This sunny state on the Pacific Ocean of the U S A is both industrial and agricultural. California produces more wine than any other state of the union and stretches fro 42 latitude north to 33 north approximately 1000 km.
The ATB (Alcohol, and Tobacco Bureau formerly known as Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, and Firearms) recognizes five main regions, each of which has its own AVA’s (See bar).
North Coast covers the north coast from San Francisco to Mendocino. (The famous AVA’s are Napa Valley, Sonoma County, and Los Carneros that is located in both).
Central valley is the largest region, stretching north and south of Sacramento and Fresno (Lodi is the only AVA here).
Sierra Foothills lies just east of the Central Valley and contains one AVA: Amador County.
Central Coast stretches south from San Francisco to Santa Barbara (the AVA’s are San Francisco Bay, Santa Cruz Mountains, Monterey County, Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara County).
South Coast covers the region south of Los Angeles, to San Diego, to the Mexican border. This region’s wines are mainly marketed locally, and rarely ever shipped outside of California.
The location of each region and the altitude of each AVA and vineyard largely determine the style of wine.
Many connoisseurs refer to wines as “liquid geography”, which is essentially the philosophy of appellation d’origine controllee laws of France, Denominazione di origine Controlata laws in Italy, Denominacion origen laws in Spain.
Terroir, (the combination of soil, climate and other geographical factors) determine the quality if the winemaker cares enough to handle the fruit expertly and uses appropriate technology.
Quality in wine, however, can only be achieved by growing flavourful grapes on teh right soil, using the right grape variety, and with expert handling, from picking, al the way to bottling. Every step in the process counts towards quality, including packaging. But beyond all these, wine must be carefully transported, stored, and served at the correct temperature in the appropriate glass of the suitable capacity.
Mendocino County stretches from Eureka in the north to Hopeland in the south. Pacific Ocean breezes cool the region’s vineyards, and with appropriate vineyard location the wines can be fine to excellent. Vineyard-suitable land is plentiful and inexpensive. Many Sonoma and even Napa wineries source their fruit here and purchased additional land to plant.
Lake County, just east of Mendocino, is relatively new to wine growing, but shows promise.
Sonoma County is much smaller than Mendocino but much larger than Napa Valley to the east/ It stretches from Geyserville to the town of Sonoma and contains the following AVA’s (Rockpile, Alexander Valley, Chalk Hill, Dry Creek, Russian River, Green Valley, Bennett Valley, Sonoma Mountain, Sonoma valley, Sonoma Coasty and Carneros Sonoma). Each AVA’s fruit shows slight but recognizable flavour differences.
Napa Valley enjoys a world-wide reputation for quality, although historically up until 1930’s the region grew mostly tree fruits, the majority being plums. Much of its reputation comes from constant and clever marketing. The 1976 blind tasting in Paris putting Napa Valley wines against top Bordeaux châteaux and Burgundy bottles helped put California on the world map. In red and white categories, California wines edged their French counterparts by a small margin. The tasting was arranged by S. Spurrier, an Englishman operating a wine shop and wine appreciation school at the time. He selected all the wines carefully by travelling to Napa Valley and visiting wineries.
Napa Valley is relatively short, stretching north to south 55 – 60 km. from Calistoga to Carneros. It has several AVA’s (Calistoga, Howell Mountain, Diamond Mountain District, Chiles Valley District, St. Helena, Spring Mountain District, Rutherford, Oakville, Atlas peak, Stags Leap District, Yountville, Oak Knoll District of Napa valley, Mount Veeder, Wild Horse Valley and Los Carneros).
The Sierra Foothills, east of San Francisco stretches from Sacramento to South lake Tahoe in the east. The wines are high in alcohol, low in acidity, and reds are dark in colour with low cellaring potential.
Central valley, almost bisecting California, is very large. Sacramento in the north and Fresno in the south represent this region’s boundaries. The climate is hot, vineyards mostly on flatland, and must be irrigated.
Central Valley’s Amador County is famous for its highly alcoholic and powerful zinfandel wines, some of which contain as much alcohol as 16.5 ABV (alcohol by volume).
South Central Coast with Paso Robles in the north and Santa Barbara in teh south is now producing excellent wines from grapes on high-altitude vineyards close to the Pacific Ocean.
The South central Coast boasts several new AVA’s including Santa Cruz, Santa Clara, San Louis Obispo, Monterey, and Santa Barbara. The region has such a high wine quality potential that French wineries started joint ventures with local entrepreneurs. The results are excellent.
Southern California includes the city of Los Angeles in the north and Escondido in the south. It is hot, and most of the vineyards are on flatlands. All must be irrigated, and the fruit lacks sufficient acidity to yield lively wines.
While Napa Valley and Sonoma County are well established and enjoy an excellent reputation, Mendocino and South central Coast are up-and-coming regions
AVA (American Vitcultural Area) is a unique system used by the ATTB. Wineries collectively apply to the Bureau outlining boundaries, and report all special and discernible flavour characteristics possessed by the wines based on soil and climatic conditions. They must, at least in theory and by submitting samples, prove that their application has merit.
There are no yield maximums, or grape variety recommendations or regulations, nor barrel aging for reserve wines, or for the claim of “old vines”.
The Bureau may or may not approve the application based on consultations with experts.
Some AVA’s are huge (Central Valley), others very small
The ATTB believes that quality is based on how consumers perceive the brand and/or the wine. They believe the market, sooner or later, will determine whether the wines is worth buying.