Heading to California and looking to drink some wine? There are numerous wine regions and subregions within California, each one offering a diverse landscape and style of wine. Depending on what part of the sunshine state you are planning to visit, a helpful map will help guide your journey.
California Wine Regions
Orienting yourself to a place involves a map as well as some context. California wine country spans the length of the state, and there are endless wines to try. There are four main wine regions within the state, North Coast, Central Coast, Central Valley, and South Coast. Within each of these main regions, there are a handful of subregions and even more American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). From the North Coast to the South Coast, there are 139 AVAs spread across the four main regions. Each one has been designated as a specific geographical grape-growing subregion in order to highlight the unique diversity and quality of the area.
Mapping Out Your Journey
If you already have a destination in mind, use these map to find out which broader wine region you'll be in. This will give you a good idea of the types of grapes that are most commonly grown there based on the soils and micro-climate. It will also help you to find specific AVAs and wineries. If you are at the beginning stages of planning your trip, these maps can help guide you to a decision point.
Once you zone in on a region or subregion, you can start to research wineries. If you are planning a trip, make sure you are proactive; many wineries require an appointment for a tasting and/or tour. So save the wineries on Google maps accordingly and start filling in the tasting appointments on your calendar.
This coastal swath lies north of San Francisco Bay Area. It includes the subregion of Mendocino County, which contains the well known AVA of Anderson Valley. Pinot noir and chardonnay are the widely planted in Mendocino County. This region gets cool coastal winds and fog drifting in from the Pacific Ocean and the rocky hillsides can produce beautiful wines with generous minerality.
The subregions of Lake County, Napa Valley, and Sonoma County also fall within the North Coast region. Lake County isn't the most talked about subregion of the north, but it doesn't mean it doesn't have some killer wines. In fact, it's a bit of an undiscovered gem, growing cab sauv, petite sirah, tempranillo, and sauvignon blanc.
Napa Valley has 14 AVAs. From the higher elevation mountain appellations of Spring Mountain District and Atlas Peak to the valley floor appellations of Oakville and Yountville, there are a diverse range of terrors within Napa. The region is well known for its heady cabernet sauvignon, elegant pinot noir, and classically styled chardonnay.
Sonoma County is a hot spot for some truly inspired natural wines. The region is known for chardonnay and pinot noir, though numerous other unique varieties are also grown here. A few of the well known AVAs in Sonoma include Dry Creek Valley, Russian River Valley, and Sonoma Mountain.
Spanning from San Francisco down the coastline to Los Angeles, the Central Coast is home to multiple AVAs including Santa Cruz, Paso Robles, Santa Maria Valley, and Santa Ynez Valley. Farther north, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA encompasses steep hillsides planted in cabernet sauvignon and pinot noir. The AVA has a unique combination of cool sea breeze and fog, higher elevation vineyard sites, and soil that makes it such a renowned wine growing area.
Moving south, Monterey County and San Luis Obispo County contain multiple AVAs heavily impacted by the proximity to the Pacific Ocean. Pinot noir, chardonnay, and merlot are grown here. Paso Robles AVA has eleven sub AVAs, producing Bordeaux-style blends of cabernet sauvignon to California-Italian hybrid styles of nebbiolo. The latter are mostly grown on the inland hills at a slightly higher elevation and produce textured wines with good acidity.
In Santa Barbara County, pinot noir and Rhone-style wines are popular in the AVAs of Santa Maria Valley and Santa Ynez Valley. With varied topography of mountainous landscape and ocean proximity, there are unique expressions of the varietals here.
The vast Central Valley is a large area that lies inland from the ocean. The flat and warm valley floor produces some heavy hitter reds. Big, jammy old vine zin comes from the Lodi AVA in the Central Valley. Rich, full-bodied cab sauvs are also produced here along with rounded, tropical fruit Chardonnays. While there are some real gems, the Central Valley is also known for producing much of California's lesser quality commercial wine that ends up under various labels in grocery stores across the country. The large region grows upwards of 70% of Californias grapes.
Within the Central Valley lies the Sierra Foothills. Perhaps California's most famous mountain wine region, it's a stunning landscape that produces some incredible zinfandel. If you are interested in planning a hybrid trip with a mix of outdoor hiking, biking, and wine tasting, the Sierra Foothills region is probably a good bet. The famous AVA of El Dorado produces rich and elegant zins that will make you swoon.
The South Coast region spans from the Mexican border up north to include Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange County, and San Bernardino. Overall, it's a warmer region; however, it still has significant cooling factors from the Pacific Ocean. Soils vary greatly here from rocky shale and granite to sandier, clay based soils in the flat lands. Chardonnay, zinfandel, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, grenache, and mourvèdre are all grown in this broader region.
Some of the AVAs include Temecula Valley and San Pasqual Valley. The Temecula Valley is squarely between Los Angeles and San Diego. Its sunny disposition means it doesn't receive much rain and has a long growing season. Vineyards here usually sit between 1,200 feet (370m) and 1,600 feet (490m) and fill with cool air during the night, creating a good swing in temperatures from day to night which creates ideal conditions for growing high quality, ripe fruit with a full spectrum of flavors while retaining good acidity.
Wines Across the Map
Whew. Between all the regions, subregions, AVAs and sub AVAs, it can feel like a lot to keep track of. But don't let all the technical geography bog you down. Rather, use the maps to guide you to one smaller area and take a deep dive into the terroir and wines from that specific place. There is no better way to get to know a place than experiencing it on your palate.