Region Overview

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If California were a separate country, it would be the world’s fourth-largest wine producer. California accounts for nearly 90% of the entire U.S. production, with grapes grown in two main areas: inland in the warmer Central Valley and in the coastal strip, where cool air that rolls in from the Pacific Ocean acts as a vast air-conditioning system during the warm (no ripening problems!) and dry (mildew-free) summers — perfect conditions for high-quality grapes. While climates and soils vary greatly in this large area, the “Golden State” lives up to its name. It is not uncommon to have 150 days of sunshine, versus 100 in Bordeaux, between flowering and harvest. This gives the wines an accessible, bright, bold profile.

California’s first vineyard was planted in 1769 by Franciscan missionaries, but world-recognition came about later, specifically in 1976 in the wake of a high-profile blind tasting in Paris at which a Napa Cab and Napa Chardonnay out-scored their big-name French counterparts. Today, California winemaking continues to be a benchmark and home to innovation here in the U.S., much of it inspired by the world-famous viticultural department at UC Davis. Unlike “Old World” wine producers, California winemakers are not hampered by restrictive wine laws. Selling wines using easy-to-understand varietal, versus regional, labeling, is just one of California’s contributions to the global wine world.

Labeling laws

Geographic areas

  • California–100% of grapes from in-state
  • Central Coast–covers more than one county in CA–75% of grapes from area
  • Approved Viticultural Areas (AVAs)–are a single-county or portion of a county – 85% of grapes from AVA
  • AVAs are geographic place names only–NOT quality designations
  • Unlike Europe, AVAs do not specify grapes or production techniques


  • Grapes must be 95% from stated vintage


  • Must contain at least 75% of named grape


  • Winery and vineyards must be contained within AVA; winery must own or control all vineyards, and wine must be made and bottled at the winery.

North Coast/Mendocino County

  • North Coast: approximately 100 miles long and over 50 miles wide, bordered by the Pacific Coast Ranges in the northwest, the Blue Ridge Mountain Range in the east and the San Pablo Bay in the South. Includes Sonoma and Mendocino Counties on the coast and Napa Valley and Lake County inland.
  • Known for its full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, rich Merlot and Zinfandel, smooth Pinot Noir and crisp Chardonnay and melon-ey Sauvignon Blanc. Other regional favorites include Petite Sirah and Moscato.
  • Mendocino: an organic leader, with almost 25% of acreage organically farmed
  • Mendocino became the first county in the US to ban cultivation of genetically modified organisms (2004).
  • Inland Mendocino is hotter and dryer in summer than Napa, but cooler at night
  • Mendocino is a large area and climatically diverse so few generalizations can be made. Look for a quality producer.

North Central Coast

  • Stretches from the San Francisco Bay to Los Angeles, but is only around 25 miles wide
  • Five rivers — San Benito, Salinas, Santa Maria, Santa Ynez and Sisquoc — channel cool air from the Pacific Ocean into vineyards.
  • Cool, coastal air creates fog when it meets  warm, inland air.
  • Fog blankets vineyards during warm growing season, enabling extended ripening time on the vine, so that grapes mature slowly, but with fully concentrated flavors.
  • How far inland that fog reaches forms the appellation’s borders.
  • Red wines: greater color intensity and bigger tannin profiles require more extensive barrel aging.
  • White wines: pleasingly refreshing, as grapes here tend to retain acidity better than their Sonoma and Napa counterparts.
  • Monterey County AVA and Santa Barbara AVA:
    • Sub-areas within Central Coast
    • Unlike Carneros or Russian River further north, here it rarely rains until late-December, thus facilitating longer hang-time on the vine
    • Presence of marine sediment in soil produces red and white wines with a crisp, minerally acidity.

California Wine Regions


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