich, aromatic Viognier – Syrah’s white counterpart from the Rhone Valley – is also doing well.
Paso Robles is a large wine growing area at the southern end of California’s Central Coast region. At 666,500 acres (270,000ha) the official Paso Robles AVA is among California’s very largest; it effectively covers the northern half of San Luis Obispo County.
Viticulture here dates back to the late 18th Century, when the first wine grapes (most likely of the Mission variety) were planted by Spanish missionaries. The first commercial winery was established in 1882, incorporating the region’s earliest Zinfandel vines.
Today, wine from Paso Robles wines are typified by rich, ripe reds based on warm-climate varieties such as Zinfandel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and the Rhone Valley trio Grenache, Syrah and Mourvedre. The majority are made from these warm-climate varieties but Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are also found, mostly in the very coolest vineyards of the region.
The AVA’s northern limit is marked by the county line with Monterey County, from where it stretches southwards along the Salinas river valley for about 35 miles (55km). It stops just short of San Luis Obispo city, just on the other side of which lies the Edna Valley and Arroyo Grande Valley AVAs. Its western edge is defined by the Santa Lucia coastal mountains, beyond which lies the Pacific coastline.
In 2013, proposals to create specific sub-AVAs in Paso Robles were ratified and the region was divided into the following 11 designated appellations.
- Adelaida District
- Creston District
- El Pomar District
- Paso Robles Estrella District
- Paso Robles Geneseo District
- Paso Robles Highlands
- Paso Robles Willow Creek District
- San Juan Creek
- San Miguel District
- Santa Margarita Ranch
- Templeton Gap District
Previously, Paso Robles had been the largest AVA in California to remain un-subdivided; in contrast, it is three times the size of the Napa Valley viticultural area, which has 16 individual designated sub-appellations. The sub-division recognizes the diverse growing regions in Paso Robles, with altitudes ranging from 700 to 2400 feet (213-730m), a range of soils, and varying degrees of regional influence of the marine effects of the Pacific Ocean.
Vineyard conditions in Paso Robles
Despite its proximity to the Pacific Ocean, Paso Robles’ climate is remarkably warm and continental. This is due largely to to the hills that lie between the main vineyard areas and the coast. These shield the area from climate-moderating coastal influences, meaning hot days and cool nights almost everywhere within the AVA.
The region is not entirely bereft of refreshing coastal breezes, however, thanks to the “Templeton Gap”. This is not a single gap per se, but a series of narrow river valleys that bisect the Santa Lucia range, collectively allowing Paso Robles to “breathe” cool, coastal air in the afternoon and early evening. Regions vary in climate largely due to their proximity to the Templeton Gap and their relationship to the shielding effects of the Santa Lucia range and the Temblor Range to the east.
The scale of soil diversity throughout Paso Robles is tremendous and it is not unusual to have several types within one vineyard site. Primarily, bedrock is composed of weathered granite, volcanic and marine sedimentary rocks overlaid with shallow combinations of sandstone, mudstone or calcareous shales. This is a stark comparison to the deep, fertile soils predominately found elsewhere in California.
the most popular wines produced in the Paso Robles AVA are from Cabernet Sauvignon. This is reflected in the list of best wines from Paso Robles with the Daou Vineyards Patrimony Cabernet Sauvignon topping the list. Cabernet Sauvignon accounts for approximately 40 percent of the vineyard area reported in Paso Robles.
Red varieties predominate here including Merlot, Syrah and Zinfandel with an annual festival held in the region dedicated to the latter. Small portions of Petite Sirah, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Mouvedre and Petit Verdot were also found. Cabernet Sauvignon dominant Bordeaux Blends are incredibly popular with Rhone Blends of Syrah and Grenache also produced.
Arroyo Grande Valley is the southernmost AVA in California’s San Luis Obispo County, just seven miles (11km) from the northern border of Santa Barbara County (and the Santa Maria Valley AVA). Located in a valley that cuts inland from the town of Arroyo Grande, the AVA experiences persistent fog and cold ocean winds that lower temperatures in the area. Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are the most important grapes planted here, producing both single-varietal wines and blended sparkling wines.
The AVA covers the land within the Arroyo Grande Creek valley and the canyons and valleys immediately south of this. The valley is oriented in a northwest direction with its northeastern end around the Lopez Lake reservoir, 16 miles (25km) inland. The land to the north of Arroyo Grande Valley falls under the Edna Valley AVA.
The terroir in Arroyo Grande Valley is markedly maritime, which is noticeable in both the region’s soils and climate. The orientation of the valley causes air from the cold Pacific Ocean to be funneled up the valley, and much of the lower part of the AVA is shrouded with fog for a good part of the day.
These climatic conditions are well suited to the cool-climate-loving Pinot Noir and Chardonnay varieties, letting them develop rich varietal character without losing acidity.
Further inland, the higher altitudes and shelter from the prevailing winds mean there is a distinct fog line, past which the fog ceases to have such an effect on the vineyards. Here, plantings are dominated by Zinfandel and Syrah, and cooling effects come from the surrounding mountains.
The altitudes lead to a diurnal temperature variation, where warm days are followed by cold nights, lengthening the growing season and resulting in grapes with a good balance of ripeness and acidity.
The soils in Arroyo Grande Valley vary, but the most distinctive are the calcareous deposits of limestone left by an ancient ocean bed. These are free-draining and often quite shallow. This part of the Californian coastline has been particularly ripped up by tectonic activity over time, and these limestone soils are joined by volcanic rock and alluvial loam soils.
Arroyo Grande Valley was home to one of the first Spanish missions in California, but the area was not used in any great way for wine production before the American wine renaissance of the 1970s – due mainly to its marginal climate. The valley attracted attention in the 1980s after Maison Deutz, the California branch of the Champagne house Deutz, acquired land in the area (much like Roederer Estate in Mendocino’s Anderson Valley). This has since been sold, but sparkling wine is still made in the AVA.
Despite having similar names, Arroyo Grande Valley and the Arroyo Seco AVA in Monterey County are quite distinct, although they share a similar terroir.
York Mountain is a small AVA on the western edge of the much larger Paso Robles AVA in San Luis Obispo County, California. Its close proximity to the Pacific Ocean and its relatively high altitude give it a cool, maritime climate, which is excellently suited to the production of elegant, brooding red wines made from Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.
The region is quite significant in Californian wine history. Grapes were first planted here in the 1870s by Andrew York, a British immigrant, and in 1882, his Ascension Winery became the first on the Central Coast. It was later renamed York Mountain Winery and remained in the York family until 1970.
The mountainous AVA covers an area of 6400 acres (2600 hectares) at the opening of the Templeton Gap, a channel in the Santa Lucia mountains that draws cooling marine air into Paso Robles. York Mountain’s vineyards sit at fairly high altitudes of around 1500ft (470m).
York Mountain is much cooler and wetter than the rest of San Luis Obispo County. Long, sunny days during summer are followed by considerably cooler nights, caused by the cold air and fog that are provided by the Pacific Ocean, just eight miles (13km) away. This diurnal temperature shift serves to lengthen the growing season and translates to balanced grapes with good acidity and varietal character.
The soil is made up of chalky limestone. Thin and of low fertility, it is perfect for the production of wine. The rocky soil composition causes stress in the vines, limiting vigor and yields and leading to more concentrated wine.
Despite its small size, York Mountain is a highly respected wine-growing region. Currently, only three wineries call this AVA home, although a handful of others in Paso Robles source grapes from the region to make wines under the York Mountain AVA.
Santa Barbara AVA
Wine regions are rare. Grapes are fickle. We do not choose where they grow, they choose. People have tried – unsuccessfully – to grow grapes where they want them to be. The grapes always win and vintners are pressed into their service. Santa Barbara County is no exception. The unique, transverse nature of the valleys of Santa Barbara Wine Country provides a patchwork quilt of micro-climates and terrains, resulting in one of the most diverse grape growing regions in the world. The valleys run an unusual east-west rather than north-south, and both the coastal Santa Ynez Mountain range and the interior San Rafael range are transverse as well.
Seven federally-sanctioned American Viticultural Areas (AVAs) lie within the region of Santa Barbara County: Santa Maria Valley, California’s second oldest AVA is located most north with distinct climate and soil. Santa Ynez Valley is an overlying AVA which is then broken down into four sub-AVAs (West to East): Sta. Rita Hills, Ballard Canyon, Los Olivos District, and Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara. Alisos Canyon is our newest AVA and is located at the doorstep of Los Alamos.
The often foggy and windswept Santa Maria Valley is the northern most appellation in Santa Barbara County. The region’s first officially approved American Viticultural Area (AVA) enjoys extremely complex soil conditions and diverse microclimates. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are two varieties which especially benefit from the ocean’s influence and are this AVA’s flagship wines.
Consider Santa Maria Valley, the northern most appellation in Santa Barbara County. The region’s first officially approved AVA enjoys extremely complex soil conditions and diverse microclimates. Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are two varieties that especially benefit from the ocean’s influence and are this AVA’s flagship wines. Other great varieties such as Syrah and Pinot Blanc grow amazingly, too.
Sta. Rita Hills is a sub-AVA of the greater Santa Ynez Valley appellation, located in the cooler climate area to the west. Its proximity to the Pacific Ocean results in fog-laden mornings followed by mid-morning sunshine. Almost like clockwork, ocean breezes pick up again in the early afternoon, moderating daily temperatures. This maritime influence combined with sedimentary soils with patches of diatomaceous earth and limestone provide an ideal place to grow the appellation’s hallmark Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
One of the smaller AVAs in California, the eastern edge of Sta. Rita Hills is about four miles west of Highway 101 in Buellton and continues to the western boundary, about two miles east of Highway 1 in Lompoc. The Sta. Rita Hills AVA is home to over 59 vineyards, totaling 2,700 hundred acres planted to Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and 18 other cool climate wine grape varieties.
On the west edges of the Santa. Rita Hills, there is a cluster of tasting rooms located on the Lompoc Wine Trail. A lot of the Santa. Rita Hills winemakers make their wine and have tasting rooms here.
Ballard Canyon is a tightly focused sub-AVA of the larger Santa Ynez Valley appellation, accounting for only 10% of that larger region. The north-south oriented canyon provides a unique weather pattern of wind, fog, and maritime influence, giving each wine a fingerprint of the specific place. Ballard Canyon encompasses a small geographical area totaling 7,800 acres, of which only 550 acres are currently planted to vineyards. It is nestled between the towns of Solvang and Los Olivos.
Over half of Ballard Canyon’s planted acreage is Syrah and an additional 30% of acres are planted to other Rhone varietals including Grenache, Viognier, and Roussanne.
Located in the far eastern edge of the Santa Ynez Valley AVA, Happy Canyon of Santa Barbara has one of the most sweeping entrances in the region. A drive down Armor Ranch Road drops you into this gorgeous valley with incredible views of San Rafael Mountains just northwest of Lake Cachuma. Elevations range from 500 feet to over 3,400, with a north-south orientation.
Its inland position means a significantly warmer climate that ensures complete maturation for later ripening varieties. The rolling terrain, high slopes and varied soils of this region are best suited for growing Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc, creating rich, concentrated wines. Syrah and other Rhône varieties also flourish here. Head to this Happy for the vistas but call ahead for access to these exclusive vineyards.
The most recently approved sub-AVA of the Santa Ynez Valley, the Los Olivos District AVA is a broad alluvial terrace between the Purisima Hills above Solvang and the western flank of Happy Canyon. Los Olivos has a consistency rarely found in Santa Barbara County and it is distinguished by its uniform topography, geology, and soil profile. The terrain slopes gently, with a moderate climate marked by warm days with occasional morning fog and cool nights.
The AVA includes 1,121 acres planted to vines in 47 vineyards, making it the largest concentration of vineyards in a sub-appellation, with many of the valley’s heritage vineyards located here. The grapes are principally. Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone varietals take prominence, although the AVA also includes Spanish and Italian varietals… The boundaries of the AVA encompass the townships of Ballard, Santa Ynez, Los Olivos, and Solvang.
Santa Ynez Valley is a long, east-west corridor with very cool temperatures on the coast that become progressively warmer inland. Consequently, several varietals do well, from Pinot Noir in the west to Cabernet and Merlot in the east. Several Rhône and Italian grape varietals have also gained acclaim in this versatile Santa Barbara County AVA. The largest concentration of wineries is in the Santa Ynez Valley appellation. From one-person labors of love to multi-thousand case operations, each has a dedication to producing wine that truly reflects the high quality and broad diversity of local grapes.
The Santa Ynez Valley is a long, east-west corridor, with very cool temperatures on the coast that become progressively warmer inland. Consequently, several varietals do well, from Pinot Noir in the west to Cabernet, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc in the east. Rhone varietals such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Roussanne, and Viognier also thrive in the Santa Ynez.
- The Alisos Canyon AVA exhibits a unique viticultural influence of the San Antonio Creek Valley which runs directly from the mouth of Alisos and Comasa Canyons to the Pacific Ocean 20 miles to the west. The ingress of cooling marine winds and fog along the San Antonio Creek Valley helps define the climate of Alisos Canyon AVA. (Winkler Climate Zone 2)
- Soils are based on weathered sandstone and shale, the Paso Robles and Sisquoc formations with a rare limestone streak along the corridor of the AVA.
- Soil Geek Sidebar: High calcium content from ‘siliceous shale pebbles’, ‘marly limestone’ that will have the impact of grape-skin thickening: increasing extraction, color and tannins in red varietal winegrapes. The ‘clayey matrix’ provides higher cation exchange capacity (CEC) as positively charged clay soil particles are necessary for the uptake of macro and micronutrients by vines.
- What should you try first? Syrah, Grenache, Viognier, Cabernet Franc are the standouts.
Conclusion: This is a nascent and narrowly-focused Rhone-focused wine region ready for exploration, only two hours north of Los Angeles and 45 minutes from downtown Santa Barbara.
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